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Polkinghorne’s View of Divine Action

The best way to compare theories of divine action in detail is to ask - what, for each theory, is ‘the causal joint’ at which God - as a transcendent, immaterial world cause - interacts particularly with causative factors in the material world?

John Polkinghorne is the scientist-theologian who has made the boldest attempt to characterise God’s interaction with the world science describes the causal joint at which God might interact with the world. In Science and Providence (1989)London: SPCK, 1989Polkinghorne seemed not only to locate the causal joint of particular divine action but also to suggest a means by which God might effect such action. His account of providential action included not only such classic instances in the Christian tradition as the virginal conception and empty-tomb-raising of Jesus, but even the validity of prayer for rain.

The key scientific observation for Polkinghorne is that non-linear systems of the sort that exhibit chaos are exquisitely sensitive to the conditions in which they develop, and hence their development very rapidly becomes unpredictable.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp131-35. Real situations of human interest are full of such systems - it is not only the great red spot of Jupiter but the human heart itself which is thought to exhibit...That much is generally accepted. But Polkinghorne has gone further and proposed that these large-scale systems are ontologically indeterminate, not only unpredictable in terms of our knowledge but genuinely open to the future,He is famous, or notorious, for having had a t-shirt printed with the slogan ‘Epistemology models Ontology’. However, the ontological indeterminacy of chaotic systems is very much open to question,...and that God can therefore influence each one of them by an input of ‘active information’ (without energy input, which could be detectable). God respects the regularities of the physical laws God has created and holds in being, but nevertheless has freedom to work through these indeterminacies.

Polkinghorne also embraces dual-aspect monism - the same world being seen as having both physical and mental or spiritual attributes - and he has written of a ‘noetic world’Science and Creation (London: SPCK, 1988) Ch.5.- that aspect of existence to which complex mental organisation gives access. Though he derives the term ‘noetic’ from the Greek word for ‘mind’ he makes it clear that he thinks of this world in very broad terms - others would prefer the term ‘spiritual’. There may be non-material inhabitants of this world, not merely the truths of mathematics, but also ‘active intelligences ... which traditionally we would call angels.’Polkinghorne, 1988, 76

This thought-aspect of the cosmos might be the medium by which God’s information enters physical systems. This would be consonant with the notion that it is to human minds, the material structure with the greatest noetic aspect, that God is able to make his most sensitive and articulate self-communication.

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

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