Monday, July 12, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 6)

In this truly fascinating chapter of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards explores a noninterventionist theology of miracles through a discussion of the laws of nature. He asks, “Is a miracle an instance where God overturns or bypasses the laws of nature? If so, then why would God intervene in the natural order at some times and not at others? Why would God save some from harm not others?” Edwards is proposing an alternative natural theology of miracles, which take place through purely natural causes, not through God breaking in to the natural order. Importantly, “natural causes” includes not just the laws of nature we already know, but also as yet un-modeled and mysterious aspects of our universe.

First, Edwards uses the work of scholar John Meier to show the historical probability that Jesus was known to be a miracle-worker, and understood them as partial manifestations of the reign of God. He quotes Meier: “If the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.” Although not all of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel tradition are describing historical events (some, like Jesus’ walking on water, are parables), others probably are.

Second, Edwards uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas to discuss primary/secondary causality. Edwards agrees with much of Aquinas on his understanding of divine action. God desires creation to have autonomy (it’s own cause and effect) and God enables creation to have genuine autonomous causes (secondary causes) instead of being controlled by God (primary cause). God acts in a causal way within secondary causes by conferring existence on all things and enabling them to be, to act, and to become. But “God so loves and respects the dignity of creatures that God wants them to be fully causal.” Edwards parts company with Aquinas over miracles. For Aquinas, a miracle occurs when God’s action replaces a secondary cause, as “exceptions to the pattern of nature…a miracle occurs only because of what is not present – namely, a secondary cause.” Edwards believes that miracles occur through secondary causes. God never breaks or replaces secondary causes.

Third, Edwards again uses the work of Stoeger to dissect our understanding of the laws of nature. For a variety of reasons, much of reality observed in science is inevitably missed. The quantum level provides all kinds of mystery, for instance. But that is not all – patterns of relationship between different levels of emergence are largely mysterious to us at this point. The important point in all of this is that every field of study describes reality as it is observed, but certainly does not prescribe it. Natural laws are human descriptions of observed regularities – even good descriptions and models of reality – but they are not the “cause of the regularity that is observed.” They are not discovered as something that exists in and of themselves, but are imaginatively constructed through rigorous observation of phenomena. “The laws of nature as we know them are provisional…and not well equipped to deal with important areas of life, including not only the metaphysical, but also the mental, the ethical, the interpersonal, the aesthetic, and the religious.” The consequences of this realization is that something less abstract like an occurence of physical healing may defy explanation within our current models of reality, but that does not mean that we will never be able to model them well: “…miracles may occur through a whole range of secondary causes that our current science cannot yet model or cannot yet model well.”

For Edwards, a miracle is a manifestation of the grace of God, and this requires ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ – faith is important. Miracles are not just brute facts detached from their meaning and individual subject within history – indeed, we see this with Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles as partial manifestations of the kingdom. A biological healing for one person might be simply an anomaly, while for another it might be an act of God. God communicates this grace-as-miracle through the natural world, and this looks like everything from personal providence and guidance (see chapter 4) to biological healing. But just because miracles occur only through natural causes (even if we do not understand those causes at present time) does not mean that God is not also acting through those natural causes. It is not natural cause or divine cause for miracles, but God working in and through natural causes. So Edwards writes, “It may be that science will one day understand more clearly how prayer, human solidarity, love, or faith can contribute to biological healing. Some other miracles may occur in ways that are consistent with contemporary science. A person who is cured from illness in a way that science can explain, and who finds God providentially at work in this cure, so that it becomes for her a call and address by God, might well see this as a miracle, a wonderful manifestation and sign of the Spirit of God.”

Up next, chapter 6 with the Resurrection.

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