Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Evolution and Divine Agency: Reflections from a Non-Interventionist Naturalist

What do Evolutionists who are not Atheists make of the Omnipotence of God? If God did not create, what DID He do? How can they trust in His Plan of Redemption if they cannot believe He created this world? Creation and Redemption are intertwined according to Scripture.

The above question was posed recently by a fundamentalist friend of mine. This question is difficult to answer not because the concepts are difficult to grasp, but because those who ask this question are most often lacking the appropriate theological and scientific definitions and categories. Additionally, such questions are most often raised by those who are victims of the artificial polarity that Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) and Intelligent Design (ID) has infused into the minds of those embroiled against evolution.

The fundamentalist who asks these questions probably does not realize that she already uses categories of divine activity that work equally well in understanding possible relationships between God and evolution. When faced with the proposition that life as we see it today can be thoroughly explained without divine agency, this person will find said lack of divine involvement to be a statement against the existence of God. However, when presented with other physical processes that occur around her such as photosynthesis, meiosis, and the chemical process of combustion, she would feel quite comfortable accepting the absence of divine agency. She might posit that God provided for the laws and designed the processes behind these ubiquitous physical events, but she would not need to invoke the miraculous to explain the combustion of fossil fuels in her automobile engine. In fact, if she did invoke the miraculous to explain how her vehicle became mobile, we would all agree that something was quite amiss in her thinking.

We see from the above that this questioner has already categorized divine agency into the buckets of miraculous and providential. Miraculous activities, as the name suggests, are miracles or actions that suspend or contradict the laws of nature. Providential agency, in contrast, would be that which includes the laws of nature unsuspended and uninterrupted. Resurrection from the dead, the dividing of the Red Sea, the burning bush, and the giving of the Quran by the angel Gabriel would all be examples of the miraculous. Photosynthesis, meiosis, combustion, and evolution, when categorized theologically, are then to be viewed as actions of providence.

From this point whatever I write will be an act of murderous selection as I chose the from the available words and metaphors. For every metaphor I use, I will be forgoing another dozen.

Omnipotence in classical theism is seen as the sovereign power of God over all things. Omnipotence, in this model, includes the prerogative of God to stop, interrupt, or intervene at will. The classical God of omnipotence, it should be noted, is a duly wicked God. Such a God sees the natural and moral evils that plague humanity and with every moment of nonintervention is a complicit agent of evil. The omnipotent, interventionist God is not worthy of worship. On the other hand, such a God, through creating by divine fiat, is a miser who withholds autonomy and giftedness from the natural order. In this model the natural order would be expected to have functional gaps or abysmal hurdles that methodological naturalism (science) cannot explain. This God inhabits these gaps with much ado and this God’s followers love to create make-shift, just-so wedges of doubt into the integrity of the natural order into which to shove their God’s throne.

As an alternative to the model above, omnipotence can be framed not as divine prerogative but divine empowerment which is how open and process theists understand divine agency. God is omnipotent because God empowers and grants autonomy—power is shared. The autonomy with which God gifts the cosmos then is a limit to God, one that God cannot intervene or stop without compromising the essential autonomy of the natural order. Such a God is not detectable by the empirical sciences and dwells instead in the realm of metaphysical speculation and faith.

Returning to evolution, the fundamentalist accepts by faith the omnipotence of God despite the evil that then becomes attributable to the deity. Likewise, to the degree that the fundamentalist emphasizes omnipotence in the classical categories, to that degree do photosynthesis, evolution, combustion, etc dismiss of the need for an interventionist deity. When the fundamentalist moves toward acceptance of providence and omnipotence as empowerment, to that degree do natural processes become acceptable.

Oh, more can be said, but my schedule is limited of late. Maybe I will develop more, but for the time being, this is all I have.


Peter said...


Fizlowski said...

If they are truly fundamentalist, there wouldn't be a problem of theodicy, since god him/herself is the author and arbiter of good and evil. If humans are to appeal to universals, like reason, for their morality, then surely we could judge god as wicked for not using his omnipotence, say, to prevent natural catastrophes. But fundies deny that humans have the ability or the right to levy such judgment against god. So, if god allows evil to exist, we are not to annul his justice, but to reflect humbly on how we did not create the behemoth, and how we cannot pull a leviathan on a fishhook.

That said, I'm still having trouble understanding what connection the author of the quote sees between omnipotence and creation. They are separate issues that she is muddling. If the bible's creation stories were factual, the moral of the story (arguably) is that humans are flawed and in need of salvation. If the bible's creation stories were metaphorical, the moral of the story is exactly the same. So whether a Christian believes the story is factual or metaphorical, as Christians they trust in redemption.

Note that this can be discussed without questioning whether or not god is omnipotent.

The only valid question that could have been asked here, in my opinion, is whether or not a Christian can trust in god's plan of redemption if the Jesus story is metaphorical and not factual. But, of course, no one asked that question.

Peter said...

Hello Fizzlowski,

You state,


If they are truly fundamentalist, there wouldn't be a problem of theodicy, since god him/herself is the author and arbiter of good and evil.

This is an excellent point. How often in discussions about the morality of behaviors prescribed or proscribed in the Bible does the fundamentalist not surrender all moral reasoning (however inconsistently) and assert that it is good to slay those who God commands the faithful to slay, etc? This happens frequently and becomes a stop to all discussion—another assertion of God’s throne into the gaps of surrendered human ingenuity and cognition.

You further state,


That said, I'm still having trouble understanding what connection the author of the quote sees between omnipotence and creation. They are separate issues that she is muddling.

I think the question’s author assumes that the act of creation is an expression of omnipotence. The doctrine of creation ex nihilio makes creation contingent on God’s will—creation or the cosmos is whatever God wills it to be. The objection must be raised that Genesis **does not** know of the idea of creation from nothing. Genesis 1 assumes the existence of pre-existing chaos, and it does so in agreement with all ancient near-eastern cosmological myths. If Genesis 1 had wanted to assert creation ex nihilio it would have had to make an explicit rejection of the idea instead of using the language of creation from chaos.

This being said, the biblical non-acceptance of creation ex nihilio assumes a God that exists in tandem with the cosmos. If God and the cosmos co-exist, then neither is any less contingent than the other. If the Genesis 1 God co-existed with the cosmos, then, both equally contingent, neither can be all powerful. Sure, Genesis seeks to assert that God is powerful, but the concept of omnipotence is not present.

Tandi said...

You could ask the author of the quote for clarification..........or you could continue to talk around her, misrepresent her on walls and blogs, deny her access to your online conversations, and tear down the straw man to your glee.

Too weary tonight to worry about it though. I am tiring of these fruitless debates anyway.

Maybe I'll clarify my comments about Omnipotence and about Faithfulness vs. Learning in a blog post.

Peter said...


You are welcome to participate. You are not being discussed behind your back. BTW, I do not think Fizlowski knows who the author is. No one is maligning you.