Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Can Contemporary Theologians Still Affirm that God (Literally) Does Anything?

Transforming Theology Project

*Continuing to blog through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit -- chapter 14

I’ve picked up speed as we near the end of this book I’ve been working my way through for some three months. And the point is becoming clearer – can we speak of a God who acts, really acts? The biblical text speaks in great detail of a God who is ever active – yes, in supernaturalist/interventionist ways, but still truly active, changing the game. And the most important act of all, is the Resurrection of Jesus. Clayton comments: “It would indeed seem strange to believe that God exists but never actually does anything” (p. 217).

Our problem is one that was long ago suggested by David Hume. If by definition a miracle is “an exception to the overwhelming experience of human beings in the world,” then where’s the evidence. If it’s normal experience to see people rise from the dead, how are we to believe these very old accounts? Clayton wishes to offer an answer to Hume’s challenge. (P. 218)

There are actually several levels of challenge to the idea of an active divine agent, the first of which is the ever present problem of evil. If God is all powerful and does intervene, indeed, God can intervene when God chooses, to change the course of events, then why does God permit evil to exist? And if God does permit it, is God then liable for suffering? The second challenge comes from the presence of religious pluralism – that is the major religious traditions differ as to how the divine acts – which is correct? Then, of course, as we’ve seen throughout this book, there is the problem posed by an interventionist God to what we know to be true from science.

Each of these challenges is equally problematic, but the scientific one is often the most difficult to get around unless we simply dismiss science or redefine it out of existence. Modern science, Clayton suggests, rests on at least four pillars. 1) It must explain all empirical events – that’s because these events occur in a unified system. 2) “A scientific explanation of an event can be given only if the full causal history that produced that event is accessible, in principle, to scientific research and reconstruction.” (You can’t separate certain parts of causal history and make them off-limits). 3) “Science presupposes regularities in the natural world that can be formulated in terms of natural laws.” These natural laws leave little if any room for divine intervention – or the system is undermined! 4) Finally, “science must assume that the natural world is autonomous, closed, and physically self-explanatory.” To introduce something from outside, undermines the system! In other words, science presumes naturalism or it cannot provide adequate explanations for natural phenomenon (pp. 219-220).

Conservative responses have been many – all defending miracles and divine intervention. Clayton, however, comes at this from a more liberal perspective. So, how have liberals responded? He suggests that the typical response is to look at divine action as metaphor or symbol. We are called to respond existentially – divine action not necessary to the Christian faith. Instead, the biblical texts serve as a call to live authentically in the world. But is this enough? Clayton responds:

“For when one speaks that way, one makes no literal claims about the world, no claims about what has actually caused specific natural events, and no claims about what God has actually done. As critics have pointed out repeatedly, to say that all language about divine action is figurative is tacitly to grant the validity of the critics attack.” (P. 220).

In other words, is this enough? Does it make sense to affirm the existence of a God whose own activities are nothing more than metaphor for naturally occurring events? For him, and for me, that is not enough.

So, what constitutes a special divine act? The key here is that any such action is intentional. There is divine decision and purpose behind it. And to explore this question, Clayton turns to the “Jesus event.” We have, of course, his many miracles, but also the resurrection to understand. How was God involved in these? Clayton does not accept the traditional resurrection explanations of a divine supernatural intervention to literally raise the body of Jesus back to life. But, he sees the resurrection as more than simply metaphor. To answer this question of divine action, he wishes to explore the question of who Jesus really is.

One possible answer is that he was a human being who happened to tap into divine power and knowledge, power and knowledge available to all humans. He calls this the “religious genius” view. In this view, there is no divine intention lying behind Jesus, he’s sort of (and these are my words) tapping into the Force (to use a Star Wars metaphor). As for the Resurrection, in this view “there is no resurrection of the individual Jesus, but one might well say that after his death the ‘mind of Christ’ – Jesus’ means of accessing the divine depths and the insights he gained – remained available to his disciples and later to their followers in the church” (pp. 222-223). But, like I said, how is God involved – intentionally?

Not finding this answer sufficient, Clayton returns to the idea of a kenotic Christology – that is, though in the form of God, he chose to empty himself and become a human being (Phil. 2:5-7). Thus, one the disciples experienced his presence they saw in him the divine presence in a way they saw nowhere else. When he died, however, it would appear that his power had ended. Indeed, the Father remained silent to his own cries – so what happened afterwards?

For Clayton, in submitting himself to God’s will, the divine action was incorporated into Jesus’ life, so that instead of two wills or two actions, there is one. Jesus chose to subsume his actions into the divine will, so as to become part of the divine act. Thus, what Jesus did, was an expression of divine action – fully human, fully divine? His life was an intentional expression of the divine mind. But this mind of Christ is more than philosophical commitment – a decision to follow a certain path. Rather, it’s a decision to participate in the divine action. And Jesus participation in this divine act was a conscious one – that is he was very conscious of the divine leading – from a Christian perspective, his consciousness of the divine presence and will was clearer than any other human being before or since. Of course the man Jesus “remains a human actor,” who mediates the divine action through his own understandings. (P. 225).

Clayton’s proposal is interesting and helpful in understanding how Jesus lived and worked and taught as a manifestation of the divine act, but we’re still left unsure about the resurrection. He speaks of room for “an eschatological dimension and a resurrected state. In the eschatological dimension it is even possible for persons to retain personhood, “but in the heavenly state they would submit those individual distinctive abilities to God in the way in which Jesus did – in short, they would have the mind of Christ.” (P. 226).

What I appreciate here is that Clayton pushes the discussion beyond metaphor and existentialism to assume that if God exists, then God must act – always cognizant of the “limits” that natural law provides. He hasn’t answered all the questions, but that wasn’t his purpose. Rather, Clayton suggests that his intent was to “develop a more-than-metaphorical account of divine action using ‘the mind of Christ’ as a guide” (p. 227). So, we wait for a fuller account, but the path forward has been set.


Mike L. said...


Thanks for sharing your journey through this book. I've enjoyed Clayton's use of emergence theory in theological discussion. However, I'm not too happy about his basic assumption that...

"we might start with an analogy to human actions – whatever we mean by divine agency would be similar to that which humans display."f

Why should we do that? I see many problems with Clayton's arguments for divine action that are likely a result of this flawed starting point. If we stopped trying to imagine God as a human, we might have more luck imagining God.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


If we don't use a human analogy, what will work? The biblical witness suggests that we are created in the image of God. We could debate what that means, but it would suggest that for us to understand the nature of God we must look at ourselves as a starting point. If there is another, let's talk about how it would work!

What is interesting, for me, is that coming from a non-process perspective, Clayton's arguments are making it easier for me to embrace panentheism!

Perhaps Philip will stop by and offer some clarifications -- because I could be totally wrong as to his intentions!

Thanks for the comments.

George said...

I thought you might be interested in reading what Candace Pert was discovering in her lab back in the mid-80s. At that time, she was Chief of Brain Biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Material Basis of Emotions

Anonymous said...


Are you implying that God is a junkie? That is thinking "outside the box" and I applaud you".
My Lord's got the Jones for love.

Actually, that's a pretty cool article and I don't doubt some of her reasoning.

Hey, even scientists can get sucked into the debate I guess. From the paper you site..Can Mind Survive Physical Death?
One last speculation, an outrageous one perhaps, but
on the theme I was asked to consider for this symposium
on "Survival and Consciousness." Can the
mind survive the death of the physical brain? Perhaps
here we have to recall how mathematics suggests that
physical entities can suddenly collapse or infinitely expand.
I think it...

David Mc

Anonymous said...

I don't want to take her out of context, she concludes (wisely) ..

mathematics of consciousness has not even been applied.
The nature of the hypothetical "other realm"
is currently in the religious or mystical dimension,
where Western science is clearly forbidden to tread. -

My opinion, religion should also refrain from incorporating scientific speculation as much as possible. Wait until the common man can truly be convinced first.
That is the job of science fiction (Scientolgy sprung there I know, but left quickly).

David Mc

George said...

If the brain hadn't evolved the way it did, I don't think it would be possible for anyone to have a religious/mystical experience, much less one so profound as to be life changing or world changing. Without a religious/mystical experience of that magnitude, there wouldn't have been someone like Jesus. Without someone like Jesus, there would be no Christianity. There would be no religion at all.

You can't escape the physical reality. I believe research in neuroscience has made it pretty clear that all experience, even the experience of God, relies more on certain regions of the brain than others, and does incorporate the brain's biochemistry, as well. But region-involved and biochemically-involved does not necessarily mean the experience is region-induced and biochemically-induced.

I have no problem with the possibility that "mind" could be the medium that connects the physical to the spiritual, which I think is what Candace Pert was suggesting. I have no problem with the possibility that, through that connection, God can be experienced at the physical level and manifested to all through the Christ-like example we are supposed to be setting in our daily lives.

Rather than God being a self-induced, self-contained, coping mechanism of an evolved brain, like some neuroscientists claim, maybe the brain, connected to God through mind, is receiving, perceiving, and interpreting God, as best it can, and highly personalizing that experience to fit within the context of the whole of the physical experience we call life. Maybe we are evolving back to God and maybe the regional and biochemical aspects the brain uses to interpret and enhance that experience are the training wheels we need to keep us on track until we have evolved to a point where they are no longer needed.

No, I don't think God is a junkie (not sure where that came from), but we may very well be, in a sense, biochemical junkies looking for a fix of the utter, absolute, and indescribable bliss that is God. I really don't see that as a bad thing. If you are going to be addicted to something, it seems God should be at the very top of the list.

Anonymous said...

They were saying the signals for emotions were opiates. Since we’re supposed to be created in His image….. Anyway, I was trying to get a rise out of you, it worked. When you say, “Maybe we are evolving back to God and.” it “feels” right, but doesn’t”sound” right.

I’ve had that “chicken or the egg” thing going in my mind for years. I enjoyed reading your wonderings.

David Mc

George said...

Okay, I get it.

Thanks for enjoying my confusion!

Just kidding. ;-)

Zwingli 2.0 said...

In "The Problem of the Hexateuch and other essays", Gerhard Von Rad points out that Hebrew doesn't have an equivalent concept for "nature", as a self-developing system.

Instead, for the Hebrews, Yahweh was directly involved in all what we'd call natural and historical events.

This insight has helped me think about modern problems with miracles. We think of the universe as a closed, self-developing system. As a result, all divine action seems like "intervention", or an example of "deus ex machina".

How do we recover a biblical conception of God's action? I don't know. But I personally find Virtual Reality an interesting model (e.g., The Matrix), especially when considered in light of Berkeley's God.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Blog Zwingli 2.0.
I bookmarked you.

David Mc