Divine Activity – December 2002

Question: H. Richard Niebuhr said in “The Responsible Self” something to the effect that God acts in all situations upon us. I assume this comment stems from HRN’s view of God as sovereign. What would a process take on this quote be? God is present in everything, but does God act on us through other rational agents and circumstances, or does God only act on us directly through our own psyches?

Publication Month: December 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The questioner understands that for process theology God acts directly in every occasion. I would not initially use the preposition “through” to describe that acting.  God participates indispensably in the  coming to be of each occasion of experience.  Of course, through this process, God influences other occasions as well, and that brings us to the main point of the question.  Does God act on us through other rational agents and circumstances? The answer is certainly, yes, but it is worthwhile unpacking that answer because it may not mean just what others would mean by the same answer.

Let’s review the basic process model. Each occasion comes into being as the creative synthesis of selected elements of its past.  In the case of occasions of human experience, that past is usually primarily the immediate past occasion of that person’s experience and the occasions that have just occurred the neurons making up the brain. Through these proximate occasions, one is profoundly influenced by events in the rest of the body and the wider world. Whitehead also allows for direct influences of occasions that are not spatiotemporally contiguous. He mentions mental telepathy as a mode of such influence.  He implies that more remote past occasions in one’s life may also directly influence present experience. But these speculations are not important for the present question.

Although God’s immediate causal efficacy in our lives is necessary to our existence and our freedom, if we consider the content of any one occasion, the past plays a far, far larger role.  My present experience is in massive continuity with my immediately preceding experience. The condition of my body, especially my brain, is immensely determinative. Social psychology shows how much my experience is formed over time by my family and the larger community of which I am a part. My socio-historical location, my gender, my race, and many other things explain a great deal about me.  Thus, for the most part, I am a product of other people and circumstances.  That I am not wholly so is because God is also present directly in my life. But the question with which we are concerned here  whether and how God affects me through other people and circumstances.

The answer, of course, is that God has affected those other people and circumstances that in turn affect me. We can think of this in two ways. First, in terms of long-term evolutionary and historical processes.  Second, in terms of intimately personal relations.

It is because of God that there are living things and that these have become more complex and support psyches or souls. Hence, obviously, God’s effects on us are mediated by billions of years of subtle influence on the course of events.  Without God, nothing would happen, but we may say with more emphasis, there could at best be the purely mechanical universe that so many, influenced by the modern scientific worldview, still posit. Obviously, this efficacy of God through others is of absolute importance.
But I suspect that the questioner has more personal relations in mind. Does God act on us through friends and mentors? Yes, certainly. God acts in them, and the way they relate to us is affected by the way God has acted in them. This is true in all relations whatsoever.

However, in the context of religious discourse, we usually single out particular cases. The church and other communities of faith have a very important role here. If we situate ourselves within a community of people who seek to optimize the influence of God in their lives, not only are we encouraged to orient ourselves in the same way, but also we benefit from the influence of people in whom God’s influence is effective and through whom, therefore, that influence is mediated to us.

It is important, however, not to exaggerate this. The members of the congregation are influenced by many things besides God.  They are products of their own past. Some may really believe that God calls them in ways that process theologians would judge distorted and even pernicious. Too often Christians substitute moral laws and doctrines for the immediate call of God.  Many of these laws and doctrines are benign, but some are not.  The identification of such laws and doctrines as divine will and teaching can lead to fanaticism. I could go on at length about the harm that can be done to individuals in faith communities by sincere believers who block the call of God by their religious beliefs and practices.

But God does break through all that again and again. There are individuals who are remarkably sensitive to the call of God in their lives. Often others recognize that.  Many of us can attest to the beauty of holiness that they, usually unconsciously, embody. God acts through them on us.

Even here we must be careful. These saints are still fallible creatures subject to many influences other than that of God. Their beliefs, and even their actions, never purely embody God’s call. Yet in a world that deviates so drastically from that call, their presence is a real light. That they, too, have feet of clay should not diminish our appreciation of the way God works through them to bless us.

Usually the kind of influence of which I have just written comes in personal relations. However, we can also be moved by others through their writings or even through stories about them. A few figures in the past have enormous influence even today.

I am writing this in December. In this month we who are Christian celebrate the birth of the one whose influence surpasses for us, and even for many who are not believers, all others. We are moved by the stories about him and by his teachings. We want his influence in our lives to increase. We find a peculiar complementarity between the way God works in us through Jesus and the way God works directly in us. We call the latter the Holy Spirit. We recognize the Holy Spirit through what we know of Jesus and the Holy Spirit witnesses to Jesus.

Even here we must be careful. Terrible things have been done and continue to be done by those who are influenced by Jesus and who believe that they are guided by the Holy Spirit. We can be terribly misled. But for us as Christians, it is God’s work in and through Jesus to which we appeal to recognize these distortions.-87