Elizabeth Johnson on the God-World Relationship

Relation Between  God/World


Associated Theologians

Single-Action Theory God’s intentions are carried out in the overall purpose of the cosmos, not its particulars. Gordon Kaufman, Shubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles
Top-Down Causality Divine information/patterns flow into system as a whole, influencing the parts. Arthur Peacocke
Causal Joint Theory Insertion of divine influence at various levels (quantum, genetic…) John Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphy, George Ellis, Robert Russell
Organic Model The world is God’s “body”. Sallie McFague, Grace Jantzen
Kenotic Position God voluntarily limits power. John Hick, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, John Haught
Process Thought God provides initial aims and then lures. John B. Cobb, Ian Barbour, David Griffin, Charles Hartshorne
Source: Elizabeth A. Johnson. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014).

One will immediately notice from the chart that Johnson has limited her choices to Christian theological perspectives that take evolutionary processes seriously. Important theologians are also missing from this useful but limited classification. For example, where would you place Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being/ Unconditioned” (a very traditional, even classical, idea on the surface) ?  Would Jürgen Moltmann best be placed in the Kenotic or Process view? In any case, Elizabeth Johnson uses this discussion as a springboard in her book to discuss a view she is drawn to. The chart is mine. Johnson bases her choice on the classical, Neo-Thomistic, notion of primary and secondary causes. She is careful to note that the terms “primary” and “secondary” in this relationship are not on the same ‘level’.

Thus we must be clear that these two causes, ultimate and proximate, are not two species of the same genus, not two different types of causes united on a common ground of generating effects. They operate on completely different levels (itself an inadequate analogy), one being the wellspring of Being itself, the Cause of all causes, and the other participating in the power to act, as things that are burning participate in the power of fire. The relation precludes competition precisely because the living God, “source and goal of all things,” is not included among the “all things” that work by natural laws. The horizon cannot be included within the horizon. (p. 163)

Johnson makes several important clarifications in dialogue with the representatives on the chart above. One is that the artisan/instrument analogy sometimes used by defenders of this classical view should be replaced by the understanding that there is no mechanism asserted here (“God is not a bigger and better secondary cause.”) as there is, for example, in the ‘causal joint’ theory. As with most typologies, this blurs the edges separating some of the respective views. I suppose you could rearrange this material more  favorably as a series of circles within larger circles (regions) in order to do justice to the overlap.

Those interested in a complete defense of Neo-Thomist classicism would do well to look elsewhere, but if you are already drawn to this perspective, the further discussion in Johnson’s book of how it interacts with specifics of an evolutionary view of the world such as randomness, emergence, and death, is enlightening and imaginative.


Teilhard de Chardin’s Taxonomy of Evil


A friend at church is a big fan of de Chardin, and so I began re-reading sections of his Phenomenon of Man (1948) and some of his other writings over the summer. Overall, I’m impressed with the orderliness of his thinking. Despite some critical comments by readers about his mixing levels of explanationbio-32, on closer reading, he is really quite careful. I agree with Madeleine BartheIemy-Madaule, who said, “..it may be that what the thinker in him was seeking was already known to the mystic; but he never let the mystic influence the thinker.

Teilhard’s view of the Cross as absorbing all evil into itself is a bit too mythological for me, but I like other aspects of his thought such as the incorporation of telos into an evolutionary schema. I plan to return to de Chardin at some point, but a brief appendix on the topic of evil, where he gives a typology appears in Phenomenon, caught my attention. I think definitions of “evil”, “suffering”, and  “existence” (when referring to God) are critical to the discussion. Most of the time, writers speaking of “evil” are referring to suffering imposed by the choices that people make. His taxonomy of different kinds of suffering is more subtle than some and illuminating of the multiplicity and interrelatedness of the issues that are involved.

First: evil of disorder and failure. Right up to its reflective zones we have seen the world proceeding by means of groping and chance. Under this heading alone—even up to the human level on which chance is most controlled—how many failures have there been for one success, how many days of misery for one hour’s joy, how many sins for a solitary saint? To begin with we find physical lack-of-arrangement or derangement on the material level; then suffering, which cuts into the sentient flesh; then, on a still higher level, wickedness and the torture of spirit as it analyzes itself and makes choices. Statistically, at every degree of evolution, we find evil always and everywhere, forming and reforming implacably in us and around us. Necesarium est ut scandal eveniant. This is relentlessly imposed by the play of large number at the heart of a multitude undergoing organization.

Second: evil of decomposition. This is no more than a form of the foregoing, for sickness and corruption invariably result from some unhappy chance. It is an aggravated and doubly fatal form, it must be added, inasmuch as, with living creatures, death is the regular, indispensable condition of the replacement of one individual by another along a phyletic stem. Death—the essential lever in the mechanism and upsurge of life.

Third: evil of solitude and anxiety. This is the great anxiety (peculiar to man) of a consciousness wakening up to reflection in a dark universe in which light takes centuries and centuries to reach it—a universe we have no yet succeeded in understanding either in itself, or its demands on us.

Lastly, the least tragic perhaps, because it exalts us, though none the less real: the evil of growth, by which is expressed in us, in the pangs of childbirth, the mysterious law which, from the bumblest chemism to the highest syntheses of the spirit, makes all progress in the direction of increased unity express itself in terms of work and effort.

The final sentence could be seen as a summary of his views on evil and God.

…In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of the mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.