How Does God Act in Creation?

In my previous posts, I have used the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Christian philosopher and theologian, to paint a picture of God that tries to be faithful to his revelation to Moses that his name is Yahweh, which means, mysteriously, “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14).

As I described in my earlier essays, faith and reason suggest that God is existing itself. He is a verb.

In this post, I would like to explore how this God acts in creation. How does God act in our world of atoms and forces? How does he work in history?

I begin by dispelling two common errors in the way many contemporary believers imagine divine action.

First, we are so influenced by modern physics that we see creatures as agents whose acts are describable by Newton’s three laws of motion. We therefore see them as forces acting upon and with matter in a universe of change and time. Not surprisingly, therefore, we are tempted to see God in this way. We are tempted to see him as just a “super” force that interacts with matter in a “superlative” way.

But if God is so radically different from his creatures—he is a verb while we are nouns—then we should expect him to act in a radically different way from how his creatures act.

Second, again because of the way that modern science describes the world, many contemporary theologians simply assume that creation is a closed, causal network governed by laws that are in theory describable by the physical sciences. Not surprisingly, again, we are tempted to look for an opening, a causal joint, in this closed network of physical causes to “insert” God’s super force. Thus, in recent years, Christian theologians have proposed that God works in the world either by determining how quantum effects are realized in our macroworld or by bringing order from chaos.

But again, if God is so radically different from his creatures who act within the causal network of creation as forces changing the location of matter, then we should expect him to act in a radically different way from how these same creatures act within that network.

How then does the God who is existing itself act in his creation?

Most significantly, in a way that only he could do, God acts by giving existence to matter and to forces. More specifically, God acts by giving existence to matter as individual things with specific natures. This is what it means for God to be Creator.

The author, the pen, and a rose

How does God do this?

Consider an author writing a note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Yes, the author wrote the note, but in a very real sense, the pen “wrote” it too. Both the author and the pen were needed to write the note. In the language of philosophy, the author is the principal cause of the note, while the pen is the instrumental cause. Both are real causes that explain the existence of the note.

Notice too that the note has characteristics of both the author and of the pen. It has the author’s handwriting, but it also has the pen’s ink color. Both act together as principal and instrumental causes to cause the note. They are concurrent causes.

Returning to God’s acting in creation: A rose bush blooms a rose. Is God acting here?

Let us think about what happens here. When a rose bush blooms, that rose did not exist last month, and yet it exists now. Thus, the rose comes into existence.

Recall from my last post, however, that creatures cannot give themselves existence. If I asked you why you exist now, you could not say that you are keeping yourself in existence right now, in the same way that you could say that you are keeping yourself awake right now. Therefore, to explain why you exist now, we would have to say that you have received your existence from another, and this other, is the God who is existing itself.

Returning to the blooming rose, the rose cannot give itself its own existence. Nor can the rose bush give existing to the new rose. Therefore, God has to act when a rose bush blooms. He has to give the new rose its existence. He has to create the new rose.

Properly speaking, we would have to say the following: God creates the rose bush. God gives the rose bush the nature that allows it to bloom a rose. God acts with the rose bush so that it can bloom—to produce an existing rose. Both God and the rose bush are acting when a rose bush blooms a rose. God is the principal cause while the rose bush is the instrumental cause. They work concurrently to bloom the new rose.

Recall that the note has both characteristics that it receives from the author (the principal cause) and the pen (the instrumental cause). In the same way, the newly bloomed rose has characteristics that it receives from both the concurrent causes that were acting in its creation. It is existing because of God and it is a rose because of the rose bush.

To generalize this philosophical analysis: God gives creatures their existing. God gives his creatures their natures. God acts with creatures as instrumental causes to realize the perfection of their natures.

In this account, God is not a mere super-force who needs to insert himself into a closed causal network. He transcends the network because he gives the causal network its existence, and then works alongside his creatures so that their actions can give rise to the causal networks of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., is a professor of Biology and of Theology at Providence College.