Saturday, February 27, 2010

God's action in the world

Note: this is a very early, initial, not-entirely-thought-through post on something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and something that, for me, is the biggest theological question. So it might not make complete sense. As always, please comment.

The other night I was driving to cell and was running late. I hit a red light, and a friend in the car joked that maybe God changed the light to red at that moment to slow me down and keep us safe.

This got me thinking, not for the first time, about how God acts in the world. It seems that there are two ways of thinking about this:
1. God intervenes at certain points in the world – to change a traffic light, to deflect a bullet, to heal an illness etc. God sometimes points his finger, says ‘zap’, and something happens. I call this the zap model.
2. God is continually doing stuff in the world, most of which we don’t notice. This is the continual model.

Biblically, there are many cases of God intervening by the zap model – mostly miracles (see here for a more detailed discussion of miracles). The main problem with the zap model is that it suggests that a lot of the time, God isn’t involved in the world. This contradicts the idea that God is constantly involved in the world, sustaining creation (e.g. Colossians 1.17).

The continual model makes more sense in my head, because it includes the assertion that God is always, without fail, involved in the world, never sitting back or ignoring it. Unusual events like the parting of the red sea can cause a bit of a problem to the continual model, but could possibly be explained by an argument along the lines of “God knew it would be needed so he set things in motion well beforehand so that, when Moses needed the sea to part, the ‘natural’ (bad word, sorry!) storm that caused the parting occurred at exactly the right time”.
Personally, it impresses me more that God could have to foresight and genius to know things that will be needed and set up millions of ‘coincidences’ a day to provide people with what they need. As has been argued before (can’t remember where), the real miracle is in the timing.

I definitely subscribe to the continual model, because of its consistency and its emphasis on God’s constant involvement. But I think it has one massive weakness – it makes prayer very difficult. The zap model makes prayer easy – you just pray for something, and hopefully God zaps. In the continual model, God is already doing loads of stuff, so it’s harder to get a clear picture of how and what to pray, and how it will make a difference, especially if God has already set lots of things in motion.

(This also touches on the question of why we pray – is it primarily to change God’s mind/plans about something, or is it primarily because we need to, to acknowledge his power and our dependence on him?)

Maybe the best model is some sort of hybrid of the zap and continual models. Anyone got any thoughts on all this?


James Doc said...

I hear what you are saying, and likewise this comment is early on in the thought process; how would you respond to God raising up new leaders eg Exodus 2:23-25?

Unknown said...

Sorry for delayed reply James. I don't really understand the question - those verses don't seem to be about new leaders.

Joe 50 said...

Methinks your last thought is the best - why not assert that God both 'zaps' and, er, 'continuates'? The fact that God is continually involved in the world doesn't mean that he has to do so in a way that always concords with the 'natural' (agree with the badness of that word!) order he has set up. Or in other words, He leaves Himself 'zap room'. Not that I disagree that His foresight leads him to arrange things accordingly through His continual working, but sometimes that same foresight will let events run a different course before 'zapping' them into shape.

As for your red light, it could be either. I guess what's more important is whether you received it as something from God or not. There are times when things happen to me in the seemingly natural order of things that I think 'that's God saying something to me', and sometimes it feels like I've been 'zapped' and sometimes I feel like I've been 'continuated'.

Anyway, I'm rambling. My main point is to say I don't see a theological-philosophical problem with asserting that God continually works in all things and that God works extraordinarily in many ways as well.