Notes on Divine Causality

“We profanely assume that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that “God did this” and “I did this” cannot both be true of the same act except in the sense that each contributed a share.” CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

My last post was devoted to arguing for the ancient idea that God is a being who is Pure Act. Since he is the very ground and source of the created order and changing things, he himself does not change. He does not “go from” now doing this to now doing that. This is because all ideas of passage imply motion and time, and since God himself created all moving and temporal things, he himself cannot be subject to such a process. His being is too real, too fully complete, too utterly limitless to contain anything shadowy like “passing” from one reality to the next. Therefore, I concluded, God can undergo no Becoming.

Now if God is like this (Actus Purus), he cannot be properly said to be moved by anything in the created order. For something can only move another thing or cause change in it if the two things inhabit a common world. The first billiard ball can send the second one across the table because both are made of matter and both are sitting on the table. But the balls themselves are only moved because of some agent outside the table – namely the Pool Player. The balls do not move themselves, and neither do they cause the Pool Player to strike them as he does with the cue. Rather, the logic of cause and effect is strictly one way: the Player, by a deliberate act of will, strikes the ball which imparts motion to it, and it strikes the other ball, and so on.

In the same way God, since he exists outside of time and is fully present to each point, and since he experiences no Becoming or change, functions like the Pool Player. He is not himself moved by the creation (which would imply that the creation and God exist on the same plane of reality), but rather God causes all the movement and change that occur within the creation itself.

But if this is true, how do we explain free will? It seems if God is moving all things in the exact way that they go, then the way things go is eternally fixed and determined. What choice is there in the machine that functions precisely how the mechanic has pre-programmed it to? And who would say that the billiard ball had a choice to go in the direction it does? In fact, the problem is even worse than that. For God, evidently, commands that his creatures perform certain actions and refrain from others. Indeed if the traditional doctrine of judgment is true then some of God’s creation will be eternally destroyed for some sort of failure on their part to keep such commands. But if God is moving all things, does this not imply that he is making some people such that he is forcing them to do what they do? Doesn’t this sort of “omni-causality” remove rather than uphold freedom?

If we were to imagine God as a temporally prior agent in a series of chronological causes, then I think these objections would hold. That is, if we imagine God as initially pre-programming all the hearts and choices of all the characters in the play of creation, and then deciding to create and watching as the process inevitably and inescapably unfolds, then God’s causal relationship to the free beings inside creation would be one that in fact destroyed their freedom. But it seems to me that this entire picture is mistaken to begin with. If God is outside of time and is Pure Act, he is not working this way. He is not, so to speak, winding up our natures so that they unfold in a mechanistic and robotic pre-set fashion. Rather, God’s causal power extends – right now and at all times – to the very creating of our wills and characters themselves, as they are in their free acts of deciding.

Eternity is not simply an older time. It is the complete possession of all times. God as the eternal, timeless First Cause does not therefore act upon some pre-existing “you” and go on from there to determine how you will be. We are not pre-existing blank pages upon which God then writes, nor are we pre-packaged characters that God then forces to become something other than we were. God’s creative and authorial power extend even to our very character and action and free will itself. His power and causality do not act “on” us, for that presupposes a prior us to act on. We do not exist independent of God’s creative power. Rather, God’s power simply is the creation of us acting and freely deciding the way that we do.

We must remove God’s causality from the same plane of causality that operates on the level of the temporal creation. God is not one more object among a set of similar objects. As St. Paul told the Athenian philosophers: in God we live and move and have our being. Once we realize this we can see that God is not, as it were, in competition with other created causes. He is not fighting against some outside force over and against himself, for he is unlimited and unconditioned. His action, therefore, as Actus Purus, immediately causes and creates whatever it is he wishes to create without doing violence to the thing created, just like Shakespeare creates the various characters in his play as the characters they are without destroying those characters. In fact were it not for Shakespeare the characters themselves would not exist.

There is no space between God’s creative action and the free creatures that he makes to give any room for the sort of violation of free will that many suppose this model implies. As soon as God creates us freely choosing and deciding such and such, we are freely choosing and deciding such and such. Before that creative decree and independent of it, there is no us to speak of. There is no sense in which he “forces” otherwise particular people to be other than they would be.

What, then, of sin? Does God cause that? If he causes all things it is hard to see how he does not. Furthermore what of the damned? Does he determine that they end up in Hell? Again, if he causes all things, and if his action alone is what gives being and existence to the very created order, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he does. In the future I hope to explore this puzzle.

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