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Tracy, Thomas F. “Particular Providence and the God of the Gaps.”

Thomas Tracy’s paper takes up a persistent modern problem in relating scientific descriptions of the world as a natural order and theological claims about divine action. Do some traditional ways of speaking about divine action require “gaps” in the causal order and therefore incompleteness in scientific explanations? This appears to be the case, for example, if we claim that God acts in the world at particular times and places to affect the unfolding course of events. Must this kind of theological claim compete with scientific descriptions of the world, so that we cannot both explain an event scientifically and affirm that it as a particular divine action?

Tracy considers three strategies which reply to these questions. The first avoids conflict between scientific and theological claims by insisting that, strictly speaking, God does not act in history but rather enacts history as a whole. Its paradigmatic modern development comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher, who holds that every event both stands in a relation of absolute dependence upon God’s immediate agency and is integrated into a complete system of natural causes. On this account, particular events can be singled out as acts of God only in the sense that they especially evoke in us a recognition of God’s universal activity, or play a distinctive role in advancing divine purposes “built into” the causal processes of nature. This eliminates any risk of conflict between science and theology, but it does so at the cost of imposing significant limits on the claims that can be made, for example, about the person and work of Christ, about the divine-human interaction, and about human freedom and the problem of evil. Tracy considers a contemporary and widely influential version of this strategy developed by Gordon Kaufman. Unfortunately, Kaufman’s proposal, Tracy argues, leaves us with a series of questions about how God can be understood to enact history without acting in history.

The second strategy affirms that God does act in the world to affect the course of events, but holds that this does not require any gaps in the causal structures of nature. There are at least two recent proposals that take this form. Brian Hebblethwaite contends that God acts in and through the causal powers of creatures, so that the whole network of created agencies is “pliable, or flexible, to the providential hand of God” without any gaps in the natural order. This leaves the crucial puzzle un solved, however; for if God affects the course of events once they are underway, then an explanation of those events that appeals strictly to other finite causes must be incomplete. John Compton has suggested another way to pursue this second strategy. Just as we routinely describe certain movements of the human body both as a series of physical events and as intentional action, so we can describe events in the world both as part of a causally complete natural order and as acts of God. Compton’s proposal hinges on the claim that the language we use in discussing physical events, on the one hand, and intentional actions, on the other, are not interdependent. But this claim, Tracy argues, cannot be sustained even within the terms of Compton’s own discussion. These two versions of the second strat egy, then, are undone by internal inconsistencies.

The third strategy grants that theologically motivated talk of particular divine action carries with it a commitment to the causal incompleteness of the natural order, and then argues that this is at least consonant with contemporary physical theory. Two key issues must be addressed by any such proposal. First, a case must be made that the natural sciences now describe a world whose causal structure is “open” in certain respects. Second, it must be shown that this openness is relevant to the theological concern with divine action. Tracy argues that chaos theory, for all its power to demonstrate the limits of predictability, does not provide the needed openness, since it presupposes an unbroken causal determinism. More promising are interpretations of quantum mechanics that acknowledge the role in nature of indeterministic chance. With regard to the second question, Tracy contends that such chance (whether at the quantum level or elsewhere) will be theologically interesting if the determination of such events by God can make a macroscopic difference. If so, then God could affect the course of events without disrupting the structures of nature, since they will provide for both novelty and regularity in the world.

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