God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History

Harry Lee Poe & Jimmy H. Davis
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2012

Reviewed by Don Petcher, Physics, Covenant College

Divine activity in the world has been a “hot topic” over the last decade and more, so a book with some fresh insights on the subject is always welcome. Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy Davis’s book is just such a contribution, and provides a stimulating read touching on many subjects. The goal of the book is to address two questions: “(1) What kind of God interacts with the world, and (2) What kind of world allows God to interact?” (30). After a brief introduction, the first section is devoted to the first question and the remainder of the book to the second. In the introduction, I am particularly supportive of two points of focus announced for the book: the importance of a Trinitarian view of God when considering divine action in His creation, and the focus on a non-reductionist approach in that “God is present and active at all organizational levels in a way appropriate to each level,” indicating a kind of “openness” for each. Indeed, I myself have written on both topics in the past,1 which gives me a natural affinity for these points of view.

In the first chapter, the authors address other major religions of the world – how Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or Islam might address the questions posed – before turning to Christianity. Perhaps predictably, all of these religions are found to have drawbacks by comparison. Though I thought this chapter lacked the depth devoted to much of the rest of the book (like a quick summary of “religion 101”), it could prove helpful to those unfamiliar with other religions. Chapter 2 provides a quick synopsis of approaches to the divine action question in the history of Christianity, most of which I would consider the “standard story,” though one surprising twist for me was to see William Perkins portrayed in such a prominent role. According to Poe and Davis, Perkins introduced a way of thinking into the Anglo-American world of reducing issues to two alternatives, which was so influential that his thinking is even behind the fact that we have only two political parties (87)! This strikes me as an unusual interpretation in comparison with other sources I have read, but unfortunately because of the lack of footnotes throughout this section, the authors provided few references where I might track down the story as told.2

Chapter 3 is a summary of divine action according to process theology, ending by citing several critics of the movement including John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath. Finally the first part of the book ends with chapter 4 entitled “Beyond the God of the Gaps,” where they importantly illustrate that, in the words of Charles Coulson, “[e]ither God is in the whole of nature, with no gaps, or he is not there at all” (129). There is much to commend in this chapter. For example, the authors have a critique of the position of methodological naturalism, which should put proponents of that view somewhat on the defensive, and this chapter ends with a helpful discussion of the role of the Trinity, and how this addresses such issues as immanence/transcendence and theodicy.

Part two includes a summary of the big bang theory (chapter 5), a discussion of openness in quantum mechanics and chaos theory (chapter 6), a discussion of evolutionary biology and openness in genetics and epigenetics (chapter 7), and a discussion of God in history, in which the role of imagination is stressed as a source of openness (chapter 8). In all of these, the suggestion is that the world God created exhibits “openness” in each realm discussed, which admits places wherein God can intervene with his universe without “violating” the laws of nature that he sustains. These chapters do a good job in general, portraying the various fields to the lay reader, and certainly anyone unfamiliar with the various subjects will have a lot to learn.

That having been said, there is much to criticize in the work. On the one hand, there are a number of minor issues which I think detract from the overall success of the effort, and on the other, there are a couple more major issues that should be mentioned. A small example that is perhaps indicative is when we are told that Galileo “was punished because he rejected the Aristotelian metaphysic” (133). This is far too simplistic given the historical issues and personalities involved. Another, perhaps more egregious, example is that we are told that Albert Einstein “fudged his data” in adding his cosmological constant to his equations of general relativity (133). This statement is at best misleading for two reasons. First, when Einstein posed his theory, the fact that the universe was expanding had not yet been established, and the going assumption was a steady-state universe. In other words, no data were “fudged.” Also, even though Einstein thought of it at the time as the worst mistake of his scientific career, in a sense, he has been vindicated in recent years since the cosmological constant has been reintroduced to account for an accelerating universe. In another example, we are told a couple of times that Edgar Allen Poe, in his “prose poem” Eureka, “first proposed the big bang theory and the basic principles of relativity” (273). This is at best a stretch.3 While it is true that a “big bang”–like universe is suggested in Poe’s work, and there are some suggestions of relating space to time, there is no warrant for saying that Einstein’s theory of relativity is anticipated. In fact, the physics represented in the essay are thoroughly Newtonian, so Poe’s big bang should be considered embedded in the Newtonian world. There is no scientific content beyond that, and indeed James Maxwell’s work upon which relativity rests had not yet been formulated. As remarkable as the suggestion of an exploding, expanding universe might be in the context of the mid-nineteenth-century steady state milieu, a big bang does not general relativity make.

Let me also note a curious incongruity when moving from a summary of the theory of biological evolution in chapter 6 to a discussion of progressive (evolutionary?) moral awareness in chapter 7, in that in the latter chapter Adam appears in his innocence without any tie-in to the previous chapter discussing the origin of man in an evolutionary context. It seemed to me strange that no mention of a theory relating the science to the theology was mentioned, even though this question is quite the rage in other literature at the moment, and it left me wondering what the point of view of the authors might be, both toward the evolution of man and toward a historical (originally innocent) Adam and Eve.

A final of the lessor examples is the claim that because electrons “behave as both discrete particles and continuous waves,” this implies that “Electrons are both A and not-A at the same time” (206). But consider: a contradiction in logic implies that all statements are true and all are false, and such a state of affairs could not actually be accommodated in nature! Indeed, there is no contradiction in the mathematics of the quantum world, which implies there is no contradiction in electrons, whatever our understanding of them might be.

Though these are minor issues for the most part, they are but a few of the many examples that could be cited. More importantly, I think there are a couple of serious omissions that need to be pointed out. The first is the failure to make the distinction between chaos, randomness, and openness. While Poe and Davis rightly portray the world of quantum mechanics as one that apparently exhibits ontological (non-deterministic) openness, they then turn to chaos theory and announce that it exhibits openness without any clarification. The fact is that the “classical” chaotic systems of which they speak are entirely deterministic, and hence cannot be considered open in the sense that the quantum world is. This problem persists in the biological discussion where genetics and epigenetics are pointed to as open systems. Unfortunately no argument is put forward to substantiate the claim, and nothing in the chapter demonstrates that this is any more than an epistemological problem. Here randomness is appealed to, but mere randomness does not constitute openness unless it cannot be attributed to an underlying causal nexus. This problem is exacerbated by the second serious omission, the lack of references to similar work in the literature.4

Much more could be said concerning so rich a collection of thoughts and speculations, and though I must draw this review to a close, an appropriate review of this work would be much more complex than what I have offered here. Would I recommend the volume? Certainly there is much to commend, and as a speculative work, it provides much food for thought. Anyone who is interested in the divine action question, or for that matter anyone interested in questions of science and religion in general, would find many stimulating issues there. Is there more to be said? Yes, most certainly. And for that reason, along with the reservations cited above, I would suggest that this book not be the only one you read on the subject, though it could constitute an excellent place to begin.

Cite this article
Don Petcher, “God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 86-89

Footnotes

  1. See Tim Morris and Don Petcher, Science & Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
  2. Indeed, the story seems to be a little more controversial than the main reference represents. See, for example, Paul Marshall, “William Perkins, A Ramist Theologian?,” Baptist Review of Theology 7 (1997): 49.
  3. See, for example, Alberto Cappi, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 35 (1994): 177.
  4. For example, Robert John Russell has been involved in editing several volumes from the Vatican Press in part addressing such issues. In Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur R. Peacocke, eds., Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory Publications, 2000), 325, Murphy suggests that openness only occurs in the quantum world and in human will, and as implausible as that may sound given the assumptions in the present work, if we accept that human imagination exhibits openness, without a clearer demonstration of the openness in other realms, we are left with no more than a substantially similar conclusion to Murphy’s.

Don Petcher

Covenant College
Donad Petcher is Professor of Physics at Covenant College.