My previous post ‘Does God intervene?’ sparked more of a response than I was expecting, so it seems worth staying with it a bit longer.
The major issue seems to be, if God ever intervenes in the world, why not always? If not always, why at all – wouldn’t that be grossly unfair and inconsistent? Given that God certainly doesn’t always intervene to prevent even the most terrible atrocities, disasters and tragedies, how would it make sense for him to sometimes answer our prayers?
This is a massive subject which touches on a range of issues – the issue of suffering and the problem of evil; the nature of miracles; the very nature of God and of reality; the nature of God’s will and sovereignty and omnipotence; and the manner of God’s interaction with his creation. I’ve touched on most of these elsewhere, so for now I’m just going to concentrate on the last point. Even this is huge so it’ll be a two-parter.
Models of divine interaction with the world
So, assuming belief in some sort of God, we have these two spheres of being: the supernatural (God, heaven, angels, ‘spiritual’ things), and the material (the physical world of ‘things’: nature, matter, objects, forces). How do these two interact and relate to each other?
Do humans belong simply to one realm or partly to both? What about thoughts, ideas and beliefs – to which realm do they belong? Is God entirely transcendent (above and removed from the world), entirely immanent (present and involved in the world), or something of both?
There are several models of interaction – I’d like to look now at some of the main ones.
Supernatural theism is the classic Christian model, in which God is totally separate from and transcendent to his contingent creation, but nonetheless actively involved in it. However, his involvement is usually invisible, except in rare miracles which herald the nascent Kingdom or serve some other divine purpose (as in Christ’s resurrection).
The two spheres are often viewed as intersecting or interlocking at all points, like two separate pieces of card stuck on to each other. One way of depicting this is the spiritual sphere surrounding and encompassing the natural, rather like the Earth’s atmosphere surrounds the planet (alternatively the spiritual can be seen as a core within the natural, or as the foundation on which the natural rests). And like the atmosphere, the spiritual sphere is generally invisible to the natural though vital to its life.
One image sometimes used is of the back and front of a tapestry (or of a TV screen) – on this side we just see the picture that’s being formed (and of which we are part); but on the other side God is invisibly weaving the threads according to his design. Others invert this, putting our visible lives on the behind-the-picture side which looks rough and ugly, waiting for the true and beautiful spiritual picture to be revealed ‘on the other side’. (This is often used to explain suffering – the rough knots on this side helping form the lovely tapestry on the other).
In this model, God’s hand is mostly hidden. He works mainly through secondary agents (nature and humans), except on rare occasions when he shows himself to particular people for particular purposes. So most answers to prayer will almost always look like natural events; only faith can discern the presence and action of the divine. Similarly, apparently natural events (whether hurricanes or election results) may possibly (though not necessarily) be agents of divine purpose – depending on what version of God’s sovereignty and omnipotence you opt for.
A common phrase is ‘we are God’s hands and feet on Earth’, the idea being that it’s mostly through his followers that God answers prayers and carries out his purposes. To some this is a clarion call to Christian action; to others it’s a cop-out letting God off the hook of his divine responsibilities. (The idea of incarnation can come in usefully here, but I’ll leave that till next time.)
Within supernatural theism there are various views on the strength of God’s involvement in the world and in people’s lives, ranging from strong control and direct miraculous intervention through to a more subtle influence and guiding presence without miracles.
There’s also a range of views on which elements count as ‘spiritual’ or ‘natural’. For example, in Miracles, C.S. Lewis argues that the human mind and thoughts are actually supernatural elements interpenetrating the physical world, rather than merely material phenomena. Others would say that most things in the material world potentially have a spiritual aspect, dimension or essence; something which connects them to the divine or to the supernatural sphere. (At this point though, we may be starting to cross over into Panentheism, which I’ll come to later).
Most evangelicals opt for some form of supernatural theism. It has many obvious advantages: it lets God be involved in the world without being the world (pantheism). It lets him remain in control yet hidden, able to answer prayer without interrupting the processes of nature too much. It allows him to be both transcendent and immanent (if only immanent by proxy in most cases). It leaves room for both divine purpose and human responsibility and freedom. And crucially for evangelicals, it is based on a view of God as a personal being who cares about his creation and his people – a loving father as well as sovereign lord.
It also helpfully permits reconciliation between science and faith, with processes like evolution merely showing from nature’s side the physical mechanism by which God is advancing his divine purposes in the world (though this can also be true for deism).
However, supernatural theism does have its potential pitfalls. It can over-emphasise God’s separation from creation, and can put too much burden of responsibility on humans to do God’s work. And, tapestry illustrations notwithstanding, it leaves fairly wide open the problem of suffering and why God doesn’t always intervene. I’ll come back to this next time.
So a nuanced supernatural theism does seem to have a fair bit going for it, though it’s not my own preferred model. Like any such model though, it is just a model and as such cannot offer an entirely complete and satisfactory description of reality.
I confess I’m more familiar with 18th-century deism than its modern manifestations. I’m aware of (and grateful for) this blog’s deist readers, and I’m probably still not doing your beliefs full justice here, so I hope I can amend my views in the light of our on-going dialogue.
Meanwhile here’s a recent definition by the World Union of Deists:
‘Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.’
In classic deism, God is completely separate from his creation, but (unlike with the previous model) is largely uninvolved in the world day-to-day except in a distant and impersonal way. The deity or Supreme Being is entirely transcendent and not at all immanent; ‘he’ (or it) does not directly intervene personally in the world or in the lives of people. In some versions God does watch and govern distantly (without actively intervening); in other versions the deity takes no interest in the lives of insignificant creatures like us.
As I understand it, for most deists God cannot really be known personally, nor does he directly reveal himself to us. Rather he can only be known about through reason and observation, though some speak of experiencing his presence through meditation. Some do even call God ‘Father’ and see him in more personal (but non-intervening) terms. However, to classic deists, God is more of a watchmaker, lawmaker or architect; a non-personal (or possibly transpersonal) force of Providence, rather than someone who we can relate to or communicate with personally.
Such a view of God renders petitionary and intercessory prayer largely pointless. The all-wise God has set up or pre-programmed the world to operate according to good natural laws, without any need of further divine involvement or intervention. Through these means alone he provides for his creatures, or enables them to provide for themselves. For God to answer prayers would mean that his original plan and ‘programming’ was not sufficient; it would make him a tinkerer and bodge-jobber rather than the all-wise architect.
NB regarding Jesus, there is a strand of Christian deism which deeply respects Christ’s example and teaching, while generally rejecting his divinity and the accounts of supernatural miracles.
Deism has some distinct advantages. It allows us to get on with our lives without too much ‘state control’ – a laissez-faire view of divine government. It can encourage us to take responsibility for ourselves and for the planet (unless it leads us to take the view that everything’s pre-planned and we can’t change it). And (like supernatural theism) it allows science and religion to get on without conflict.
Crucially it also offers a resolution to the issue of why God doesn’t always intervene by positing that he never does. It’s neat, but to my mind too neat for the complex and messy reality we live in. Indeed, the very fact that it does offer such a tidy and reasonable solution tends me (perhaps perversely) not to believe it. (It also seems a slightly drastic solution, akin to cutting off your head to cure a headache. 🙂 )
For me though, deism has several major disadvantages. Like atheism, it often seems a little too reliant on reason at the expense of other vital aspects of the human condition. It can also rather easily segue into determinism, thinking that everything is inevitably pre-programmed to unfold according to the Creator’s wise plan regardless of us (a charge which of course can also be levelled at extreme Calvinism).
But above all it seems to preclude much possibility of a direct personal human-divine relationship, and also to remove the option of intercession and petition. For me this is a bridge too far; I need the direct contact of petitionary prayer. And my own experience and background leads me to expect God to hear and answer prayers – not always quickly or obviously or in the ways I want, but to answer in some way nonetheless.
I’m out of space now, so next time it’s Pantheism, Panentheism and some ideas on whether God can ever intervene without being inconsistent…