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.