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.