How does God interact with the world?

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

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.

Deism

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…

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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.
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4 Responses to How does God interact with the world?

  1. K. Mapson says:

    And Pandeism, yes?

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    • I’m afraid it’s just going to panentheism this time – partly from personal bias (I like panentheism), and partly because I don’t yet know enough about the many other models of how God and the universe fit together. And from what little I do know of pandeism, it’s not an option that fits readily into my theology. However, if you felt like putting together an overview of pandeism and what it can offer to the debate, that would be great. You could add panendeism if you liked… 🙂

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  2. Javier Garcia says:

    The truth is beautiful and makes sense. This is truth as I know it. God is eternal and whole he cannot interact with space and time directy because eternity does not exist where there are limits. Therefore he created this world through his word or breath. Just as John said in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. By this he means that the word is Gods expression which is part of him but also seperate just as our thoughts are not us but they are part of us(it’s more complex than that though). This word is Jesus (God in flesh) the Son of God. It is God but not the Father. Everything you see around you was created by the son of God and all the physical you see around you is Gods expression.(so you can know God by knowing the universe to a degree) God(the Father)said his creation was good but when he created Adam and Eve he allowed them to eat of the tree of life or the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve ate of the latter tree and “became like god” knowing good and evil. The only problem is that only the creator can know “Good and Evil” and He had not said that any of his creation was evil. Nevertheless Adam and Eve judged themselves and saw that they were naked. There’s nothing wrong with that but since they believed themselves to be greater than the judge they hid themselves from the face of God and became their own gods not doing Gods will which caused them to be seperated from the waters of the tree of life. Believing one is his own God is the root of all evil. When a person believes he has the authority to say “I am good and he is evil” he gives himself the right to judge and create wars among his brothers. That’s what it means when God says unless they take also of the tree of life they will surely die. The whole Bible is therefore a guidance in how to be reborn/baptized into the beings we used to be. To say death is evil is to say God is evil and it is also to say that you have the right to know your own good and evil. So when people think God is not present because of wars and disease they are fooling themselves because they feel they are greater than God. God holds the world together through his word so he is always active in this world to that degree. This world is a miracle what more do people want. To pray is to say that this universe is not how YOU want it. Gods will will always prevail not the will of some finite man. You as the Son of God can however pray to God because his will will become your will. Like I said though you must take of the tree of life that is Jesus which is the heavenly manna and water that he may dwell in you and you in him. I know this to be true because I didn’t need the Bible to tell me this I already understood this truth but knowing that others came to the same conclusion makes me know that it holds some weight. If you want to learn more you may text me at (510) 579-5637 or email me at javig31996@gmail.com

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    • Dear Javier, thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment in such depth.

      I do agree with some of what you say, and I like some of your ideas and how you express them – particularly the idea that ‘the physical you see around you is God’s expression’.

      However, I do partly disagree with some of your theology and your analysis of Genesis, and of what constitutes the root of all evil. (Though I’m not saying you’re wrong – I may well of course be wrong.)

      It seems to me that the Bible (and subsequent Christian theology) presents a far more complex and less clear view of death than you suggest. For example, you say ‘To say death is evil is to say God is evil’, but several of the biblical authors describe death as the enemy, and as something evil that Jesus conquers on our behalf.

      I certainly don’t agree that to pray is to say that the universe is not how YOU (or I) want it. Jesus prayed, and he encouraged his disciples to pray. His model prayer even includes the line ‘your will be done’, which implies that God’s will *isn’t* now perfectly fulfilled in this universe – and that therefore the universe isn’t yet how he wants it to be.

      That’s not to say that God isn’t present or active in the world, but that he is not yet fully or perfectly present and active in everything. The kingdom is coming and is here in part, but not yet in full – not even in the lives of Christians.

      I can see the logic and consistency in your theology, but to me it doesn’t work in real situations and nor (in my view) does it truly glorify God. The reason I wrote this piece was because there are many things which happen in the world which, as far as I’m concerned, are clearly evil. For example, a child being abused is clearly an evil thing, and something which is outside of God’s good intentions as revealed in Christ. Yet God does allow such things to happen on a very frequent basis. I don’t fully understand that, except to say that not all in this current world is as God wants it to be, and we need to cooperate with him in ushering in his kingdom where wrongs are set right.

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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