One of my occasional posts on occasionalism

How God works in the world is often regarded (and is indeed) a deep philosophical question. But it actually matters in real life, which is why the Bible says a lot about it. Because it doesn’t do so in a systematic analytical way, but through narrative, poetry, historiography and so on, its importance is often missed by those academics who like systematics.

Before proceeding, note that the way Scripture teaches theology is by encouraging us to immerse ourselves in its truths, when it will form our worldview unconsciously before the more scholarly ever get round to formalising it. Too few Christians do that first step, and so imbibe alternative narratives that, in the end, are incompatible with the God of Scripture. Necessarily that makes them incompatible with the world, too, if the God of Scripture is behind the world.

OK, to business. As I have described in the past here, there are within the Christian tradition three main ways of viewing God’s interaction with the world.

The least satisfactory is also the commonest nowadays, because it arises pretty inevitably from the Enlightenment interpretation of Francis Bacon’s scientific worldview. That has been termed Bare Conservationism, and it holds that God created the universe initially, and even (as Scripture states) maintains it in existence “by his mighty word” (which is, in fact, by the Incarnate And Risen Jesus – think about that!). But contrary to Scripture, which considers “Creation” to mean the whole matrix of causes and effects within the world, Bare Conservationism considers only the existence of “things” to be maintained by God.

In other words, it supposes that there is a thing called “reality” that is, effectively, entirely independent of God and dependent (in our European thinking) on the scientific laws he has set in place. In fact, though, both “laws” and “reality” are deeply problematic (to use the trendy word) concepts under this scheme. Where are these “laws” and what material process ensures they are obeyed universally? What does “independent reality” even mean if it is in moment by moment dependence on God for its existence? If I envisage a fictional character who ceases to exist if I forget about him, he’s more like a thought than an “independent reality.”

Bare Conservationism leads to all kinds of practical theological problems, too. For if the universe is, basically, running like a machine independent of God, then even if you don’t go down the route the clockwork-universe Deists took, any direct activity of God in it becomes “intervention,” or even “interference.” In other words, the only valid term for his activity is “miracle,” which is fine if you’re thinking of Jesus turning water into wine once, but more or less precludes any understanding of God’s ongoing providential care day by day. Accordingly, if you’re at the Charismatic end of the spectrum, every answered prayer or happy circumstance becomes a miracle, and if you’re not, every miracle is a problem threatening God’s sufficiency as Creator.

Hence, for example, for God to create the species directly gets excluded by theistic evolutionists on the grounds that it would be a failure to design an adequate “natural” evolutionary process, and therefore unthinkable to a Christian Darwinian. You even hear it said, all too often, that for God to “break his own laws” would deny his truthful nature. But those laws are actually only regularities detected by man, not laws promulgated by God.

Nowadays we have to factor in the Woke Cultural Marxist angle too, since too many Christians have absorbed it, as it is the Spirit of the Age. But it depends on the same “autonomous Creation” worldview, for example in claiming that a significant proportion of humanity was born in the wrong sexed body. For that to work within Christianity (if it ever could) there must be an incompetent Demiurge working under God – whether an angel or a material process – actually creating human souls and bodies and botching the quality control. The Bible vehemently denies that anyone other than God himself is involved in Creation.

In the same way, the idea of “privilege” entailing guilt only works if God is not the providential arbiter of events, but only selfish humanity. If God is acting in providence, then to be born rich, or white, or intelligent, is ultimately due to the undeserved grace of God, to be received like all gifts with thanks and humility, and used for his glory and the good of other people. That does not preclude the correction of injustice, but does greatly relativise it.

“Bare Conservationism,” then, is ultimately incompatible with the biblical understanding of God – and without that understanding there is no Christianity. And so the predominant view amongst educated biblical Christians is Concordism. The basic principle here is that alongside and behind the “secondary causes” of the world, such as the laws of nature and even voluntary human actions (think of Pharaoh being “raised up” to free Israel through his stubbornness) God works providentially to fulfill his purposes.

One has to say that this is pretty much a complete explanation, but it is actually quite difficult to make sense of intellectually. For example, if one can explain, say, the death of a believer by entirely law-like causes such as a plane crash, how does God’s providential control over the hours of our life act? At the beginning of the Universe? Science is no longer able to maintain that the cosmos is that deterministic.

Nevertheless, Concordism is far more able to conceive of God’s direct action in the world in principle, and even more so if we dare to abandon the Baconian concept of rigid, Mosaic type, laws of nature, and replace them, as I do, with the concept of “divine regularism,” that is the idea that God chooses to rule nature largely through repeatable causes and effects that enable his creatures, including us, to flourish. God is faithful, and so not only do the times and seasons appear regularly, but apples always taste like apples and not Marmite, and they don’t poison us, or the crows and maggots, unpredictably. Can there be any greater guarantee of consistency than an eternal, loving God?

At the same time, God is also entirely free to vary the patterns and surprise us – a phenomenon we may call chance, but which the godly should call choice. Concordism therefore agrees well with what we learn about God from the Bible, and from the life of faith, though it is a little difficult to cash out rationally. Not that that should trouble us – why should created beings expect to understand the ways of their eternal Creator?

Scientific regularism, though, in my view accords better, or at least more intellibly, with the third “reality worldview,” which is called Occasionalism. At first sight this looks for all the world like the mediaeval scholastic equivalent of a “me too” drug – we’ve counted the angels on the head of a pin, so let’s make up an implausible theory of God’s action and publish a book on it. For occasionalism says that what we think of as cause and effect (in daily life and in science) is not real at all, but that, say, the bringing of a burning match to gunpowder does not cause an explosion, but acts merely as the occasion for God to cause the explosion. That appears to be just plain dishonest, and to make God the only true cause in the world.

But as I will try to show shortly, it’s not as implausible as it sounds once you get your categories right. Even Concordism holds that God’s causation stands behind every cause in the world. When Thomas Aquinas thought of the “Prime Mover” he wasn’t thinking of God as the Centre Forward kicking off at the start of a football match, but of the first cause of each and every event, however big or small.

Therefore, since Scripture also tells us to regard all things, even persecution, as coming from the hand of God (see eg Philippians 1:16), Concordism subordinates material causes in the world to the higher causation of God. It’s therefore not that great a step to use Occam’s razor to cancel out the secondary causes from consideration altogether… except that we’d like to think that our purposeful actions are ours, genuinely, and not an illusion.

But that language of “illusion,” “deception” and so on can be mitigated by using the analogy of “authorship” to God as Creator. It is probably the closest analogy we have, although self-evidently deficient in that authors cannot create literary characters that are actually self aware and, in that sense, “real.”

Yet a novel has a kind of reality comparable to the biblical idea of the Eternal God who is radically over and against the order he creates and maintains by his perfect will. A novel is a world within itself, where we may find good and evil, truth and falsehood, all represented by an author whose own character may resemble none of his invented characters, and who indisputably exists at a higher level of reality.

Have you ever considered that novels are exempt from scientific laws, except as the author chooses to apply them? The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein created a wall chart in the early part of his career, on which he plotted the events and inventions of his early work, so as to incorporate them, without contradiction, in his subsequent fiction. His timeline was, if you like, a framework of law by which he wrote. But in point of fact, whenever he referred to the timeline in his writing, it was an individual free choice of his. Indeed, at some point he abandoned it and let each of his subsequent novels stand alone in its own world. In fact there was no immutable law operating – only his own creativity directing not only the actions of the characters, but the universe in which they lived.

To explore this idea further, consider a fantasy novel in which the author invents a thing called “groovity,” such that in the book’s world anything you drop flies upwards at a uniform velocity until it either hits something solid or reaches the edge of the atmosphere, where it remains permanently. In Chapter 2 Ira Newson drops his apple, and wonders what makes it fly up to the ceiling, naming the phenomenon “groovity.”

In Chapter 4, an Italian woman called Gaile Galleyprufi does experiments at the leaning tower of Pizza, releasing stones at the bottom whilst assistants on each level time when they pass upwards. He thereby discovers that groovity has a constant velocity, and calls it the “law of groovity.” He even throws in a differential equation (not actually quoted in the novel).

In Chapter 7, balloon researcher Verne Brawn discovers a way of flying up to the edge of the atmosphere and retrieving objects lodged there for countless aeons, thereby not only making a fortune but advancing the science of terrestrial origins in one giant leap for mankind.

Now, if you ask the question “What makes objects fly upwards?” the ultimate answer cannot be “the law of groovity,” because no such law exists. Fantasy novels are not bound by real laws of nature, let alone imaginary ones. There isn’t even an actual differential equation to describe such a law, the opposite situation to reality where there are millions of differential equations, most of which don’t map to laws of nature. All there is are instances in which the author describes things falling upwards, describes characters investigating it, and implies that there is a “natural” explanation for it. In truth, everything that happens in the book happens through the personal choices of the author, from universal laws of nature to Newson dropping his apple. If he’s a good enough writer, his world will be sufficiently consistent to enable you to suspend disbelief, empathise with the characters and, perhaps, eventually close the book wondering what it must be like to live in a world of groovity, as you cling more tightly to your lunchtime apple.***

Some cosmologists recently have toyed with the idea that we actually do live in a “simulation.” They don’t seem to be very clear on what it might be a simulation of. To define a simulation, surely you have to define reality. And “reality” is defined as the world we live in, or for the Christian, the world God has created, subject to the truth that the final basis of all reality is only God himself, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” The world is real because it is God’s work, and God is pure Act, doing only what is true and real. Creation is not a mere “function of deity,” but the expression of Yahweh’s very character as Creator in love, truth and wisdom.

So perhaps there are elements of Creation that have analogies to The Matrix. There are plenty of pointers to the fact that behind the world of experience lies a world of fields, vibrations, quanta and all that invisible and incomprehensible stuff. Many thinkers have shown what a gulf there is between those, the macro world, and (via the senses and the central nervous system) the world of personhood and human consciousness – in short, of the soul. Our world is also, according the Scripture, a temporary and perishable world, not to be compared with the future world of the spirit in which we shall see God face-to-face and dwell with him in eternity.

The universe is a reality authorised for us by our Creator, but it isn’t the ultimate reality, for access to that awaits the return of Christ. Meanwhile, what does it matter if, in this reality, God himself is the faithful executor of cause and effect? His faithfulness enables us to live successfully and do legitimate science, if that’s our forte. But his love enables us to relate to him, and to other souls he has created. And that relationship is the true, imperishable, reality.

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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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6 Responses to One of my occasional posts on occasionalism

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    While the arguments regarding ‘laws of science’ can be dispensed with, these type of discussions inevitably lead me to consider freedom. Freedom is discussed and intellectually comprehended by us; thus, freedom is argued by some to mean an absence of all constrain, often espoused by anarchists. A god-like freedom is sometimes considered as a being who is beyond constrains/consequences, above good and evil. These invoke, or assume, the totally powerful being has freedom to exercise all desires and can ensure that any act of will on his part is realized in whatever manner he chooses, or fancies. This god-like attitude may be embraced by unsound minds and is often an indication of insanity.

    Freedom may be equated as the liberty to create a setting in which we may act according to our desires, wishes, and beliefs, while accepting various limitations.

    Theological debates abound on outcomes that are considered pre-determined, with a causal chain resting on the primal cause of God the Creator; based on this argument, some conclude that since God created all, He also created sin and evil. Thus, such erroneous reasoning concludes that freedom and human agency may be illusions.

    God created all as a setting for us as free agents to choose to live according to God’s will, or to reject God. Ultimately, we would be cut off from God if we choose to, but even then, God grants us forgiveness as an act of Grace. A determined quality is understood in that a soul can respond to revealed goodness; this is because God is the Creator. This does not mean that God may be ‘bound’ in any way; God is not bound to reveal goodness to anyone, nor is he bound to a success rate of a positive response, nor is he bound to a promise, nor is he bound to a competition for souls.

    The central question IMO is salvation. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that salvation is by the grace by God. The response to the revelation is also according to the will of a human being. The response by Christ when he said, “God’s will be done,” is a response of total freedom.

    It is within such a context we may consider Creation by God to go beyond the universe that we understand now, with the ‘new heaven and earth’ that we await.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this, GD. It takes the discussion where I “feared to tread,” or at least didn’t wish to get bogged down. It seems to me that whatever ontology one takes, the mystery of human freedom under God remains a question of faith. God holds us accountable, and therefore our choices are real, yet he also remains sovereign over all things: even the devil serves God’s purposes despite himself, yet his rebellion is not determined by bare cause and effect.

      In salvation grace and human will work together, and yet grace precedes will. Sometimes the distinction is inseparable, if someone hears the gospel of salvation, loves it, and believes.

      At other times it almost (but not quite!) looks like coercion, such as Paul on the Damascus road, or C. S. Lewis describing himself as “the most reluctant convert.”

      Perhaps related to this your discourse on freedom omits the “bondage of the will” produced by sin. Jesus’s unconditional obedience was perfect freedom because his character was formed in line with his Father’s will. In other words, our “desires, wishes and beliefs” are what need redeeming in order to make them the agents of freedom, rather than captivity. Grace enables us to see our “freedom” as a prison instead of the best of all possible worlds – and that’s when we begin to see beyond this universe.

  2. shopwindows says:

    Hopefully not in a flippant but constructive manner, I might point out that the Wachowski brothers are now the Wachowski sisters and that Gavins surname is Newsom not Newson? (OK, bit tongue in cheek). Which leads me to adapt and quote an old saying “in the land of the blind the man with a white stick is my king”.

    Freedom, as imagined in the minds of most people, is an unmoored, very dangerous but alluring concept not simply rectified, clarified, by introduction of qualifiers liberty, equality, fraternity, etc or salvation but maybe partially corrected in a secular way by asserting it exists in a civilisational, societally organised, context. Some think our current convulsions are because narcissism is rampant.

    I am moved this last 44 months to replace left right significance in debate with totalitarianism democracy as the spectrum to consider. Omniscience, hubris, Icarus, spring into the mind as contemporary forces, tensions.

    If the answer isn’t 42, I’m struggling to fully appreciate the deepest significance of the above including GD as to in what ways you expect that those constructs we’ve presumed to live by like free markets, blind justice or state planning will give way to a new paradigm, a biblically anticipated development way beyond the reformation and enlightenment in it’s consequences for us. If it were to dispel hubris, to force acknowledgement of man’s ignorance, to somehow restrain materialism, vanity, that’d help?

    Or am I just thrashing around in the dark?!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I’m inclined to be pessimistic, in not expecting any significantly new political system this side of the return of Christ. Rather I expect something of a cycle reminiscent of Plato to continue: democracy crashes under its own contradictions, to be replaced by totalitarianism until the people rebel.

      Any differences seem to be explicable by the global reach of technology, so one might find the current globalist-centralist trend is imposed almost universally (currently with one or two hopeful exceptions), or perhaps the populist backlash will gain momentum – but if it does, history suggests it will overshoot and the revolutionaries will become the totalitarians.

      Whatever happens, I believe the biblical end-stage looks globalist, as the nations unite to oppose God and his people, with the final establishment of good government and true freedom being supernatural, not political.

      “Still the weary folk are pining
      For the hour that brings release#And the city’s crowded clangour
      Cries aloud for sin to cease
      And the homesteads and the woodlands
      Plead in silence for their peace.”

      I agree with your comment on the increasing irrelevance of “right” and “left,” but am intrigued by the resurgence of those old categories in the matter of Israel/Palestine. To me it seems that the emerging consensus of thinkers linking together the various hot issues with the democracy-totalitarianism paradigm has to an extent split over Israel.

      Some of the left-leaning freedom lovers are almost rabidly antisemitic, as are the fascist Islamists, whilst sympathy for Israel exists among both libertarians and the globalists. To be honest, that suggests to me that there is a real spiritual background to that issue, somewhat separate from the freedom-control tension operating on most other controversial issues.

  3. Ben says:

    Playing catch-up on your posts.

    What you’ve written here adds to my thoughts following a previous comment-discussion we had about suffering.

    My current concise synthesis of my conclusions is that we (or I, at least) have a choice between two (subjectively) undesirable paradigms:

    > Either life has no meaning, or suffering is necessary.

    Not sure I’m going to make a t-shirt of that, yet.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ben

      I’d have to go for the second, but it can be taken at a number of different levels.

      For example, at a discipleship level suffering is necessary because we follow the path of Christ and “share in his sufferings” (a number of Scriptures to bring to bear, and a number of reasons).

      At the level of the secret counsel of God, suffering is necessary because God has ordained that it shall be so (and he’s not justifying it to us).

      At the level of whether Adam could have chosen a path free of suffering through obedience, then perhaps he could, but it’s academic now!

      At the level of whether there is some intrinsic law that perfection only comes through suffering, then I refer you to the secret counsel of God!

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