Divine compositionalism, faithfulness and free choice

When I wrote my recent piece on the new theory of divine action called “divine compositionalism” I decided to restrict it to a general defence of the viability of occasionalism, of which it is a variant. I was answering the charge that occasionalism renders causation, and therefore nature, a “sham”, by attempting to show that reality is just as multilayered and “deceptive” without occasionalism as with it. Furthermore, I pointed out that our sense of being deceived if God is the active cause of events is highly enculturated, ancient man (and pre-scientific cultures even now) being happy to attribute even their own deepest actions, ultimately, to God whilst retaining effortlessly their sense of true human personhood.

Incidentally, I was reminded of that cultural difference this morning, when the new Nigerian-born Bishop of Woolwich, asked why it was twenty years since the last black Anglican bishop was appointed here, replied that above human factors, including racism, stood the providential timing of God. Although it was absolutely orthodox and biblical thinking, it stood out because so few Western churchmen would be comfortable saying that, especially on BBC radio.

Nevertheless reflecting on the scope of the previous post, I decided that rather than leaving you to explore the links I gave there and draw your own conclusions, I should give some positive reasons for considering divine compositionalism in preference to other models. The one that most impresses me is the way it very easily leads into a truly Trinitarian theology of nature. The new article to which I linked last time spells this out in detail, but I’ll summarise and draw some extrapolations of my own.

One problem with occasionalism that is customarily raised is the way it appears to render the world entirely arbitrary, based on how God chooses to act, or not. Certainly the occasionalism of the mediaeval philosopher al-Ghazali, as interpreted by many Muslims, appears to endorse that fear, in the way that accidents, wicked deeds or even confidence in eternal salvation are shrugged off as depending on the arbitrary will of Allah. Being God, he can follow his whims and we must not seek for intelligible reasons.

Divine compositionalism, however, places occasionalism in the context of the role of the Son, the communing Λογος of the loving Father through the Holy Spirit, in creation. Within the triune relationship, God commits himself “conditionally” (as the compositionalists put it) to act in such a way when certain conditions apply in the world. Thus in their video, they deal with the simple example of the solution of salt in water, showing how from the quantum level (according to the interpretaion they employ) through to the macroscopic level, the particular dispositions (akin to Aristotelian “potencies”, it seems) of the created substances involved, and the conditions of their meeting, bind God on his own commitment to producing, every (or almost every) time, the natural phenomenon of solution.

In this way, it is Christ acting immanently on the basis of the faithfulness of God, as an aspect of his love, who gives us a universe of order and regularity. You’ll see that this is another way of expressing “laws of nature” (as is the Aristotelian business of natures, potency and act). But as is always the case, seeing things in a different way leads to different implications.

The usual model of “laws of nature” is problematic even as an idea. Where do these laws reside in the universe? How, actually, can they compel obedience from everything, even granted that they are the decrees of God? But beyond that, the idea has the tendency (as indeed was the intention when early modern science adopted it) of distancing God from what goes on in the world. He creates secondary causes, which are “autonomous” in the sense of having their own laws of existence from God. Nature, thus running in a law-abiding way on behalf of a fully-transcendant God, is therefore free of any internal signs of divinity which might risk idolatrous interpretation by mankind.

The advantage for science of laws is that nature can be investigated without regard to God or teleology. The disadvantage for the rest of us, as Deism showed historically, is that the laws can easily be separated from God altogether, making him a mere watchmaker or, perhaps, entirely superfluous. One can, if one screws up ones eyes, imagine that the laws are both primordial and causative without him. Modern atheistic science is the result.

Even the believer tends to be carried some distance by this. Now in fact, divinely constituted, causative laws are only a intermediate agent in divine action. If I go out and cut the lawn with a hand-mower, or else design and procure one of those robotic machines that does it automatically, it’s in both cases my purpose of cutting the lawn that prevails. The robot demonstrates my cleverness – but God has nothing to prove on that score. It saves me time and effort to use the robot (if not to design and manufacture it), but the infinite God is not limited by those things. But the “law of nature” model has a tendency to blind us to that teleological chain, to regard God as hidden, and to see the world as at best irrelevant to the knowledge of God, or at worst antithetical to it. “Natural causes” becomes shorthand for “operating independently of God, and possibly contrary to him.”

The same emphasis on inviolable law tends towards the entrenched idea that God “cannot” contravene his own decrees, as if God were like Darius the Mede in the story of Daniel, tricked into enacting the laws of the Medes and Persians which cannot be repealed. The Christian concept of law, however, is deeply interpersonal – the law of God is whatever rightly embodies God’s love.

Nowadays, much has been written and said on the dignity of created things to “be themselves” without “interference” from God. But as the compositionalists point out (and as I have repeatedly stressed in relation to the “free process” concept of the world) salt, water and even animals gain or lose nothing by being (divinely speaking) mains- or battery-powered. If you ask a player-piano whether it would rather have Sergei Prokoviev in person play it, or to run a piano-roll by him, guess what – you won’t get an answer. Creation worships by being what it is in relation to God’s purposes for it. It is totally indifferent to its own autonomy. On the other hand, we are not indifferent to God’s care and love for us, and that is shown by his presence, not his delegation of tasks to nature.

It’s relevant in that regard that God’s statement to Moses that “I am who I am” is not to be understood so much as a metaphysical statement of self-existence, but as a covenantal promise that “I am there (for you)”. The answer to the question “Are you there, Lord?” could either be a theological affirmation of his existence, or a Fatherly hand on the shoulder. Divine compositionalism suggests the Creation to be the latter.

In this way, divine compositionalism restores a theology of nature by making nature, as general revelation, analogous to the covenants by which God invariably deals with mankind in special revelation. In the latter, it is true, he works characteristically by revealed promise, and his faithful “covenant love” (Hebrew chesed) is shown by his fulfilment of that promise. In creation, he makes no such public commitment “up front”, and his “conditional commitments” are kept within the godhead. It is simply the order and regularity of nature, experienced by all his creatures and by us, that demonstrate within nature itself the glory, power and faithfulness of the Creator. Nature, then, is intrinsically revelatory, whereas a theology of “laws of nature” tends to foster a notion of Creation as concealing God from us.

Now in fact what is easily seen of God’s faithfulness in the regularities of nature (and especially, I would suggest, when those regularities are understood as direct instances of his covenant-love rather than as acting indirectly through inert secondary created causes subject to laws) can also be appreciated in God’s special providence in non-regular contingency. Our authors show how easily the miraculous fits into their compositionalist scheme – the God who has committed himself to act faithfully for the sake of love in regularities may, on exactly the same basis, act exceptionally.

I would go further, though, and suggest that to act providentially in the common course of events, as an aspect of creatio continua, enacting events that move the world in purposeful, if humanly unpredictable, directions, is entirely consistent with the model. Such “choice contingency”, too, is analogous with the way God acts towards us in special revelation. Both “I Yahweh do not change” and “Behold, I do a new thing” are outworkings of the same Trinitarian principle of love revealed in the creation. There are no laws of history, as Karl Popper demonstrated  – but God, in Christ, is still history’s Lord. Divine compositionalism easily accommodates that truth.

In their video, Schultz and Winslow point out that their model is restricted to natural science, and is not intended to cover the realm of human will and freedom. The distinction is worthwhile, as the habitual false personification of “Nature” as a quasi-rational being in free-process theology shows. Still, one would suspect that if any model of divine action fails to account for the people, as well as the things, in the world, then it stands a good chance of being wrong.

It may well just be that the authors have not yet reached that point in their research. But it seems to me that compositionalismn potentially accommodates free will and sin at least as well as its main rivals, of which the one with the best Christian credentials is concurrentism.

Understanding the will is as hard as understanding consciousness, but I like the idea I read the other day that it is as impossible for the former to be illusory as for the latter. Delibero, ergo sum.

If we grant that God has created us with both rational consciousness and deliberative will, an occasionalist understanding of the will’s operation is quite feasible, if it should be that God should make a commitment to respect and actualize the choices we make in the same way that, according to divine compositionalism, he acts causally to bring about lawlike changes in nature. Such a commitment, too, would be a mark of his faithfulness, and indeed another parallel to the way he allowed Israel to choose obedience or disobedience to their covenant commitments under special revelation. The idea reminds me of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son – though perhaps a rather more farseeing father than the story usually suggests, whose compliance with his son’s poor choice is predicated on his foresight and sovereign planning of repentance and restoration.

Our freedom, then, is preserved under compositionalism. But does this make God the author of evil? This question is faced by concurrentism too, and even in any other view in which God foresees evil and yet goes ahead to create the world. But, as Hugh McCann wrote, divine ordination of events need not be incompatible with a version even of libertarian, as opposed to compatibilist, free will.

So whilst there would appear to be a lot more work to do to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of divine compositionalism, before it can rank alongside the historical models of divine action, I’m convinced it holds some promise. For re-enchanting nature alone it warrants our cautious approbation.

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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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