One of the challenges for anyone who is a theist is how to explain God’s interaction with the physical world. Of particular concern is explaining the “miraculous” or the “supernatural.” Classically, God’s interaction with the world has been described in terms of “general” and “special” providence. General providence is his work in and through the “laws of nature” established in his creative work. Special providence refers to his “interventions” in the miraculous, and perhaps also to God’s work through intercessory prayer.
These kinds of “breaking in” events are problematic to scientists committed to the regularity of the natural order. For some who retain a belief in God, the response has been to maintain some sort of theistic naturalism, which often seems to incorporate miracles into God’s creation instructions. The difficulty is that this is hard to distinguish from deism, the idea of a clockwork universe that God has wound up and set running.
Christopher C. Knight explores this landscape and seeks to provide a different framework that would see the miraculous as a “breaking out” or “breaking through” a fallen creation where God is working within to restore and fulfill his purposes. Key to his thinking is the Incarnation and an understanding of that which draws heavily on Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly its understanding of the logos, in and through whom creation came to exist and is sustained. God is a continuing “primary cause” of all that occurs in nature even if scientists may only have access to “secondary” causes. Because of the fall, sometimes God’s activity consists in breaking out or through the grime of the fall to restore and fulfill his purposes, supremely in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.
This seems to me to be an intriguing proposal but one about which I have some questions. In taking this stance, Knight identifies his position of “incarnational naturalism” with panentheism, the idea that all that exists is in God (rather than pantheism, which says that all is God). While panentheism seems an attractive alternative to classical theism which emphasizes the distinction or transcendence of God vis a vis the creation, I think it means giving up some essential and distinctively Christian truths. If all the creation is in God, then in some sense evil is as well. And if God is identified with this then salvation is not a Holy God acting on behalf of a fallen world in redemption but rather God and the world striving together to attain God’s creation purposes. Furthermore, I am concerned with the reality that panentheism may collapse into eastern pantheism or into some form of universalism, which I do detect at points in Knight’s writing, particularly in his pyschological-referential account of revelatory events which seems to put other revelatory experiences on a par with Christian revelation. [I will note that for me this account was the most difficult to understand part of the book.]
What I found of value was that, classically we have spoken of God being both transcendent and immanent, but often seem to be at a loss to reconcile how God is immanent with the laws of nature. I would argue that one needn’t resort to panentheism to argue for the incarnational naturalism Knight contends for. The presence of the Logos in his creation that reaches fulfillment in Jesus, the God-man is fully consonant with the biblical narrative and an understanding of God who is both transcendent and immanent.
The book is closely written and assumes a certain familiarity with historical theology both Eastern and Western. Chapter 15, titled “A New Understanding” serves as a good recapitulation and summary of his argument that was helpful to me in pulling it all together. Before his “Afterword” he includes a chapter on intercessory prayer within the model he proposes.
While I take issue with the panentheism this author proposes, I believe his efforts to draw upon Eastern Orthodox thought, his thinking about the incarnation, and his effort to propose a “non-interventionist” explanation for miracles needs to be considered in the ongoing dialogue about faith and science and is a worthy addition to Fortress Press’s “Faith and the Sciences” series.