God’s Action in the World. A New Philosophical Analysis – Marek Słomka


God’s Action in the World

A New Philosophical Analysis

By: Marek Slomka
  • Published:  20-05-2021
  • Format:      Hardback
  • Edition:      1st
  • Extent:       240
  • ISBN:         9781350180383
  • Imprint:     Bloomsbury Academic

About God’s Action in the World

The problem of God’s action in the world is at the heart of debates today on the relationship between science and religion. By analysing the issue through the lens of analytic philosophy, Marek Slomka reveals how philosophy can successfully bridge science and theology to bring greater clarity to divine action.This book identifies essential aspects from various branches of theism, starting with traditional Thomistic approaches, through to their modified forms such as Molinism and contemporary varieties such as free-will theism and probabilistic theism. Analysing crucial elements of God’s nature including omnipotence, omniscience, his relation to time and the tension between immanence and transcendence, Slomka reveals the difficulties in proposing a single conception of God through one theistic tradition. Instead of simplistically juxtaposing particular theistic trends, he highlights the value of pluralistic insights that also draw on important scientific theories, including Darwin’s evolution, quantum mechanics and cosmology.By taking a renewed stance on theism that takes into account modern scientific knowledge, this book argues for a new presentation of the problem of God’s action in the world and justifies the need for further discussion on contemporary manifestations of internal and external criticism of theism.

Table of contents

1. On the Action
2. On God
3. On the World
4. Threats and Challenges



A God who no longer plays an active role in the world is in the final analysis a dead God.[1]


The concept of divine providence (in its non-homogenous varieties) can be found in the doctrines of all major monotheistic religions. This weighty idea cannot be limited to mere acknowledgement of an unspecified relationship between “heaven and earth,” but should rather highlight the real and tangible influence of the Creator on the fate of creation. A detailed elaboration on the theory of God’s interaction with the world, and most importantly with the human being, remains a significant goal of theology. However, a crucial input in this field can also be provided by philosophers: a) introducing the already available viewpoints, b) clarifying the meaning of employed terminology, and c) analyzing the suggested solutions from the perspective of their internal coherence and compatibility with the current state of research in the areas of philosophy, theology, or even natural sciences.

In undertaking my research in the scope outlined above I make the assumption that theism is a valuable (albeit subject to modifications) constituent of academic thought and the entirety of human culture. However, it is not my immediate goal to account for the value of theism. The main aim of this book is to analyze the problem posed in the title, which in itself determines and organizes the substantive framework of the totality of this study as well as the constituent parts thereof. Thus, chapter 1 discusses the question of action (in the context of God’s interaction with the world). In chapter 2 I reflect on the nature of God (as revealed in relation to the world). Chapter 3 is devoted to reflection on the world (in light of the world’s relation to God). Finally, the last chapter presents the threats and challenges which cannot be overlooked while examining the issue of the Creator’s influence on creation.

Through analyzing each of the above-mentioned points I strive to take into account the most varied range of approaches and theories concerning theism. Nevertheless, on the conceptual and argumentative level I mostly resort to the studies conducted in the broadly understood area of analytic philosophy. It has recently managed to identify enormously valuable elements from the many varieties of theism, starting with traditional Thomistic concepts, moving through their modified forms (e.g., Molinism), to types of theism which have emerged in recent decades, particularly open theism[2] (also called free will theism) and probabilistic theism.[3]

An equally significant aim of this book is to demonstrate that the question of divine action is of a markedly interdisciplinary and intersystemic character. This is why the research undertaken had to embrace the diversified philosophical discourse, the numerous approaches present in theistic thought, the close relation of philosophy and theology, as well as the connection between philosophy and the natural sciences. I would also like to note that the solving of the problems which emerged in the course of my analysis called for a particular mindset, that is one that, while respecting academic rigor, remains open to the most individual and subjective aspects of human existence.

The last half-century has brought a prodigious development of research concerning theism. It was over fifty years ago when prolific and distinguished publications in the fields of the philosophy of God and the philosophy of religion appeared (e.g., by R. G. Swinburne), with these works continuing to serve as an important reference in theistic discussions. Since the 1970s we have also been observing a revival of the above-mentioned disciplines in the analytic milieu (e.g., A. C. Plantinga, P. van Inwagen). Simultaneously, essential transformations have taken place in the field of natural sciences, with the most notable breakthrough being the 1960s discovery of microwave background radiation, with this providing a strong empirical argument for the evolutionary view of the universe. More so, the year 1966, at least in the United States, can be considered as the beginning of the constructive contemporary debate concerning the relation between religion and science. The release of Issues in Science and Religion by I. G. Barbour,[4] and the foundation of the Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science provided a landmark position for the symbolic manifestation of a new phase of an interdisciplinary dialogue that was actively carried on in the following years.

The evidence that the current achievements of the natural sciences are taken into account in the studies of divine action in the world comes with the publications authored by the participants of the many debates being part of the Divine Action Project (DAP), organized by the Vatican Observatory and The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences with a seat in Berkeley, California (whose publications include volumes issued after five international conferences,[5] as well as other research outcomes of their participants). The DAP has been the biggest endeavor in this field in recent years.

Such intensely led discussions were inspired by a conference organized on the initiative of John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo between September 21 and 26, 1987 (on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Newton’s Principia). The pope’s message, addressed several months later to the director of the Vatican Observatory,[6] was deemed groundbreaking for the dialogue between religion and science. Since the theologians, philosophers, and natural scientists participating in successive DAP conferences can be treated as proponents of the essential aspects of the problems discussed in my own work, I often draw from their output. One of the signs of such references is the terminology used in the present monograph. The phrase “divine action in the world” has become deeply embedded in theistic discourse.[7]

In recent decades, many acknowledged philosophers and theologians (e.g., P. Clayton, W. B. Drees, N. Murphy, J. F. Haught, N. H. Gregersen, D. Edwards, K. Ward, D. R. Griffin, T. F. Tracy, and M. J. Dodds) have noticed and expressed the need for a more thorough discussion of the question of divine action in the world. Philosophically-oriented natural scientists (e.g., P. C. Davies and G. F. Ellis) have also entered a debate covering the area. We must also note the body of scholars educated in both the humanities and natural sciences who take an active part in this discussion (I. G. Barbour, A. R. Peacocke, J. C. Polkinghorne, W. R. Stoeger, F. J. Ayala, G. V. Coyne, and R. J. Russell). The wide circle of intellectuals conducting studies on divine action in the world proves what an important and cognitively appealing constituent of academic culture this issue is.

Taking into account the output of the scholars mentioned above I also draw on texts authored by other representatives of contemporary theism, with this being significant for my analyses. Studies that I find personally of great importance and value are those written by my fellow Polish philosophers, including publications by M. Heller, S. Judycki, P. Gutowski, J. Wojtysiak, R. Mordarski, and J. Życiński. The last philosopher, despite his sudden death while still an engaged and creative scholar, left us with a remarkable and widely recognized academic output[8] which included a reflection on divine action in the world. The way of reasoning demonstrated by this professor and Great Chancellor of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin provided significant inspiration for me during the many detailed deliberations included in the present monograph. This fact stems from my former position as an assistant lecturer in the Department of the Relationship between Science and Faith which was directed by Życiński, as well as my experience of being his personal secretary accompanying him in his everyday work as the Archbishop of Lublin. This experience has allowed me to get acquainted with the mindset of the man who authored two volumes devoted to theism and analytic philosophy[9] as well as several hundred other publications.

Among works that were published in Polish, the book released in 2014 by D. Łukasiewicz stands out in particular.[10] Its chapters are devoted to the main varieties of theism which take into consideration the reflection on divine providence. The fundamental point of reference for the outline of my study, however, is provided by particular subject components of the area I focus on. By assuming such a scheme, I wish to emphasize that the seeds of truth, which is polyphonic in nature, are embedded in many intellectual traditions. From this perspective, it is of secondary importance who indeed is right: be it the Molinists, open theists, probabilists, or the proponents of the most traditional approaches.

Theistic thought assumes different forms for various reasons. The approach presented by Plantinga or Swinburne is essentially divergent from the one proposed by Peacocke or Haught. The two latter scholars may at times seem to be authors of a purely theological discourse. Their work, however, can be a rich source of many crucial strands of the kind of theism which belongs to the field of natural theology or philosophy of God. In the past several decades many insightful studies have been published in the area called philosophical theology, with this being usually recognized as a subfield of philosophy.[11]

Acknowledging the merits of many of the developing contemporary trends of theistic thought, I underline the significance of those taking into account the challenges posed by the natural sciences. They emerge as an efficient instrument for discovering the truth about the workings of the world. I regard the fundamental elements of the scientific worldview to be an important point of reference for many elaborate questions covering the field of theism (e.g., for the question of creation). I deem irrational the treatment of antiscientific hypotheses as equal to hypotheses which are widely accepted by scientists. The concept of scientific theories, in its most crucial aspects, is one which I share with K. R. Popper,[12] whose model suggests that there is a fundamental difference between science and pseudoscience,[13] all the while stressing the limits of science and the importance of its being open to new solutions.

It is by no means my aim to absolutize the current state of scientific achievements. The presently prevalent naturalistic paradigm is justifiably censured when the boundary between methodological and ontological naturalism is radically crossed. The future state of science may significantly differ from the present one, not only as far as the data provided by experimental research is concerned, but also in terms of theory and employed models: on the level of methodology, terminology, and subject matter. The limits of rationality do not overlap with the boundaries of a generally accepted scientific method. Even programs designed to search for unified theories in physics, which often reveal the reductionist mindset of their founders, indirectly certify that the partial solutions available at the present stage of scientific achievement cannot be dogmatized.[14]

In light of the above, philosophy plays a particularly significant role, because it can serve as a bridge between science and theology on the path to truth concerning the interaction of the Creator with creation. On the one hand, philosophy provides protection from those scientific tendencies which lead to the conclusion that the empirical research method has a monopoly on valuable analysis of different phenomena, including religious experience. On the other hand, the specificity of disciplines like the philosophy of God, the philosophy of religion, or even the philosophy of nature allows for the placing of the elements of the God–world relationship outside the sphere accessible only to people who embrace Christian revelation.

In the analysis of questions familiar to both philosophy and theology I judge it necessary to define a principal framework. I hold that this is unsurpassable while thinking about the issue of divine action in the world. Such clarification stems from my conviction that there are canons of rationality. This is why I am very critical of a broadly-understood doctrinal fundamentalism in the light of which certain philosophical concepts (incorporated into the predominant interpretations of religious theories) are practically not subject to modifications assessed as the programmatic weakening of theism. But it also needs to be stressed that there are no essential grounds on which religious doctrines and beliefs should be denied any value and deemed to inhibit the development of humans who, in the most extreme case, are argued to be delusional about God.[15]

In presenting the main problems which emerge in my investigations, I do not confine myself merely to rejecting the above-mentioned extremes. By demonstrating the value of different elaborate approaches, I argue for the need of further, open debate and a well-disposed, receptive reflection on the reservations that arise from various critical circles. Taking these objections into consideration enables a development of theistic thought that does not destroy its very foundations, even when significant modifications are introduced. Theism should not be practiced from merely one cognitive perspective, for example, drawing solely on conceptual analyses. We need to take into consideration new challenges, particularly those brought about by the natural sciences.[16]

The scientific context of the issues I discuss motivates me to delineate a wide potential area of the Creator’s influence on creation. It is for this reason that I include the processes of nature, laws of nature, regularities and chance, boundary conditions, chaotic systems, the self-organization of structures, and human choices.[17] I recognize divine action in the world as real and objective if only in the sense that this action is not limited to subjective human impressions or those convictions alone which are not subject to any form of rational verification or falsification. I perceive the necessity of placing the concept of divine action between the idea of God’s omnipotence as absolutely unlimited, and a deism which excludes the providential engagement of the Creator in the development of creation.

I knowingly highlight those domains of divine action in the world question that seem to be of the utmost importance. An additional reason for the choices I make is the conviction that finding a potential solution to one of the problems analyzed has a substantial impact on determining the answers regarding other aspects of the issue at hand. Therefore, I revisit certain trains of thought several times. I do not consider this action as unnecessary reiteration, but rather as purposeful emphasis done for the demand for a broader perspective. The advantage of such a perspective is the possibility of avoiding a merely fragmentary view of the question and instead striving to demonstrate coherently how multidimensional this issue truly is. The problem is complex to such a degree that to comprehend some of its nuances calls for drawing on additional sources, which I refer to at each given stage of the analysis.

Among the publications I quote, one can find studies of the history of theistic thought. After all, during the analysis of the present subject it is impossible to ignore the intellectual achievements of the most renowned personages of the history of theism. However, the fact that I take into account the output of people like Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury (or Aosta), Thomas Aquinas, and other outstanding representatives of the reflection on the nature of God and His interaction with the world, does not mean that my study will have the characteristics of a historical-critical analysis. Since such an approach is beyond the scope of the present publication, I draw on high-quality studies. It is not my essential aim to delve into the original works by these authors, who have left permanent traces of their genius in the many various stages of the development of Christian thought.

Bearing in mind the content framework delineated above, I address the following specific issues. Chapter 1 is a presentation of the main assumptions and concepts that refer to divine action in the world. This part of my reflection embraces various types of Creator–creation relationships, models of divine action in the world, the philosophical-scientific typology of causality and its implications for theism. I argue that apart from having the traditional distinction between primary cause and secondary causes, it is useful to elaborate on approaches that consider the current scientific worldview. The types of causality enumerated in the light of science will be treated as a context for formulating a theory of the non-interventionist influence of the Creator on His creation.

Chapter 2, devoted to the idea of God, begins with a presentation of the principles of the philosophical approach to the absolute being and the pluralism of theisms. Despite their diversity, several crucial components of the concept of God can be distinguished that frequently form the subject of elaborate theistic reflection. The theme of my study forces me to concentrate on those elements of God’s nature that are most significant for determining His interaction with the world. This is why I focus on the idea of God as a creator and person and the analysis of the following attributes: simplicity, omnipotence, and omniscience. I also discuss issues regarding God’s immutability and His relationship to time. This section of my book is designed to be an attempt at presenting the origins of the difficulty of formulating a coherent theory of God being active in the world. I strive to discern the reasons that lead many theists to a partial reconsideration of the concept of God, while not having to overturn the fundamental assumptions of the Christian message. Instead finding contradictions between the particular theistic trends, I identify the substantive reasons for their development and make use of the valuable intuitions they convey.

Chapter 3 reflects on the nature of the world and explores whether and in what way God is actively present in it. From the philosophical perspective it is not an easy task to demonstrate that the Creator participates in the history of creation, and especially in the history of human beings. It seems that the more the autonomy of the world in relation to God is accentuated, the more strenuous the attempts at justifying God’s influence on the course of world history.[18] Striving to find the potential manifestations of the Creator’s presence in creation, many theists argue that providence is manifested through the laws of nature, the origins and character of which cannot be fully explained by the empirical sciences. A particularly complicated task is to argue for the immanence of God in the world with regard to the workings of evil, its extreme symptom being the suffering of innocent human beings. It is in this context that the idea of God’s kenosis is formulated and the following question is raised: How does one bring together the autonomous character of the world and its dependence on the Creator? Such a dependence is revealed in an original manner by the panentheists. I show here that even while being critical of panentheism it is worth understanding at least some of the assumptions on which the reasoning of the proponents of this current is grounded. However, the most crucial points discussed in this chapter are those of the autonomy and the evil present in the world. My argument is that the world develops autonomously thanks to a complex network of the laws of nature which are simultaneously a manifestation of the Creator’s imaginative presence in His creation. The ontic and moral imperfection of contingent beings does not appear to be evidence of the inexistence (or the inactivity) of God. This is more of a consequence that both the world and humans are not “puppets in the hand of the Creator.” His actions are more difficult to detect in part because many theistic views (at least implicite) adopt an idea of God whose omnipotence relies mainly on the suspension or overturning of the laws of nature. The present study, by contrast, emphasizes the role of God’s noninterventionist action in the world.

The final chapter points out the contemporary threats and challenges that pertain to the issue of divine action in the world. Some of them are already signaled earlier in my study. However, I want to highlight the questions which are, to my profound conviction, particularly relevant today. Thus, I am critical of the “God of the gaps” concept and the recurring attempts to draw upon naive forms of teleology. Nevertheless, the latter can assume a rational form, thus allowing the complementary use of teleological and deterministic interpretations in the discussion of divine action in the world. This is an example of such a development of theism, the practicing of which does not have to be based on copying formulaic philosophical conclusions. The creative evolution of certain ideas, theistic systems and the concepts used by them leads to the revival of theism. Such refreshment is also strengthened by taking into account the worldview presented by the natural sciences, the consequence being the reinterpretation of events estimated as random, as well as a greater emphasis on the unity present in the different “levels” of nature and in its entirety. This, in turn, in the process of defining the potential ways in which the Creator influences creation, can be expressed by introducing new terminology including metaphors and analogies.

A book on divine action in the world could well begin with a presentation of the details of the scientific worldview to show the basic elements of contemporary natural sciences, and subsequently move towards an investigation of the rational models of the Creator’s participation in the (specifically defined) creation. I understand such a cognitive strategy, but my intention is to discuss a feasibly open outlook concerning the three successive components of the issue delineated in the title of my book. The main arguments and premises inclining me towards specific solutions are included in each of the first three chapters. Remarks presented in their final sections are not of a definitive summary nature which would take the form of an unambiguous resolution. Some crucial statements are included in the last chapter, and particularly in the conclusion of the book. These statements also take the form of postulates which accentuate my standpoint as viewed from a broadly historical and scientific perspective.

Given the context referred to above it is easier to justify why my study does not begin with a chapter on the nature of God, even if such a choice could give priority to reflections on the absolute being and correspond with the meaning of the Latin principle agere sequitur esse. It is true that by becoming familiar with God we are able to comprehend His actions better. On the other hand, a starting point for further research may also come in the form of analysis and interpretation of the potential ways of the Creator’s actions. Therefore, there are no obstacles that would prevent me from addressing the theories on God’s interaction with the world already in the first chapter of my book, especially when admitting this section of my study is in many places introductory and does not refer only to the questions of divine agency, but also to the models of causality present in the natural sciences. The nature of God is discovered in the process of reflecting upon the possible “paths” of his actions and the functioning of the world, not exclusively by means of logical-conceptual speculations on the necessary being. Such reasoning remains a significant component of a trend in theism which stresses the fact that creation bears traces of the Creator and that the human person is indeed the imago Dei.[19]

This logic of the reflection on God does not concern merely determining the potential manifestations of His activity. In the light of the analysis of the world and its history it sometimes seems that in certain situations Providence does not work.[20] I discuss this issue within my reflection on the nature of God as respecting the autonomy of creation, with all of its inherent rules, even when as a consequence of their unpredictability thousands of people die in an earthquake. This question additionally refers to human freedom which is not suspended by God even if the lives of millions are at risk due to the perpetrator’s insane schemes of war crimes. Irrespective of whether we relate the distinctive silence of God to the idea of kenosis or to the concept of His steadfastness (or faithfulness) towards the world, we still have an invariable desire to search for and discover the nature of THE ONE WHO IS.[21]


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