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God of the Gaps

There was a long period in Western thought in which God seemed to be progressively edged out of descriptions of the development and functioning of the world - both as described by physics and by biology. We summarised this period briefly in the love affair gone wrong.

In particular it was seen how difficult it was to sustain descriptions of the physical world in which God acted as a cause complementing physical causes - filling in a gap left by scientific narratives. The phrase ‘God of the gaps’, coined by C.A.Coulson,Coulson, CA, (1958) Science and Christian Belief (London: Fontana, 1958) p41has become proverbial as a description of bad theologies of the activity of God.

The reason is simply that as science advances, so the causal ‘gap’ often seems to disappear. A few examples should make this clear:

  • Acceptance that force could act at a distance eliminated the need for God to mediate the force of gravity (see An Introduction to Divine Action: Isaac Newton’s God).

  • The understanding that living things were made of the same components and obeyed the same laws as non-living things eliminated the need for God to be the breather of life into the living.

  • The understanding that species could be transformed by the effects of natural selection on naturally-occurring variants eliminated the need for God to design each creature individually.

Three strategies seem to offer themselves in the face of this problem: God ‘banished’, God ‘before’, or God ‘behind’.

  • “God banished” - this strategy abandons talk of God’s acting in the physical world. This is the strategy adopted by atheism, sometimes motivated by a form of positivism.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp50-54For different reasons it was also the strategy of Bultmann’s existentialism.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp54-56

  • “God before” - some form of deism, God being described as the first cause of all things, but as not otherwise active in the unfolding cosmos.The rise of deism is discussed by Brooke, 1991, especially 167-71; what is, arguably, a new form of the strategy is found in the formulations of Gordon Kaufman [Kaufman, G, God the Problem (Cambridge,...

  • “God behind” - the third obvious strategy is to posit that God acts ‘behind’ the system of causation, at another level not susceptible to physical description. This goes back to Thomas Aquinas and his discussion of primary and secondary causation.Aquinas, T, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III: Providence transl. by Vernon J.Bourke (Garden City, NY.: Doubleday & Co., 1956) pp226-35, Summa Theologia, Volume 14:...

In the light of these ‘safe’ strategies, which are all forms of ‘separate development’ for scientific and theological description, it is striking how many recent theologians have wanted to pursue a fourth path - they have regarded the system of causation that physics offers us as open, containing inherent gaps which allow God to effect particular actions within the system of natural causes without being subject to the risk that science will close the gaps.

This strategy has a great deal to do with the contemporary perception that what happens in the real universe is the result of the interplay of physical laws and an ingredient of chance. We do not live in the deterministic universe of Laplace (see Determinism, indeterminism and their implications), but in one in which it is not even theoretically possible to predict in minute detail what will happen next.See The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Shaking the Foundations: the implications of quantum theory, and God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp131-35.

In order to proceed with our investigation of divine action we must first set down a) what might be the relationship between physical law and divine action and b) exactly what might be meant by ‘chance’. See law and chance.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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