Sunday, July 11, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 5)

In chapter 4 of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards discusses “special” divine acts within Christianity – particularly the experience of personal providence and the life and ministry of Jesus. Once again, divine action is both one and diverse. One in that it is actually a single act of divine self-giving love. Diverse in that this one act of self-bestowal is experienced in a plurality of ways throughout history. Divine action is also noninterventionist – it works in a through natural processes and laws.

Edwards traces five different approaches that have developed over the last few decades to special divine action: 1) process theology (Barbour, Cobb) 2) God acts within the indeterminacy of quantum events to bring about particular outcomes (Murphy, Russell) 3) God acts in the openness of nature, in chaotic and complex systems, through top-down imparting of information to bring about particular outcomes (Polkinghorne) 4) God acts in and through and under every aspect of nature, acting on the system as a whole (Peacocke) 5) God acts consistently through secondary causes in nature (Stoeger). While acknowledging the value of all of these positions, Edwards represents the fifth view: “God acts in the whole of the natural world, by God’s immanent and differentiated presence to all things, not only through the laws of nature of which we have a partial understanding, but also through those processes and regularities of nature that are still unknown to us.” Take special note of that last part. In this vision, God freely accepts limitations imposed by created processes, but continues to work through them with loving patience. This effectively limits the problem of suffering, since even God is limited to work within the natural processes and laws of the universe. Edwards makes an important point, that we cannot know how God acts, but can discern its effects around us. He takes an apophatic approach: “I do not think we can comprehend the nature of God’s act any more than we can comprehend the divine essence.” While empirical study cannot tell us how God acts, theological reflection on the Christ-event can help us describe it.

In addition to reaffirming God’s creation of the universe through creaturely processes, Edwards discusses God’s action in our personal lives – our experience of the Holy Spirit, who he believes addresses us, calls us, challenges us, invites us, and loves us on a daily basis. Importantly, Edwards insists that all of our experiences of the Holy Spirit will always be interpreted through culture, psychological factors, imagination, etc. This experience of the Spirit is not like any other experience of a created object, but an experience of mystery that occurs with our encounters with others in the world. This can occur through nature, friendship, intellectual activity, birth, and death. But these experiences of grace, of the Spirit, are always mediated through secondary causes in the world.

God cares for us on a day-to-day basis in a personal manner: “God really comes to us, responds to us, and provides for us through secondary causes.” Edwards uses an example of someone having a good idea that proves to be successful, which is then interpreted by someone as a gift from God. Is this right? Edwards thinks so, if one actually experiences the idea as a place of encounter with God – even if there is a possible natural explanation for this good idea, it can still be appropriately interpreted as an act of God. At the same time, while God always works through secondary causes for our well being, God is not free to intervene and overturn those same causes to keep us from all pain and suffering. God did not intervene to save Jesus from death, but suffered with Jesus, and transformed his death into resurrection life (this will be addressed later on in my blog). Importantly, God never sends suffering upon creatures, except in the broad sense that God has created and sustains a universe where suffering is a reality. In summary, “God engages with us in the day-to-day, inviting, luring, challenging, loving responding to our choices, concerns, moods, failures, and hopes...through the mediation of creatures.”

God’s action is not another cause within the empirical world, but yet has always been constantly working within all of creation through secondary causes to achieve the divine purposes. The historical revelations within the Christian faith are unique historical expressions of the love that has been embedded within all entities, processes, and persons in the universe. God works, and has always worked from the inside-out (rather than from the outside-in) as the deepest energy of the world. Jesus is thus the human face – and the most radical expression – of this divine love that has always been at work within all of creation. Jesus is the sacrament of God and salvation for the world. As such, divine action is sacramental in nature, and Jesus is our lens of discernment for other kinds of sacramental divine action in the world. Finally, even though the Christ-event is the most central special divine act of God, it is not special because God has intervened more strongly in the Christ-event. It is special because of the nature of the mediation – the humanity of Jesus as totally and wholly open to God invited this ultimate special divine act.

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