Actions Human and Divine: Toward a Panentheistic-Participatory Theory of Agency –

Transforming Theology Project
Continuing project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit

I’m heading down the last stretch of this rather long blogging project. Just three more chapters until the end. My hope is that we are thinking through the important questions raised by science and philosophy about divine agency.

In chapter 13, Philip Clayton asks the question: Does God act? And if so, how does God act? He suggests that we might start with an analogy to human actions – whatever we mean by divine agency would be similar to that which humans display. Thus, agency is by definition an action that involves –“spontaneity, intentionality, freedom, creativity, novelty. Believing that we can speak of divine agency, he suggests that it’s possible to speak this way only if we use a “participatory account of finite agency” (p. 204).

By participatory agency, Clayton means that the actions of a finite agent are also the actions of the divine agent. This occurs in a panentheistic context. To explain this perspective, Clayton turns to Alfred North Whitehead – the founding figure of Process Thought – and Friedrich Schleiermacher, often considered the father of a liberal theology. Whitehead “developed the most theologically open philosophy of the twentieth century,” while Schleiermacher “thought more deeply than any other modern theologian about how humans, encompassed by and within the divine presence, could still exercise distinctive agency of their own” (p. 205).

If one is to explore the idea of divine agency, then obviously the question of miracles must come up. One need only look at the Gospels to know that biblically speaking God is portrayed very supernaturally. But the idea of miracles is problematic, because it presupposes an interventionist/supernaturalistic God who contravenes natural law. But, if we’re talk about divine action then it has to be more than “empty religious rhetoric” that describe naturally occurring events (p. 205). But the Big Bang theory and the Anthropic Principle offer interesting jumping off points for discussion of conscious intelligence in the universe. While physics offers few possibilities of divine agency, there are a few points, biology offers a few more. There are, therefore, significant limits on what can be considered divine agency.

Both figures under consideration were experienced based, and both believed in principles of process and change when it comes to the universe. The two key elements in the discussion, according to Clayton are individuality and experience. But there are differences – Whitehead was more focused on the contingency of metaphysical reflection. Schleiermacher, unlike Whitehead, posited an “enduring agent, a subject whose creative activity extends over many moments in time” (p. 208). Whitehead’s understanding of the subject is not such a singular subject, but rather a “society of actual occasions” Finally, Schleiermacher’s theology provided for a “sharper contrast between human agents and the natural world.” For Whitehead the differences are more the matter of degree (p. 208).

With this as background, Clayton offers a “theology of participatory agency.” Clayton, like Process oriented theologians, presupposes panentheism, but makes some modifications. He sees particpatory agency proceeding in three steps:

1. “Schleiermacher’s Contribution to the Theory of Participation.”
From Schleiermacher – in his Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers – he takes the idea that “finite agents would not exist without our continual participation in the Infinite of which they are parts” (p. 212). This premise is the basis of belief that religion is at its core, a sense of “absolute dependence” on the infinite. Although he makes the distinction between finite and infinite, he places his emphasis on the infinite, the whole, upon which we are dependent. But, he understood that there was a dialectic going on – between the individual and the whole – with both having agency. What religion does is tie everything together.

2. “A Crucial Whiteheadian Correction” What Whitehead adds to this conversation is the sense of the consequent. Schleiermacher, not having a 20th century sense of panentheism tended to emphasize the whole, but Whitehead focused on the consequent nature of God. This nature allows God to participate with intentionality in the universe.

“God never simply causes (that is, coerces) another agent’s response. But the divine ‘lure’, the vision that God offers, can be as differentiated and as specific as needed for any given occasion. (p. 214).

Whitehead allows for God to be the agent, acting in the universe. Together, with the dual focus on the whole and the consequent, we have a rich sense of God.

3. “The Scientific Study of Agents in the Natural World.” In this third step we re-encounter science, for no theological statement should “trump scientific studies in scientific domains.” That is, theologians shouldn’t tell scientists how to do science, unless of course, you’re John Polkinghorne, and you’re both! However, a “panetheistic-particpatory” model might allow for an overarching framework for understanding the universe. Clayton offers eight implications of this position: 1) While “physical particles and forces exercise causal powers in a completely law-like manner,” they do so within God – thus these laws are expressions of divine agency. 2). Biologically, “variations between individual organisms influence outcomes.” 3) For higher primates and humans, actions happen in a “quasi-autonomous manner.” Our choices affect our development. 4) “Some degree of spontaneity in the behavior of natural entities is necessary for agency.” That is, everything can’t act with mechanical precision or certainty – need opportunity for a little uncertainty. 5) But, simply because there is some “indeterminism” doesn’t mean we should automatically insert divine agency. 6) God doesn’t break natural laws when “influencing the outcomes of conscious processes.” 7) Because there are analogous behaviors between humans and other animals, it is possible to presuppose the idea that they also exhibit “spontaneous agency.” 8) Biology offers evidence of enough spontaneity to allow for divine influence. (pp. 215-216).

In other words, if we allow for this dual understanding of divine agency that presupposes both a perfect whole and a continent nature of God, then we can assume that God acts, even if that action is limited by the laws of science. But, the point is, there is room to consider divine agency. And as for Christology, we can understand Jesus as the one who “acting in perfect harmony with the divine intent means sharing fully in the divine act, with the result that the action that ensues is fully divine and fully human (p. 216). In this statement you can see how he wishes to view divine agency as participation – unfortunately, but one person has lived in such a way. The idea, to which we all aim, but always fall short is to attain to the perfect – the idea – where we perfectly stand with and in the perfect.

Things might be getting clearer, but we still have a ways to go before we understand how we can participate in and with God in accomplishing the things of God! The reality is that, if we’re to both allow for natural law, and the principles of science to hold true, then for us to understand divine agency, supernaturalism and interventionism are at best problematic. But if we understand this happening with God, then God could be acting – at least in God’s contingent nature. And perhaps we as human beings can and do participate in this. Now, that likely raises some theological issues, but that is for a later discussion. Indeed, the next chapter offers some opportunities to consider how that might happen theologically.


A. D. Hunt said…
Does Dr. Clayton interact at all with John Milbank and the "Radical Orthodox" crew? I ask because they advocate a "participation" ontology, taking advantage of Plato's concept of "methexis" to articulate it.
At least in this book, Philip Clayton doesn't reference Milbank. Sorry!
I am just now reading this book. Just finishing the 13th chapter, I like Clayton's definition of an fully autonomous action. However, how is this knowable from our human experience. The idea that God alone knows might lead back to an understanding of God as external to the human experience. Perhaps, my question is premature until I finish the book.
I really like Clayton's definition of autonomous action however, it seems that whether or not an act is truly autonomous is not knowable by anyone but God. This harkens to Presbyterian hauntings of Calvin's Presdestination reflections. I have yet to read 14 - 17 of the book - perhaps he addresses this later.

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