How does God interact with the world?

© Luis Tapia,

Last week we had a discussion at The Faraday Institute on how God acts in the world. How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day, and his providence? We’re not talking about miracles here (which do happen, and by definition are special signs of God’s grace), but about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy. Also, what about ‘miracles of timing’? How does God answer my prayers without rearranging the whole cosmos every time? Of course an all-powerful God can rearrange the whole cosmos whenever he chooses, but at times he seems to use the normal workings of the world to carry out his purposes.

For some the question of how God acts is not particularly troubling: God does what he wants. For others, John Polkinghorne included, it would be both intellectually lazy and ungrateful not to give time to the question ‘how exactly does God act?’

In the Bible God reveals himself as an all-powerful all-loving being who creates and controls everything that exists, so bringing about his purposes. God’s ultimate revelation of himself was through his son Jesus, who set us the example of doing a lot of praying. The early theologian Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible was that God upholds creation and established laws that govern everything, though he is not constrained by them. Later in church history, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the unchanging God as the timeless primary cause of all things. All the other processes of the world involve time and therefore change, and he referred to these as the ‘secondary causes’. It is these secondary causes that scientists investigate and seek to understand.

Certain physicists, Laplace included, then proposed that the universe is deterministic. If we were intelligent enough, the theory goes, we could predict every event though the behaviour of its constituent parts. However, we now know that we do not live in a deterministic universe and so quantum uncertainty, chaos theory, emergent phenomena and the complexity of the human brain have all been suggested as the ‘causal joint’ through which God works. Others find the notion of a ‘causal joint’ unsatisfactory because it implies that God is not continually upholding and sustaining everything that exists. Of course during these discussions God continues to act, hopefully amused rather than angered by our philosophical probing.

This week we hosted William E. Carroll from Oxford University, who gave a seminar on Creation and Contemporary Science: The Legacy of Thomas Aquinas. I am grateful that Carroll articulated a theory of God’s action that I had tried (and failed) to express during last week’s discussion on God’s action.

Aquinas’s understanding of how God acts in the world does justice to the Biblical account of the world, and happens to do justice to the scientific account too. God transcends the created world and is neither part of it nor constrained by it. So God acts in the world without being a ‘competing cause’, so to speak. We observe gravity, the speed of light, the fundamental forces within and between particles, and so on. These forces and constants are acting in what could be described as the ‘horizontal dimension’ of our experience. God both sustains the horizontal dimension and acts in the ‘vertical dimension’. Clearly Aquinas view does not completely satisfy the scores of theologians and philosophers who have worked on the question of God’s action in recent decades, but for me it makes sense of what we know of God.

13 thoughts on “How does God interact with the world?

  1. paulstuartanderson February 11, 2012 / 7:14 pm

    Thanks Ruth for this fascinating piece. Because you put it after the “Fatherhood and Suffering” post, it made me think about the relationship between biblical and scientific language. Your post made me think of the wonderful passage in Job where God describes his involvement in the natural world. There the language is personalised and gendered: God gives orders to the morning, rebukes nature, fathers drops of dew (there is also a motherhood idiom). Its language of caring parenthood (providing food, giving the wild donkey a home) is picked up in Jesus’s words in the Gospels, where the even regular processes of nature are described in the same idiom of parenthood: clothing lilies, feeding birds. Jesus also rebukes nature and has authority over natural and spiritual forces.
    Do you think that Aquinas’s language, and modern theological accounts, veer away from the personal and prefer a more neutral register of causation, interaction, upholding and sustaining? Perhaps this idiom brings these accounts closer to the register of modern science. But as you mentioned in the Fatherhood and Suffering post, the Bible prefers the personal (and generally masculine) idiom, insisting on God’s authority and care. That personal idiom bridges the divide between God’s involvement in the natural world (the horizontal dimension you mention) and his saving and authoritative action of redeeming, healing, restoring and forgiving. The more neutral scientific language makes it harder for me to see natural world (giving orders to the morning) and God’s ongoing work of salvation (in Jesus) as part of the same divine relationship to the world.


  2. Ruth Bancewicz February 15, 2012 / 10:47 am

    Interesting point. The OT describes everything that happens as being directly done by God, including the bad stuff – that is partly what makes theodicy discussion difficult. I think it’s mainly cultural differences in language, but perhaps some theological stuff too (as a theologian…)

    In speaking about God’s action I always talk about God’s regular sustaining – that’s what we study in science – and then sometimes God works in other ways.

    But I think it comes down to the people involved in science now. It’s no longer just Christians (who were largely the ones involved in the scientific revolution), it’s people of all religions and non, so to use God-language would be to exclude ones non-believing colleagues, and we don’t do that. If you hang out with more Christians working in science you might hear differently! It doesn’t mean that we do anything differently, it’s just that we recognise that the whole thing is being sustained by God’s providence.


  3. Trey Medley February 16, 2012 / 3:14 pm

    Have you looked at the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg on this? Although Polkinghorne doesn’t seem to be particularly a fan, I think Pannenberg has some really good points. Specifically, Pannenberg argues that God has a dynamic interaction with the world that is traceable back to his initial act of creation. This initial act, in order for both God’s actions and the subsequent created universe’s activity to be contingent (libertarian freedom), necessarily requires a type of “continuous creation” on the part of God or else the universe would not continue to exist. Pannenberg understands this interaction, more or less, in terms of God’s manifestation of himself via the Spirit. He describes this in terms of ‘field,’ in terms initially proposed by William Faraday and developed through Einsteinian relativity (which is why Polkinghorne doesn’t like it). Ultimately, he finally admitted (after his retirement) that he was speaking metaphorically, thus hopefully laying to rest some of the speculation regarding his possible panenthiesm (not pantheism), but it’s interesting nonetheless. The two primary volumes I would look at if this is interesting to you is the volume of Essays *Towards a Theology of Nature* edited by Ted Peters (but ignore Peters’s introduction its not very accurate) and the second volume of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology.


    • Ruth Bancewicz February 16, 2012 / 8:36 pm

      Yes, I read about this in Rodney Holder’s new book, ‘The Heavens Declare,
      Natural Theology and the Legacy of Karl Barth’. Rodney wasn’t convinced it was helpful – as you say the use of ‘field’ is a bit vague. Pannenberg is interesting though!


      • Trey Medley February 16, 2012 / 8:42 pm

        Well I’m familiar with the work a bit, but I don’t think it’s a very good treatment of Pannenberg (and quite frankly upon completing his doctoral studies Pannenberg almost immediately rejected nearly every aspect of his former Tutor’s theology). He does a much better job developing the idea of field in his Systematic theology than other works, but Pannenberg requires the reader to do a lot of backwork in his sources to really understand where he is coming from. Nevertheless, he’s one of the few who show a preference for field theory over quantum theory and does eventually note that the best possible position would be to examine one of the many forms of quantum field theory. (Side note on creation, his work on a ‘field theory of information’ is interesting if underdeveloped too). Anyway, I’m probably a bit biased since I’ve been working on Pannenberg for the past two and a half years.


  4. Michael Bird March 31, 2013 / 1:44 pm

    How does god interact with the universe and man? The answers to that question, are speculative thought!
    You can believe your interpretation of the Bible, or of the findings of science (If you’re a believing Christian scientist) but ultimately, if you doubt those authoritative sources, then you need a more reliable source, for a meaningfully true explanation and understanding.

    Is there such a source for an understandable comprehensive explanation? I believe that there is! It does though, rather depend on your personal beliefs, as to whether such sources are reliable. But that doubt applies to all viewpoints on reality. As a clue to the sources I am referring to, I will point out, that it is within our own personal consciousness and our personal experience and interpretation of reality, that we know anything, or understand anything! It would be foolish, if not impossible, to place reliance ‘wholly’ on what we view as, sources beyond, or outside of our own consciousness, for it is here, that ‘belief systems’ and ‘interpretations’ have their influence.

    Ideas and conceptions of reality – especially about existence and nature of its source – are too easily the product of speculation and belief. So there is a great need for some datum point, that can provide assurance. Thus religions and sciences arise, to fill that gap. Are these reliable enough to truly answer the naturally arising questions mankind is heir to? I think not, as they simply create a continuing flow of further questions. That, is simply the nature of our existence!. Again, this is why, there is a need for truer more extensive and more reliable answers! Without such a more reliable source of answers, to these ultimate questions, we simply continue to rely on Religious belief, or scientific theorizing. Both, in my view, are as bad as one another.

    There are ‘assumptions’ upon which any view of reality is promulgated. Within both Religion and Science, there are ideas and concepts, which are ‘accepted ideas’, or ‘assumptions’. One main assumption, is the idea of ‘separateness! i.e. For science, it is that, we exist in a ‘physical’ universe – coupled to the idea – that by relying on our interpretations of our physical sensory input, we can understand the whole of existence. In this scenario, the brain is the seat of conscious awareness. And so on it goes, with ideas of ‘separation’!

    Personally, I find the very concept of ‘separation’ to be ludicrous! For if God is believed to be the source of reality and if that God is All-That-Is – then there can be no ‘other’ kind of reality! It is all ‘one’!
    Even in the scientific view – of a physical universe of ‘Time’ and ‘Space’ – the ideas of Man being ‘separate’ from natural processes, is seemingly accepted. We surely do not exist, in any realistic sense, as separate from Nature, or the physical universe. Whatever it is, we are surely, a fully integrated expression of it!

    So my final assertion is this!. The nature of reality, in total, is created, by what can best be termed ‘Consciousness’! We understand that consciousness, exists (in whatever form we conceive it) in this world. We have it, we believe that other life forms have it, by degree. This view of consciousness, needs to expand greatly – to include the nature of reality itself – including what we view as ‘God’! If we can expand this view of consciousness, to include all, then it can more easily be understood, that consciousness, is not merely a function of physical beings, but is how All-That-Is, expresses itself – in creating reality structures like this one.

    ‘Matter’ is not a discrete separate thing. It is an expression, or creation, of fundamental consciousness. All expressed realities, are created by consciousness, and are consciousness in action. There is no separation, between source and expressed reality.


    • Ruth Bancewicz April 3, 2013 / 3:05 pm

      That’s interesting. I’m a bit confused though – if matter is an expression of consciousness, where does that leave us. Ae we just in a world of our own creation? Can we trust anything our eyes tell us? Or am I taking you too literally?


      • Michael April 3, 2013 / 7:43 pm

        Hi Ruth,

        If matter (The universe) is an expression of ‘consciousness’ (But ‘what’ kind of consciousness?) then yes, you do create all that you experience, in ‘physical reality’! As for: “Can we trust anything our eyes tell us?” The question itself, implies that you think – like othodox science – that it is through our direct sensory evidence, that we should best understand reality.

        That understanding – by that method – would be a long time coming – if it is true, that consciousness is its source? The source of our experience of consciousness, is not ‘interactions of physical processes’?.


        • Ruth Bancewicz April 4, 2013 / 3:40 pm

          Hi Michael,

          OK thanks for the clarification. I think that direct sensory experience AND others way of experiencing things – spiritual mainly (as should hopefully be clear from my other blog posts) are important ways to experience the world.

          I didn’t find your second paragraph that clear – I’m not sure what you’re referring to.



          • Michael April 4, 2013 / 5:45 pm

            Hi Ruth,

            Re: “I didn’t find your second paragraph that clear – I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”

            Well, I mean, that if one views our reality here, in ‘physical’ terms, then understanding what consciousness is and how it explains how God, or source, relates to our ‘physical experience’, would be a difficult path for science to take – unless it embraces the conception that ‘consciousness’ is ‘physical reality’s’ primary source, or cause. In other words; physical reality is an experience that our consciousness is creating. (Consciousness as a whole and ours included)

            I don’t want to get into further discussion of the nuts and bolts of my particular understanding of reality, here. I merely want to state, that what is termed ‘God’, is expressed as a kind of spiritual consciousness. A consciousness which imbues every aspect of every reality. It is all consciousness, even what we describe as matter, or physical reality.

            I’ve just read your ‘About me’ and understand who you are, better.
            My view is, that science and religion ‘both’ need to understand the fundamental nature of reality, in better terms. Neither, are presently able to do this, because both have ‘views’ and ‘beliefs’ which obscure their capacity to look in the right direction.

            Science is antagonistic toward religious views, because it thinks there is no physical evidence of, or need for a ‘God’ to explain it. Religion, shoots itself in the foot, because it ‘knows’ there is a ‘God’ or ‘Non-physical source’ but can’t meet the demands of scientific validation. So, until both sides go beyond their present positions, there will be little ‘coming together’ of science and religion. Though it will occur.

            In my view, the investigation of what our consciousness ‘Is’ and what it is capable of, is the key to understanding this division of views.

            You can email me if you wish further discussion!.



            • Ruth Bancewicz April 5, 2013 / 2:23 pm

              Interesting! Though I don’t think you understand me or the subject matter i’m writing about – read a few more of my posts and you’ll see where I’m coming from. In my view, and this is shared by many others, science is part of a Christian’s worship of God (well not for everyone, but for Christians who are scientists) and Christain faith is validated by lots of methods – though it’s the same as a relationship with another person – you can’t scientifically prove its value, that evidence comes from other places, and to try to analyse it scientifically would be to destroy the relationship. The science vs religion, and religion has to be proved memes are to me myths based on no evidence.


              • Michael April 5, 2013 / 5:31 pm

                I’m not trying to understand you. I’m responding entirely and only, to the questions posed here. i.e.

                “Last week we had a discussion at The Faraday Institute on how God acts in the world. How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day, and his providence? We’re not talking about miracles here (which do happen, and by definition are special signs of God’s grace), but about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy. Also, what about ‘miracles of timing’? How does God answer my prayers without rearranging the whole cosmos every time? Of course an all-powerful God can rearrange the whole cosmos whenever he chooses, but at times he seems to use the normal workings of the world to carry out his purposes.”

                I think I do understand this particular subject matter. Though I may understand it differently than you do. As you say, there are many beliefs and interpretations of reality, shared by various groupings. Human belief structures vary widely.

                I’m answering the questions posed in the quoted passage. i.e. ” How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day?…about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy.”

                The simple answer is related to the nature of reality in fundamental terms.. which is best understood as ‘consciousness’. Understand consciousness and you understand God and how reality functions.
                In my view, science will never understand consciousness, until it accepts that consciousness plays a fundamental part in existence. Those with religious belief also need to understand this too.

                If you are trying to understand how God interacts with this ‘seemingly’ physical reality we experience. My answer is that we are not physical beings, we are spiritual beings, immersed in a particular dimension of reality. Our experience here is created by each of us. We are in a sense, expressions of what ‘God’ is believed to be. If you want to find ourt how God interacts with the world, then investigating our human consciousness, is the gateway. As the Bible says: We are made in the image and likeness of God!
                It would make sense then – if we want to know how God interacts with the world – to study what we are!

                Even if one believes that God and this universe of matter, is a separate creation (Which viewpoint gives rise to such questions as “How does God interact with us?) the answers to such a question is surely, to investigate our own consciousness? Simply relying on religious beliefs, or on a science that views existence in material terms, does not provide answers to that question – because it presupposes a view, that this is a dimension of reality which is in some way ‘separate’ from ‘God’, or source. There is no separation. ‘God interacts through what we are – which is one with ‘God’. And if that assertion is true – as I believe it is – then understanding oneself, what our consciousness is, will answer how ‘God’ interacts with the world.

                Thanks for the discussion!




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