Sunday, June 03, 2012

Agents and Processes

In two previous posts, I described the idea of primary and secondary causation, which has its roots in the classic philosophical tradition, but is especially found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. God, as creator, is seen as the primary cause of all things, but he gives to most things he creates the ability to also act as causes.

I will use the term "agent" to refer to something that acts as a cause. In the example of bread that I used before, the farmer is an agent who plants, tends, and harvests the wheat used to make the bread, someone else is an agent who turns the wheat into flour, and the baker is an agent who combines the flour and other ingredients and bakes the bread. We can also say that sunshine, rain, and soil are agents that contribute to the growth of the wheat. The tools used for planting and harvesting, vehicles for transporting, and the oven for baking are also agents. Finally, we use money as an agent to buy the bread to get it to our table. So, we see that though we Christians say that God gives us our daily bread, there are many agents that he uses to give it to us.

In addition to the use of agents, I point out that this provision of our daily bread involves many processes. The bread does not appear instantly on our table, but there are processes of farming, processing, baking, distributing, as well as the job we do to earn the money to buy the bread.

I want to stress that when Christians ask God to provide their daily bread, he answers that prayer by using many agents and processes. In fact, the prayer itself is another agent used in the provision of the bread. Does God have to use all of these agents and processes, including our prayers, to accomplish what he wants to accomplish? No, but he chooses to do so. In fact, God appears to delight in working this way, and the more agents that are involved, the better. Even in the important work of the salvation of eternal souls, God involves flawed institutions and people as agents for this ministry, and leads us through a process that takes our whole lives. In fact, even the creation of an individual human life involve complicated biological processes to even get to the starting point of a newborn baby. Then that baby is entrusted to flawed human parents, and goes through a process of many years to reach adulthood. During that time, the child has many physical, emotional, and educational needs that must be met through many agents and processes. All of this is true, yet we say that we are created by God.

There are two implications to all of this on which I want to focus. The first is on the idea that has grown over the last several centuries that says that since through science we have  been able to identify and understand many of the agents and processes that are at work in the universe, we no longer need to believe in God. This is based on the "God of the Gaps" idea that uses God as an explanation for something that we don't understand. In other words, we use God to fill in the gaps in our understanding. Behind this idea is the idea that God is merely a human invention we devised to fill in those gaps. Unfortunately, both believers and unbelievers get caught up in this "God of the Gaps" thinking, and Aquinas would say both sides are off track because they don't understand the idea of primary and secondary causes. Indeed, although Aquinas lived in the 13th century, there is nothing that science has discovered in the last 650 years that invalidates his fundamental philosophical and theological ideas because he sees God's involvement in the universe as more fundamental than being the "God of the Gaps."

My other focus is on Christians who are afraid of evolution and other scientific theories. Although I don't know the exact process by which the first humans came to be, I see no conflict between the doctrine that God created the first humans, and the scientific claim that human life developed through the process of evolution. As we saw above, God delights in using processes to accomplish his plans, and the world today is full of complex natural processes. Why couldn't it be that God also used complex natural processes to move the universe from a simple starting point to the state we see it today in a way that is consistent with scientific theories of today? Indeed, I think it is less consistent to believe that the universe sprang into existence in its present form over the course of 144 hours, but then started moving and functioning in the complicated manner we see today.

I think it is more reasonable to believe that Genesis used language that the original audience would understand in order to make the theological point that God brought about the world from nothing in an orderly and progressive manner. There are too many theological implications to the way that the creation accounts are written for me to go into here, but many of them, including what I believe are the most important ones, are not affected by interpreting the creation accounts in a way consistent with evolution.

There is one exception or clarification I will make to what I have said. Genesis 2:7 says, "then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." Note that there are two stages in the creation of the first man. The first stage is a process of forming from the dust. We see God using preexistent material and a process in the forming of man. I believe this part of man's creation is consistent with evolutionary theory. However, the second part is different. God breathes into the nostrils of the man the breath of life. I believe this indicates the impartation of the spiritual nature of man by a direct act of God. Christians believe that humans simultaneously inhabit a spiritual dimension as well as the physical world, although most of us are vaguely aware of our spiritual nature at best. This act of impartation of the human's spiritual nature, also known as the rational soul, is a direct act of God, and is an exception to God's way of working though processes and agents that we usually see.