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Peacocke and Polkinghorne: Comparison of Models of Divine Action

Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne are two important British scientist-theologians active in the last 20 years. Both have written importantly on God’s action in the world (see a classification of theories of divine action).

Though neither thinker would concede that they agreed with the other, their positions are not as dissimilar as has sometimes appeared. In particular, Polkinghorne’s recent essays make clear that his conjectures about the causal joint are not so adventurously precise as they first appeared (see Polkinghorne’s view of divine action). In a paper originating in 1993 he writes:

It is important to recognise that, in this scheme, the significance of the sensitivity of chaotic systems to the effects of small triggers is diagnostic of their requiring to be treated in holistic terms and of their being open to top-down causality through the input of active information. It is not proposed that this is the localized mechanism by which agency is exercised. I do not suppose that either we or God interact with the world by the carefully calculated adjustment of the infinitesmal details of initial conditions so as to bring about a desired result. The whole thrust of the proposal is expressed in terms of the complete holistic situation, not in terms of the clever manipulation of bits and pieces (emphasis ours). It is, therefore, a proposal for realizing a true kind of top-down causality. It may fittingly be called contextualism, for it supposes the behavior of parts to be influenced by their overall context.Polkinghorne, J, ‘The metaphysics of divine action’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell, Nancey Murphy and Arthur Peacocke (Vatican City: Vatican...

and in 1996

It seems entirely conceivable that God also interacts with the creation through the input of active information into its open physical process. We glimpse, in a rudimentary way, what might lie behind theology’s language of God’s “guiding” and “drawing on” creation, language often associated with talk of the Spirit working immanently on the inside of creationPolkinghorne, J, ‘Chaos theory and divine action’ in Religion and Science: History, Method and Dialogue ed. by WM Richardson and WJ Wildman (London: Routledge, 1996) p248

This is very close to Peacocke’s emphases on divine immanence, whole-part causation, and God as the ultimate boundary condition (see Peacocke’s view of divine action). Granted, Polkinghorne still wants to speak of the ontological openness of non-linear systems, and has been rightly criticised for the logic by which he arrives at this.See for example Murphy, N, ‘Divine action in the natural order: Buridan’s ass and Schrodinger’s cat’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell,...However, a system-open-to-God-as-overall-context is very similar to Peacocke’s whole-part-influence-on-the-world-as-a-whole, given that they both agree that

  • the future is not known to God - God is working with at least a genuine epistemic openness - and

  • divine action can have particular effects.

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

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