This is part of a blog series on Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts.
Charles Darwin, right at the end of Origin, used the term “entangled bank” to describe a slope on which plants and bushes are full of birds and insects while earthworms do their work underground. This became a metaphor for the interrelated beauty of the dynamic world of life that he saw.
Johnson asked how we can envision the work of God’s Spirit in light of what Darwin discovered about the entangled bank. It will no longer work to think of God as a king issuing decrees from above. Rather, he must somehow be working from below and from within. Her thesis is that God’s creative power works through his Spirit to make a world that can “evolve by the operation of its own natural powers, making it a partner in its own creation (p. 155).
She denies that this is deism. Deism would say that God gave the world a push and then left it to work according to natural laws. But the presence of God is not a factor in Deism. The presence of God is a big factor, though, in Johnson’s view.
She brings in what the New Testament says about God’s love. Admittedly this comes from the perspective of redemption rather than creation. But the idea that God works to draw rather than coerce cooperation applies to continuing creation as well,she says. So rather than think of God as a monarch ruling by orders and decrees, she wants to think of God as a lover changing the beloved by drawing out her best qualities. A human parent, friend, teacher, husband or wife seeks to call forth the best of what is already potential with those they love. So she conceives it to be with God and creation.
She give thumbnail sketches of several contemporary attempts to reconcile the independent development of the universe with God’s activity in creation. Rather than give my own thumbnail sketches of her thumbnail sketches, I will just name these theories.
There is single action theory (Gordon Kaufman, Shubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles), top-down causality (Arthur Peacocke), causal joint theory (Nancey Murphy, Robert Russell, George Ellis, John Polkinghorne), the organic model (Sallie McFague, Grace Jantzen), the kenotic position (John Hick, Kieth Ward, Paul Fiddes, John Haught), process thought (Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Ian Barbour, and David Griffin).
Johnson appreciates insights from all these. She, however, opts for a return to a classic philosophy. She thinks what is needed to understand the action of God and the independence of the universe, is already there in Thomas Aquinas. Thomas did not know about evolution. He worked with a static world-view. But, Johnson speculates, if he had known about the idea of evolution, he would have loved it. And it would have fit well within his philosophy about divine causes.
So Johnson develops a primary-secondary cause theory. Thomas saw God as first cause, but also saw God involved in secondary causes in a way that did not impair the autonomy of creatures. With the gift of existence, God also gave creation the power to participate in its own continuing development.
Johnson envisions this working by the interplay of law and chance. Iron clad laws, like the law of gravity, are part of creation. On the other hand, a great deal of randomness exists in creation. Law prevents the world from evolving in a chaotic way. Chance introduced a dynamic potential for continued creativity.
I have enjoyed this heavy chapter, but I also have several questions. Again I am going to defer raising them until I have read more.
From memory, I am thinking about an episode of MASH where someone asks Father Mulcahy about the problem of evil. He says there was a wise teacher at seminary who said “that’s the way the ball bounces”. I like the idea of giving chance a role in God’s universe. Does Calvinism have any allowance for this? Some evolutionists discount it too. Survival of the fittest is actually sometimes the survival of the luckiest. Ecclesiastes 9:11 talks about how “time and chance” happen to us all.