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.
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,has become proverbial as a description of bad theologies of the activity of
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 Newtons 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 Gods acting in the physical world. This is the strategy
adopted by atheism, sometimes motivated by a form of positivism.For different reasons it was also the strategy of Bultmanns existentialism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr.
Source: God, Humanity and the
Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999)