Modern science, classical theism (2)

According to Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s (C&O) view, God creates in a single divine act “outside” of time and space (see the previous post). In Thomas Aquinas’ terms, God is the primary cause of the existence of everything that is, while creatures are secondary causes within the time-space framework. The implication is that God can’t be invoked to explain particular events within the world. This implies that there is no competition between scientific and theological explanations.

But what does this imply for the problem of evil? “If God chooses this universe, in all its details from beginning to end in a single act, why does God allow there to be suffering and evil?” And how is God’s providence over history exercised?

C&O deploy a variation of what Christopher Southgate calls the “only-way” argument. That is, this world, with its attendant suffering, is a “package deal” of sorts. You only get free personal agents like human beings through a process like the evolutionary one, “red in tooth and claw” though it may be. This is because the processes that make life possible are also the reason that suffering exists. The growth of life depends on predation, plate tectonics lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and genetic variation occasionally produces genetic disorders.

There is no you or I apart from the total world order that confronts us in creation. It is not as if God made all the component parts of creation and stuck them together to make the universe. Rather, the universe is an intelligible whole and our existence is inseparable from the existence of that whole. (p. 86)

We may think we can imagine a creation without suffering, but it’s not clear this is really the case:

In the end we have no idea what it means to create a universe, or what might be possible or impossible in such a creation. While it is easy for us to imagine a world without suffering, such imaginings might not translate into a coherent and intelligible world order. If the whole is not intelligible, then such an imagined creation is a mere pipe dream, a fantasy, not realizable in fact. (p. 89)

This line of response, assuming it works, may take some of the sting out of so-called natural evil. But what about moral evil–evil deeds intentionally chosen by free agents like us? Here C&O turn to a version of the free-will defense. They lean heavily on Augustine’s account of evil as a privation to argue that the choice of evil is a lack of purpose or meaning. “The evil act has no cause sufficient for the act, and so has no cause. It is our failure in the realm of achieving the good” (p. 97) and so “God is not the cause of this deficiency simply because it has no cause” (p. 98). God is not the cause of evil, but human freedom–which in itself is a great good–makes evil possible.

God’s providence, in this view, consists in the superintendence of the entire created order. God does not “intervene” as a secondary cause among secondary causes, but God wills a universe into existence that includes evil as an inextricable element. This is either because, in the case of natural evil, it is an unavoidable side-effect of certain kinds of finite existence, or, as with moral evil, because it is made possible by the exercise of creaturely freedom.

Beyond this, though, C&O suggest that there is a divinely originated response to evil on the level of practice. “[I]f evil is a lack, something that is missing that should be there, then the solution to the problem of evil is to make up for what is lacking, to repair the damage done, and turn the evil act into an opportunity for a greater good, the good of conversion, forgiveness, and mercy” (p. 99). They propose that God responds to evil by giving human beings the resources to live toward the good by taking suffering and violence as an opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. For Christians, of course, the life and death of Jesus is the ultimate expression of this response, which “has the power to change history, to shift us from decline and restore the path of genuine progress” (p. 101).

(I have some questions about C&O’s account, but I’m going to save them for my final post in this series.)

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3 thoughts on “Modern science, classical theism (2)

  1. Whoa– a familiar name! I knew Dr. Crysdale from my days as a grad student at Catholic U. I never took any of her classes, so I doubt she even knows who I am. I think she was/is primarily involved with faith development and conversion.

    “God’s providence, in this view, consists in the superintendence of the entire created order. God does not ‘intervene’ as a secondary cause among secondary causes, but God wills a universe into existence that includes evil as an inextricable element.”

    I’m not sure whether I’m reading you correctly here, but this sounds an awful lot like deism. Perhaps it’s not deism, given what you write later:

    “They propose that God responds to evil by giving human beings the resources to live toward the good by taking suffering and violence as an opportunity for mercy and forgiveness.”

    This sounds a bit more as if God does act in the world (as a “second cause” this time?), if he’s “giving [us] the resources to live toward the good.” Otherwise, if C&O are saying God never intervenes as a “second cause,” one has to wonder how they justify contravening massive scriptural testimony to the contrary. Even nonliteral readings of biblical scripture suggest that God is active– more active than the deists’ God– throughout history.

    • Yeah, it was not clear to me from the book whether C&O think that God ever “bypasses” secondary causes to act directly (i.e., miracles). Though this book is intended, I think, as primarily an exercise in natural theology, so maybe they considered that question outside its scope.

  2. Pingback: Modern science, classical theism (3) | A Thinking Reed

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