About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Anthropomorphizing Creation

Every so often, an essay stops me in my tracks and forces me to think about things I’d never noticed before. Here’s a (lengthy) quotation, edited for sense, from one such essay by Robin Collins:

The whole appeal of this idea [of creation ‘making itself’ or ‘being autonomous’] … arises because [these] metaphors … tempt us to endow nature with the sort of will and choice we find in ourselves. Assuming that non-human creation does not have a will to decide its own destiny, it is hard to see what these concepts could mean when applied to the human world, other than that creation simply unfolds in accordance with the deterministic and statistical laws with which God endowed it. […]

The worry here is that [advocates of creation’s ‘autonomy’] are overly anthropomorphizing nature: eliminate the semi-anthropomorphic metaphors, and the idea of creation ‘making itself’ seems to lose much, if not all, of its appeal. The reason is that it is unclear what is supposed to be good about creation making itself, once we de-anthropomorphize nature.

Robin Collins, ‘Divine Action and Evolution’, in Thomas P. Flint and Michael Rea (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 241–261; quotation from p. 245

I’ve long presupposed the desirability and, indeed, truthfulness of the idea of creation’s autonomy. The world unfolds according to its own inherent, God-given autonomy. But what Collins is suggesting is that this conviction is based more on our interpretation of how humans are believed to function – freely, without hindrance, though within appropriate limitations – than on how the world itself actually functions.

Now it must be said that for the world to unfold according to natural laws isn’t entirely to discard its autonomy, for the natural laws established within God’s initial act of creation may have been established as a direct consequence of God granting the world its own integrity and autonomy. However, on this account, it becomes possible to argue that the universe is self-sustaining; and if that outcome is unwelcome, the concept of conservatio or divine preservation must be employed to demonstrate that there is at least one area in which the universe is not autonomous. But the problem here is that conservatio is devoid of genuine theological importance, for its employment is simply to negate a theologically unattractive idea. Against this, Collins has queried the obviousness of creation’s autonomy and freed conceptual space to argue why all things depend on God for their existence.

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