Q&R : God does not control but does intimately interact: A Contradiction?

Question

I am about halfway into A More Christlike God (I preordered A More Christlike Word a few months ago as well!). Your work is refreshing to my soul. In fact, I conduct research among secular, Gen Z college students, and some of your insights address precisely their struggles with the Christian faith, most notably the wrath of God and Christ pitted against the Father. Anyway, as I have been reading A More Christlike God, I’m struggling with what seems to be a contradiction of sorts, and I would greatly value your insight.

In Chapter 7 (pp. 129-32 in my copy) you discuss “secondary causes.” Here, you discuss natural law and human freedom and state that “God doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do.” This is both difficult and refreshing provided my background. However, in Chapter 8 (pp. 148-50) you discuss panentheism and write, “Our Creator undergirds, permeates and ultimately relates to his beloved creation at all times. God participates in our universe and our universe participates in him, depending on him for existence… Perhaps God is existence himself.”

To me, this appears contradictory to the discussion regarding “secondary cause.” If God permeates and intimately relates to his creation (and I’m assuming all creation, not just humanity), then how is it that he is not directly the “cause or control” of nature or human beings? It seems to me that if God intimately relates to his creation at all times and is existence itself, he would be a direct cause of catastrophes, etc. How can we separate that God is intimately involved, yet not a/the direct cause?

Response

Thanks for the very astute question.
If we boil it down, here is your essential question as I distill it:

Is it not a contradiction to say:
1. God does not directly cause or control secondary causes (natural law and human freedom)
AND
2. God permeates and intimately relates to all of creation?

Now you’re really into the deep end! Beautiful.
The answer is there in the verbs and how they relate to the nature of God.
If God does not relate to creation via direct control (force, coercion) then how does he relate to it (and indeed reign in it)? By love, of course!

How does he relate to humanity and creation by love? Socrates called it “the wise persuasion of love” (picked up by Simone Weil, George P. Grant and Fr. John Behr).

And if we break down what that looks like, without imposing his control over creation, his love reigns IN creation by consent and participation. This is observable both among humans and within nature. He does not control your decisions. He does not cause your decisions. Rather, he consents to your decisions. We know that, especially when we make bad decisions and can’t blame God. But how does he participate in your decisions? Through the indwelling presence of the Spirit via the human conscience, by trying to warn and guide and counsel you from the inside through ‘the wise persuasion of love,’ and when you make poor decisions, refusing to leave you but continuing to bear your sins and sorrows with you toward transformation.

This is also observable in nature. Does God literally cause or control every gust of wind or every death among the animals? Does God directly cause and control each wave of the sea or every bird that stops by my feeder? Of course not. He consents to the authentic play of nature to act according to its nature. But then how does he permeate and interact with the natural world? As Creator, all things were made by him (ultimately) and are sustained by him (in them they have their being). The more important question is how he reigns in and interacts with the universe by love? And this is where mediation is essential. Humanity images God in this world, mediating and uniting heaven and earth/spirit and matter in ourselves. And we do this the same way God does: through consent and participation. We don’t and can’t cause or control much, but God’s love shows up, interacts, and influences this world through willing human mediators of his care. Care, not control, and when we do it otherwise, things get ugly.

Again, I think this is mainly obvious if we start with direct observation, not saying how things should work but simply describing reality as it is.

Now here is what’s at stake. A God who could, would, or should reign over creation and humanity by force-of-will or violating authentic otherness as a controller (i.e. a certain Calvinistic version of God) suffers from two serious glitches:

1. God is evil: the God who directly causes and controls earthquakes, tsunamis, serial killers, and rapists would be evil. Worse than the devil.
2. God is incompetent: the God who could prevent earthquakes, tsunamis, serial killers, and rapists seems unable to do so. Less than the devil.

This creates the classic problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, where does evil come from? The real problem is that this way of framing terms imagines power as force, as control, as domination … and these conceptions of power compromise the very nature of love, which is to say, the nature of God, so that they are set against each other. Rather, Christian tradition treats Love as God’s essential nature so that whatever we say about power can only be a facet or adjective of love. What is all-powerful love, then? It’s the love that never gives up, never resorts to force or coercion or control, always continues to permeate and influence and participate in our lives by love, including undergoing the secondary causes with us and endlessly working by love for our redemption. In other words, “unfailing love” is actually a force more powerful than control because it can overcome without violating freedom itself.

But this is also why it takes so long and is so messy. It’s what makes the Cross of Christ necessary in God’s project to restore all things. It’s why we cling to the love revealed there (God’s self-giving, radically-forgiving, co-suffering love) as the means by which redemption and resurrection will come.

I hope this response helps somewhat, bearing in mind that we speak as toddlers with blunt crayons when pondering the mysteries of God, humanity, and creation, and that the Cross of Christ is a divine response we experience as we behold it, not a philosophy that can be calculated.

blessings!
bj
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More