Double Agency: Conceiving Divine and Creaturely Causality

If the universe has been brought into being from nothing by the transcendent and infinite God, if it is sustained in existence by him at ever moment, and if science can, at least theoretically, provide a complete and sufficient account of all regularly occurring events within the universe, then how can we speak of God acting within the universe, of God causing events to happen and providentially guiding history? How do we formulate the interaction of divine agency and creaturely agency? The question becomes acute when we try to think of God as present in freely-chosen human action.

We begin, I suggest, by getting clear in our minds the kind of relationship that exists between Creator and creatures:

God’s creative activity is not external to the universe, as is our relation to such things as stoves and books. It is not as if there are two separate realities, God and creatures, externally connected by a cause and effect relation. God’s creative activity is the continuous action whereby creatures exist. Every creature is what it is, with its powers of operating, because of the creative activity of God presently in action. On the other hand, God is as near to us as the molecules and cells of our bloodstream because God is their present creative source. When we resist God’s will, our very power to resist comes from God’s grace by which we are existing, acting beings. On the other hand, even though God’s creative activity sustains all the members of the universe, creatures are not part of God’s own being. The members of the universe are realities, not fake products of a magic show, because they affect each other and thereby affect the outcome of events by this activity. God respects their agency; that is, God does not override their natures as God weaves their various powers and activities together to achieve God’s purposes. (Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 171-172)

Allen proposes that we picture God’s creative activity as working in a vertical direction, with creaturely causal interactions in a horizontal direction. At each moment of time God is actively supporting every creature in existence and in their causal relationships with every other member of the universe.

X >> X >> X >> X >> X
^ ^^ ^ ^^ ^ ^^  ^ ^^ ^

In the above figure, X represents created beings, >> represents causal activity exercised upon and between created beings, and ^ represents divine operation. Note the simultaneity: “God realizes divine intentions through the activities of the members of the universe God creates. The activities of every created being are simultaneously their own activities and divine activities. We have what Austin Farrer calls ‘double agency.’ God enables the members of the universe to be what they are, and the members of the universe, acting according to their natures, cause the universe to develop in the ways cosmology, evolutionary biology, and history describe” (p. 172). We may thus distinguish between the primary causality of God and the secondary causality of created beings.

The problem we have in imagining this simultaneous double agency is our proclivity to think of God and creatures as relating to each as two finite objects and therefore as engaged in mutually-competitive activity.

To get a better handle on how to imagine double agency, consider God’s presence to his creation. If I fill up a basket with apples and oranges, the more apples I put into the basket the less room there is for the orange; the more oranges I put into the basket, the less room there is for the apples. It’s as if the two fruits are competing for space. Finite material objects compete for space in which to exist. If a car runs into another car, something has to give. If you move into the space I am presently occupying, I am evicted and forced to move. I do not know how this works with subatomic particles, but the above examples make the point. But as Herbert McCabe points out, this is not so with the transcendent God. God does not take up space:

We can say that God is everywhere, that there is no such thing as a place where he is not, for wherever there is anything God is there holding it in being. God is not, of course, himself spatial. He has no size or position or shape. But we can nevertheless say that he is present everywhere. Clearly is not alongside his creatures. We do not say that the more apples there are in the basket the less room there is for God. The apples do not have to shift over to make room for God. The presence of God does not leave less room for the apples. On the contrary, it is because of the presence of God that the apples are there at all. We can say, ‘There is nothing here except an apple’, just because God is there too. The apple is not moved to one side by God. It is where it is because of God. (Faith Within Reason, p. 74)

The divine omnipresence is made possible by God’s transcendence of creation, by his radical difference from every finite object that he brings into existence and creatively sustains by his will and energies.

And as it is with God’s presence with his creatures, so it is with his causal operations:

Created causes compete with each other. The activity is due to me and to that extent it is not due to causes other than me. Usually an activity is due partly to me and partly to other causes. The other causes make a difference to my activity. My activity is like this, though it would have been like that but for the interference of some other causes. That is how we detect the operation of other causes. The more the other causes operate, the less the activity is due to me; the less responsible I am for it, the less it is a free action.

The activity of God does not make any difference to my activity. It makes it what it is in the first place. It is because of the activity of the Creator that I have my own activity to begin with. God is not alongside me, competing with me, an alternative to me, taking up space that I could have occupied or doing things that I might have done. (p. 74)

McCabe’s statement that God’s creative operation does not make a difference to creaturely beings is initially shocking, but it vividly makes the crucial point. When we think of something making a difference to another, particularly from a scientific viewpoint, we are thinking of how two or more existents mutually affect and impact each other. When the cueball impacts the other billiard balls on the table, they go all over the place. The physicist and mathematician can explain why and accurately predict the direction each will go in. It’s all very fascinating, of course; but this is not how the infinite Creator interacts with his creation. God does not make a difference … he makes all the difference. He is the reason why anything and everything exists to begin with. To be created does not make a difference to some finite thing; it makes it possible for that finite thing to make a difference to all other finite things and to be the object of their causal activity.

All created causes make a difference to the world. They are parts of the world which impose themselves on other parts of the world. When the hurricane has passed by, you can see that a hurricane has passed by; the world is different from what it was before. But God’s creative and sustaining activity does not make the world different from what it is—how could it? It makes the world what it is. The specific characteristic effect of the Creator is that things should exist, just as the specific characteristic effect of a kicker is that things should be kicked. But clearly there is no difference between existing and not existing. The world is not changed in any way by being created. If you like, you can talk about the horse before it began to exist and the horse after it began to exist (though it is an odd way of talking); but you must not say that there is any difference between the two, for if the horse before it began to exist was different, then a different horse would have come into existence. (pp. 74-75).

And this, by the way, is the reason why intelligent design theory is fatally flawed:

A hurricane leaves its thumbprint on the world, but God does not leave any such thumbprint. We can say, ‘This looks as though a hurricane has been here’, but we cannot sensibly say, ‘This looks as though God has been here.’ That is why the famous ‘Argument from Design’ (commonly attributed to William Paley) is a silly one. You can’t say, ‘look how the world is [orderly, complicated or whatever], so it must have been made by God.’ You can no more say, ‘This sort of world must have been made by God’, than you can say, ‘This sort of world must exist.’ The arguments of St Thomas Aquinas to show that God exists (as distinct from the five arguments usually attributed to him) do not try to show that because the world has this or that feature it must be made by God. They try to lead us from consideration of this or that feature to the very difficult and elusive metaphysical notion that the world exists instead of not existing. (p. 75)

We are still left with the problem of attempting to conceive the precise nature of the interaction between divine causality and creaturely causality, what Austin Farrer calls the “causal joint,” yet explaining this interaction is scientifically impossible. God’s creative operation is not an object of empirical study; the causal joint is not discernible to us. We cannot say, this is where God’s causality ends and creaturely causality begins.

(P.S. A discussion of honest-to-God miracles will have to wait for another day.)

(Go to “Rowboating with God”)

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4 Responses to Double Agency: Conceiving Divine and Creaturely Causality

  1. kenneth miller makes a similar point about id lunacy in his book, “finding darwin’s god”. he points out how people still refer to birth as a miracle though we know nowadays exactly how it happens. god cannot be seen as having no activity in birth because of this though nevertheless.

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  2. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    I have some trouble with your statement: “And this, by the way, is the reason why intelligent design theory is fatally flawed.”, probably because I am not fully grasping your argument.

    Isn’t ID just saying the orderliness, the complexity, etc. we find in the universe is not at all compatible with unintelligent design? Didn’t God express His pleasure with His design when at the end of each creation day He said, “It is very good.”?

    I am somewhat familiar (I think) with the weakness of the so-called cosmological argument, i.e., “because all of this exists, there must be a God”.

    But put another way, as Thomas Aquinas and others seem to do, the argument is quite compelling—why is there something rather than nothing?, or, if we can conceive of a time in eternity past when there was nothing, there would never have been anything.

    Andy

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    • I was going to respond to this but an added postscript in Fr. Kimel’s post tells me to hold off for another day. 😦

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Isn’t ID just saying the orderliness, the complexity, etc. we find in the universe is not at all compatible with unintelligent design?”

      Andy, if I may, I’d like to refer you to chapter 3 in Allen’s Christian Belief. It’s not clear to me why the order and complexity of the universe provides a decisive or compelling argument for God. An atheist like Carl Sagan can look at the cosmos and be filled with wonder and awe; but he does not feel compelled to invoke God as an explanation. How can anyone say that the order that we see, in all of its mathematical precision, is incompatible with an atheistic account? Science, of course, presupposes the order and intelligibility of the universe; but it does need God to justify it. The world simply is as it is.

      And the atheist can also play this game. What about the chaos of the world? What about the suffering, destruction, and death that we see all around us and which we now know antedates the human race by millions of years; etc., etc. If the order of the universe may be invoked to prove that universe must have been created by an intelligent designer, does the disorder prove that the creator is either not very intelligent or indifferent to animal life?

      Do you see how Aquinas’s argument from the apprehension of the world’s radical contingency differs from the argument from design.

      Having said this, of course the Christian, when he sees a beautiful sunset, will rightly exclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Ps 19:1). And perhaps nonbelievers, when they experience such moments of wonder and awe may become open to the glory of God and his gracious presence throughout nature.

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