Re: The state of suburban theology

From: Howard J. Van Till <>
Date: Tue Jun 15 2004 - 10:41:12 EDT

On 6/15/04 9:23 AM, "" wrote:

> Howard, I'm not very well read in this area (although I have begun with
> some John Polkinghorne material in the last several months), but does it
> work if one allows for "coercive" supernatural action only for revelatory
> purposes?

As a thoroughly human enterprise, theology is perfectly free to posit this.
Once posited, evaluate it thoroughly.

> For example, the miracles of Jesus were never for the purpose of
> eliminating leprosy or giving the universal cure for epilepsy or to prevent
> some major natural disaster or evil pogram. Their function (even in cases
> where he did physically heal people supernaturally) was as signs of his
> identity and message (revelation). Even in the resurrection of Jesus (an
> obviously coercive, supernatural) event, its effect (saving life) is not
> attributed to everyone by force; it must by accepted by each
> person/community. In other words, its mode of action in Creation is
> persuasive, not coercive.

I think this is close to the position I held for some time. More exactly, I
held that form-imposing supernatural intervention (in process language,
coercive divine action) was unnecessary for actualizing new creaturely forms
in time, but I held open the possibility of supernatural action in other
arenas of divine concern. I saw some inconsistency in this, but it did not
bother me enough to try to resolve it. Neither did I know how to do without
supernatural action somewhere.

In the Foreword to David Ray Griffinıs next book, Two Great Truths: A New
Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Westminster John
Knox, July, 2004) I describe a portion of my own spiritual odyssey. At one
point I describe Davidıs criticism of this position as follows:


1) Dare to be consistent in regard to supernatural divine action. If, as I
had already maintained, supernatural action is unnecessary for something as
astounding as the formational history of the entire universe, then why hold
to the need, or even the possibility, for occasional episodes of coercive
supernatural action in any other arena? Griffinıs carefully-crafted
development of a concept of variable and effective, but non-coercive, divine
action struck me as an attractive alternative to the traditional concept of
supernatural divine action held by the majority of Christians today. Not
only does it offer a way to appreciate the ubiquity of non-coercive divine
action in the natural world, it also offers a way to avoid some of the
dreadful problems of theodicy that inevitably accompany traditional
supernaturalism and its doctrine of divine omnipotence.

2) Naturalism and theism need not be enemies: Naturalism comes in
significantly differing forms that must be carefully distinguished from one
another. Maximal naturalism does indeed preclude the existence of God and it
builds its worldview on the premise that Nature (taken to be no more than a
physical/material system) is all there is. Other forms of naturalism,
however, require no such denial of God and no categorical rejection of
divine action. Minimal naturalism, for example, rejects only supernatural
(coercive) action and remains agnostic with regard to non-coercive divine
action. Griffinıs recommendation to spokespersons for science is to rid the
sciences of their recently acquired association with maximal naturalism and
to recognize that minimal naturalism is not only sufficient for the work of
the natural sciences but also provides a superior metaphysical foundation
for the scientific enterprise. Naturalistic theism‹yet another form of
naturalism‹ joins minimal (scientific) naturalism in rejecting
supernaturalism but then proceeds to develop an enriched concept of natural
phenomena by incorporating effective but non-coercive divine action as an
essential component of all natural processes.


I found this criticism the most valuable I have ever received.

Howard Van Till
Received on Tue Jun 15 11:03:39 2004

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