There is a tension between scientific accounts of nature and theological accounts of God’s action in nature. On the one hand, the more we learn from science, the more difficult it becomes to find a place for God to act in the natural world. On the other hand, a robust theology of the relational and dynamic God of Christian theism suggests that God personally and continually acts in the lives of humans and within the whole of nature.

Cambridge University Press, 2019

This tension has led to the search for a “causal joint” in which God acts. The idea is to identify an underdetermined causal joint in which God might act in or through natural processes without intervening in the laws of nature. In recent decades, scholars associated with the Divine Action Project (DAP) have developed models of divine action thought to solve the causal joint problem by locating God’s special divine action in indeterministic processes associated with quantum mechanics or chaos theory. If successful, such models hope to carve out a noninterventionist and incompatibilist account of special divine action.

The DAP has come under significant scientific, philosophical, and theological criticism, however. As a result, the contemporary response to the causal joint problem is to locate divine action within the realm of human consciousness. If nonphysical human minds exist, then there is an ontological gap available for divine-human interaction to take place without violating any physical laws. In Divine Action and the Human Mind, Sarah Lane Ritchie argues that such proposals are also scientifically and theologically implausible, employing the same faulty metaphysical presuppositions that underlie other standard causal joint models as advanced by the DAP. Ritchie argues that a “theological turn” is needed in divine action theory. This turn re-envisions the relation between God and the world by theologically reframing the concept of nature and what it means to be properly natural, eliminating the need to locate some special physical space in which God acts.

Divine Action in Two Parts

Ritchie’s book is separated into two parts. In part one, after outlining the standard approach to divine action in chapters one and two, Ritchie turns, in chapter three, to the question of human consciousness. She examines the most prominent proposal for locating special divine action in the mind, the emergentist theory of Philip Clayton, arguing (as noted above) that it too, like the DAP proposals, is scientifically and theologically faulty. In chapters four and five,She examines the most prominent proposal for locating special divine action in the mind, the emergentist theory of Philip Clayton. Ritchie argues that there are good reasons to think that the so-called “Hard Problem” of consciousness is not that hard and that there are workable physicalist theories of mind, and thus the project of seeking a nonphysical space for human-divine action is misguided anyhow. With the deflationary project of part one complete, Ritchie turns in part two to the possibility of more promising theories of divine action that begin with theological accounts of nature and the natural.

By looking first to science for a definition of nature and the natural, the contemporary dialogue regarding divine action, codified by the DAP, faces a theological crisis. The irony, according to Ritchie, is that in seeking a scientifically respectable account of divine action, these divine action theorists have adopted a metaphysical framework that “presupposes a sort of scientistic naturalism” (p. 190) that leaves little space for divine immanence. But there are more expansive versions of naturalism, according to Ritchie, that offer a more promising account of how God acts. These more expansive approaches seek to shift the discussion away from the emphasis on finding a scientifically acceptable causal joint toward a theological approach that more tightly ties the cord between the sacred and natural orders. “To be fully natural,” on this approach, “is to be inherently involved in active participation and interaction with God” (p. 215).

In chapter six, Ritchie makes the case for a better—more theologically grounded—way forward by distinguishing between various kinds of naturalisms. First, there is narrow naturalism. This is the version of naturalism that sometimes goes by the name metaphysical naturalism, physicalism, or scientistic naturalism. The narrow naturalist endorses the causal closure principle, the view that all physical events have a physical cause, and physicalism, the view that all things are fundamentally physical. Second, there is broad naturalism. Broad naturalism comes in non-theistic and theistic varieties. On both versions of broad naturalism, there is more to reality than the physical. Non-theistic nonphysicalist naturalism rejects both physicalism and supernaturalism. Theistic nonphysicalist naturalism is free to either accept or reject physicalism and it also accepts supernaturalism. By rejecting incompatibilismWorries about how to make sense of the causal joint between God and nature remain and the problem of suffering seems especially difficult since God is the primary and full cause of it all. (i.e., the view that an effect is either the result of (i) a divine action or (ii) a natural process or natural agent, but not both) and the intervention/nonintervention binary, theistic naturalisms, according to Ritchie, are well-placed to carve out a scientifically and theologically acceptable account of divine action. With more expansive naturalisms now on the table, Ritchie turns her attention to three theological approaches to divine action that begin with a richer conception of nature and the natural than the “quasi-deistic God-world model” (p. 81) of the standard approach. The goal is not to argue for a specific version of theistic naturalism, but rather to demonstrate the potential for a robust theological framework for divine action that embraces scientific knowledge and naturalism.

In chapter seven, Ritchie explores the Thomistic model of divine action. By distinguishing between primary and secondary causation, Thomistic approaches affirm that every effect is fully caused by God and by creatures, but at ontologically distinct levels. How God and creatures “share the workload” (p. 237) is ultimately mysterious. But Aquinas’s employment of a participatory ontology, and the suggestion by Michael Dodds that each reference to “causation” be replaced by the less intrusive notion of “participation,” helps to make (at least) some sense out of the seemingly paradoxical notion of double agency. Still, it is not clear that Aquinas’s use of the neo-Platonic notion of participation fits comfortably within his Aristotelian scaffold. Worries about how to make sense of the causal joint between God and nature remain and the problem of suffering seems especially difficult since God is the primary and full cause of it all.

In chapter eight, the panentheistic naturalist model of Christopher C. Knight is examined. Rooted in an Eastern Orthodox theological framework, Knight’s panentheistic model ties the sacred and natural order tightly together: the natural world is in God, but God is more than the natural world. God does not “break into” the natural world since the entire world is already in God. Rather, God acts in and through natural processes because God is immanent in all natural processes. The causal joint problem, however, remains. For we might ask, how does God act to bring about a specific event in the natural world at a point in time after the moment of creation? Knight’s answer is to appeal to “higher-laws” and atemporal “fixed instructions.” The known laws of nature are not all the laws of nature; there are “higher laws” that are fully lawful from a wider God-world perspective. Thus, divine action does not compete with the laws of nature, for there are the “lower-laws” known through science as well as the “higher-laws” that complete a thicker causal picture. Moreover, standard causal joint models wrongly assume, Knight argues, a temporal God. But God is outside of time, according to the Eastern tradition. How then does God respond to temporal creatures? Knight’s solution is to appeal to atemporal “fixed instructions” that are front-loaded into the world at the beginning by God. God is responsive to creatures, but this responsiveness is woven into the “tapestry of laws instituted in a ‘single act’ of creation” (p. 283). Ritchie sees much promise in Knight’s proposal. With its appeal to “higher-laws,” Knight’s proposal is fully compatibilistic without the need to appeal to the troubling notion of double agency.Ritchie probes theistic naturalisms that privilege the presence and activity of the Spirit in the God-world relationship. “Divine actions are compatible with the laws of nature because they are laws of nature” (p. 288). Panentheistic naturalism faces challenges too: it is not clear that Knight’s God is genuinely or sufficiently responsive to creaturely needs, there is a nagging worry that panentheism problematically blurs the God/nature distinction, and the problem of suffering becomes more acute the more closely God is identified with nature.

In chapter nine, Ritchie probes theistic naturalisms that privilege the presence and activity of the Spirit in the God-world relationship. According to James K. A. Smith’s pneumatological naturalism, all of nature participates in the Spirit to varying degrees. One advantage to Smith’s participatory account of the God-world relationship is that it provides an account of how the mind, given the complexity of the mind/brain/body complex, can be understood as a special place of divine interaction, as commonly thought, but without the need to provide a nonphysical account of consciousness. A chief weakness of Smith’s account is that it doesn’t address the causal joint problem. To address the question of how God might interact with physical laws and processes, Ritchie next turns to Amos Yong’s Pentecostal theology for a “pneumatological assist.”  According to Yong, God acts through the natural laws, now understood as constantly evolving divine “habits” that are “continually shaped by the Spirit in light of the eschatological implications of the incarnation” (pp. 316–17). One short-coming highlighted by Yong’s pneumatological assist, a shortcoming shared by all theistic naturalisms considered by Ritchie, is that by defining nature and the natural theologically, divine action is no longer something identifiable through scientific methodology. But then, it is also no longer clear that meaningful conversations can take place between scientific and theological communities.

With the survey of three theological naturalisms complete, Ritchie’s overarching goal is satisfied. She has critiqued the standard causal joint models of divine action, an approach that privileges the mind as uniquely nonphysical and thus the locus of special divine action, and suggested a promising way forward in divine action theology by reframing naturalism such that all of nature—whether physical or nonphysical—is infused with God’s presence and activity.