Active God

I’ve long been interested in how to think about the ongoing presence of God in our day-to-day lives.  I could be oversimplifying, but it seems to me there are two ways of thinking of God.  Either He is the aloof God of Deism, the uncaused-cause necessary to explain physical reality, but nothing more, or He is active in the world currently.   The second of these possibilities has to be the God of the Bible.  We are encouraged to pray to Him because an ongoing relationship to Him in this life makes us better, but not just in an aspirational way.  Rather, in a mystical spiritual way, which may include His answering prayers, but may also include His ongoing spiritual sustenance in some way.   Still, the active-God hypothesis raises a million questions about when and how He operates.  Does He only intervene against natural processes in response to prayer?  Or is there something even beyond that, whereby He sustains the world on an ongoing basis?


I tried going at this through philosophical inquiry into the nature of causation.  The idea is that existence is not an ontologically static phenomenon.  It’s not as though things burst into being and then nothing more was required to uphold that existence.  Instead, there is a phenomenon of continuous physical causation in the world, rather than a one-off event resulting in numerous (but not innumerable) lines of dominos setting off parallel and intersecting contingent events.  I’ve found some philosophical support for the notion, but honestly, it’s been thin gruel, so far. Maybe you can enlighten me. But as a result, I’m inclined to look outside the physical world of contingent causation, to the spiritual realm, for explanation of God’s continuous interaction with the world.


Good and evil are not physical things. They are characterizations of events we can regard as physical events not imbued naturally with authoritative moral good or moral evil. Possibly these words – “good” and “evil” — have meaning independently of characterizing events. Can we say that evil, for example, is an entity independent of the events or motivations we attach the word to?  If there were no God and no supernatural reality at all, then everything that happens is the natural unfolding of events; matter responding to forces unaided by Mind in any form.  So it’s a valid question, within the naturalist paradigm, why we would attach “good” or “evil” to those natural processes.  The words would seem to be superfluous.  What this means, among other things, is that there is no “problem of evil” for theists to overcome (as I commented more fully on here).  There is instead a “problem of good” for atheists to overcome.  If all events are the result of natural processes, then by what warrant to we call them “good” or “evil?”  They just are.  If the naturalist paradigm were accurate, “evil” and “good” describe events only based on how well they suit our continued survival.  The moral element – the reason we call it “good” or “evil” – would be missing.  The proposition that theism has a “problem of evil” is incoherent.


There is good and evil in the world because there is a moral component to actions and events affecting human beings.  Our attachment of those words to certain kinds of events or motivations is valid.  They’re valid because God prescribes moral agency for humans.  Are the phenomena of moral good and evil related to the continuous presence of God in the world? Do they describe something more than events in the light of moral agency? Are they more than just moral-universe names for events that would otherwise just be events?  They could be a kind of force that irradiates creation, like light, so I’ll use light as an analogy.  The moral force doesn’t change the nature of the material things it “illuminates,” but it is certainly affects their significance to God and man.  The light is an entity distinct from the things it illuminates.  And it is independently important to our existence.  Maybe good and evil are that way, rather than one-off “settings” for the human condition.  If so, then God could be said to “illuminate” our moral universe on a continuing basis, and not just as a one-off event.


One more model for God’s ongoing sustaining of the world:  Love.  We think in terms of quantity of love, as when our feelings of attachment are particularly intense.  Think of your love for a child, especially when he or she is young and a long way yet from independence.  What love is stronger?  We all die, and hopefully at the moment of death we feel love toward those close to us in life. The love doesn’t die with us, evidently, else in time all the love in the world would be depleted.  It renews, from generation to generation.  We know of love, most of us, regardless how we feel about a God who may or may not exist.  That love has a name, for believers:  “grace.”  Another element of our existence that is something other than a one-time setting for all of humanity.  It could instead be more like a continuous flow from God into the world; another means by which He sustains us down through the ages.


Here’s what Rowan Williams wrote about this continuous presence of God:


“It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here.  It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the center of everything.  It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it.  It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us.  And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”


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