Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas

Michael J. Dodds
Published by The Catholic University of America in 2012

Reviewed by Thomas Jay Oord, Theology and Philosophy, Northwest Nazarene University

I know of no finer, more accurate, or more accessible explanation of a Thomistic view of divine action than Michael Dodds’s recently published book, Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas. This is an immensely important book, and those who care about issues of divine action would do well to read it. But this book only deepened my belief that the Thomistic approach to divine causation is unsatisfactory. We need alternatives.

Dodds begins by rightly arguing that divine causation – the notion that God acts as a causal force in the world – is a central concern for our time. Contemporary philosophy of science, however, has reduced the number of causal categories to just one: the category of efficient causes. We think today about causation in terms of the impact of one entity upon another.

Dodds uses Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to argue for additional categories of causation. Early chapters in the book explain accessibly Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Aquinas employed these four causes for his own theological work, believing them to give a full account of causality. We should use these four causes, says Dodds, to talk about causation amongst creatures and God’s own causal activity. The major contribution Aquinas makes to Aristotle’s scheme, however, is to argue that a result or outcome in the world can come through both a primary cause – associated with God – and a secondary cause – associated with creatures.

Because only efficient causality has remained in the contemporary scientific world, says Dodds, “the very success that science enjoyed by omitting causes that could not be measured eventually led to the conviction that such causes should not only be ignored methodologically but denied metaphysically” (50). This denial of additional causes led to philosophical reductionism: the basic parts of the world, which apparently persist via efficient causation, are the most real. Efficient causation consequently led to many scholars framing causality in terms of mechanism. The result of a mechanistic world led to scientism, says Dodds, which is the view that only science can give us truth about the world.

In recent years, however, change has been taking place in philosophy of science. The theory of emergence now plays an important explanatory role, for instance. Emergence says that we should think of the natural world as comprised of multiple levels, and new features can arise at one level. These features cannot be explained simply by their parts or by what occurs at less complex levels. In addition, quantum mechanics suggests indeterminacy exists at the least complex levels of existence. This indeterminacy means not only that variance occurs at these levels of existence, but that we cannot be entirely certain about our observations. Dodds notes that evolutionary theory is becoming more influenced by notions of purpose and direction. This development places into question the rigid mechanism assumed by some philosophies of science. Perhaps most important to Dodds’s project is his claim that many now seek causal explanations that go beyond efficient causation. According to Dodds, science itself now cries out for causal explanations beyond efficient causality alone.

The reduction of causality to one category – efficient causation – led to the reduction of our ability to speak about God’s causal activity. Put simply: the scientific worldview seemed to allow no room for God to act. Many engaging science-and-religion scholarship today are searching for a theoretical and empirical space – “a causal joint” – at which God may work in the world. Dodds regards this search as the quest for a univocal cause, in which God actions are similar in kind to creaturely actions but do not interfere with the laws of nature or creaturely causality.

Many theologians in the modern period, says Dodds, responded to science by accepting the philosophical limitation that causation comes only through efficient causes. Here, process theology and theologies espousing divine self-limitation come under Dodds’s scrutiny. Unfortunately, however, this section is one of the weakest in the book. The author misrepresents what the majority of process theologians have said (and the footnotes reveal a lack of research in this area). Perhaps more unfortunate, Dodds never addresses in this section the crucial question driving much of modern theology: Does or can God completely control others (act as sufficient cause)? This question not only drives quests to solve the problem of evil, it also plays an important role in philosophy of science questions about causal explanations.

A major segment of Unlocking Divine Action addresses new theories of contemporary science and how those engaging in science-and-theology research use these theories to speculate about how God acts in the world. For instance, Dodds looks at how some scholars speculate that God might input information into the natural world to exert causal influence. He looks at the possibilities open to the science-and-religion scholars by the apparent phenomenon of quantum indeterminacy. Dodds explores the possibility of God’s influencing the emergence of new structures in the natural world. All of the proposals Dodds explores suggest non-interventionist types of divine action: God exerts causal influence without circumventing creaturely influence.

Dodds is not convinced, however, by recent science-and-religion proposals on non-interventionist divine action. His primary criticism is that most science-and-religion scholars think God’s activity is of the same general kind as creaturely activity. In other words, these theories presuppose a univocal understanding of divine and creaturely causality. Those who presuppose a theory of causality based on univocity, Dodds contends, inevitably wrestle with the question of God’s interference. “When divine action is conceived univocally with the action of creatures, divine being tends to be viewed univocally as well. A univocal God, however, is quite different than the God of the Christian tradition” (158).

Not only does Dodds think God’s being is altogether different from creaturely being, but that thinking of them as of the same metaphysical kind leads to worrying that God and creatures compete as causes. “When two men carry a table,” Dodds says by way of illustration, “the more weight one lifts, the less there is for the other to lift” (153). But “God is unlike all other things,” says Dodds. “Recognizing this, we should be cautious about trying to say anything about how God acts. God is totally other” (161). For this reason, Dodds says, “the mode or manner of divine activity will ever escape us” (169).

The alternative Dodds presents is a return to the past: the proposals of Aquinas. According to Aquinas, there are no real relations or mutual dependency between God and creation. Creatures depend upon God and are related to God. But God has no corresponding relation to creatures, and God is not dependent in any way. With Aquinas, Dodds believes that “God’s action is fundamentally different from that of creatures” (171). “To predicate such a relation of God,” says Dodds, “would be to reduce God to the level of one creature existing beside another” (172). Instead, it is impossible to speak of divine action in any positive way: “our verbal and conceptual abilities should be utterly defeated if we try to speak of God, since God is utterly beyond the being of creatures” (174).

But if it is impossible for us to speak of God, where does this leave the one who seeks to talk about God’s action in relation to science? Dodds believes the primary/secondary theory of causation offers the best way to talk about divine action and creaturely causation. According to this view, every instance of creaturely causality necessarily requires God’s influence. But God acts as a primary cause and does not conflict with the secondary causes. After all, argues Dodds, “these causes do not belong to the same order” (191). God’s causality infinitely transcends creaturely causality. And this means that “when a primary and secondary cause act together, the effect belongs entirely to both. The influence of the primary cause does not diminish the action of the secondary cause, but enables it” (192).

It is important for Dodds, however, to insist that “the use of secondary causes does not despeak any divine limitation” (192). In fact, “God’s causality does not constitute a miraculous intervention; nor does it negate the real causality of all the natural agents involved in the evolutionary process” (202). Whenever an event occurs in the world, we can say both that God caused it and that creatures caused it.

Dodds admits that this proposal borders on incomprehensibility: “the notion of secondary causation is not an easy one to grasp” (207). But he agrees with Etienne Gilson that “we must hold firmly to two apparently contradictory truths. God does whatever creatures do; and that creatures themselves do whatever they do” (208). This double agency of the primary/secondary theory is a paradox. Both God and creatures can be the causes of what occurs in reality, because as the primary cause, God transcends all categories of creaturely causation.

This is where my dissatisfaction for the Dodds/Thomas Aquinas proposal comes out strongly. In essence, Dodds is proposing what Ian Barbour called the “independence” model for thinking about science and theology: science and theology are independent explanations, and the two have no overlapping commonalities. God’s action is independent from creaturely actions, and God’s action is in no way analogous to creaturely action. In fact, we cannot say anything positive about God’s causal activity or God’s being, because God is utterly beyond our language and categories of being.

In the end, then, it is all about mystery for Dodds. It is mystery in the unsatisfactory sense of our not even being able to offer any meaningful explanation for God’s causal activity in relation to creaturely causation. The primary/secondary theory of Dodds and Thomas Aquinas strikes me as an elaborate mystery card played to retain a role for both divine and creaturely causation – theology and science – without having to make difficult decisions about ancient questions – for example, why does a loving and powerful God not prevent evil? – or contemporary scientific issues – such as, how does God act as an efficient cause?

And as the book winds down, Dodds explores what his primary/secondary theme entails for providence, miracles, and theodicy. He quickly appeals to mystery when confronted with the problem of evil: It is a problem “no theology can answer or ‘solve’” (240). Dodds is not willing to entertain any notion of divine limitations, because he believes such limitations result in even greater theological difficulties. Dodds ultimately offers the unsatisfactory proposal that God allows evil without directly intending it. He explores prayer and miracles near the end of the book as well, using the primary/secondary scheme. Important questions about God’s ability to act as a sufficient cause to answer prayer or act miraculously are not addressed to this reviewer’s satisfaction. But this is expected after the previous and longer section on evil and Dodds’s repeated appeals to mystery.

Dodds concludes the book with a short section he titles, “The Causality of Love.” As one who has published a great deal on the metaphysics of love, I was especially keen to see what he would write in this very brief segment. Dodds believe his primary/secondary approach allows us to say God acts lovingly and creatures can partner with God. But after reading earlier in the book that God’s causality and being are altogether different from creaturely causality and being, I wondered how words like “partnership” or “cooperation” or even “participation” make any sense when used in relation to God and creation. And what does “love” even mean when our language about God, according to Dodds, offers nothing positive about God’s being or relations? In short, the appeal to love fell flat.

Despite my strong criticism of Dodds’s project in Unlocking Divine Action, I think this is an important book. I will be recommending it often. To my mind, it illustrates why many today are seeking ways to talk about divine action other than what we find in Aristotle, Aquinas, Dodds, and those who think similarly.

Cite this article
Thomas Jay Oord, “Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:2 , 191-194

Thomas Jay Oord

Northwest Nazarene University
Thomas Jay Oord is a philosopher, theologian, and multidisciplinary scholar. He is a former Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University.