Does the universe just hum along in an independent way? Is reality just constituted by laws and chance? Or is God active in some way? If God is active, the next question is how might this occur. In theological vernacular, this is the question of divine action. Why is this be important? It’s important because it is crucial for how to approach things like teleology (purpose), meaning, morality, free will, prayer, etc.
There are many complex approaches to this issue but broadly speaking I’ll summarize three that are currently prevalent — deism (or neo-deism), supernaturalism, and process theology. All of these, in my view, are deeply problematic.
In deistic systems, God creates a law-based world from the beginning and then lets it do its thing without any further proactive involvement. In what I’ll call a neo-deism, God supports or maintains that autonomous system but does not actively engage with what goes on. Metaphorically this is like a superintendent in an apartment building, keeping the heat on and the water flowing but not being active in what happens with the tenants.
Next, we have supernaturalism. In this approach, God creates a non-intentional law-based universe but occasionally overrides those laws for some reason. When that happens there is what is often called a miracle. In Christianity, things like Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus raising the death would qualify as supernatural interventions.
A relatively new arrival on the scene is process theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In that system, divine action is restricted to what it calls “lure”. God’s actions can’t be constitutive, bringing about some result. This constraint is not by God’s choice but rather an aspect of God’s nature. Instead, God tries to lure reality in a certain direction. God presents the possibilities available for the world and individuals and tries to promote certain outcomes based on what God would like to happen. Divine action comes from a constrained God, unable to constitute anything in reality. Accordingly, things like prayers of supplication or intercession are meaningless.
All these are theologically problematic for various reasons. I won’t go into that here because I want to discuss another approach and what it says about divine action. This approach is based on the ontology of an aspect monism and divine idealism. I discuss this ontology at length in this essay but here I’ll summarize it in brief to provide context for what will follow.
Here are a couple of visual metaphors to illustrate the ontology. Here’s the full explanation.
This ontology is monistic because there is only the One (God). Everything is an aspect of God. There are distinctions to be made but those distinctions are not ontological. It is an idealism because this reality is a mental creation within the mind of God. This creation I call a particular Divine Life. A metaphor I often use for this is Author/Story. In this metaphor the author creates a narrative (world) in her mind. Everything is mental, in the author’s mind. Also, the characters, setting, and environment are aspects of the author’s one mind, thus an aspect monism. The author “lives” each of the aspects herself, taking on each role honoring what is possible for that role. The key point here is that everything is intentional in the author’s mind. So, unlike the other approaches to divine action I mentioned, there are no laws or chance. Every event in the narrative is intentional in the author’s mind coming about according to the author’s goals for the narrative.
This metaphor might seem to suggest a context for divine action that is dictatorial where the author, as author, dictates everything that happens. This would be akin to the predestination theology like in Calvinism. However, there is a phenomenon in fiction writing that authors (myself included) have experienced in writing a narrative. The characters seem to have a life of their own, often surprising the author. This points to a certain level of freedom within the various aspects in the author’s mind. The author shapes the narrative but as the aspects in the narrative exercise their freedom, the author accepts that freedom and adjusts the narrative accordingly based on her goals.
So, what we have is a mental universe, created in the mind of God. There is only the One (God) but there are also distinctions to be made. To represent this I use a couple of terms you’ll see in the Venn diagrams — God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent is ultimate reality but God-as-transcendent chose to live a finite life (a particular Divine Life). I add the term “particular” because there may be many, just as an author may write many novels, each with its own purpose.
In theological vernacular, a term used to describe this move by God to live within finite life is kenosis. In Greek, kenosis means “the act of emptying”. This is represented in religious and mythological sentiment throughout history. In Christianity, we have the incarnation.
In Greek mythology, we have the gods taking on human form and in Eastern religions there are avatars. This kenosis means there are limitations. Finite being is constrained by this self-emptying.
With this framework, this brings us to the issue of divine action. This is a very difficult topic. First, it’s difficult because of the dominant worldview that reality is constituted non-intentionally. Divine action doesn’t seem relevant or requires supernaturalism. It’s also difficult because as finite creatures we have a limited perspective to draw from. The term “finitude” means limited. We also have a strong sense of separateness and independence. However, throughout history, there have been push-backs from these sensibilities. For the mystical tradition, this separateness is misleading. While we are individuals there is also a union with the ultimate — an integrated conjoining of the mundane and the divine.
The Divine Life Communion Approach
Reality is intentionally constituted in the mind of God. So, every event is intentional. To continue the Author/Story metaphor, the divine narrative proceeds according to God’s goals for this reality. However, God is both transcendent and living. This means the divine narrative is created by God in both aspects. God-as-transcendent has certain goals in mind for this reality. I’ve talked about this here. However, God-as-living also has goals and inclinations. These reflect the full gamut of what it means to be finite creatures.
So, how does a narrative proceed? It has a temporal flow to it. There is a flow from a set of events to others, and on and on. What we learn from quantum physics is that this flow moves from possibilities (superpositions) to actualities. The future is not predictable because there are many potential outcomes but at a point in time, there is only one actual outcome.
What determines the actual outcome? First, let’s see what quantum mechanics tells us. I view science in general and quantum physics in particular as an important revelatory resource. I talk in detail about the theological implications of quantum mechanics here.
In quantum mechanics, there is a distribution that describes the probability of one event occurring. This is called the probability density and is calculated using the Born rule which applies not only to small quantum systems but even as they grow in size most likely up to and including the universe. Here’s what that looks like:
Since this rule has been verified many times, what this means is that God has made a commitment to constituting reality (the narrative) within certain constraints. Not just anything goes.
Now, remember this distribution applies to probabilities for possible events to become actualized. There is an indeterminism inherent in how the narrative proceeds. Also, since reality is constituted completely intentionally this openness to the future means choices are made. There is an element of freedom involved.
God has ultimate freedom. However, God also chose to live finite lives. Here I’m defining “life” as constrained being. So, with this definition, everything is a life of God in a particular aspect of the Divine Life. What we call particles are a living aspect. Also are rocks, waterfalls, weather, bacteria, plants, and animals. Each has their own particular constraints within which they live and also have their level of freedom. God-as-transcendent has ultimate freedom and each aspect of the Divine Life has their own level of freedom as a share of the divine ultimate freedom.
Now, let me go back to the narrative metaphor. As the narrative proceeds at each new point, there are certain possibilities for what can get actualized in the next step in the flow. God-as-transcendent establishes the full gamut of possibilities for the entire Divine Life. Remember, everything is constituted intentionally according to divine goals. So, at any given point, there is a range of possibilities that could become actual.
What Gets Actualized?
This is where it can be difficult to grasp. This is because with the One Mind (the Mind of God) there are two factors in play. God-as-transcendent (which includes God-as-living) will constitute reality according to divine goals and God-as-living has a part to play. One of the divine goals is to let God-as-living make certain free choices. Those choices may or may not be what God-as-transcendent would want for this reality but that freedom is still honored.
Here’s a metaphor that might be helpful. I’m sure, when making a decision, we all have experienced a conflict. We wrestle with competing impetuses within our mind. For certain decisions, this might be metaphorically characterized as a competition between “our better and worse angels.” In fact, there may be many of these conflicting impetuses within a decision. At some point, however, a decision is made and acted upon. This would represent what gets actualized. While this metaphor is inadequate, as are all metaphors, perhaps it offers a rough-and-ready sense of what is happening with God in how a living reality proceeds.
A key point here is that there is no sharp demarcation between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. There is a mystical union. God-as-living has the divine transcendent depth within it so all living decisions are made in this union.
Divine action is the holistic process of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living in partnership choosing what will become actual from the many possibilities inherent in reality. It is in this process that reality gets constituted. Since every event is intentional within the totality of God’s mind for this reality, there is no overriding supernaturalism. There is nothing to override. Reality gets constituted and proceeds according to divine goals. Included in those goals is the finite freedom of God-as-living so outcomes in the divine narrative are open. God-as-transcendent hopes for certain outcomes where love, beauty, and meaning are created but this is never certain, at least for the moment. The Divine Life is an evolutionary process. There will be successes and failures. This is part of life. Each moment creates opportunities to make life better and it is up to the whole of creation to embrace the divine transcendent depth within for each moment.