God's Divine Activity
in Natural Process and Miracles 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      In the area of origins, metaphysical theories about "the essential characteristics of reality" play a crucial role.  Whether or not a worldview theory has been explicitly formulated, every person has a metaphysical worldview that is an important part of the person's overall worldview.  This section describes components for one type of metaphysical theory (theism) and defines terms that are used in my web-pages.  { Although traditional monotheism includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, usually I'll discuss theism from a Biblically based Christian perspective, because this is the religious foundation for my own worldview, and I'm most familiar with it. }

      Theistic Action: Foundational and Active
      During our discussions of science and theology, an important question is: "If God exists, what does God do?"  According to the Bible, nature (the entire material universe) can be affected by the actions of supernatural entities, including God and also — with God's permission and under God's supervision — lesser entities such as loyal angels and fallen angels.  The scope of this basic overview is restricted to God's activity in the universe.

      Especially regarding our perceptions, I find it useful to think of God's theistic action (TA) as if there are two components: foundational and active.
      foundational TA:  God designed and created the universe using initial theistic action (initial-TA).  Since that time, God has been constantly "sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3)" with sustaining theistic action (sustaining-TA) that produces the continuing operation of nature.
      active TA:  This changes "what would have happened without the active TA" into "what actually happens."  With normal-appearing guiding theistic action (guidingTA) everything appears normal and natural because the guidance by God blends smoothly with the usual workings of nature.  In miraculous-appearing theistic action (miraculousTA) an event differs from our expectations for how things usually happen.
      Foundational TA (initial-TA plus sustaining-TA) produces "matter in unguided natural operation" with matter operating "automatically" according to its designed characteristics.  It also produces a context for the operation of active TA.  How?  God is constantly in contact with everything in the material universe, sustaining all matter/energy with the properties (interactive forces, wave-particle duality, causal relationships, space and time,...) that produce a material mode of operation;  God also sustains a spiritual mode of operation that can interact with the material mode to produce active TA in nature.  Skillfully coordinated by the constant interfacing of God with everything in nature and supernature, there is a concurrent operation of foundational TA (to produce nature, beginning with initial-TA and continuing through sustaining-TA) and active TA (guidingTA or miraculousTA) with a seamless connection between the material and spiritual modes of operation.   {comment:  Splitting things into a "material mode" and "spiritual mode" helps me think about things, but I'm not claiming this really is "the way God does it."  As explained earlier, "I find it useful to think of God's theistic action as if..." }
      a summary:  initial-TA determined the properties of nature and created nature, sustaining-TA keeps the history of nature going, and active-TA influences an event to produce one result instead of another.  God's creation — which is everything created by God, including nature (the material universe) and also spiritual entities (such as angels) — includes a spiritual mode of operation that interacts with and influences the material mode of operation.

      The History of Nature
      The history of nature is the history of everything that has occurred in our matter/energy universe.  For a Christian theist, nature's history includes natural events and also supernatural events involving miraculousTA, such as the resurrection of Jesus.  { a division of nature's history into formative history and salvation history is discussed in the page about Theistic Evolution }
      To avoid illogical circular arguments, we should replace the term "natural history" with the more metaphysically neutral "history of nature" or "nature's history."  Why?  Because "natural history" implies that all events in history have been natural.  This definition can then be used — for example, by declaring that "natural history should be explained by natural causes" — in circular arguments that bypass the process of logic, that use a definition to answer the question of whether or not the history of nature has included any non-natural events.  { The logic of "natural science" is examined in a page that explains why Open Science is Better Science. }

      Interpretations of Natural Events
      In all of my pages, natural means normal appearing.
      An event that appears normal and "natural" can be interpreted theistically (as occurring, with or without guidance by God, in a universe that God designed, created, and sustains) or atheistically (as occurring with no TA of any kind), agnostically (neither affirming nor denying TA), or in other ways (pantheistic, animistic,...) that won't be discussed in this overview.
      We cannot use observations to distinguish between natural events that are guided and unguided (*) because there is no way to compare one history (without guidingTA) and another history (with guidingTA).  But human limitations on observing and computing (in order to make predictions that extrapolate from the past into the future, or even to fully understand the present) don't extend to an omniscient God.  For example, even though human observations are limited by quantum uncertainties, God's knowledge about what is happening is precise, accurate, and complete.  In fact, to produce guidingTA, one possible mechanism is that God might influence (or totally determine) an event by controlling some (or all) uncertainty at the quantum level, but in a way such that events still appear natural and statistically unguided.  This theistic action is active, not just foundational, and it could be amplified through a natural-appearing guidance of chaotic systems, to control (partially or totally) their outcomes.
      * And we can be wrong in our "detectability" conclusions about whether an event is directed or undirected.
      The page-appendix has more about divine guidance in theistic evolution and common sense in quantum physics.

      A Theology of Theistic Action
      It can be useful to think of theistic action (TA) in terms of three factors — control, appearance, and frequency — each capable of varying along a continuum.  God's control of an event might vary from no control to total control.  Our subjective evaluation for the normality of an event's appearance can vary from normal to miraculous.  { Control and appearance are relatively independent; God may be in total control of an event (or set of events) that appears normal. }  And the frequency for a particular type of TA (characterized, for example, by degree of control and appearance) might vary from never to always, and might depend on the context (the circumstances, participants, prayers,...) of an event.
      Questions about the characteristics of TA are related to important theological questions.  For example:  Can God (or does God) control everything? (i.e., Do unguided events ever occur?)   And if God does exert total control (or can but does not), why do bad things happen — due to nature (as in a hurricane) or the actions of humans — in a universe operated by an all-powerful, loving God?   And how does human freedom and responsibility fit into the picture?

      I don't claim to know answers for these questions, but (like everyone else) I have developed a practical "working theory" for everyday living.  This functional worldview, which may be useful for thinking about relationships between science and theology, is Biblically based, assumes free will and personal responsibility, and is consistent with our normal intuitions about space-time relationships:
      Although God could control all events, He voluntarily chooses to relinquish partial control (so the TA-control actually used is sometimes less than the TA-control potentially available) and we can speak of God's intentional will (what God wants to happen) and permissive will (what God allows to happen).  Degree of control varies:  for some events the influence of active TA is little or none;  for other events, including some involving human "decisions" and action, God exerts total control.  Because God decides when to relinquish some control, God's governance of nature (during formative history and salvation history) is complete, and there are no unsupervised events even though unguided events may occur.  { This "partial control" view is compatible with human free will (and moral responsibility for our thoughts and actions), but is not compatible with determinism, either theological (with total control by God) or physical (with all results precisely determined by natural causality). }  Most events are natural, with occasional miraculousTA.
      My "dual control" theory seems to be supported by the combining of divine action and human action in Exodus 17:11, when Moses prayed on a hill above the field where Joshua was defending Israel against attack: "As long as Moses held up his hands [to ask for and receive God's power and blessing for Joshua's action] the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning."  Eventually, the combination of faithful prayer (by Moses) and faithful action (by Joshua) brought victory.  An application based on my interpretation (which is held with humility) can be a useful guideline for living:  God wants us to pray as if everything depended on Him, take responsible action (in line with His commandments) as if everything depended on us, and trust Him for the results of living by faith.
      My personally functional theory does not claim to be "the correct worldview" or to answer the tough questions in theology.  Instead, it is "a practical 'working theory' for everyday living," offered with the modest hope that it will help you interpret what I've written about theology and science, if you can see how my theological views have influenced the concepts in my web-pages and the way these concepts are expressed.
      What is the correct worldview?  I'm not sure.  Due to inherent limits on all forms of human knowledge (in theology, science,...) it is wise for all of us to remain appropriately humble when making claims about "the way things are."


      Divine Guidance of Natural Process
      The following statements about natural process and theology are from an excellent book, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation.
      The editor, Keith Miller, says: "The Bible describes a God who is sovereign over all natural events, even those we attribute to chance such as the casting of lots or tomorrow's weather.  This perspective has been placed into a modern scientific context by some theologians who see God's action exercised through determining the indeterminacies of natural processes.  God is thus seen as affecting events both at the quantum level and at the level of large chaotic systems.  Regardless of how one understands the manner in which God exercises sovereignty over natural process, chance events certainly pose no theological barrier to God's action in and through the evolutionary process."
    In another chapter, Terry Gray — who "comes from a fairly conservative Calvinistic theological perspective" — says, "I believe that Scripture teaches that God is absolutely sovereign over all his creation.  Whatever comes to pass was ordained by him. ... Thus all of the events envisioned by an evolutionist are under God's oversight (as are all events).  This includes random events such as mutations, chance encounters of particular genomes, recombination events, mating events in populations, which sperm actually fertilizes a given egg, and so forth.  From a human perspective these are all random events.  From God's perspective, exactly what he ordained to occur occurs. ... God is as much in control of the outcome of the process as he is if he had zapped things into existence without any process.  Obviously, this is not the random, undirected evolution of atheistic naturalists."  {back to Interpretations of Natural Events}

      And from my page about Common Sense in Quantum Mechanics,
      Divine Design:  It seems clear that wave-particle duality, which is the foundation of quantum mechanics, is one of the many properties of nature that are necessary for life-allowing solar energy and the biochemistry of carbon-based life.  Probably, the unfamiliar strangeness of QM — with quantum behaviors differing from everyday behaviors — is just a byproduct of a universe that has been designed to support our existence.  .....
      It seems that quantum strangeness, which causes everyday normality, is necessary for a universe that allows intelligent life.  And perhaps our everyday reality isn't as normal as it usually seems, and as most of us (including theists) usually assume.  According to the Bible, there are supernatural beings (God, loyal angels, and rebel angels) who can interact with humans and with other parts of the natural realm.  Maybe the quantum structure of nature plays some role in the interactive relationship between the natural and supernatural.  Or maybe not.
      Theistic Knowledge of Natural Process:  By definition, the knowledge capabilities of an omniscient being are not constrained by the limitations on human knowledge.  For humans, there are natural limitations in observing (due to quantum uncertainties) and predicting (due to the "amplifications of small initial differences to produce divergent histories" that are studied by chaos theory).  But imagine that a natural event is being observed by an all-knowing God who is not constrained by these limits on observation and prediction, who therefore can predict what will occur if natural process continues in an unguided "random roll of the dice" mode.
      Theistic Guidance of Natural Process:  Or, instead of remaining a passive observer, God might influence natural process and thereby convert one natural-appearing result (that would have occurred without any theistic guidance) into another normal-appearing result (that actually occurs).  Although this is only speculation, it seems that one possible mechanism for natural-appearing theistic action is for God to convert potentialities into actualities:  from the multitude of quantum possibilities that might occur, God chooses to make one of these actually occur.  In this way, God could influence (or determine) natural events by controlling some (or all) uncertainty at the quantum level, which could be done in a way such that events appear normal and statistically random during this theistically guided natural process.  /  Since quantum interactions occur constantly, not just during "observations" by humans, God could control everything that occurs.  God can control everything, but does God control everything?  { This difficult theological question is examined — but without reaching any "answers" — earlier in this page. }

      Theistic Action or Divine Action?
      According to deism, God acted at the beginning of history (to design and create the universe) but has not been active during history.  According to theism, God acted both at the beginning of history and during history.  I chose the term theistic action to distinguish between the actions of God in theories of deism and theism.  In theism the human belief is theistic, but are the actions of God (according to this view) also theistic?  I'm not sure, and I'm willing to change my terms from "theistic action" to "divine action" if I become convinced that this is more linguistically correct.  { note: If "theistic" is analogous in theistic action and theistic evolution, similar questions can be asked about each term. }

      Other pages examine related ideas:
      Theistic Evolution explains why evolutionary creationists (who think natural evolution was God's method of creation) should be treated with respect as fellow Christians, and why the phrase "God of the gaps" should be eliminated from our vocabulary, and it asks a tough question: What makes a theory of evolution "theistic" rather than deistic?
      If God wants us to acknowledge Him as Creator, why is there any evidence that might lead rational people to propose "atheistic evolution" as an explanation?  A page asking "Why isn't God more obvious? Can we prove God?" concludes that "An intellectual assent to theological propositions is only the beginning of an authentic Christian "born again" decision that leads to living by faith — with spiritual support from God, who promises to provide believers with whatever they need (faith, hope, love, joy, courage, strength, mercy, wisdom,...) for a full life — by making daily decisions on the basis of trust in God's character and promises."
      With a single divine thought-command (and sustaining theistic action), did God recently create a universe with an Appearance of Age that looks the same as if it had been created billions of years ago, with a detailed history of "what would have happened since the beginning" even though it never happened?  Or did God create an old universe with Animal Death before Human Sin?
      If scientists don't know for certain whether the history of the universe actually has been totally natural, is assuming "it was totally natural" always the best scientific strategy for finding truth?  This question is examined in an overview-summary of methodological naturalism.

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Theistic Action

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