Double Agency: Conceiving Divine and Creaturely Causality


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 >>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)

The unique relationship between Creator and and the world allows us to distinguish between primary divine causality and secondary created causality. The world enjoys a contingent integrity which makes scientific investigation possible, while at the same time setting us in the metaphysical aporia of double agency. We cannot help but to think of God and creatures as relating to each as two finite objects—and therefore as engaged in mutually-competitive activity—yet when we do so, we misconstrue the God-world relationship. The infinite Deity creates an other to himself, yet he is not other in the way finite beings are other to each other. He is other not as a fellow inhabitant of the cosmos but as the transcendent source of our existence in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

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—and indeed all finite material objects—are battling for space in which to exist. If a car runs into another car, something has to give. If you move into the area 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 divine Creator. 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. 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 a finite thing; rather, 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 and philosophically impossible. God’s creative operation is not, and can never be, an object of empirical study; the causal joint is indiscernible to us. We cannot specify the point where God’s causality ends and creaturely causality begins. Such is the mystery of double agency.

(28 January 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Rowboating with God”)

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12 Responses to Double Agency: Conceiving Divine and Creaturely Causality

  1. 18ellenbla says:

    I’m having great difficulty reconciling the “But clearly there is no difference between existing and not existing. The world is not changed in any way by being created”, followed by the excerpt “[the] elusive metaphysical notion that the world exists instead of not existing.”
    Is the former trying to convey that creaturely “design” does not change in creation? Perhaps a “no such thing as best of possible world’s” argument? And the latter simply getting at the sheer contingency of creation? The wonder of it’s existing at all?

    As ever, thank you for the wonderful and thought provoking posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 18ellenbla says:

      And also as ever, please excuse my typos. Surely it’s time for coffee…


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good questions. Hopefully one of our metaphysicians will be able to intelligently address them. 😎


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      This speaks to the nature of the double agency, the relation of the primary divine act to secondary creaturely activity. This is often framed in misleading and oversimplified terms as a dichotomy between compatibilism and libertarian notions of freedom (rational intention without transcendental determination). It thus collapses into singular agency. The point being made here by McCabe, Allen and Fr Kimel is that transcendental determinism is precisely the very foundation (and thus possibility) of intentional creaturely liberty. Unfortunately the traditional Christian notion of double agency is effectively reduced in modern discussions to a single and univocal level agency – either that of the divine or that of the creature.

      Hope that helps.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. joel in ga says:

    Sounds like McCabe is groping for occasionalism. But surely it is unsatisfactory to say that everything in nature that looks like contrivance is deceptive. Was not the eye as plainly made to see as Paley’s watch was made to keep time?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      You are misreading him Joel. How many ears does the non-existing horse have?
      The point is that in classical double agency primary agency is not understood univocally, that is to say that primary agency is the very foundation of creaturely liberty – primary agency does not compete with secondary agency.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Joel, since we are dealing with GOD, occasionalism will always be a temptation for the theologian; but occasionalism is ruled out by the radical comprehension of divine transcendence shared by McCabe, Aquinas, Farrer, and David Hart. The key is the simul, i.e., the simultaneous affirmation (a) that everything that is, everything that happens, receives its existence from God; and (b) that God truly bestows creaturely freedom–in other words, double agency. Orthodox theologians would call this an antinomy (at least they would, if they ever gave the question a second thought).

      May I recommend to you David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions. Burrell discusses occasionalism and compares it with Aquinas’s position.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The analogy I keep coming back to is that of an author writing a book – if a character in the book falls off a ladder and hurts themselves, their injuries are caused by the fall from the ladder, and also by the writer writing that the character falls off the ladder and is injured, but these are not in any way competing causes.
    Is this what “double agency” is driving at?
    (Obviously the analogy is imperfect as an author can’t in writing the book give their characters real existence and true free will, but they can and do allow the characters to develop according to their understanding of the character they are writing, and authors frequently say that can even by surprised at what their characters end up doing. )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The analogy breaks down precisely where it matters – the existence of secondary causation as true deliberative liberty. In the analogy the only freedom is that of the author – which is precisely what we are at pains to avoid.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I too find the analogy of author and book illustrative, though as you and Robert both notes it ultimately fails to capture the reality. I’m reminded of Jessica Rabbit’s famous line: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  4. apoorcatinstasis says:

    The idea that, as Robert puts it, “transcendental determinism is precisely the very foundation (and thus possibility) of intentional creaturely liberty ” makes sense to me. However, the one place where this still gives me trouble is in relation to the evil. I may be misunderstanding both the relation between divine determinism and creaturely freedom and the notion of evil as a privation, but here is my issue:

    There seems to be a tension between the notions of possibility and actuality here. In one sense, the transcendental background of divine determinism seems to provide an infinite context within which finite acts of human freedom can move, along innumerably many paths, towards their ultimate end, God. However, since human freedom is not, on this account, a sheer, libertarian spontaneity, these paths are intelligibly and morally linked to one another, and certain paths are altogether excluded (choosing evil would not be included in this transcendental context).

    How then, do evil acts fit into this picture? Specifically, how does the notion that evil is a privation relate to the elements making up an evil act? Are they simply not part of this transcendental background? Or is it rather the case that evil as privation arises somehow as a result of the combination of elements that are, in themselves, and in other combinations, not in fact evil? To give a concrete example: Murder is an evil act. But even if we say that evil is a privation, the elements making up that act: anger, the firing of a gun or whatever, are in themselves real elements in the world. If one is not a complete pacifist, one could say that those same elements could be combined, in a different context, into a whole that would not be evil: say, someone protecting a child from a crazed murderer. Is the relation between good acts of freedom and evil acts which involve bondage to evil such that, while the former lead to ever greater integration into an increasingly intelligible moral whole, the latter are somehow intrinsically unstable and tend inevitably towards dissolution and fragmentation?


  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    It’s a good question, the mystery that is evil. How is it possible, except to consider that God will be All in all, but it is not yet so in this age.

    Considering evil as privation is to consider it as a irrational departure from transcendental grounding – evil has no point of (de)termination in the Good, and as such its is slipping into insanity. It is the creature failing to reach the logos of its existence, missing the mark, now moving towards the dark abyss of non-being, away from its rational foundation – the Logos of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.


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