Category Archives: Divine Causality

Process/Oordian Theism vs. Omnicausal Theism

There is a (legitimate) concern that a God who sovereignly ordains absolutely everything that comes to pass, including sin, is somehow a less perfect or loving being because of this fact. I want to explore this idea.

First, one must decide whether or not it is reasonable to think that God foreordains all that comes to pass, even evil. When I say “foreordain” I mean “cause” in the sense of being the metaphysical and ultimate explanation for. I don’t know any traditional theologian who would disagree with the fact that God is responsible for and the ultimate cause of all being whatsoever in the created universe. Now anything that exists, just insofar as it exists, has being, even an evil act. Therefore God, since he is the universal cause of all created being, can be supposed to have caused all being that exists whatsoever. (This is not to deny that there is an element of privation in sin and evil. Obviously God cannot be the cause of what does not exist.)

So, is the idea that God is the ultimate source of all created reality whatsoever, true or false? Well, what is the alternative? Let’s say that God is not connected to the existence of evil, pain or suffering in any way. The view which is farthest away from an omnicausal view is a process view – one like Thomas Jay Oord currently holds. This view is essentially that God “asks” all finite being (both rational creatures and matter) to freely choose to act in a good way. When the agent that God asks responds to this invitation well, created “good” comes about. On the other hand, when it fails to do so, created “evil” comes about. Now, since good and evil as they exist in the universe depends on created agents separate from God, Oord and Process theologians can say that they have solved the problem of evil.

Now, there are a few things to say here. The first is one I’m simply going to assert without attempting to prove: this metaphysical system seems quite difficult (impossible?) to square with a plain reading of the Bible. (This point could be a post – even a book – in itself.) Second, the occurrence of the miraculous reduces to God winning the divine lottery, insofar as in order for miracles to occur, God must depend on a particular combination of both animate and inanimate created beings freely responding in a particular way to God’s invitation. Thus when the Red Sea parts this is because, ultimately, a combination of natural phenomenon (presumably atoms, animals, clouds and winds) “chose” in such a way that a miracle came about. On this view, God cannot ensure the miraculous. He can only “ask” for one, then hope it comes about.

With this in mind we come to the rather gutted framework of this whole metaphysical system. When the Oordian/Process view of God is taken to its logical conclusions, the implication is that God and the world are two self-existent realities, and God cannot causally impact the world in any way. Why would I say this? Because I can see no consistent way in which a “persuasive” view of God can explain a causal connection between God who does the persuasion and the world who is persuaded by him. God cannot immediately move matter or rational beings, for that would violate their freedom on this view. How, then, does he impact them? It would seem any sort of persuasion, such as arousing the conscience of a sentient human, would entail at least some immediate action on God’s part at least on the neurons of the brain. But again, if this is admitted, then we have a God who can by his will immediately move objects in the created world.

My question is, what causal mechanism is not ultimately self-refuting on the Oordian/Process view of God?

Notice too that Oord cannot admit a creation ex nihilo. This is because such a thing would be an instance of coercion. But if this is so, another metaphysical catastrophe results: the very parameters of created good and evil are ultimately explained, not by God who has set them, but the world itself. I almost said the “created world” – but that is a contradiction on Oord’s view. But if the world was not created, then the very possibilities of freedom – i.e. the things that explain how it is that evil can even possibly exist – are just facts built in to the uncreated (and necessary?) finite world. The fact that God must persuade the world in order for the world to become good is just a brute inexplicable that God finds himself faced with. Man, I sure bet he wishes he could do something other than “ask” the atoms in a cancerous body to act a different way.

This system ultimately equates to Dualism, the doctrine that all erroneous theologies ultimately reduce to. You have the Platonic Demiurge doing the best he can with the pre-existing chaotic material he finds himself with.

You see, if you disconnect the existence of evil, pain and suffering from God absolutely – if you make even the possibility of its existence as something he did not ordain to create – then you split God and the world up in too radical a way. You either castrate God, or you puff up the creation such that it is itself got the divine attributes of being necessary, uncreated, self-existent, etc.

(See here for some hasty thoughts on the problems of Dualism

So the first thing to say about the doctrine of omnicausality is that the alternative seems to me metaphysically impossible.

But what about the claim that omnicausality imputes God’s character? In order for it to impute God’s character, there would need to be some inconsistency in the idea of a perfectly loving being creating beings who will suffer eternal damnation. But is there an inconsistency here? It is not clear to me that there is. For God to be perfectly loving, he must do the most perfectly loving thing for each and every creature he has made. That is, he must intend the maximal good possible for every being – he must give it the most good it is capable of receiving. But, if we suppose that there do exist beings who are implacably evil and who, regardless of God’s grace, spurn him absolutely, then it may be the best possible good they are capable of receiving is what they find in Hell.

But on this scheme, isn’t it true that God has only granted such beings resistible grace? Could he not have granted them irresistible grace, and saved them all?

I don’t think the notions “could have” are meaningful when applied to a timeless being, or to the action of a changeless and timeless God. I wrote about this in my last post. My point was, questions that begin with “could not God have” imply that at some point of time in the past God could have acted differently. But if God acts timelessly, then thinking of God in this way is meaningless. God simply does what he does, period. That’s not to say he is forced by an inner necessity, nor that he whimsically or randomly performed some action he could have refrained from doing. It’s rather that his changeless and timeless being itself transcends the categories of the necessary and contingent, which are opposing categories that apply to finite being.

So what we’re faced with just IS the reality of a loving God creating sinful beings who he does not irresistibly draw to himself. Is THIS reality inconsistent with a perfectly loving God? Again, it seems to me only if it entails that this supposition entails that God fails at doing maximal good for the creature in question, given what it is. And I don’t see that this is the case. What we really want is some reason that things are the way they are. Just why is the existence of such beings the case? If it’s meaningless to ask why didn’t God act otherwise, it at least seems possible to ask why he in fact does act the way he does.

The answer seems to me twofold: a) to promote God’s own glory and goodness; and b) to do infinite good to what he has created. Is it not possible to hold that, given what the creature is, it is still good, even for it, that it have its twisted desires in some sense gratified in Hell? (CS Lewis may be right in that everyone gets what he really wants in the end.) And also that, God, in calling into existence such beings, himself promotes his own glory insofar as it expresses his patient longsuffering and even mercy in his dealings with beings who implacably refuse to do good?

Eventually we just come to the brute fact that God does what he does. He himself is the ultimate cause of all his own actions. We can show how, given his actions, there is no contradiction between them and his perfect character. But to try to produce a “motive” that involves a sort of process of deliberation, where God has to justify his own means of working to himself, is to miss the looming reality that all things – anything we could conceive of as means or tools or reasons that God has to work with – spring from God’s “I-AM-ness.” God’s brute existence defies any sort of comparison to a human process of creating just because everything we work with in order to create is lacking in God’s act of creating. There is no such thing as him doing such and such “in order to,” for he bows to no order outside his own being.

God, in other words, just IS. It may be that 90% of all our apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in our metaphysical systems come from our inability to recognize the foundational I-AM nature of God.

On Divine Providence

“Did Ophelia die because Shakespeare for poetic reasons wanted her to die at that moment—or because the branch broke?’ I think one would have to say, ‘For both reasons’. Every event in the play happens as a result of other events in the play, but also every event happens because the poet wants it to happen.” CS Lewis, Miracles

How to reconcile free will and predestination? Scripture verses can be stacked quite high supporting both sides. But the two things seem to be mutually exclusive: if humans are free, their actions seem to be up to them. Whether or not they do a or b is something not in God’s control. Yet if this is true it is possible that God not get the outcome he wants in certain circumstances. Consider the case of the crucifixion. If Jesus’ death depended on the evil free willed acts of humans, and if those acts were ultimately decided by the agents themselves making the choices, then it was not ultimately up to God whether or not Jesus would be crucified. The only way God could guarantee a particular outcome – and this need not be only the crucifixion, any species of divine providence will do – the only way God could ensure that a particular outcome came about would be if he overrode free will. But if he is prepared to override our freedom, we’re left wondering a) why he gave it at all; and b) how those who did such actions could be morally responsible for what they did, seeing as God “overrode” their “normal” freedom.

On the other hand, if we are all indeed free, how does God’s providence work? If God wants the crucifixion to occur, but he also wants free beings, how does he get both?

At first it seems a possible solution is to say that God can foreknow what any free being would do in any circumstance, and, thus knowing this, he can providentially arrange things such that he places free beings in various circumstances the outcomes of which are certain to occur. This is the idea that God has “middle knowledge.” But the problem here is that prior to the creature’s existence, there is no truth to speak of regarding it. Before a free person exists, how could God know what it “would” do, unless he determined that action himself beforehand?

Another popular solution is to say that God can know what beings will do simply by “observing” them outside of time. But this solution has a crippling catch. If God only passively observes by seeing all things at once, then he cannot also be orchestrating the circumstances of history in any providential sense. What God sees is an already existing thing – an already determinate reality. Time and all of history that fill it are already out there, existing over and against God. As such what goes on in time and history determine God’s knowledge itself. Therefore his knowledge, even if it is timeless, would come to him too late to be useful, for reality is already how it is. His knowing is simply his act of understanding what has already occurred without his providential guidance. (Anyone interested in more on this can see my past posts about problems in the purely observatory account of timeless knowledge.)

I believe the solution to the problem of free will and providence certainly involves God being outside of time. But it is not only this idea that is needed. As the last paragraph states a timeless being could be one that is timelessly impotent in doing anything with the knowledge that it has. (Ironically, this is also the case if God is in time learning what we do from moment to moment. Once he knows what free acts we will do it is already too late for him to do anything about those choices. He can only “guess” or “risk” with the possibility of failure.)

What must be coupled with the notion of a timeless God is also the idea that he is, from within, the determining source of all finite and created being whatsoever. Augustine, Aquinas, and most all classic theologians held that God’s knowledge is not caused by the existence of things themselves. For this would make him a contingent and dependent being. Contingent because his particular state of being was what it was because of other things (free choices of creatures.) And dependent because for God to be this – that is, a being who knows such and such – he needs the existence of free beings first. What the tradition has always said, rather, is that it is God’s knowledge which cause the things.

Now this at first immediately raises the problem of predestination and absolute determinism. If God’s knowing causes my actions, how are my actions not ultimately determined by God himself? And if this is the case, how can I be free?

They key is in understanding the fact that God’s power and creative motion themselves give to the will their very freedom itself. God and creatures are not on the same level of being. They do not face each other like two people do in a conversation, nor do they work together when an action takes place in the world, as if each one contributed some share to the project. Two people can both build a house. One person may lay the foundation and the other may do the roof. But the relations between man and God – that is the cooperating between the two – is not like this. God is at all times actively upholding every atom of the universe. Any action we do, even free ones, are ultimately possible only because of the movement and causal influence of God.

God therefore when he moves the will – when he creates it in a particular state – does so in a manner consistent with the wills nature. In fact his creating and moving the will just is what a natural human free will is. In short, what God creates is a will that is freely inclined and moved towards such and such. It is just that God’s action, since it is responsible for the very conditions of all reality – which themselves include the parameters of free will – itself causes both the inclination and movement of the will as free.

To put it in more metaphysical terms, we say that certain things are “necessary” or “contingent.” Most people normally assume that mathematical truths are necessary. 1 + 1 has to equal 2. On the other hand most people normally assume that free acts are normally consider contingent. Although I chose pizza for dinner, it was possible for me to have chosen a cheeseburger. Now, both the necessary and contingent as such are different modes of existence and reality. They are, if you like, different “species of being,” different metaphysical pieces of furniture that reality is populated with. Therefore they must get their particular realness and distinction from somewhere – God. But God in creating them in their particular modes does not destroy their individual metaphysical realness, but rather perfects and completes it.

Aquinas, in his question on providence and necessity, puts it like this. “We must remember that properly speaking “necessary” and “contingent” are consequent upon being, as such. Hence the mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being.” Thus he goes on to say in his questions on the will that “As Dionysius says “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently.”

Hence the idea is that God is able to move things – that is, he is able to determine and cause things – such that their freedom and contingency is not destroyed, but rather established. God causes then not only the particular things that occur but also the *manner* in which they occur themselves. The only reason this seems problematic is because we imagine that there is first an “us” or a “free will” and then God goes about moving that will to either this or that thing. Hence all the talk before about God having to “override” our freedom to get what he wants. But to think this way is to fail to grasp the all comprehensive creative power of God. Apart from God’s creative activity there is no “us” to speak of. We have no being independent of or “before” his power and motion. Rather, his creative action as making us as we are just is our very existence itself. There is no gap between God creating us as we are and the subsequent movement of our free will to something. For any movement of the will would also have God as the source of its very existence too. God, as the absolute creator of all that is, does not need a medium by which to create us free. God, all at once, creates us in our very state of free willing itself, and this action does not violate our freedom but rather establishes it.

The best way I think to conceive of the situation is like that of an author to the characters and story in his novel. No one would say that the author in creating a character violates the free will of that character. Rather, the character just is the creation of the author. Nor would it make sense to ask why the author made one character to be this character – say an evil one – rather than that character – say a good one. For insofar as the author creates this particular character it and not another must exist. He could of course refrain from making it, or make some other in its place. But it is absurd to suppose he could make “it” into a different character entirely. For then the first particular character would never have existed.

With the idea of “particular characters” in mind we can perhaps get a better understanding of divine providence and predestination. Each character plays the precise role that God has made it to play. And it does this freely. For the character itself was made for its circumstance and the circumstance made precisely to accent or bring out the personality of the character. Thus, since God is the author he can get what he wants in the story while also ensuring that each character gets what they want in it.

Of course we can ask why God allows this particular character to do such a particular act. And we can also ask how it is consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he creates just this type of novel. But to answer the objection fully we would have to know the entire novel – for instance the destination of each character and how small each affliction was in light of the ending. We would also have to know the exact effects of each choice of every character as they effect every other character and element in the story. This may no doubt raise a moral concern. But notice we are no longer talking about a metaphysical or logical one – i.e. how to reconcile providence and free will. For though the two are closely related they are nevertheless distinct.

(How then does God know our free acts – how do you resolve free will with foreknowledge? He does not know them by being determined by them and “seeing” them over and against himself. Rather, he knows them by knowing his own free creative action of them in themselves.)

I end with a quote from Lewis.

“…we are not to think of God arguing, as we do, from an end (co-existence of free spirits) to the conditions involved in it, but rather of a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutual necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under the single concept of Plurality, whereof “separation” and “togetherness” are only two aspects. With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.”

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.