All major religions recognize that there is a “sacredness” or “depth” to reality. This depth is characterized in different ways(i.e. God, Brahman, Tao, etc.) but in all these characterizations there is also some form of interaction between this depth(the sacred) and mundane reality. For those systems that have a dualistic ontology, this interaction is one between independent domains. The interaction or relationship is an external one. For those systems that are monistic, this interaction or relationship is rather an inner interaction of parts or aspects of the whole.
The issue of divine action is extremely important for religious frameworks because it is the foundation of teleology. This teleology affords an ultimate meaning and purpose to the cosmos that also grounds the meaning and purpose of individuals. Atheistic systems are non-teleological, where there is no ultimate meaning or purpose and any putative meaning/purpose is contextual, relevant to the local context but having no connection to something ultimate or cosmic. Deistic religious frameworks have a weak teleology because divine action is not ongoing but limited to beginnings. This initial activity does create boundary conditions within which reality can emerge, but after that what unfolds is either deterministic or contingent on chance. This is a weak teleology. However, many traditional religions, both theistic and non-theistic, incorporate a strong teleology. It is strong because divine action is ongoing in the process of reality. This provides a strong basis for the directedness and meaning/purpose for the cosmos and the individual.
There are, however, different ways this notion of divine action is envisioned. The distinction between different formulations hinges on the causal ontology chosen. In order to understand this issue, it may be helpful to explore the early philosophical roots of causal ontology, for it is from these roots that the de facto premises of today were formulated.
Apparently, the first materialists were the Indian philosophers of the Carvakan School around the 6th century B.C. They claimed that all there is, is matter (“little things”) and that matter has “svabhava”, a self-nature. They rejected any other source of causation and claimed that this self-nature was responsible for the way reality worked, or in modern terminology, the source of natural law. Apparently, because of trade routes through Persia at that time, this same line of thinking showed up in the Greek atomist philosophy about a century later. Since then, although other ontologies have been explored by philosophers, this notion that matter has a self-nature has pervaded western thought and particularly western science up to today. In fact, this svabhavan metaphysic is so ingrained in scientific thinking, it is assumed without any thought or argument.
However, is this ontology so self-evident that it requires no argument or support? I don’t think so. The philosopher David Hume provided one of the first chinks in the armor of this position when he proposed a radical skepticism regarding causation. Then following him, Kant claimed that we can not know reality “in itself”, only the phenomenon we receive. Both these philosophers alone could cast enough doubt on the self-evidence of svabhava, but modern quantum physics has also raised the specter of doubt concerning intrinsic (svabhavan) properties of entities. The truth is that science still doesn’t know the ultimate causation of what we call natural law. In fact, following the prominent philosopher Willard Quine, the very existence of things like space, time, matter, energy, atoms, electrons, etc. are called into question. He claims these are all human posits, useful abstractions that should not be reified (i.e. considered real).
So what is wrong with this svabhavan view of causation? First, it is contrary to our experience. The svabhavan ontology says there are “things” that have self-natures that are responsible for the order and complexity we see in nature. These things, however, are not intelligent. They do not think or plan to create the order and complexity we see. They just “blindly” do what they do. Our experience, however, with complex orderly things is very different. From our perspective, it takes a great deal of planning and intellect to create the complex order in our world. In things like law, economics, government, social and personal creations, etc. it takes an enormous amount of ongoing intelligent, intentional activity to create and maintain the complex, functional order of these systems. Without it, they degrade into chaos or anarchy. Our experience is that it takes intentionality to create the productive order and change we see in complex systems. A svabhavan metaphysic would have us believe that the tremendous productive complexity and order we see in natural systems has been brought about by unintelligent, blind self-natures. One could legitimately ask, what is the evidence for this? In fact, there is only speculation.
Is it not more reasonable to infer from our experience that the order and complexity we see in nature is also the product of an ultimate or cosmic intelligence? Is it not more reasonable to envision that there are no such “things” as blind self-natures? Isn’t it more reasonable to suggest that what we call “entities” with “self-natures” are, in fact, dynamic components of the divine life and are ongoing and intentional? Instead of having a blind, mechanistic cosmos with blind self-natured entities, we have instead an organic universe that is living, intentional, and free. We have in other words, a divine life.
What then does this view entail concerning divine action, teleology, and providence? It says that divine activity is not something outside acting on blind entities or forces (like a God of the gaps activity), but rather divine action is the inherent activity of our cosmos. Providence and teleology are what we call the meaning of this intrinsic, intentional unfolding activity. TDLC is a monistic system that says that the activity of God is inherent in the divine life. It is the activity of our reality. This activity continually creates the fabric of the cosmos and the fabric of everything in it. The unfolding of the universe is the activity of the living God. There is no need to look for a means or a causal joint for God to act. There is no need for a “gap” for God’s activity. God is not a separate reality that needs to interact with ours. The divine life is an aspect of God and is the communion of all things.
This approach does necessarily beg the question concerning “natural law”. It is so ingrained in our western culture that natural law is the product of these svabhava that it may be hard for people to understand natural law differently. Natural law for TDLC is what we call the stability that is created by intentional divine action, not by blind self-natures. Just as we see in the complex systems of culture, complexity, life, function, and meaning all require two things, stability and change. Without stability, none of the complex systems could exist. The first order of business is to create a stability where life can exist. This is what God eternally does. The stability that we call “natural law” is not really a law at all. It is the intentional creation of order and stability. God actively and intentionally creates an orderliness so life can exist. The other thing that is needed for life is the ability to change, grow, adapt, etc. This is also inherent in the divine life. Life needs both stability and productive change. This also correlates to our actual experience. Intentional changes in human creations afford the ability to adapt those creations to new circumstances. It also affords the ability for novelty and creativity. The creation of love, beauty and meaning is possible because God eternally creates both stability and novelty in the cosmos.
This view also addresses the issue of “supernaturalism”. With a svabhavan view of nature, God must interfere with natural order to bring about telos. This also means that God must either act “against” natural order or in some causal “gap”. TDLC rejects both of these causal schemes. Natural order is not some immutable “self-nature” that is there for itself. Instead what we call natural order is God’s activity to create a space for life. Order does not emerge because of some rigid cosmic rule. It is God’s ongoing activity to make life, love, beauty and meaning possible. Accordingly, God acts in whatever way serves those divine goals. If it seems that what we call natural law is broken from time to time in seeming miraculous events, it is not that something is violated or broken but that life is served within the divine goals of creating life, love, beauty and meaning. This means that terms like “supernaturalism” and “natural law” are irrelevant to the question of divine action, teleology, and providence. The divine life creates stability and change not as a goal in and of itself but in order to serve telos, the meaning and purpose of the divine life.