Noninterventionist Divine Action
Now we come to the question of whether or not God intervenes in his creation.
Many Christians oftentime assume or believe that God will intervene in their lives from time to time in the form of answered prayers or acts of mercy or grace. For instance, if a person avoids a car accident or if he or she is healed “miraculously” from an illness, they will believe that God had “stepped in” and caused a benefit for his or her own good.
So what do we mean by the word intervention?
With intervention, as defined by Edwards, it is “the idea that at particular times, God acts from a heavenly realm beyond creation and breaks in upon creation from outside. God acts in such a way as to overturn or disrupt or bypass the laws of nature.” (p. 45)
In this section of the chapter, Edwards presents his case that God is not interventionist in either case.
Edwards presents his case by stating that if God is omnipresent and ever immanent, then that will mean that God doesn’t intervene occasionally in creation from outside. If you believe in God’s omnipresence (that He’s ever present and never separated from it and ever close to it all the time), then clearly God is never apart from or outside of creation. Divine transcendence does not mean that God is distant. God never comes from outside because God is always inside.
For most people, the mental image they have of God is of a god acting like an individual human agent who sometimes steps in to modify or improve situations for us. However, in the noninterventionist point of view, God is radically interior in every aspect of the universe from the very beginning, by the very act of creation. (p. 46)
For Edwards, God should not be thought of as interventionist in the sense of overturning or bypassing the laws of nature. God doesn’t need to compete with these natural processes or laws of nature, purely by the fact that God is always acting in and through natural processes and not breaking the laws of nature.
So in a nutshell, God doesn’t intervene in the sense of acting to break into creation from outside, and God isn’t to be thought of as violating or undermining the laws of nature. (p. 47)
For instance, many Christian evolutionists or theistic evolutionists, though they do believe in the basic scientific tenets of evolution and evolution by natural selection, somewhere along the line of primate evolution leading up to the homo sapien species, believe that God somehow stepped in and (supernaturally) endowed mankind with His image (Gen. 1:26 - 27) – i.e. the special cognitive or spiritual ability to relate to God. This viewpoint still places homo sapiens as more or less being the pinnacle of God’s creatures and somehow special in all of God’s creation; in other words, it makes human beings in a special category compared to other life forms or animals on earth. Edwards, along with many other Christians or theists, will vehemently disagree with me here I'm sure, but I personally believe that if you take the divine noninterventionist viewpoint to its logical extent, this will also have to mean that God did not intervene in the evolution of homo sapiens. Evolution shows that there is basically no thing as a straight linear path of development in the evolution of species – it’s quite random. There are many species that go extinct, only to be replaced by a different more successful species to take its place. In other words, perhaps the evolution of homo sapiens wasn’t in God’s plan after all. <Gasp!> Perhaps, out of pure luck or random chance, humans were lucky enough to evolve to a level of cognitive sophistication to think of metaphysical issues like the meaning of life, death, an afterlife, his or her place in the cosmos, and a Creator. Perhaps if you wound up the history timeline of the earth and tweaked it a bit, maybe dolphins might have become the dominant species to inherit the earth, and took the mantle of worshipping God. Basically, humans were not the end or purpose of creation. Perhaps God didn’t play much if any part in the emergence of human beings. Now there’s a thought. I think the bottom-line is, regardless in any case, with or without humans, God is intimately connected within creation immanently. Perhaps with the emergence of human beings, God “readjusted” or accommodated his actions with our presence in history. Perhaps the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s ultimate expression of this accommodation in an effort to communicate and commune with us in the most intimate way possible, and then more so with the gift of the Holy Spirit. (This is of course still sticking with the belief that Christ himself appeared as the product of billions of years of evolution as well like the rest of humanity. But what about his divine nature? Ah… now that’s an entirely different topic.) Also, as some theologians like N.T. Wright have stated, the popular notion that God somehow dips his finger if you will from the outside to penetrate or reach down from the heavens onto earth to radically change things from time-to-time is essentially a deist idea in the first place. God is far off in the distance and then slips in and out whenever he feels like it- again, a deist idea. The more biblical idea is that God is ever present in and within creation, never apart from it. This is not to promote a pantheistic viewpoint, but more of a panentheistic viewpoint I believe. Of course, I understand that all this is a radical departure of traditional orthodoxy, but these are just my musings as I contemplate such thoughts at this point in my journey.
So How Does God Relate to His Creatures? – Through Autonomy
God maintains a unique relationship with his creatures. As Edwards states:
The divine act of creation isn’t like any other relationship. On the one hand, creation is a relationship of real dependence, as the creature is always dependent on God for its existence and capacity to act. On the other hand, it is a relationship whereby God establishes the creature in genuine difference from God’s self. Because of God’s love and respect for creatures, this difference means that the creature has its own otherness, integrity, and proper autonomy. (p. 47)
Edwards then presents an axiom: Radical dependence on God and the genuine autonomy of the creature are directly and not inversely related. What this means is that in ordinary experiences, it seems that the more one thing depends upon another, the less autonomy it has. The relationship of creation is exactly the opposite. In this relationship, dependence on God and creaturely freedom and autonomy exist in direct relationship to one another. (p. 48)
In other words, the closer creatures are to God, the more they can truly be themselves.
The closer we are drawn to God’s love, the freer we are.
Theologian Herbert McCabe sees God causing and enabling our free acts; however, at the same time we think of ourselves as free precisely when our acts are caused by ourselves and not by anything else.
So, if God is enabling us to act, are we truly free?
We have to bear in mind that God is not an entity in the world. The creative power of God doesn’t operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me. It is what makes me me. God’s action, God’s causality, enables me to act in freedom as my most authentic self. (p. 48) [Hmmm…this statement isn’t so clear to me as Edwards writes this.]
How all this is accomplished and best understood is to see things in the context of love. When we love another person, true love will give them space to be themselves so that they can grow and flourish. But this love involves risk.
McCabe sees God’s act of creation as an act of love of this very kind in that His is a “risk-taking love” which in turn “enables the universe to run itself by its own laws, with its own integrity, so things behave in accordance with their own natures.” (p. 49)
So where is God in all of this?
Well, he isn’t sitting back and doing nothing (as a lot of deists believe). Instead, “God is dynamically, creatively, and lovingly involved, always at work in and through created entities, relationships, and causes, and always respecting their independence and integrity.” (ibid)
Not only that, God also “feels with each of [his creatures through] a transcendent capacity for empathy, sharing their joys and their sufferings with unthinkable and vulnerable divine love.” (ibid)
So in this, God puts himself at risk in creation as he suffers along with his creation. God is willing to suffer the rejection of his love by his creatures as an expression of his love, in his commitment to them being free, autonomous individuals.