Monday, July 12, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 7)

In chapter 6 of Denis Edwards book “How God Acts”, he dives into a noninterventionist theology of resurrection. He does not diminish the significance of the event though: “I will maintain…the resurrection as the central act of God that shapes the history of the universe but will suggest, tentatively, that here too, God can be thought of as acting in a noninterventionist way, in the sense of acting in and through created causes.” Edwards does not see the resurrection of Jesus as a subjective event, but one that is powerfully objective enough to ontologically transform reality. Edwards is committed to an eschatological vision alongside of a noninterventionist vision. Without eschatological hope, the costs of evolution are simply too great.

The resurrection of the crucified Jesus as the central expression of God’s one act of divine self-bestowal, as the culmination of an evolutionary Christology, and as the sacrament of salvation to the world is vital to a robust Christian eschatology. The creation of the world had as its purpose the Christ-event, which is itself directed towards eschatology. God is the one who enables the self-transcendence of the universe from material existence, to life, and finally to human consciousness. In this context, Jesus is the most radical product of self-transcendence within the universe – which is enabled by God, but through the human Jesus. Jesus dies after a self-sacrificial life in a radical act of love for God, and is raised up and transformed by the Spirit: “In this paschal event [the entire Christ-event], part of evolutionary history gives itself completely into God and is taken up and transformed in God, as the beginning of the reconciliation and transformation of all things.” This Christ-event is also the sacrament, or real symbol, of the divine initiative to redeem creation – the sacrament of salvation. That is to say, the Christ-event expresses most fully God’s desire for creation and action within it that has been present all along. Although “God has been present in self-offering love from the very-beginning”, the Christ-event is the fullest manifestation of this eternal divine desire – and the resurrection is the center of the Christ-event. Edwards believes, in line with the Eastern church, that the resurrection is the beginning of the “adoption and divinizing transformation of all things.” The resurrection is an ontological event. In this context, Jesus’ transformed body is taken up into God and able to be present to all things. The “return” of Jesus will be the “disclosure of this new relation to creation that is attained by his resurrection.” The resurrected Jesus radically unites creation to God.

But doesn’t the resurrection of Jesus bypass the laws of nature? How can this possibly be seen as noninterventionist? Edwards is cautious in his claim that the resurrection can be seen as interventionist, but he persists. Because we do not have direct access to the actual act by which God raises up and transforms Christ crucified, Edwards focuses on the proclamations of resurrection, the appearances of the resurrected Christ, and the empty tomb stories. First, when we mystically experience the risen Christ in community, it is always mediated through secondary causes – whether this is through Eucharist or nature. What about the appearance stories in the gospels? Edwards suggests that the disciples really experienced the risen and radically transformed Jesus, yet only through the creaturely mediation of things like community, the breaking of bread, the natural world, the love of another human, and prayer. These experiences are neither imaginary visions nor the same as ordinary sense experience. They transcend both as the unique manifestation of the meaning of creation. There is no exact analogy for these experiences.

Edwards quotes Robert John Russell to bolster his claim that the universe was created to be transformable. As such, the eschatological transformation of the entire universe that the resurrection promises should also be understood as noninterventionist. There is no need for God to introduce a new law into nature at the resurrection as Russell proposes. Creation is made to be transformed. This is what the resurrection points us to.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 6)

In this truly fascinating chapter of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards explores a noninterventionist theology of miracles through a discussion of the laws of nature. He asks, “Is a miracle an instance where God overturns or bypasses the laws of nature? If so, then why would God intervene in the natural order at some times and not at others? Why would God save some from harm not others?” Edwards is proposing an alternative natural theology of miracles, which take place through purely natural causes, not through God breaking in to the natural order. Importantly, “natural causes” includes not just the laws of nature we already know, but also as yet un-modeled and mysterious aspects of our universe.

First, Edwards uses the work of scholar John Meier to show the historical probability that Jesus was known to be a miracle-worker, and understood them as partial manifestations of the reign of God. He quotes Meier: “If the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.” Although not all of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel tradition are describing historical events (some, like Jesus’ walking on water, are parables), others probably are.

Second, Edwards uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas to discuss primary/secondary causality. Edwards agrees with much of Aquinas on his understanding of divine action. God desires creation to have autonomy (it’s own cause and effect) and God enables creation to have genuine autonomous causes (secondary causes) instead of being controlled by God (primary cause). God acts in a causal way within secondary causes by conferring existence on all things and enabling them to be, to act, and to become. But “God so loves and respects the dignity of creatures that God wants them to be fully causal.” Edwards parts company with Aquinas over miracles. For Aquinas, a miracle occurs when God’s action replaces a secondary cause, as “exceptions to the pattern of nature…a miracle occurs only because of what is not present – namely, a secondary cause.” Edwards believes that miracles occur through secondary causes. God never breaks or replaces secondary causes.

Third, Edwards again uses the work of Stoeger to dissect our understanding of the laws of nature. For a variety of reasons, much of reality observed in science is inevitably missed. The quantum level provides all kinds of mystery, for instance. But that is not all – patterns of relationship between different levels of emergence are largely mysterious to us at this point. The important point in all of this is that every field of study describes reality as it is observed, but certainly does not prescribe it. Natural laws are human descriptions of observed regularities – even good descriptions and models of reality – but they are not the “cause of the regularity that is observed.” They are not discovered as something that exists in and of themselves, but are imaginatively constructed through rigorous observation of phenomena. “The laws of nature as we know them are provisional…and not well equipped to deal with important areas of life, including not only the metaphysical, but also the mental, the ethical, the interpersonal, the aesthetic, and the religious.” The consequences of this realization is that something less abstract like an occurence of physical healing may defy explanation within our current models of reality, but that does not mean that we will never be able to model them well: “…miracles may occur through a whole range of secondary causes that our current science cannot yet model or cannot yet model well.”

For Edwards, a miracle is a manifestation of the grace of God, and this requires ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ – faith is important. Miracles are not just brute facts detached from their meaning and individual subject within history – indeed, we see this with Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles as partial manifestations of the kingdom. A biological healing for one person might be simply an anomaly, while for another it might be an act of God. God communicates this grace-as-miracle through the natural world, and this looks like everything from personal providence and guidance (see chapter 4) to biological healing. But just because miracles occur only through natural causes (even if we do not understand those causes at present time) does not mean that God is not also acting through those natural causes. It is not natural cause or divine cause for miracles, but God working in and through natural causes. So Edwards writes, “It may be that science will one day understand more clearly how prayer, human solidarity, love, or faith can contribute to biological healing. Some other miracles may occur in ways that are consistent with contemporary science. A person who is cured from illness in a way that science can explain, and who finds God providentially at work in this cure, so that it becomes for her a call and address by God, might well see this as a miracle, a wonderful manifestation and sign of the Spirit of God.”

Up next, chapter 6 with the Resurrection.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 5)

In chapter 4 of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards discusses “special” divine acts within Christianity – particularly the experience of personal providence and the life and ministry of Jesus. Once again, divine action is both one and diverse. One in that it is actually a single act of divine self-giving love. Diverse in that this one act of self-bestowal is experienced in a plurality of ways throughout history. Divine action is also noninterventionist – it works in a through natural processes and laws.

Edwards traces five different approaches that have developed over the last few decades to special divine action: 1) process theology (Barbour, Cobb) 2) God acts within the indeterminacy of quantum events to bring about particular outcomes (Murphy, Russell) 3) God acts in the openness of nature, in chaotic and complex systems, through top-down imparting of information to bring about particular outcomes (Polkinghorne) 4) God acts in and through and under every aspect of nature, acting on the system as a whole (Peacocke) 5) God acts consistently through secondary causes in nature (Stoeger). While acknowledging the value of all of these positions, Edwards represents the fifth view: “God acts in the whole of the natural world, by God’s immanent and differentiated presence to all things, not only through the laws of nature of which we have a partial understanding, but also through those processes and regularities of nature that are still unknown to us.” Take special note of that last part. In this vision, God freely accepts limitations imposed by created processes, but continues to work through them with loving patience. This effectively limits the problem of suffering, since even God is limited to work within the natural processes and laws of the universe. Edwards makes an important point, that we cannot know how God acts, but can discern its effects around us. He takes an apophatic approach: “I do not think we can comprehend the nature of God’s act any more than we can comprehend the divine essence.” While empirical study cannot tell us how God acts, theological reflection on the Christ-event can help us describe it.

In addition to reaffirming God’s creation of the universe through creaturely processes, Edwards discusses God’s action in our personal lives – our experience of the Holy Spirit, who he believes addresses us, calls us, challenges us, invites us, and loves us on a daily basis. Importantly, Edwards insists that all of our experiences of the Holy Spirit will always be interpreted through culture, psychological factors, imagination, etc. This experience of the Spirit is not like any other experience of a created object, but an experience of mystery that occurs with our encounters with others in the world. This can occur through nature, friendship, intellectual activity, birth, and death. But these experiences of grace, of the Spirit, are always mediated through secondary causes in the world.

God cares for us on a day-to-day basis in a personal manner: “God really comes to us, responds to us, and provides for us through secondary causes.” Edwards uses an example of someone having a good idea that proves to be successful, which is then interpreted by someone as a gift from God. Is this right? Edwards thinks so, if one actually experiences the idea as a place of encounter with God – even if there is a possible natural explanation for this good idea, it can still be appropriately interpreted as an act of God. At the same time, while God always works through secondary causes for our well being, God is not free to intervene and overturn those same causes to keep us from all pain and suffering. God did not intervene to save Jesus from death, but suffered with Jesus, and transformed his death into resurrection life (this will be addressed later on in my blog). Importantly, God never sends suffering upon creatures, except in the broad sense that God has created and sustains a universe where suffering is a reality. In summary, “God engages with us in the day-to-day, inviting, luring, challenging, loving responding to our choices, concerns, moods, failures, and hopes...through the mediation of creatures.”

God’s action is not another cause within the empirical world, but yet has always been constantly working within all of creation through secondary causes to achieve the divine purposes. The historical revelations within the Christian faith are unique historical expressions of the love that has been embedded within all entities, processes, and persons in the universe. God works, and has always worked from the inside-out (rather than from the outside-in) as the deepest energy of the world. Jesus is thus the human face – and the most radical expression – of this divine love that has always been at work within all of creation. Jesus is the sacrament of God and salvation for the world. As such, divine action is sacramental in nature, and Jesus is our lens of discernment for other kinds of sacramental divine action in the world. Finally, even though the Christ-event is the most central special divine act of God, it is not special because God has intervened more strongly in the Christ-event. It is special because of the nature of the mediation – the humanity of Jesus as totally and wholly open to God invited this ultimate special divine act.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 4)

In chapter 3 of Denis Edward’s new book “How God Acts”, we are presented with a fascinating doctrine of creation that builds on Raher’s theology of divine self-bestowal – that God chooses to give God’s self in love to what is not divine, and so creation comes to be. In this theology of creation, it is the divine self-bestowing love that enables evolutionary emergence, creates through natural processes, and enables and respects creaturely autonomy. Key to this theology of creation is the assertion that although we experience God’s actions in creation (limited by time and place) as differentiated and specific, they are all actually part of one divine act, “…an act of faithful, creating, and redeeming love.” Also key to this theology is that the incarnation has always been the central purpose in creation. The incarnation was not “plan B” to deal with sin, but with Duns Scotus, the incarnation is understood as the giving of God’s self to creation in love. So creation is intimately bound up with incarnation as one act of self-bestowal. Additionally, final fulfillment (eschatology) is also part of this one divine act. God is the core of the world’s reality, directing all of creation from within towards final fulfillment – which is itself the same act by which all of creation is being directed. I found this quote to be quite stimulating: “The Creator not only enables things to exist and act, but also enables them to become something radically new, as when life first appears in a lifeless universe. The immanent presence and ‘pressure’ of the divine being enables creation to become more than it is in itself.” In this context, the entire Christ-event is the “radical self-transcendence of the created universe into God.” Jesus is understood as part of evolutionary history – truly human. But he is uniquely and completely open to God. This is Christology from below. From above, Jesus is God’s radical self-bestowal on creation: “Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, is the culmination of the process of evolutionary emergence, although one that has not yet reached fulfillment.”

Edwards then moves into a discussion of noninterventionist divine action. First, God does not occasionally intervene from outside, but is constantly present within all of creation, enabling and empowering creaturely processes and existence itself. God never violates the laws of nature, but works through them within them. Additionally, because of the revelation of the cross, God puts Godself at risk by sharing in the joys and pains of creation by being present within all of creation – closer to creation than it is to itself. The resurrection offers the hope that God will ultimately achieve God’s purposes with creation. Still, God has freely accepted limitations by creating in love. God respect the autonomy of creation: “It appears from the Christ-event that God’s way is that of being committed to allowing events to unfold, even when they are radically opposed to the divine will, and to bring healing and liberation in and through them.” Like a jazz musician, God improvises and responds to creation as events unfold. God has inscribed chance and randomness in the universe to “ensure variety, resilience, novelty, and freedom in the universe, right up to humanity itself.” (quoting Elizabeth Johnson). Once again, God takes risks because randomness is real. It is, in fact, an expression of divine creativity. So God is not a rigid God bound by natural laws, but does work through them as well to achieve his purposes. God also works through chance to bring out the potentialities of creation, “enabling the new to emerge.”

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 3)

In chapter 2 of Denis Edward’s exciting new book “How God Acts”, he sets the foundation for his theology of divine action upon the “Christ-event” – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit amongst the early Christians. He discusses two interrelated questions in the chapter: first, what did Jesus think about the nature of divine action? Second, what else can we learn about divine action from analyzing the death, resurrection, and outpouring of the Spirit?

Jesus’ life and ministry revolved entirely around his announcement – and enactment(s) – of the kingdom of God. What does this mean? Edwards dives into this question via the parables, healing, table fellowship, and community of Jesus. In all four of these aspects of the life of Jesus, he is not only calling for participation in the kingdom that is in some way present now, but also acting out the kingdom in anticipation of it’s future arriving fullness. The key insights are Jesus’ call, through words and deeds, to inclusive, nonviolent, loving communities of healing and liberation. As Edward’s writes, “I see Jesus’ actions as ‘fragmentary,’ ‘historical,’ ‘limited,’ and ‘finite’ anticipations of salvation to come.” That is, the kingdom is both present and future, and we are called to participate in it now. God is not a remote God, but one who constantly participates with humans within history. Quoting Marcus Borg, Denis Edward’s proposes a “participatory eschatology,” where God needs our participation to bring about his purposes. The choice between God does it or we do it is a false dichotomy. God chooses to respect our autonomy and the integrity of the natural world, and work through entirely natural processes to bring about his purposes. God waits lovingly upon creation to respond, to repent, to participate in the coming kingdom.

In light of this understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus as participatory-kingdom oriented, what do we make of the cross? Jesus dies as a result of his radical life message – his passion. Edwards believes that Jesus ponders the significance of his death, and sees it as meaningful in some way, but does not believe God willed the death of Jesus. Despite the rejection and murder of God’s bearer of good news by human beings, God transforms the unexpected tragedy of the cross into a means of liberation and redemption. Over against traditional evangelical dogma, “Jesus’ mission was to form a community of mutual love and forgiveness instead of domination, and it proved to be a failure…[but] Jesus accepts his failure and death and entrusts all to God to bring God’s purposes to fulfillment through his death.” This act of self-giving love is answered in resurrection and Pentecost – God’s self-bestowal upon creation. The kingdom is made present through Jesus death, resurrection, and the Spirit-formed community of followers of the Way. God thus waits on natural processes and human freedom to accomplish his will. In the cross, God also enters into and embraces the suffering of the world (costs of evolution). Here we have a theology of kenosis (Moltmann) and divine self-bestowal (Rahner). The cross thus becomes a self-definition of God, revealing a divine power that respects the autonomy of human freedom and natural processes, but the resurrection reveals that God will keep his promise of justice and redemption for creation.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 2)

In Chapter 1 of Denis Edward’s new book “How God Acts”, he outlines his scientific understandings that will guide his attempts to construct a noninterventionist theology of divine action. He begins by telling the awesome story of the emergence of the universe 13.7 billion years ago in purely scientific terms. The emergence of biological life and consciousness took a lot of time, and was very costly. Yet God not only enabled all of these processes, but waited patiently throughout the process – always working in and through the processes of evolution. God is a God who creates “in an emergent and evolutionary way.” Edwards outlines the basic idea of emergent complexity. Everything in the universe is interrelated and in a dependent relationship with other elements and entities: “We human beings depend upon many different systems both inside and outside ourselves. Atoms that make up the neurons of our brains were formed in long-dead stars. We are dependent upon and interrelated with the universe. Closer to home, we become who we are in relationship to families, communities, and the land to which we belong, with its animals, birds, trees, flowers, insects, and bacteria.” However, theologically speaking, the most important relationship of all in this complex hierarchy of relationships is not accessible to science, and that is the indwelling Creator Spirit in all things that enables everything to exist. All of creation participates in the Trinitarian, communal life of God. This is the beginning of Edward’s formulation of his version of panentheism.

Thankfully, Edwards rejects Intelligent Design and “god of the gaps” theological reflection in general. Science is rightly committed to methodological naturalism. Just because science cannot explain certain natural phenomena does not necessarily mean that it will never be able to. On the other hand, science is still somewhat limited. It can’t tell us why there is anything at all, why there is order in the universe, what the meaning of our lives and deaths are, the significance of the universe, or the endless human search for meaning. This is where theology and philosophy comes in, and Christian theology can help provide answers to these questions in ways that science cannot. Edwards wants to give science it’s proper place, and allow theology to go where science cannot take us. This means totally respecting the integrity and autonomy of natural science as God-given.

While being careful not to suppose an idea of “progress” in evolution, Edwards does agree with recent work in convergent evolution suggesting overall directionality that moves towards greater complexity, and that something like humanity was bound to emerge eventually. While Edwards doesn’t suggest natural evidence for a cosmic blueprint, purpose, or design, he believes that science is still open-ended on this (not ruling them out, but not proving it either). The “fine-tuning” of the universe, while not proving a designer, still fits naturally with the idea of a God who has acted and continues to act purposefully in the universe. But he is very careful to admit this is a Christian theological interpretation of the data. This is a humble proposal that fits with the idea of a God who is achieving his purposes, through randomness and natural laws, that ultimately brings about life and higher consciousness in the universe.

Embracing the results of science entails rethinking pain and death, not entirely as the result of human sin, but as intrinsic to the process of evolution. Without them, the beauty and diversity of the world would not exist: “Death is the price we pay for a world in which there are wings, eyes, and brains.” Furthermore, consciousness would not exist without pain and suffering through evolution. So death is a thermodynamic necessity. Still, evolution is a costly process. Pain, suffering, and loss must be dealt with theologically.