The relational God

Usually associated with the rhetorically attractive, but incoherent, idea of a “free creation”¬† is the sense of abhorrence for a “tinkering God.” Both themes predominate within current theistic evolution, and the latter is usually couched in terms such as: “Why would God be such an incompetent Creator as to have to keep tinkering with the world afterwards?”

Once more, this is rhetorically attractive rather than logically sound. In a recent post on BioLogos I suggested that the truth is that God is a chef rather than a re-heater of ready meals. Personally I think that my rhetoric is closer to the mark than their rhetoric – but a pithy phrase does not make a theological case either way, even though prevailing opinions seem to depend more on pith than reasoning nowadays.

Behind the “tinkering God” anathema, I believe, lie two related things. The first is that evolutionary theory, and science more generally, have sought to treat the Universe as a closed system. Divine action, therefore, seems to be “unscientific”, and so anything that makes that unnecessary is attractive to scientists. Karl Giberson, for example, understands the historical idea of God’s invisible sustaining of the creation he forms, but treats it essentially passively – and in much BioLogos discussion it becomes entirely and militantly so. In this view the science of chance and necessity gives (eventually) a complete account of nature, but by faith we believe it is kept in being by God. We cannot be more than agnostic about whether he ever acts in any way, but if he did it would be disappointing “interference” (a view called “semi-deism”).

The second strand is modern liberal theology, as expressed famously in John Robinson’s 1963 Honest to God and articulated here by “liberal and mystic”, Karen Armstrong:

A God who kept tinkering with the universe was absurd; a God who interfered with human freedom and creativity was tyrant. If God is seen as a self in a world of his own, an ego that relates to a thought, a cause separate from its effect. he becomes a being, not Being itself. An omnipotent, all-knowing tyrant is not so different from earthly dictators who make everything and everybody mere cogs in the machine which they controlled. An atheism that rejects such a God is amply justified.

The deep intellectual path of liberalism need not detain us here, but the reason it has waned in recent decades is largely because, in its desire to sit above scientific controversy, it marginalises or denies the inconvenient core of Christian truth, in which Being did become a being and dwell amongst us. Furthermore, Jesus (confirming the Old Testament, earthy self-description of Yahweh as “I am there for you”) presented a picture of a Father who does interfere, who does dwell in his own world – heaven, who does cause separate effects and who is, in short, personally relational both to us and to creation as a whole. The God of Enlightenment philosophers may be persuasive to the modern intellect, but Jesus appears to be at odds with it.

Tom Wright has an excellent essay  about Honest to God here which argues essentially the same case as I present here. As he lays it out:

The tragedy of Honest to God, as I perceive it, is that Robinson did not see that what he was rejecting was a form of supernaturalism pressed upon Christianity by the Enlightenment; that he did not therefore go looking for help in finding other ways of holding together what the classic Christian tradition has claimed about God.

The strange thing about evangelical theistic evolution’s concurrence with a non-tinkering God, and its more-than-disagreement stance on Creationism and Intelligent Design, is that such folk would be the first to affirm that God is relational: in fact, that is the ethos underpinning the whole “free creation” concept. This had its roots in Process theology, which for all its faults is fundamentally relational – but cut free from that theology, as it must be in an Evangelical setting, it inevitably slumps towards a distant Deism – “God’s virtual absence”, in Wright’s words.

If, then, we accept that the Christian God is relational, what does that imply? Etymologically “relate” comes from the Latin for a “re-bringing”, and hence a report or proposition. So the wider meaning concerns those involved in such exchanges. Now as Don Carson’s indispensible Exegetical Fallacies reminds us, etymologies can be seriously misleading. But in this case, a little thought will show that the “information” implication of the Latin is essential to what “relationship” means.

Usually we relate by conversation – through information, propositions, warnings, instructions, approbation etc. Actions are supposed to speak louder than words, but only, in fact, as they convey information. A kiss may show love, lust or betrayal – we usually perceive which. A blow may express enmity or loving chastisement. Even the silence of a benign uncle as a child plays carries a different information content from the silence of a watching child molester.

So it’s obvious that if God relates to us as people, he speaks and listens both through his words and his actions – but not merely by his Being. And if God, analogously, relates to his creation (though we must guard against the personification of nature that renders the “free to evolve” idea so empty of meaning) then it is through the imparting of information. Chance (understood absolutely as “undirected”) is not relational. Chance in the sense of the input of unexpected information might well be. Is law relational? Well, in some sense yes – but if that is all a relationship is it’s as sterile as the “No Noise after 8pm” notices in a 1940s boarding house.

Incidentally, “law” in the sense of “Torah”, as opposed to scientific law, is more relational: it instructs, warns and guides those who are morally free, rather than rigidly constraining possibilities as a non-tinkering God must … but there, I’m lapsing into rhetoric again.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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