Does God intervene? (Deism, divine sovereignty and human freedom)

Responding to my recent ‘Letter to America’, one regular commenter pulled me up quite justifiably on setting too much store by human power. ‘Trust not in princes nor in mortal men…’ (Ps 146:2). Whatever the outcome of the US election, God is still ultimately in control and is our ultimate salvation. That’s absolutely the case.

The point I was trying to make though is that we still have to play our part; we can’t just rely on God’s intervention to stop things going terribly wrong. God has, it would appear, given humans and human nations and leaders great power and real responsibility, which extends to majorly screwing up the planet and the lives of millions of people.

And, faithless as this undeniably sounds, God often just doesn’t seem to intervene in historical events, however much we wish he would – at least not in the ways we’d expect. God allowed both the Holocaust and Hiroshima to happen, not to mention 9/11, 7/7, two bloody world wars and any number of other human atrocities and genocides over the millennia – many of them carried out (blasphemously) in his name.

So human freedom is apparently very real and can have very terrible and far-reaching consequences. It may be that God has even allowed us the power to destroy ourselves and the planet we live on completely. I honestly don’t know if God would intervene to prevent the red button being pushed. I also don’t know if he will intervene to prevent man-made climate change from damaging our environment beyond recognition, but I wouldn’t like to bank on it. We have to both accept and take responsibility for our actions.

But what about the other terrible things that God apparently allows to happen, things which in many cases appear to have nothing to do with human abuse of responsibility? I’m thinking of Hurricane Sandy; of tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, plagues, lightning or meteor strikes – natural, non-man-made disasters. I’ve argued elsewhere that human action – and inaction – often makes these worse, but we can hardly blame people for all the upheavals of this unpredictable planet.

So why on earth doesn’t God intervene in these situations? Is it just a necessary part of allowing even his inanimate/non-sentient creation the operational freedom it needs to develop? I simply don’t know the answer, and I doubt anyone else does either. What I’m not prepared to accept is the answer that all these disasters and evils are somehow enactments of God’s sovereign will and judgement. God’s will is not yet perfectly done on this planet, and I’m pretty sure that neither natural catastrophes nor human genocides are part of his good plan.

Rejecting Deism

The easiest solution to these dilemmas is to opt for the Deist idea of a God who merely winds up the world like a clockmaker and then retires to leave it to its own devices, maybe occasionally stepping in to change a cog or wind the mechanism again. Unfortunately, I find that I just can’t accept this view. Nor can I accept the semi-Deism of a God who merely watches the world ‘from a distance’, in the words of that frankly dire Bette Midler song. I can’t accept these views theologically, nor on the grounds of my own experience.

I’m happy to admit that I believe passionately in a God who is (in some mysterious way) intimately involved in every detail and moment of his creation and of our lives. I am convinced that God is not merely absent or distant, aloof, uninvolved, unconcerned, a mere passive spectator. I am certain about this because of Jesus, and also because I’ve experienced the strong sense of God’s presence, and have at times had prayers answered in ways that defy laws of chance or coincidence.

Yet I also can report many times and periods when God has seemed to be utterly absent or inert. I can’t explain this apparent dichotomy.

Why is that God will apparently sometimes answer our prayers to find us parking spaces, yet he won’t answer prayers to find a missing child like April Jones or Madeleine McCann? Why is it that God will apparently sometimes heal mouth ulcers or toothache but not terminal cancers? Or (more troublingly) why is it that he will heal some people’s cancer but not others’; find some people’s missing child but not others’? If he intervenes sometimes, why not every time? Again, I can’t answer this.

All this ties in with the recent post on the two kinds of reality – the ‘present imperfect’ where all is very much not as it should be, and the ‘future perfect’, the redeemed and renewed world of God’s kingdom where all is set to rights. As I said then, we live in the complex and confusing interface and flux between these two realms; sometimes we see God’s kingdom clearly, and other times it seems a distant dream.

Intervention or involvement?

One suggestion I’d like to put forward is that God does intervene (or at least is involved) more often than we realise – but just not in the ways we expect, or with the outcome we expect. I believe that God was deeply, personally involved in the lives of those who experienced the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. But his involvement was not the kind of intervention that overruled the unfolding events of his set-free creation.

Okay, so what was God’s involvement? One suggestion is that it was his transforming presence, a quiet standing in solidarity with the victims – not removing the terrible events but redeeming them, giving them a kind of meaning and bringing new hope. This may sound like a weak cop-out, but I think that if we understand the nature of the coming kingdom it really isn’t. And it would at least mean that God was not absent, aloof or uncaring.

Another (perhaps more palatable) possibility is that God was in fact actively intervening in these events to limit their duration and damage – that they would have been far worse had he merely left them to run unimpeded. However, God’s intervention was necessarily slow and hidden, primarily carried out using human and natural agents; necessarily because God abides by the laws of nature he has set up and respects the freedom of his creation. This is not a fully satisfying answer either, but it does perhaps show that God may sometimes be active when he appears passive.

Perhaps above all, God’s primary method of interaction, intervention and involvement with   his creation is – incarnation. He became part of the world to redeem the world; he now incarnates himself in and through us his followers and children, in order to continue and complete the redemption of the world.

Deliver us from evil?

I have my own recent personal story to share on God’s quiet or hidden involvement. As I was walking home from work last week, three black-clad youths approached on a pretext of asking the time, and then demanded I hand over my phone. When I denied having one the ringleader responded, ‘Don’t you lie to me’, and made as if to pull a weapon. Deciding my not-very-valuable old Nokia really wasn’t worth getting stabbed for, I reluctantly handed it over. But as I was walking away, the lad called me back: ‘hey boss! you can have it back’ – clearly he’d come to the same conclusion as to its value. He handed it back, and as they walked off he called over his shoulder, ‘And you remind me of one of my uncles!’

Now, that morning (as almost every morning) I had prayed my usual variation of the Lord’s prayer, asking God’s protection and deliverance from all evil and harm. So did God fail to answer my prayer? At first sight it might seem so. After all, there were all sorts of ways God could have prevented that situation from occurring.

But, given that it did occur, it had about as good an outcome as I could have hoped for. I didn’t get hurt; in the end I effectively didn’t even get robbed. Emotionally it was a horrible experience and that shouldn’t be underplayed. But really it could have been far, far worse. So yes, I feel that I was ‘delivered from evil’. I might have wished not to have been faced with the ‘evil’ in the first place, but I was nonetheless ‘delivered’ safely from it.

Looking back at other situations in my life I can see a similar pattern. When I’ve prayed to be delivered from difficult situations, sometimes the route to deliverance has been painful and hard. But I have been delivered, and often those painful processes have in hindsight been necessary or even part of the healing. That’s not to say that all suffering is good or God-imposed; absolutely, totally, emphatically not. But God can and does redeem pain; it doesn’t have to have the last word. Under God, even the worst catastrophe is not the end.

I admit that I do fear the global repercussions of a Republican presidency. I fear that environmental change may reach a tipping point and human life may change beyond recognition. I fear that we may all destroy each other with nuclear or biological weapons or some other product of our stupid cleverness. I fear the rise of fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and atheism. The perils are real and the outcomes are far from guaranteed. God may well not intervene to save us from the consequences our own foolishness.

But in the end, and despite all this, yes, my trust is in God. The kingdom is already here in part, and it’s coming in full. Maranatha.

But please vote for Obama 😉

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Divine intervention, Politics and faith, Suffering, Theology, Tragedy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Does God intervene? (Deism, divine sovereignty and human freedom)

  1. johnm55 says:

    Of course God can intervene, follow this link to see how it might work.

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      • Jim Pruitt says:

        Harvey,

        Five points:
        1. The points that you made on human suffering, while respectable and
        cogent, leave me where I have settled: a deistic point of view.
        2. But here is my own contradiction. I travel a lot and I pray before
        the plane takes off. You know, just in case I’m wrong.
        3. I don’t think a Republican victory will bring the problems you
        suggest. I think the parties in the US are a lot closer than you might
        imagine.
        4. Prediction: roughly half of the voters will opt for President Obama
        and roughly half for Mitt Romney. The losers will accept the result
        and move on.
        5. An interesting feature of the election is how evangelicals seem to
        be breaking for a Mormon candidate and how that is simply not a big
        deal anymore in the land that founded religious liberty. Back in the
        60s and 70s, I would not have anticipated this.
        We’ll see what happens.
        Cheers.

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        • Thanks! Quick response:
          1. I’m interested to know how you reconcile the ministry of Christ with a deistic perspective? I feel the draw of deism at times, yet almost everything in the gospels seems to speak against the deist view as I understand it. Even if I take the gospels fairly non-literally (e.g. the miracles), so many of the underlying themes seem to be about God’s active presence among us here and now. (I also just can’t reconcile deism with my own experiences, as I mentioned.)
          2. Respect to you for admitting your contradictions!
          3. I hope you’re right on this one, though I remain to be convinced 🙂
          4. That sounds likely!
          5. I agree, it seems very odd (and faintly amusing) that evangelicals are so strongly backing a Mormon candidate while opposing a ‘liberal’ Christian candidate. Seems like abortion, gay marriage and conservative values are more important to some evangelicals than basic theology… 😉

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  2. dsholland says:

    “at least not in the ways we’d expect.”

    I can’t accept the Deist view because the clockmaker would not die on a cross. Ultimately the Deist must deny Christ because there can be no miracle of Resurrection. It is not a coincidence that Dawkins considers that view more palatable than agnosticism or Theism.

    It would seem then we must be considering level of involvement. Once again Christ’s death and Resurrection leads me to the conclusion of individual involvement because we understand the difference between a general “love of mankind” without a specific love of individuals and loving the aggregation of individuals. We love our children, each one of them. If we did not love them individually we would not really love them collectively, and we would need to really love them to die for them.

    So I maintain He loves us individually, and that He is not limited in His ability to “intervene”.

    Does the question then reduce to “Why me?” When the pain and loss is MY pain and loss every platitude or comfort of logic rings hollow. At that point the reality of faith is crystallized. Maybe the question should be why isn’t there more pain and suffering in the world?

    I’m being foolish of course. I do not wish more pain and suffering on the world or on myself. But it does make sense in a Proverbs 30:8 sort of way.

    I like the KJV or NAS rendering. Interestingly according to biblos.com the word translated “portion” at the end of the the proverb is also used in Job 23 in reference to Job’s fear of God and Job 38 in reference to God’s limits on the seas.

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    • Jim Pruitt says:

      I may be wrong, but I don’t think that there is an irresolvable conflict between Deism and belief in the resurrection or in an afterlife.
      Thomas Jefferson who was a Deist wrote John Adams who was by our accounts a religious liberal (the original Evangelical Liberal??) in 1823:
      “….And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors…..”
      But he closed this letter, noting that they were both old men anticipating death with this:
      “I join you cordially, and await his time and will with more readiness than reluctance. May we meet there again, in Congress, with our antient Colleagues, and recieve with them the seal of approbation `Well done, good and faithful servants.’’” (Note: I leave the spelling as it was in the original.)
      Cheers. As I said, I may be wrong.

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      • dsholland says:

        Jim,
        It would seem you have proved my case. If Christ is “classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” then He is denied. Or did I miss something?

        David

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    • Hi David, thanks as always for your comment! It’s always good to get your warm evangelical perspective. I think I’m in broad agreement with you on this one, particularly regarding the cross, the resurrection and God’s personal love for each of us individually. I’m not fully convinced that he is unlimited in his ‘ability’ to intervene in all cases though. What might limit God in this is a moot point – perhaps his love, perhaps his character, perhaps his laws or the rules of nature according to which his universe is designed to run.

      My suspicion is that (rather like the laws of physics themselves), it’s all rather more complex than I’m capable of comprehending. But of course that doesn’t stop me from wanting to make sense of it all. In the end, I’m forced to the position where I do (mostly) trust but don’t really understand.

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  3. Paul says:

    For many years I was an evangelical committed to defending an interventionist God. But no longer. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this doctrine is logically indefensible. I spent many years trying to explain to my atheist friends why God didn’t intervene in the horrific natural and man made disasters of the present and past. For them this was THE major stumbling block to even considering faith as an option. How can one explain the executions committed by the church in the middle ages for not submitting to church doctrine? Even Martin Luther had the skeptics eliminated. I dare say some opinions in your previous blogs would have seen you escorted to the stake.So where is God? You would think of all the places to intervene it would be in His church.

    Here’s where the logic of your position troubles me. You say that God abides by the natural laws and the freedom afforded man. How can He abide by natural law and then choose to intervene on what seems to man, an ad hoc basis. Either He abides by natural law or he doesn’t . So maybe you should be saying God abides by natural laws unless and when his will differs from it , which in essence means He doesn’t abide by natural laws and consequently as a loving creator could and should have intervened. Or just maybe He does in fact abide by natural law ( here I agree with you ) In fact there may be another explanation for apparent interventions that we are all unaware of at present.

    Then we have John 13:13,14 where Jesus supposedly says ” Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name I will do it.” Well I’ve known many of the faithful who claim these verses in asking God’s intervention but this ironclad promise seems to go unfulfilled. For years I accepted the rationalizations given ( ie.” It’s gods will, something good will come of it, it’s not for us the creature to question the creator etc.”) that now seem quite trite and unreasonable when faced with horrors of history.If one were to take all the requests for divine intervention over against what appears to be strong evidence of intervention I would bet that much less than 1% have possibly occurred which is statistically insignificant and makes one wonder why people persist in asking. My only explanation is that many claims of intervention are in fact the natural course of events but do serve the purpose of strengthening ones culturally inherited faith ( ie. Jesus is my friend who ” walks we with me and talks with all along life’s way”).

    Right now I’m leaning toward Christian Deism in the Quaker tradition . I think your critique of it is not up to date but I will leave that issue for someone else. I have been enjoying your blog for over a year now and find it very thoughtful ( for an evangelical) even though I may disagree from time to time. But at this point in my journey I’m not overly concerned about agreeing or not.

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    • Hi Paul,
      Firstly, thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment in such depth! I’m very glad you’ve been enjoying the blog, and I’m amused by your slightly backhanded compliment ‘thoughtful (for an evangelical)’ ;). I no longer identify myself as straightforwardly evangelical, but yes I do still retain some evangelical elements in my theology. Though as you say, I’d probably have been burned at the stake for heresy by Calvin or Luther.

      I expect you’re right that I’m not up-to-date in my critique of deism, and I’d be interested to hear your more nuanced take on it. I find classic deism – as I understand it – superficially appealing (because it appears to resolve some thorny theological problems), but ultimately unsatisfying (because it appears to throw the baby out with the bathwater). I veer more towards panentheism than deism, but that still leaves the problem of evil unresolved.

      For me neither a fully interventionist God nor a fully non-interventionist God is complex enough or complete enough to do justice to the full range of human experience, nor to the full picture of Christ in the gospels (even if not read ‘literally’ or with an evangelical agenda).

      This does of course leave a very difficult problem – if God has ever intervened (even once), why not always? If not always, why at all? It is a tremendously difficult problem – but one which seems to me to accord exactly with the kind of world we live in and experience daily, a world in which beauty and horror, hope and despair, love and selfishness are all deeply intermixed. I’ve described it as living at the interface, or in the interplay, of two kinds of reality – one in which God’s will is done, and one in which chaos rules.

      So I’d rather live with the unresolved problem of the sometimes-intervening God than the (for me) unsatisfying solution of a never-intervening one.

      I could try to put forward lots of arguments why God might not always intervene, and some would probably be more convincing than others. Ultimately though I’m not sure that kind of theodicy is ever particularly fruitful, nor pastorally helpful to those who are suffering. What I would certainly never say is that a particular event (e.g. a tsunami or super-storm) was God’s will or judgement.

      Anyway, very happy to disagree on this one! And I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts on deism – and any other subject.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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      • Jim Pruitt says:

        To David, Jefferson put the Virgin Birth in that category but not Christ himself.

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      • Jim Pruitt says:

        To Harvey on two of my five points that might still be in play:
        1. I’m pretty much where Paul is. (Paul of the EvangelicalLiberal blog, not Paul of Tarsus.)
        5. I think they’re voting for Romney based on their Biblically-based values around the topics you mention but also because in the US many people who work in the private sector and who give money to churches and charity feel squeezed by what they regard as big government. They don’t appreciate health care reform forcing Catholic organizations to provide abortifacients. (I’m sure you know that most health care here is provided through employers.) For them, this is not only a pro-life issue. It is an also a religious liberty issue.
        Is there a Christian vote in the US? Not really. But there is a church-attendance vote. Among non-black or non-Hispanic Christians, more frequent church-attenders skew Republican and less frequent church-attenders skew Democrat. That is true for both Catholics and Protestants.

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        • Good points, Jim. I think you’re basically right about “a Xn vote in the US… Not really.” (I’m American also.) But many surveys have shown that Evangelicals (broadly defined, but surely on the more conserv. side, theologically, and more independent institutionally) break strongly Republican in recent decades, and also pretty strongly “Tea Party” (very conserv. Repub. for non-Americans).

          Also, Catholics have a rough parity of Repubs and Dems, with perhaps even an edge to Dems. This is partly bec. of the long and pretty strong tradition of Catholic support for “social justice” issues, support of labor unions historically (not so much now, perhaps), etc; and perhaps demographically bec. of generally being a minority and out-of-power group relative to Protestants, especially in the Northeast, from where the nation grew.

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      • Paul says:

        Briefly my ideas around Diesm. The watchmaker analogy holds some validity to a point but ultimately falls short. a good watchmaker does not need to be constantly near his watch to make sure it continues to function. When he sells it, he is confident it will run just fine without him. So God created humans in such a perfect and magnificent way that He was not needed to intervene. He created our brains with the potential to reason to learn and to cope with life. However in His genius I believe he also put within the brain the ability to engage Him . The analogy I would use is that of my computer. When I plug it in to an energy source contact is made. Likewise when I engage in silent meditation I believe the energy force we call God is always available. This to me is the magnificence of his creation. It is not intervention. It is the nature of His creation. Anyone , of any religious culture has access to this spirit relationship and I believe many do. This gives me my motivation for ‘evangelism’ , not to convert from one creed to another but to open up this possibility to engage our creator with that area of our brain through meditation( prayer). It is through this engagement I experience forgiveness and’ salvation ‘. It is through this engagement I find my attitudes changing , the desire to meet the needs of others and the sense of God’s love for me and His creation. So what about Jesus?

        Jesus was a unique spiritual person. We’ve all heard of specially gifted people. God in his creative genius made possible within the human genome individuals with gifts in music, science, mathematics, athletics etc. Throughout history they have stood out as special gifts for the benefit of the average person. Is it possible that God also created the possibility that from time to time some would have extraordinary spiritual gifts? I think Jesus was likely such a person who excercised this gift within his own culture. It may have been a natural human response in that day to see such a spiritually gifted person as divine. Every religious faith can point to such individuals. Since my culture is Christian, it is only natural that Jesus should be my spiritual mentor and guide. that is why I consider myself a Christian Diest.

        As a former evangelical I maintained and proclaimed a number of absolutes that by definition were not negotiable. This is no longer the case. Consequently I hold few if any absolutes which means that I’m still open to the idea of an interventionist god should the evidence seem reasonable and consistent with experience. That is why although I may disagree with you I want to hear your views. I hope I’m still open to change. I appreciate your engaging me. Paul

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        • Hi Paul, thanks for explaining so eloquently! I’m not out to try to persuade you to change your mind, but I’ll try to respond with my own provisional thoughts and queries.

          I like the computer and power source analogy; I suppose my problem with it is that it just seems overly impersonal – rather like the Star Wars force. To my mind, sentient and loving personhood is the universe’s highest achievement, and it doesn’t make sense to me for that to spring from something non-personal (transpersonal I can handle, depending on exactly what’s meant by that). I may be misunderstanding you here?

          You mention God’s love; to me there can be no meaningful love without relationship, and no relationship without personhood on both sides. I can be spiritually uplifted by a beautiful sky, even moved to love and gratitude, but without the possibility of some kind of personal knowledge of the One ‘behind’ (or within) the sky that love and gratitude seems to me a little unsatisfying – a bit like distant admiration of a famous artist. Again, I might well be misunderstanding your point – sorry if so.

          Regarding Jesus, I’m not sure that 1st-century Jews would have been drawn to see a very spiritual person as in any way divine. If Jesus had been born in pantheistic/polytheistic India I could believe it, but within monotheistic Judaism it would be unthinkable heresy and blasphemy.

          As I read it, Jesus’ followers came gradually to the view that he was in some unique way part of the One divine being; partly through his words (e.g. ‘before Abraham was, I am’; ‘if you have seen me, you have seen the Father’), and partly through his actions and his role, doing things that could only be ascribed to God (e.g. forgiving sins). His resurrection seems to have been for them the final vindication of his unique role and status.

          Out of interest, would you be able these days to use the ‘Lord’s prayer’, addressing God as Father and asking for his provision etc? If not, do you think it’s an authentic prayer of Jesus or something added in later?

          I’ll shortly be putting up a couple of posts partly in response to this discussion, looking at models of divine interaction with the world. I’ll be mentioning deism, so again please correct me if I’m misrepresenting.

          Thanks, and all the best,
          Harvey

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  4. Theothedog says:

    This really is a fascinating and (if I can say this without sounding at all patronizing) very high quality debate. I couldn’t identify more strongly with your and Paul’s issues about the apparent arbitrariness and, yes, moral irresponsibility of God’s interventions. I find Deism very attractive. But the problem with it, for me, is precisely that it gives me answers, and hence enables me, as it were, to ‘walk by sight’. And I just feel that faith is SUPPOSED to be, has to be, difficult. With every year I have a stronger sense of God being utterly mysterious, and in a strange way I find that motivating, rather than discouraging. If the tension we’ve been talking about could ever be resolved, I guess that in a curious kind of way life would be the poorer for it. In the end, as the AV says, ‘the Spirit blows wheresoever he listeth’ (and without informing us about or explaining his actions). That’s no more satisfactory answer than the various ones you discuss, of course; but it just seems to be the way it is.

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    • Thank you!

      I think one of the big reasons I don’t find deism personally tenable is because of the unshakeable ‘charismatic’ element in my faith and theology. I was brought up in a very staid and ceremonial Anglo-Catholic tradition which had some good points, but which left me feeling that God was a billion miles away and uninterested in me. When I returned to faith in my early 20s it was to a vibrant charismatic evangelical C of E congregation where it was fully expected that God would show up in person each week in prophecy, tongues, healings and so forth – and it seemed to me that he often did so.

      Now I’ve changed a bit since then, and I’m certainly not convinced that all of the phenomena I witnessed (and experienced) were genuine divine manifestations. But even allowing for a fair bit of emotionalism and placebo effect etc, I can’t throw it all out. I still retain a small but persistent charismatic strand within my overall theology, particularly in my worship. I can no longer see God as distant, detached or disinterested, or as an impersonal force or energy. I may well be deluding myself of course – but of course I don’t believe so.

      But at the same time (perhaps paradoxically) I do very much share your view that God is utterly mysterious. But for me he’s mysterious in at least a partially knowable (if never comprehensible) way.

      I’ve also discovered that I’m a bit of a panentheist at heart, which will be going into one of my next blog posts…

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  5. Paul says:

    Harvey, thanks again for engaging an old heretic. A vital part of my faith is an ongoing personal encounter( relationship) with God however you or I understand that mystery. For many years my relationship has taken the form of silent meditation as taught by John Main and Father Thomas Keating. Although one wishes for more consistency I do sense a special communing relationship when spending time in silence. I don’t see this as intervention. I believe this is part of God’s creative intention for a personal love connection with his creation. So I definitely don’t see God as impersonal. However because He has created the capacity for personnal relationship doesn’t mean that He intervenes and similarly because He doesn’t intervene I cannot conclude He is impersonal or doesn’t care about His creation.

    With respect to the divinity of Jesus I think there are good arguments on both sides. I know this may sound irreverent but for me it doesn’t matter too much. If atonement theology is valid and the shedding of Devine blood is necessary for God to forgive my sins , that His business. I find it difficult to conceive of such a God . On the other hand if the atonement is necessary for God to forgive me so be it. I don’t think my belief or lack of it will prevent God’s forgiveness. I’m not sure that the resurrection necessarily has to support the divinity conclusion. It does however offer evidence that death is not the end which for many provides hope.

    The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prayer in some measure seems to assume that God intervenes. However, if Jesus was not Devine maybe His assumption was not valid but consistent with His understanding of God. I wonder about Christians in famine struck areas of Africa who pray this pray but continue to starve? I actually see nothing in The Lord’s prayer that requests divine intervention. For me it is a recognition of Gods creative provision and desire for relationship.

    I concur that God is both mysterious and knowable. I don’t think Gods revealing Himself ended in the 1st century. God continually reveals himself through his intimate connection with many people. I’ve learned much from people like Henri Nouwen , Mother Theresa etc.

    Blessings
    Paul

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    • Hi Paul,
      I firmly believe that we’re all heretics… and for me, some of the most solidly orthodox-defending evangelicals may be among the most heretical, if they’re putting doctrinal correctness in place of love and mercy. I’m glad to be a heretic on all sorts of matters, and an agnostic on many others. I’ve probably said this ad nauseum now, but the only creed I cling to is that God is good and God is love; and I believe that God is most clearly (but not necessarily exclusively) revealed in Christ. Everything else I can let go of.

      Thank you for clarifying your view of God – it’s a view I have a lot of time for, though it’s a little different to my own perspective. I’m also drawn to your way of silent meditation, and it’s a kind of prayer I would like to explore further. For me though (at least at this stage), it would be part of a repertoire of ways of prayer rather than the only form.

      I’m quite open to the idea of Jesus having been mistaken on various things – whether or not he was (as I believe) divine, he was very much fully human. However, it would seem less likely to me that he would have been profoundly mistaken on the subjects of prayer or God, as those were the very things on which it seems he was most deeply knowledgeable.

      I do see the Lord’s prayer as inherently interventionist (to a degree). May your kingdom come; give us this day our daily bread; deliver us from evil etc all seem to imply some degree of asking for things from God, rather than simply grateful acceptance of things that are going to come regardless.

      I’m not sure if you saw my response to ‘Theo’ above, but I was saying there that there’s still a bit of the charismatic in me which prevents me from viewing God as fully non-intervening. I’d also add that I feel a strong (and perhaps emotional) need to be able to pray petitionary and intercessory prayers in certain situations – indeed, most days. Without such prayer I’d feel entirely voiceless and helpless in the face of circumstances I can’t control or change. I’m aware that my prayers for (say) healing may not get the answer I want, but for it to be entirely pointless to even ask seems to me unbearable.

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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  6. Paul says:

    Hi Harvey
    I can say I find little if anything to disagree with in your first paragraph. In a broad sense it gives room for a shared faith while recognizing the possibility of our differences. With respect to prayer I do concede there appears to be a human need to avoid a sense of abandonment and to believe there is a power ( petitionary prayer) available to us who loves and cares for us through the ups and downs of life. I guess I just feel that the God I engage in silence knows my desires and needs before I would ask and in the context of ” Thy will be done ” I have faith that as with any good father, He will do what He is able and in spite of my natural desire for circumstantial intervention on occasion , I don’t ask or expect it. Should it happen, although grateful at the time, I would wonder why, since many others need it so much more than me. That would be mystery for me.
    Just finished re- reading your article on ‘stages of faith’. It probably has some relevance to our discussions.
    As always find your thoughts insightful.
    Paul

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  7. K. Mapson says:

    But how do you answer as to Pandeism — the pantheistic branch of Deism which has our Creator not simply creating our Universe to watch from afar, but wholly becoming our Universe?

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    • Thanks for your comment! In the next couple of posts after this one I look at some of the other models of divine interaction with the world, including Pantheism and Deism. However, I don’t look at Pandeism specifically, mainly because I don’t really know enough about it. I’d be interested to hear more and I’d like to know what you think about it! My own views currently veer more towards Panentheism, but Pandeism certainly sounds interesting.

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  8. Chas says:

    Harvey. An observation regarding your interaction with the phone thieves. Your lie, that you didn’t have a phone, potentially puts future victims in peril, because if they haven’t got a phone (like me) then that person is going to reply, in truth, that they don’t have a phone. Experience then tells the thieves that that person is likely to be lying, so they may do them harm in order to take their phone when they are incapacitated. That is not a judgement on you, but it shows the importance of telling the truth at all times, whatever the circumstances.

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    • Hi Chas, interesting point, and I take your point to an extent. But I have a phobia towards absolutes, including moral absolutes, including ‘the importance of telling the truth at all times, whatever the circumstances’. The truth, it seems to me, is always more complex than such absolutes can convey. Even within the Bible there are occasions when God apparently sanctions lying in order to protect the innocent. If you were harbouring Jews in WW2 and Nazis came asking, I think the morally right thing to do would be to throw them off the scent to the best of your abilities…

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      • Chas says:

        You have a fair point, because even the use of silence would not work in that case. That raises the question in my mind whether to use a lie to defend someone else against what you know to be wrong is justified. We usually say that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in this case they seem to do so! This puts us on a slippery slope that ultimately leads us to ‘the end justifies the means,’ which always feels wrong to me.

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        • I too am always uncomfortable with anything that smacks of ‘the end justifies the means’…

          Of course we also have the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’, implying that in the messy complexity of this world there may not always be a clearly right option but there is at least a less wrong one. That’s a somewhat pessimistic view, but one that I think holds true in many cases.

          I just don’t think that we can always speak simply (or simplistically) of absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in many real-life cases. The world we live in is such an intertwined mixture of good and evil, and we ourselves are too. Rather I prefer to see it in terms of ‘better’ and ‘worse’, ‘healthier’ and ‘less healthy’, ‘helpful’ and ‘less helpful’.

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          • Chas says:

            I realised, after I had written the above, that my remarks about Hiroshima etc below are a case of the end justifying the means. However, if the hypothesis is right, God would have exerted influence for them NOT to drop the devices, but they thought that the end would justify the means and dropped them, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of lives. My hypothesis is, that if they had done the correct thing and not dropped them, there would have been an alternative that would have made the same saving in suffering overall, but this might have involved many other incidents.

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  9. Chas says:

    Your analysis of God’s behaviour is very similar to mine. A further refinement that seems essential is that God always acts to minimise overall suffering, so even the terrible suffering that occurred in WW1, WW2 and the Holocaust ultimately caused less suffering than the alternative(s). Fortunately we will never know what those alternatives would have been.

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    • I would certainly like to believe that God acts to minimise overall suffering, but I have to admit that I find it pretty hard to believe that in the face of some of the atrocities and disasters of the last century… I’m planning some posts about suffering at the moment.

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      • Chas says:

        Yes, but it is like the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, set against the millions who would have been killed or maimed in an invasion of Japan.

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        • …which of course rather horribly illustrates the ‘lesser of two evils’ principle I just mentioned in another comment!

          I do find it very hard to see that God was in any way involved in the choice to drop atom bombs on innocent civilians. But if (rather unthinkably) the only alternatives were even worse, then perhaps, just perhaps…

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          • Chas says:

            Harvey, God has had me thinking about this some more too. Shall we take as a working hypothesis the following:
            1) God always works to minimise suffering.
            2) God can see everything from beginning to end, so He always knows, in advance, what our decision will be when we are confronted by a problem.
            3) God always exerts influence toward us doing the thing that will minimise the suffering, but has given us free will, so we might do the alternative, or one of the alternatives.
            4) Because He has always known what our decision will be, He has already planned an alternative course, stemming from our wrong decision, that also minimises the suffering.
            (The implication here is that somewhere down the line, the decision paths will converge).

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            • Hi Chas, I can go along with some of your working hypotheses, but not sure about all.
              1) God always works to minimise suffering – I think I’d have to add some qualifiers to this. I’m not sure that all suffering is always bad in the context of eternity and God’s wider redemptive purposes.
              2) God can see everything from beginning to end – I agree to an extent, but I’m not completely convinced that the whole future is set and knowable, even to God. See Does God know the future?
              3) God’s influence and our free will… I think I’m broadly okay with this one, with the caveats on (1) and (2) above!
              4) God’s alternative course – I kind of agree (with same caveats). I’d put it that God in his mercy and creativity always provides ways to get from where we are to where he would like us to be.

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            • Chas, I’ll add my understandings briefly to Harvey’s comments 4-point hypothesis. My responses would be basically like his, but I may be further along the “process” (e.g., see “Process theology” on Wikipedia) path than he is…. Probably so on the nature of God at least.

              And that subject is probably the proper “starting point” for a project like yours. It is not the Bible unless one takes it as completely and entirely things God specifically intended to communicate to us, the best possible in human language(s) and exclusively in the Bible. (In other words, I see a valid and important place for philosophical theology, such as what you are constructing for yourself…. The Bible is important but not the actual foundation, even in the way fundamentalists approach it.) In Process philosophy/theology you will see (if you’re not already familiar) God described in terms of “panentheism” (a sort of middle ground between classic theism with a transcendent/immanent but coercive God and pantheism with no God-creation distinction… a very UNinvolved “god”).

              In the tightly logical and philosophically/scientifically attentive system of Process, God does not have ability to see all the future because there IS genuine free will. (This aspect is shared by “Open theology”, within orthodoxy). In a Process view, genuine free will precludes God exhaustively knowing the future and various theological side-steps, such as into the “God’s ways are beyond ours”, are not legitimate nor needed. (However, we don’t send ourselves to heaven or hell, in effect, by free choices… nor does God set up or predestine such a thing.) I cover aspects of Process in some of my blog posts. And while I don’t mention it continually, it does lie behind my thinking about most of the varied topics I cover, including those on Christian origins and current religious affairs.

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            • Thanks Howard – that’s very interesting. I think I need to find out more about Process Theology, and your blog sounds like a good place to start!

              I suppose my main proviso in all of these discussions would just be acknowledging that all our models are partial. Reality is way more complex than any of us have the capacity to understand; and perhaps at the same time God is way more simple (or unified) than any of us can grasp. Quantum physics is perhaps the closest we can currently get to a picture of the nature of reality, and that’s beyond most of us (me certainly).

              And as you suggest, we’re all at different points on our paths. I’ve begun emerging from mainstream evangelical thought but I haven’t yet explored all of the depths available in other streams of faith, or in theologies such as yours. I’m feeling my way blind in many respects!

              All the best,
              Harvey

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        • Not to get too off the track here, but I used to very tentatively accept our (USA’s) justification for dropping not one but two A bombs. But more recently, I’ve heard some sensible sounding argument that they were really unneeded in terms of attaining an end to the war… and without further massive casualties… I’m no historian of the situation by any means. But a reasonable suggestion I heard from an informed author is that certain of our leaders dropped them more as a demonstration and a proof that we WOULD use them, as deemed necessary, if/when the Soviet U. went too far in a given situation.

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  10. Harvey, the blogging system won’t take another “below” reply… I’m responding to your 6-24 one re. Process theology, etc. I appreciate your nod to my blog, and I do think I have helpful stuff there, and some on Process. However, I don’t have any systematic treatment or a lot of material.

    To explain a bit further, Process theology (and its “mother” of Process philosophy, the two being intertwined) is actually fairly “classic” and part of long philosophical tradition. I say “actually” in that few universities, either here or in Britain or continental Europe, feature it much. (Nor do many seminaries.) England is the actual “birthplace” of Process in a sense, via A.N. Whitehead (British, though doing most of his work in philosophy in the US, following his British career mostly in mathematics). Not being a deep student of philosophy as a discipline, I can’t explain this “omission” or “slighting” in detail, but I think I have a basic explanation, which is actually quite important if I am correct.

    First, Whitehead was “radical” in his time. When “Process and Reality” (core later work) came out in 1929, this could be said of Whitehead. Per the Wikipedia article on him, “… He developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which radically departed from most of western philosophy. Whitehead argued that reality was fundamentally constructed by events rather than substances, and that these events cannot be defined apart from their relations to other events, thus rejecting the theory of independently existing substances” (top section, with Measle cited as documentation). Thus, Process is sometimes called “Relational” theology, esp. by its proponents. Now, this no longer seems radical to most well-educated people, who don’t have the grasp of quantum mechanics that Whitehead did, even in the late 20s. (Einstein apparently considered him one of the few people who really understood his theories.)

    However, Process is akin to the physical/metaphysical systems we now see in popular books like those of Zukav, Swimm, and many others. Note that it is mainly just in physics and astrophysics where we occasionally see actual prominent scientists (unlike Zukav) holding forth with this relatively new paradigm. Science as a whole has resisted and often ridiculed it. It tends to make the scientific process less clear and certain, which “goes against the grain” to say the least.

    In theology, the picture is a bit different, but related. The angle of the problem is 180 degrees from that of “science”. Process has a highly nuanced way of dealing with the nature of God, with theodicy, and with God being impassioned and involved with us yet without “intervening” in a “natural” system from “outside” it. It makes dealing with miracles tricky, but not impossible… especially if one has flexible categories. But it is the very inflexibility of categories (esp. natural vs. supernatural) that I think make Process theology slow to spread and catch on, at least as a system formally…. Plus the fact that it IS complex, as much as people have tried to simplify it. They have had some success, but there is not big marketing system or campaign to push their good work.

    Anyway, happy journeying, Harvey and any others coming along… Don’t miss the most direct site run by Process people themselves, out of my former school, Sch. of Theol. at Claremont. That is http://www.ctr4process.org. And since you’re from Great Britain (not sure if England itself… are you?), you SHOULD start planning NOW to come to the incredible “Whitehead2015” (.com) conference right near Claremont (CA) in Pomona in June of next year. It will be large and wonderful, practical (as well as theoretical).

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    • Hi Howard, thanks for this – you’re a true evangelist for Process Thought! 🙂

      I find it interesting and I certainly find myself in sympathy with a lot of the ideas you’re outlining. I do personally tend towards a form of Panentheism, and I also like the emphasis on becoming rather than being (though I think that both can be important). However, I don’t think I’d be able to justify attending a conference in the States on the subject yet! When it moves to England, maybe (I live in South London, since you ask!).

      In the meantime, I’ll certainly have a look at ctr4process.org.

      While I’m attracted to elements of Process Theology and also of various other theologies, I’m not sure I could ever sign up to them quite as wholeheartedly as you. For me (at the moment at least) any theology always has to be provisional and partial – a helpful model, but never the whole picture or solution.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  11. kati says:

    I bet u wished u wouldn’t have voted for Obama now!

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