Denis Edwards’ theology of divine action

In his new book How God Acts, Australian Catholic theologian Denis Edwards offers an account of divine action that is conscious of the picture of the world offered by modern science, but takes its lead both from the Christian revelation of God in Christ, the insights of Karl Rahner, and a modified Thomist metaphysics. The result is what Edwards calls a “noninterventionist” view of God’s action in the world that, he maintains, can make allowances for God’s special or particular actions, such as providence, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus.

Science, Edwards says, reveals to us a universe that is multi-leveled and evolving, contains processes with their own integrity, and at least appears to move in a direction toward greater complexity. While this process results in the development of a marvelous diversity of life, sophisticated consciousness, and intelligent personhood, it also has costs in terms of the suffering and extinction of countless billions of living creatures. While the world may give hints of a divine intelligence, it is ambiguous enough to cause us to question whether a benevolent God is running the show.

However, if we attend to the God revealed in the ministry, teachings, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we may be led to a different picture of divine action–one that is actually more harmonious with the scientific world-view. The God of Jesus, Edwards observes, is a God of vulnerable love, a God who “waits upon creation.” Jesus’ parables picture the reign of God coming in small, often unnoticed ways. His eschatology, on one interpretation, is a “participatory” one where God’s work requires the cooperation of creatures. The picture Jesus paints is of a providential God who cares deeply for his creatures, but not a manipulative puppet-master.

This understanding is reinforced when seen in light of the entire “Christ event.” In the resurrection of Jesus, God acts to “bring healing and hope to the world in a new creation” (pp. 25-6). But this comes only after the crucifixion. We needn’t see God as directly willing the death of Jesus, Edwards contends. Instead, we should understand that God in Jesus was wooing his creation back into a relationship of love. He was so willing to wait for humanity’s free response that he allows us to have our way, even to the extent of killing Jesus. However, God’s love refuses to give death and hatred the last word:

Reflection on the Christ-event suggests a theology of divine action in which God actively waits upon creation, upon the unfolding of natural processes and upon the freedom of human responses, yet acts powerfully, faithfully, and lovingly to fulfill the divine promises. (pp. 29-30)

To fill out this insight, Edwards draws upon Karl Rahner’s theology of creation and St. Thomas’s theology of divine action. Rahner sees the act of creation as a single act of divine “self-bestowal”: God seeks to give himself to something other than himself. This single act, Edwards proposes, has particular effects at various points throughout the created order. Thus every event can be seen as a manifestation of this single act of divine creativity without supposing that there are causal or explanatory “gaps” within the empirical world.

Following St. Thomas, Edwards distinguishes between God as the “primary” cause of everything that is and created beings as genuine “secondary” causes with their own proper autonomy. There is no causal competition between God and creatures; God’s causality can only be spoken of analogically and operates at a different level than that of creatures. This is the metaphysical counterpart to the more ethical picture derived from the Christ-event: God allows creatures their own proper autonomy, enabling them to flourish. He is the cause or root of their freedom, not the limit of it.

The way is then opened for Edwards to develop a genuinely “noninterventionist” account of divine action. If God is the power that enables creatures and created processes to exist and to exercise their own proper causality, then we can see God at work in the world without positing occasional divine “interventions” that break or override the “laws” of nature. God creates and exercises providential guidance of the world in and through created processes. “Divine action…works in and through the laws of nature rather than by violating, superseding, or bypassing them” (p. 55).

This has implications the problem of evil, among other things. If God creates through natural processes and respects the relative autonomy of created reality, then it may be that God cannot (in some sense) prevent the evil that mortal flesh is prey to. Suffering, pain, predation, disease, and death may be necessary (again, in some sense) attendants to the process by which God brings about new life. If the picture of the evolution of the universe offered by science is even remotely accurate, we are compelled to think of God as being very patient in waiting on natural processes to bring sentient and personal life into being. But unlike, say, the God of process theology, who seems to be one being among others within a shared ontological framework, Edwards’ God is genuinely transcendent and the unqualified source of all that is. God respects the relative autonomy of creation, but will take action to bring the divine purposes to completion.

(More to come in a later post…)

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5 thoughts on “Denis Edwards’ theology of divine action

  1. I have trouble with the difference between a non-interventionist God whose work requires the participation of creatures, and the Jesus/God who worked miracles – raising someone from the dead is pretty interventionist and the dead person doesn’t seem to me to be participating in the normal sense of the word. But maybe he doesn’t see any of the miracles aside from the resurrection as having happened?

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