Can God act in the world? [40]

This question is of huge significance for religious faith and goes to the heart of issues arising from the concept of God. If God can act in the world, this implies that He is in time, which raises questions about his perfection because acting in time suggests that God depends on the passage of time to frame His action. Further, if God can act in time and chooses not to, then can He be all good… and if God can and does act in time, can He justly hold people responsible for moral evil? On the other hand, if God cannot act in the world (either because He is outside time or because he is limited in His powers, by His own nature or by his decision to allow human free-will) then can God be understood to be omnipotent? Also, can a God who cannot act in time be the God of the Bible or the object of Christian worship? How could an inactive God answer prayers, be addressed by Jesus as “Abba”, care if people attend Church-services or be understood to work miracles and Religious Experiences? It seems that either answer to this question will cause problems for believers. Further, there is no way to know the answer definitively. Nevertheless, the claim that God cannot act directly in the world is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God can act in the world as this claim would usually be understood.

The rational arguments for God’s existence from observation – the cosmological and teleological arguments – point to a God who is eternal in the sense of being outside the space-time universe we inhabit. As St Thomas Aquinas argued, a God who is the Prime Mover, uncaused cause and necessary sustaining cause of the universe is “neither something nor nothing.” The God of Classical Theism is not a person or object and has no physical presence within space and time, yet God is the necessary creator and effects everything. If God is timeless and space-less, then God must be wholly simple and unchanging. This supports the idea that God is perfect and all-good in the sense that He must be 100% whatever it is to be God and containing no evil (understood as potential, falling short). If God is timeless and space-less, God cannot be other than He is. Yet if God is the wholly simple, timeless being that Aquinas’ arguments suggest and support, there are natural questions about His ability to act. Action implies time – a time before the action, a time during it and a time after it. Action might also imply some choice to act or not to act, or to act in different ways. Clearly, if God is timeless and unchanging, the degree to which “action” is compatible with the concept of God, God’s nature, is unclear. St Thomas Aquinas argued that the word “action”, when applied to God can only be understood analogically. What it means for God to act is not the same as what it means for a person to act. Certainly when a person acts, it implies time and choice, but these cannot be part of God’s action because they are excluded by God’s necessarily timeless, wholly simple nature. For Aquinas, God’s timeless action can be understood to mean only that God is the original cause of everything in the universe. As in the Cosmological Argument, God is the Prime Mover, the uncaused cause and the necessary sustainer of the universe and everything in it. For Aquinas, God can act in the world only by causing it through his single, simple creative act, and not by responding to events as they happen in time. Aquinas’ understanding of God’s action being timeless and limited to a single, simple creative act is consistent with his definition of God as eternal and wholly simple. This God, in turn, is relatively well-supported by rational arguments, in a way that an everlasting God-in-time – who might more reasonably be said to act in time – is not. It follows that strictly limiting God’s action in the world to his general providence in creation is easier to sustain philosophically than a claim that God can act in the world.

In addition, Aquinas argued that God can – and as the Scriptures reveal, did – create beings who can act directly in the world on God’s behalf. Firstly, God created angels, who repeatedly deliver God’s message to Prophets. In addition, God ordained that Saints can also work miracles and later respond to petitionary prayers. Further, as is affirmed in the Nicene Creed, Christians uphold that God became incarnate in the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Incarnation was part of God’s general creative action but made it possible for God to act very directly in the world for a time by self-limiting. John Macquarrie and later Peter Vardy argue that God’s omnipotence must include His ability to enter time and act in the world, even though that appears to compromise God’s perfection by making him and his actions depend on the passage of time. Remember, an eternal, timeless God created all natural laws, including the laws of logic. Our understanding of natural laws and logic depends on partial, subjective experience and can never be complete or 100% certain. It is, therefore, possible that God’s single, simple creative act included some occurrences “not commonly seen in nature” which appear to break the laws of nature and logic to us, but which are within these laws when seen from God’s point of view. One such unusual occurrence could have been the Incarnation, where God took temporary human form to act in the world, making sure to limit His own powers so that they did not cause too much disruption to the usual operation of nature and logic. Other such occurrences could include miracles, religious experiences and even instances of extreme beauty, all of which could have been built-in to God’s single, creative act with the intention that these would point people back towards the existence of God. In this way, maintaining a belief that God acts in the world only through general providence and not directly by “breaking” the laws of nature or logic, is consistent both with Christian precepts and with the concept of God as eternal and wholly simple. St Thomas Aquinas was careful NOT to argue (as Hume later did) that a miracle must breaks the rules of nature by particular volition of the deity. Not only did Hume’s definition of miracles block the possibility that any event could legitimately be called a miracle – because nobody has certain knowledge of the laws of nature and nobody can know of or observe God’s particular volition – but it also pushes believers to choose between believing that the existence of God is supported by the existence of natural laws and believing that God can act in the world. Aquinas’ definition allows for extremely uncommon events to be called miracles and does not demand that they result from a special act of God. Through Aquinas’ argument God can “act in the world” without responding to events in time or doing anything other than the simple, single original act of creation, so God can both be eternal and wholly simple – and so well supported by arguments – and be the object of Christian faith – able to act in the world. Aquinas showed that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It follows, therefore, that Aquinas’ position in limiting God’s direct actions to those ordained as part of the single, simple, creative act is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God acts directly in the world in a more spontaneous and responsive way.

Of course, Aquinas’ understanding of God as wholly-simple and eternal, limited to timeless action, is not without problems. As Nelson Pike observed, the Bible refers to God in language which is “unavoidably tensed”, so claiming that God cannot act in the world makes it impossible to use the Bible as evidence for his existence and nature and undermines using the Bible as the basis for other aspects of Religious faith and practice. Further, if God is eternally wholly simple and his actions – including the Incarnation, miracles and religious experiences – are limited to the single, simple act of creation, then the course of the world and of human lives seems determined and there can be little room for free will. Aquinas recognised this and sought other explanations for the existence of suffering than that it resulted from free human actions. He argued that evil is only a lack of goodness and that creation benefits from it, in the way that “the silent pause adds sweetness to the chant.” In addition, Aquinas saw no necessary contradiction between God’s goodness and his creating a world that included suffering, because God’s goodness is not moral goodness but only that goodness compatible with His wholly simple nature, the goodness that comes from God being eternally simple and unchanging, being 100% whatever it is to be God and not falling short in any way, and from God being the source of all good things in the universe, remembering that as evil is a lack and not a substance, a function of how we experience God’s creation through time and space and not a property necessary to the universe as seen from God’s timeless perspective, then God cannot reasonably be held to be the source of it. Nevertheless, Aquinas’ explanation of evil and suffering and the lack of room for genuine human freedom within his philosophical system is problematic. It leaves God choosing to send miracles and religious experiences to affect some people and situations but not others and God sending some people to hell for choices that were largely determined. Aquinas’ understanding of God’s goodness is a very long way from the understanding held by most Christians, so although his position might be easier to sustain philosophically than the position that God is everlasting in time and more directly active in the world, it is far from being the easiest position to sustain theologically, let alone pastorally. The sheer length of the Summa Theologica, which tries to reconcile Aquinas’ concept of God with the precepts of Christian Theology, is a good demonstration of this.

Nevertheless, even if God is not seen to be timeless and unchanging, but is understood to be everlasting in time in the way that Theistic Personalists such as Richard Swinburne have argued, there could be problems with claiming that God can act in the world.

Firstly, in the absence of sufficient rational arguments for the existence of an everlasting God in time, a lot depends on taking the Bible as evidence for both the existence and nature of an everlasting God. The Bible undeniably claims that God acts in the world but offers no clear or conclusive explanation of why God sometimes does not act and how God holds people eternally responsible for actions he could ultimately have prevented. Baruch Spinoza pointed out that if God CAN act, but CHOOSES NOT TO prevent the worst suffering, then it seems that God cannot be omnibenevolent. Surely it would be better for a Christian to believe that God is constrained and cannot act in the world than to believe that He chooses not to and consciously allowed the Holocaust to happen. Maurice Wiles, a leading Anglican Theologian, certainly thought so, along with many Protestant thinkers who have preferred to see God as limited in power than limited in goodness. Jurgen Moltmann is a classic example of this approach, arguing that God can act sometimes but cannot always do anything to stop suffering. Moltmann’s God expresses His perfect knowledge and love by suffering with people, although this raises fair questions about whether such a God, if also held to be the creator, would be worthy of worship. Would a teacher be praised for suffering along with her students even if she organised the trip down the mine which led to their suffering?

Secondly, if God CAN act and DOES act, then again the extent to which human beings are free and can justly be held responsible for moral evil must be in question. It is not a simple choice between Aquinas’ eternal God and determinism on one side and Augustine’s everlasting God and Free Will on the other; whether God is in time or outside it, it is impossible to reconcile God’s ability to act in the world – whether just through general providence or through direct interventions – with genuine human freedom and so with moral responsibility. St Augustine places God in time, if observing it from a great distance – as though from a mountaintop – and still struggles to explain how genuine human freedom is compatible with God’s absolute power and creative action and has to resort to calling how this works a mystery. Placing God in time and claiming that He can act directly in the world is incompatible with any idea of human free will or divine justice, so it remains easier to sustain Aquinas’ timeless God and very limited understanding of divine action.

Further, if God can act because he is in time and has the sort of knowledge that enables him to respond directly to events, then God’s detailed knowledge of events, even if God does not interfere in them, makes believing in human free will and the justice of human beings being held morally responsible difficult. Through the “Consolations of Philosophy” Book 5 Boethius attempted to dissolve the tension between God’s knowledge and human free will, suggesting that God’s knowledge of events is conditional on those events taking place, that God’s knowledge does not necessitate events happening as they do. However, suggesting that God is not only in time, but that his knowledge depends on events and thus changes continually is a long way from any idea of divine perfection or immutability. Is the object of Christian worship any more comfortably said to be contingent and ever-changing than He is said to be wholly simple and impassive? It seems that defining God as everlasting and placing Him in time fails to resolve either the philosophical or the theological problems raised with claiming that He acts in the world, so although Aquinas’ wholly simple eternal concept of God and limitation of God’s action to what can be considered timeless and part of His single, simple act of creation comes with significant theological problems, it is still easier to sustain than the claim that God is everlasting in time and able to act directly in the world.

In conclusion, the claim that God cannot act directly in the world is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God can act in the world, at least as this claim would usually be understood. Nevertheless, limiting God’s action to what is timeless and part of a single, simple, general act of creation is difficult to reconcile with the Bible and precepts of Christian faith as outlined in the Nicene Creed, let alone with apparent acts of special revelation like miracles and religious experiences. St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is a masterful attempt at such a reconciliation and was rightly hailed as being every bit as good as a miracle at his beatification, however his explanation of how God can be both eternal timeless and have been Incarnate and Immanent through history remains contentious. Perhaps, in the end, Christians need to accept that both God’s nature and how God acts in the world must remain a mystery, however unsatisfactory this is for Philosophers of Religion.



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