Free, empowered creation – 2

The second of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

The wisdom of philosophy

In their dialogue with science, almost all contemporary theologians accept the theory of evolution. But they differ over how to view the relationship between God and the created beings of the evolutionary world, asking,

How can we affirm our faith in God without compromising the integrity of what science has discovered?

The following theories indicate ways to think about ‘God-and-created-world’ that will set the stage for discussing one more option (the classical notion of primary and secondary causality, related to the dynamic of participation in being.)

Single action theory sees God as the agent whose intention is carried out in the overall development of the cosmos, rather than in its particulars. (Kaufman, Ogden, Wiles….To learn more about these authors and their theories, go to Johnson’s Select Bibliography, which begins in Beasts on p. 306)

The top-down causality theory sees God acting by feeding a flow of information into the system of the world-as-a-whole, influencing its operation the way a patterned whole influences its parts. This position finds an affinity with the gospel of John’s concept of the logos, the divine Word. (Peacocke)

• Causal joint theory sees God inserting divine influence at significant hinge points in open systems, to actualize one of the many possibilities present. (Murphy, Russell, Ellis, Polkinghorne)

• The organic model sees the world as the body of God, envisioning the Spirit of God acting universally and particularly in the world, the way our personal selves act in and through our own bodies. (McFague, Jantzen)

• The kenotic position sees God voluntarily self-limiting divine power in order to participate vulnerably in the life of the world, making room for its freedom. (Hicks, Ward, Fiddes, Haught)

• Process thought sees God as a creative participant in the cosmic community who acts in all events by influence or persuasion. God lures the world in a desired direction toward new possibilities of a richer life together. (Hartshorne, Cobb, Barbour, Griffin)

While markedly different from each other, these various positions have much in common:

All share a profound respect for the freedom of the natural world to evolve consistently with its internal laws, as discovered by contemporary science.

All reject a ‘God of the gaps’ brought in to explain what science has not yet figured out.

All propose models in which the creating God (as known in in the Christian tradition) might be understood to act in the natural world (as known by evolutionary science).

In different ways all seek to make intelligible the idea that the creating God – as ground, sustaining power, and goal of the evolving world – acts by empowering the process from within.


The old theology of primary-secondary causality (as argued by Aquinas and often termed neo-Thomism today) emerged from a static worldview rather than an evolutionary worldview.  It might seem that this would eliminate it from consideration by contemporary theologians – but actually the basic principle remains the same:

The creative activity of God is accomplished in and through the free working of secondary causes.

Johnson acknowledges that language limitations frustrate what she is trying to say:

‘Primary’ and ‘secondary’ causes are not two different types of causes, but operate on  completely different levels – one is the wellspring of Being itself, and the other participates in the power to act (as things that are burning participate in the power of fire).

When Aquinas seeks to explain how God’s creative purpose is achieved over the course of time, he sees no threat to God in allowing creatures the fullest measure of freedom according to their own nature. It is characteristic of God’s all-giving love to raise up creatures who participate in divine being, to such a degree that they are also creative and sustaining in their own right.

In terms of evolution, this does not mean that God’s divine action supplies something that is missing from a creaturely act (or secretly replaces it so that creatures are only a sham cause). Nor does it mean that divine and finite agents are fully complementary, each contributing distinct elements to the one outcome. It means that the living God acts by divine power in and through the acts of finite agents. (Here the wonderful Latin word concursus – meaning flowing or running together -expresses this idea of divine power working in and through finite agents.)

Aquinas says that the processes of the world seem to accomplish their purpose on their own – and without any interference from God. However, this very self-direction already has an imprint from God; it is genuinely part of their own nature, and at the same time it also expresses God’s purpose. Since all good is a participation in divine goodness, the universe as a whole tends toward the ultimate good, which is God.

Johnson tries to draw all these threads together to give us a view of evolution’s autonomous workings while still affirming the Creator Spirit’s innermost presence and action. As the immanent ground of all, God’s intention comes to fruition by means of purposes acted out in grounded creatures.And why?

“The great-hearted God imparts to creatures the dignity of causing.”
(Beasts, p. 166)

Johnson writes that it is so easy to forget this – slipping God into the web of interactions as though the divine were simply a bigger and better secondary cause. But the philosophical distinction between ultimate and proximate causality helps us hold firm to the mystery of the greatness of God and the integrity of creatures.

For Johnson, this is a technical way of interpreting how mature Love acts.

Critics of neo-Thomism

In the dialogue between contemporary positions on divine action, neo-Thomism is criticized on several fronts:

Barbour notes that neo-Thomism has difficulty in moving away from divine determinism to allow for genuinely random acts to occur. (However, Johnson adds, if chance be given the status of a secondary cause, this problem disappears – see Johnson’s assessment, below.)

Peacocke notes that neo-Thomism sometimes uses the artisan/instrument analogy to explain how God, (the primary cause) works through secondary causes in the world. The problem is that this completely overlooks the independent operation of natural causes in the world. The Creator does not relate to the world the way a carpenter uses her hammer; rather, the Spirit of God sets the world up in the fullness of its own powers, which are grounded in the gift of being created.

Polkinghorne (and other critics) note that neo-Thomism merely asserts that God acts through natural causes without giving any idea of the mechanism by which God’s purposes are accomplished. The primary-secondary causality actually offers nothing to illuminate how God acts in the world. Polkinghorne argues that thanks to the indeterminism of reality at many levels, God’s direct intervention in any instance does not transgress the laws of nature.  Natural systems themselves are ‘gappy’ and open enough to receive outside influence without being violated.

(This position, it seems to Johnson, commits a double fallacy. One the one hand, inserting hidden divine action into an open system compromises the natural order. In principle this is no different from the classical idea of divine intervention in a rigidly law-controlled world, except that the intervention is now hidden. On the other hand, the position errs by making God into a bigger and better secondary cause. To the contrary, as Schillebeeckx says, “Belief in God the creator is never an explanation, nor is it meant to be.” Belief in the Creator God delineates the ultimate meaning of the universe, not an explanation of how things work.)

Johnson’s own assessment of neo-Thomism

Johnson holds that neo-Thomism withstands criticism when linked to two overarching concepts: the Creator God as the absolute Living One, pure wellspring of being; and the associated concept of creaturely participation.  Scholars who work with the neo-Thomist position consistently register how it lets the world be the world and evolve in its own way. For instance,

Herbert McCabe: “Aquinas, of course, had no notion of the evolution of species” – but seeing this process as a typical manifestation of the wisdom of the Creator – “he would I am sure have been delighted by the sheer simplicity and beauty of the idea.” (McCabe, On Aquinas)

Denis Edwards: “Aquinas long ago clarified that God’s way of acting in the world is not opposed to the whole network of cause and effect in nature. God’s work is achieved in and through creaturely cause and effect. It is not in competition with it. Aquinas never knew Darwin’s theory of evolution, but he would have had no difficulty in understanding it as the way that God creates.” (Edwards, The God of Evolution)

Johnson concludes: This overview of the current philosophical discussion can help us make room for both evolution and faith. Two agencies of infinitely qualitatively different magnitudes are present in the same worldly action: the autonomous creature which acts, and the divine agency which founds, sustains, and empowers it.   These are not two actions doing essentially the same thing, acting in a parallel way, each contributing to part of the effect:

Brought to life by divine generosity, creatures are genuine centers of activity that operate with their own causal efficacy, interrelated and dependent on each other as well as on God – while the ineffable, transcendent Mystery dwelling within the evolving world continuously creates through the world’s own autonomous processes, letting it be and self-spending in an outpouring of love. (Beasts, p. 168-169)




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