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Title: Perspectives on divine action : reflections on the theological legitimacy of approaches to divine action in the V.O./C.T.N.S. series 'Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action'
Author: Cross, Simon
ISNI:       0000 0004 6493 8305
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2017
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This thesis critically appraises the theological legitimacy of theories of divine action (TDAs) posited by four principal contributors to the VO/CTNS series "Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action." Wesley Wildman is chosen for his staunch apophaticism; Robert Russell because of his appeal to objective and noninterventionist divine action and his ontology of quantum indeterminism; John Polkinghorne because of his reliance on kenotic theology to underpin free-process theodicy and his ontology of chaotic systems; and William Stoeger for his interpretation of primary/secondary cause. This engagement broadly matches what Philip Clayton, in the series' final volume, labels an "evangelical-theist or orthodoxtheist" (e-t/o-t) theological perspective. This is a perspective Clayton argues the project otherwise lacks. The thesis proposes that, from this (e-t/o-t) perspective, each of these individuals' contributions to the series proves theologically difficult in some degree. It argues that Wildman's apophatic rejection of Revelation and personal analogy and his reliance on the anthropology of the Modern Secular Interpretation of Humanity (MSIH) is too stark and, ultimately, too anthropocentric. Russell's theory of noninterventionist objective special divine action (NIODA) is theologically difficult in the context of creatio ex nihilo, because it rests on the problematic distinction between 'general' and 'special' divine action (GDA/SDA), and a problematic ontology of quantum indeterminism. John Polkinghorne might be expected to provide the kind of theological perspective Clayton says is absent, but aspects of his approach rest on a theologically problematic interpretation of kenosis and a 'free-process' analogy that entails a developmentalist and process-theological metaphysical interpretation of evil. This thesis determines that conflicts at the heart of the VO/CTNS series' debate revolve around two primary tensions. The first tension concerns the scope of 'methodological-naturalism'. The second tension concerns the philosophical nature of 'cause'. Mapping the linguistic, historical, philosophical, and sociological background influences that impact all theological perspectives in the VO/CTNS series at an intentionally broad scale provides the deep context needed to establish not only 'how?' but also 'why?' these tensions culminated in the series' marginalisation of the traditional (e-t/o-t) perspective on divine action. The thesis therefore concludes that Clayton is correct to assert that the (e-t/o-t) theological perspective is missing from the VO/CTNS series. The thesis also concludes, however, that when these tensions are adequately contextualised, that marginalisation proves philosophically unnecessary as well as theologically undesirable and that Clayton's own demand for theological 'traction' through scientific constraint is too metaphysically restrictive. Methodological-naturalism prohibits, at least in practice, a 'theology of nature', permitting only a 'natural theology' in some key respects. This much broader background context also allows us to recognise the influences of what Charles Taylor calls "cross pressures" that have driven secularisation. These tensions clash conspicuously in the "problem of evil" which cannot be bracketed off from the task of theological reflection on the series. Contextualising these tensions in relation to both 'evil' and the VO/CTNS series' methodological ambitions, highlights the significance of sociological as well as rational influences on individual choices of theological perspective. The meaning of 'cause' and the scope of methodological-naturalism together form a philosophical and theological locus for the series. Closer investigation of this locus reveals that Russell's and Polkinghorne's contributions to the VO/CTNS series suggest a univocal interpretation of 'cause' and 'freedom' that departs from both the "two languages" perspective of Stoeger's Catholicism and Protestant neo-Orthodoxy. This, raises the important question whether some perspectives in the series represent what, by Nancey Murphy's criteria, represents an ipso facto change of theological tradition. A change that marks an important distinction between Russell's and Polkinghorne's perspective on divine action and the (e-t/o-t) theological perspective that Polkinghorne, especially, might be thought by some to have represented. Having demonstrated that Clayton is, in fact, correct to argue that the (e-t/o-t) theological perspective is indeed missing in the VO/CTNS series, the thesis seeks a more overtly theological perspective on divine action by engaging positively with Vernon White. In view of the various demands for any theologically adequate (e-t/o-t) TDA; now more fully clarified in the broad perspective provided by earlier chapters; it finds White's TDA of universal special divine action (USDA) theologically credible and convincing. That is because White's perspective embodies the three elements that this thesis concludes are vital for any adequate theological perspective on divine action: the need to mind three kinds of gap; the ontological gap between immanent creation and the transcendent Creator; the immanent gap between methodologicalnatural 'data' and the full gamut of human experience; and, finally, the gaps that exist, as Rowan Williams so evocatively phrases things, at "the edge of words". Discussion of divine action demands a careful accounting of the way we use language. Neither univocal nor equivocal speech can disclose divine action "well". What is required instead, is careful and painstaking attention to the work we are asking words to perform in representing divine action truthfully. Attention to the meaning of words like 'model', 'cause', 'methodological-natural', and 'freedom'. The thesis concludes that, with these three elements in place and correctly aligned, the strengths and weaknesses of the VO/CTNS series come more clearly into view and that, far from signalling a "crisis" for contemporary theology, this broader context shows the route to a credible TDA from the (e-t/o-t) perspective, if navigated with proper methodological care, remains navigable for anyone wishing, still, to travel that way. Chapter Outline Since we cannot map what cannot be recognised or represented, chapter 1 queries the role of language per se for representing, truthfully, Divinity and transcendence. Tensions prove to be inherent to the way we use words, and their capacity to intimate transcendence is illustrated by juxtaposing Rowan Williams' exploration of "the edge of words" with Nicholas Saunders bleak assessment that the VO/CTNS signifies a "crisis" for contemporary theology. This chapter suggests why Saunders may have been driven to such a bold, if negative, viewpoint, concluding that, however unavoidably provisional and partial language remains, it is metaphysically possible to ground the claim that speech about God can be truthful. It then tentatively explores how best to frame that speech, investigating the role of certain tropes and a tension that resides in the semantic fluidity of "critical-realism". This flexibility means that the apparently univocal use of the word 'model' may mask differing epistemologies of the word for the scientist and the theologian. The ambiguity in the relationship between model and metaphor is then employed to evaluate the role that "causal joint" plays in framing the science-theology debate over divine action.
Supervisor: Wilkinson, David ; McGrath, Alister Sponsor: Templeton Foundation
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Doctrine