Saturday, September 02, 2006

Teilhard's Limitation on Omnipotence

In my last two original posts I discussed part of the theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and a theodicy that limits God's powers while still holding to the description of God as omniscient and omnipotent. As luck, or fate, or providence would have it, the very next essay I read by Teilhard concerns something very much like that theodicy advanced by Swinburne discussed in my last original post.

Like the essay discussed here, today's essay, "Note on the Modes of Divine Action in the Universe," was written in January of 1920, but not published in Teilhard's lifetime. It is divided into two related sections, the first concerning how we experience the activity of God in the universe, and the second concerning, as Teilhard puts it, "the true extension (in the logical sense) of his [God's] omnipotence."

Teilhard, as both a scientist and a theologian, is concerned with balancing a semi-traditional view of God's activity in the world (especially a notion of God as a First Cause, the Aristotelian Prime Mover so influential on the scholastics which shaped the Catholic theology that Teilhard responds to) with the understandings of the science of his day. Perhaps his most controversial and influential work concerned the theological implications of Darwinian evolution. His allegiance to evolution by natural selection is clear here.

He immediately rejects a notion of God as "[a] dominant causality among [italics his] the other causalities," as "a force interpolated into the series of experiential forces." To speak of God's activity is not the same as to speak of any natural activity. To speak of God's influence is not the same as to speak of the influence of the wind, or of the sun, or even of human or animal activity; nor is it the same as to speak of the influence of natural forces such as gravity, or natural laws such as inertia. God, as the First Cause, is not to Teilhard one of many causes. God is categorically different than any other cause, and God's activity is categorically different than any other activity.

Having established what God's activity is not, Teilhard then turns to the question of what God's activity is. He sees God's activity in two ways. "A first, and peculiarly divine, way by which the First Cause can affect lower natures consists in its ability to act simultaneously on their whole body [italics his]." That is, viewing the world as a system, God is outside the system, working on the entire system simultaneously. Because God is outside the system, and because God works on everything in the system simultaneously, God's activity is, from inside the system, undetectable.

But, just as the theistic tradition balances a view of God out there with a view of God in here, and just as Christianity attempts to juxtapose an external Creator God with the incarnation, for Teilhard God's activity is not just that of an agent outside the system working on the system as a whole. As such, he says, "in addition to the faculty of acting upon the whole at once [italic his], the First Cause must also be able to make itself felt at the core of each element in the world individually." God, then, is not only immanent, God is also transcendent. God not only works on the entire system from the outside, but on each individual entity within the system, taking "a hold on their innermost life."

But the transcendant activity of God is just, to us, as undetectable as the immanent activity of God. "By reason of its extreme interiority it becomes inapprehensible." God activity, then, can never really be detected by humans. Either it is far too external, or far too internal. Either it works from outside the system on the system as a whole, or it works deeply inside of each of us, so internal to us that it is essentially a part of us, God inside us. "Thus, sometimes by excess of extension [italics his], sometimes by excess of depth [italics his], the point at which the divine force is applied is essentially extra-phenomenal."

As such, Teilhard, the scientist and theologian, says with confidence

[W]e shall never be enabled scientifically to see God, because there will never be any discontinuity between the divine operation and the physical and physiological laws which are science's sole concern. Since the chains of antecedents are never broken (but simply bent or extended) by divine action, an analytical observation of phenomena is powerless to enable us to attain God, even as Prime Mover. We shall never escape scientifically from the circle of natural explanations. This is something which we shall simply have to accept.

While this may at first seem like a more modern deism, like a precursor to the "Natural Religion" of the Enlightenment resurrected as the "New Christianity" of John Shelby Spong, there are a few of important points of deviation between Teilhard's view of God here and the "Watchmaker God" of deism. First, while Teilhard does posit a Creator God, outside the natural order, his God is also, as noted above, deeply inside the created order, working within each created thing. Second, while both views of God see God's activity as indistinguishable from nature, the deistic God created once upon a time, while Teilhard's God is constantly creating. This is a natural extension of his acceptance of evolution. Creation was not some event in the past, finished and done. Rather, the universe and all that is in it is constantly being created anew.

But perhaps the most important difference between Teilhard's theology and deism, at least as far as it relates to the life of faith, is found in his approach to miracles. While, again, both deism and Teilhard find God's activity so connected to nature that one cannot distinguish between the two, Teilhard, unlike the deists, does not deny accounts of the miraculous. God does not, to be sure, break the laws of nature, which Teilhard says are the sole concern of science. But God does bend them. Miracles, then, are "vital forces that have been remarkably augmented in their own direction [italics his]." Stories of miracles, then, even if the miracles involved are "found to be extensions of biology," are important both for apologetics (defense of the faith) and for the joy they bring to the religious life.

The second section of Teilhard's essay takes this view of the nature and activity of God, and uses it to apply logical limits on the omnipotence of God. To open this section Teilhard takes on one of the assumptions of the Scholastics: that God creates or can create individual beings, "from scratch," logically speaking "completely alone" with the possibility of being "completely sanctified" like Adam before the fall. Teilhard says that "[t]he question of becoming and of the whole do not exist for such thinkers," who consider the universe and everything in it "in isolation and fully formed."

But Teilhard, as I noted in an earlier post, sees the world as an interconnected and interdependent organic whole, which is constantly being created. As such, "God's power has not been so free a field of action as we assume." There are certain limits on God's creative power, by virtue of the nature of the universe which God is creating. "[I]t is always obliged, in the course of its creative effort, to pass through a whole series of intermediaries and to overcome a whole succession of inevitable risks." This is because, as Teilhard noted earlier in the essay, of the way in which God has chosen to create/ "Properly speaking," he says, "God does not make [italics his]: He makes things make themselves."

Creation, then, is not only an ongoing process, it is also a cooperative process, involving the mingling of all of the wills in the universe, subordinated to but not silenced by the will of the God who is constantly creating in conjunction with those wills that have been willed to create. This places limits on the creative power of God, which is because of this "unable to act in discontinuity with individual natures or out of harmony with the advance of the whole."

This limitation leads Teilhard to note two more limitations, which arise from this one. The first emerging limitation has to do with the interconnected and interdependent nature of the universe, a universe that God must work with even as God continually creates. No individual entity in this organically whole universe can exist in isolation - logically speaking, Teilhard reserve such a solitary nature for God alone, "Ens a se (Being which exists only in itself)." Everything else, the great sea of beings in the process of becoming, "is essentially multitude - multitude organized in itself, and multitude organizing around itself." The limit this places on God, then, is that God cannot create a single, solitary individual. God cannot create only one thing, by itself. "If God... is to make a soul [italics his]" God must "create a world."

This limitation, the inability of God to create an individualized instance of being in isolation from other beings, leads to the second limitation which Teilhard derives from the way in which God chooses to create, a limitation which he explicitly connects to the problem of evil, and which as such serves as a theodicy. Because God creates in cooperation with created wills, and because those wills are not isolated from each other, God cannot create anything without that creation necessarily involving "a struggle with some evil."

This fact seems obvious to Teilhard, who calls the notion of a God who is "able to draw from non-being a world without sorrows, faults, dangers - a world in which there is no damage, no breakage" a "conceptual fantasy." But, alas, he does not tell us why evil is necessary. By noting this I am not asking for the usual theodicy, which tells us that evil serves some necessary purpose and so is really not evil at all, at least in a sense which would make it incompatible with the will of a good God. This is because, as Teilhard presents it, evil is not necessary morally or spiritually, but rather, logically. Evil, in his presentation, is the inevitable consequence of God's creating anything, by virtue of the above limitations on God's created powers.

And this is where I begin to leave him. He, while placing some limitations on God's creative powers, still describes God as being by nature omnipotent, all powerful. As such, he has to hold that the limitations placed on God's creative powers are logical limitations, akin to the Scholastic limitation of God being unable to make something which contradicts its own existence. But, while I see Teilhard's description of the created order as very much like how the created order actually is (we do, in fact, exist in an interconnected and interdependent world, which is, in fact, being constantly and progressively made); it is not clear to me that because the world exists in this way that this is the only logical possibility.

While it is true that a world without pain, without suffering, without moral and natural evil, is in fact a conceptual fantasy; does it follow from that that a perfect God, a God imbued with all of the powers given to God by the traditional theism, could not have made such a world?

Teilhard is skating a fine line between process theology, which like Teilhard's theology sees a world being progressively made by a God whose creative powers are somewhat limited, and traditional theism. In this delicate balancing act he describes the God of process theology in the terms of theism, arguing that the limitations on the power of God are merely logical ones which in no way detract from God's omnipotence.

Whether or not he ultimately succeeds in doing this, he has correctly noted that the conceptual fantasy of a perfect world without any struggle or pain, does nothing "to solve the problem of evil." This is because, ultimately, the problem of evil is an existential fact. Pain and suffering are not helped by envisioning a hypothetical world in which they do not exist. As such, when we craft our theologies, we should be mindful of the fact of suffering.

Theology - human concepts of God which help explain the divine-human encounter - is not a purely rational exercise. Our concepts of God do not come just from observing the world and seeing that some being, which we call "God," is necessary for explaining the world. Sure, some, like Swinburne, get a great deal of mileage from the argument that God is the hypothesis which best explains all that is. But ultimately, if God is an experiential reality, God is certainly not reducible to an operational hypothesis which explains a set of data.

Our concepts of God, ultimately, are our attempts to rationally explain the phenomena of "religious experience" - those times when, as Borg says, the distance between the secular and the sacred grows "thin." God, then, is not just some sort of metaphysical explanation used to makes sense of the physical order. God is instead something which we experience as a presence which helps. Whether that experiential presence can be best described in theistic terms as being omnipotent, omniscient and the like; or, instead, described in the more limited terms given by Teilhard or the still more limited terms of process theology; is less important than whether or not the experience of the God who lies beyond all possible descriptions helps with the living of our lives.

This does not mean that we should abandon our theologies, our attempts to rationally describe a God who conceptually helps make sense of what we see in the universe. But it does mean that we should not get so attached to our concepts of God that we cling to them in the face of the evidence that the physical realm gives us. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has here, as elsewhere, crafted a vision of God which, while still connected to his Catholic tradition, does not deny the vision of the world provided to him by the science of his day.

If evolution is a fact, the creation must be ongoing, whether or not that is the only logical or conceptual possibility. If creation is ongoing, then God's will must cooperate with the multitude of wills in the evolving universe, whether or not that is the only logically or conceptually possible world. As such, God is, in fact, limited, whether or not we can reasonably conceive of an unlimited God. And a God whose creative powers are limited, but whose creation is progressive and ongoing, and whose concern is with all creatures, is much more useful in solving the problem of evil than a "perfect" God who allows suffering anyway.


Jeff said...


Interesting essay. I struggle to understand de Chardin sometimes, but I do like his emphasis on both God's transcendence and immanence, although I see God in a much more anthropomorphic way than he does. I am seeking a relationship with God, a God who respects my Free Will, and in whom I seek to trust in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and I think that necessarily leads me to a more anthropomorphic view than de Chardin would espouse.

I think you have good points about your objections based on theodicy, but it is a problem for all theologians, some of whom are too ready to just rest on "Well, God has his inscrutable but good reasons..." Still, I appreciate his efforts to harmonize faith and science. It's nice to read him here. In my Church we all to often have a tendency to try to silence our finest minds.

K-Map said...

Recently Modern Deism has been moving towards a more Pantheistic Deism or "Pandeism" - this "Pandeism" asserts that God in fact became the universe. Poof! No more God, just a universe made from God. This "Pandesm" however seems to be supported by the scientific evidence.