What Does an Uncontrolling God Do?
Most readers of my book God Can’t can answer the question in this title. Well, they can partially answer it. They’d say God acts but cannot control. And that’s right.
But there’s more to be said. And I often field further questions on God’s action. In my follow-up book, Questions and Answers for God Can’t, I write an entire chapter on how God acts. This essay offers an excerpt, but I encourage you to get the book. Here’s a link.
God is a Universal Spirit Who Acts
It’s difficult to point to obvious examples of God acting. A believer and unbeliever can see the same event and interpret it differently. The main reason we cannot clearly identify God acting is this: God is a universal spirit we cannot perceive with our five senses.
Biblical writers often speak of God as a “spirit.” The common Hebrew word is ruach, and the Greek word is pneuma. These writers also say God is present to all creation. We cannot escape an omnipresent Spirit. My favorite phrase to describe this says God is a “universal spirit without a localized body.”
English translations of ruach and pneuma vary, but scholars often translate them as “breath,” “wind,” “soul,” or “mind.” When used to describe God, these words suggest that God can’t be seen but does influence creation. We might say we cannot perceive the universal Spirit with our five senses, but this Spirit affects us and everything that exists.
During the twentieth century, many compared God’s unseen but influential presence to the ‘ether’ in the universe. Others compared God with gravity: an influential force we can’t see, taste, touch, or smell. Today, some compare the universal Spirit with dark matter and dark energy.
Analogies between God and Creatures
Analogies between God and creation have limits, of course. One limit is that wind, breath, ether, gravity, and dark matter are not literally omnipresent. We can imagine a place in which the wind is not blowing or rocks without oxygen. We can imagine a gravity-free zone. And so on.
Comparing God with wind, gravity, and dark matter has another shortcoming. These forces don’t have free agency, aren’t personal, and don’t engage in giving-and-receiving love. Wind and gravity aren’t intentional; dark matter doesn’t respond; air doesn’t make choices.
Pneuma and ruach can also be translated “mind” or “soul.” Describing God as a mind fits better with believing God is relational, personal, or an agent. Minds are affected by others, especially brains. They take in new information, experience emotions, and remember the past. John Wesley and others called God “the soul of the universe.” Just as the soul or mind animates the body, God animates the universe.[i]
Saying God is a “universal spirit who acts” better describes God’s universality and agency. As a universal Spirit, God is present to all creation. God acts in relation to the most complex societies and the least complex entities. As an agent, God has intentions, makes decisions, and loves. God acts and reacts, gives and receives, influences and is influenced.
God acts as a universal and agential spirit.
Where is God?
Some people experience evil and ask, “Where is God?” Most don’t expect to be given GPS coordinates. But they assume God can act in the world and wonder why God didn’t prevent their suffering.
I think, “Where is God?” should prompt us to wonder if God’s acting can be observed.
Good biblical, theological, and philosophical reasons exist to think we cannot perceive God with our five senses. It’s common to say God is “invisible.” But we also cannot taste, touch, smell, or hear God, at least in the literal meaning of these sensory capacities.
There are also good biblical, theological, and philosophical reasons to think God is present to all creation. Being “omnipresent” doesn’t mean God is all things. That’s pantheism. It means God is present to all things.
The Implications of God’s Invisibility
Few consider what it means to believe God is omnipresent and yet not perceivable with our senses. It means, for instance, we can’t look out of a window to see God walking outside.
Not only is God omnipresent and invisible, God is also incorporeal. God doesn’t have a body located in a particular place. Biblical passages that suggest God has a body (e.g., Moses looks at God’s back [Exod. 33]) should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally.
We can’t put God under a microscope and say, “There’s God bouncing around the tiniest units of reality.” Scientific experiments can’t put an omnipresent God in one place and creaturely stuff in another.
No research project could put creation influenced by God in one test sample and creation uninfluenced by God in another. If God is present to all creation, there’s no way to isolate God from creatures for observation.
I once talked about God with a woman in Lake Tahoe, California. After some dialogue, she said, “I’d believe God exists if he parted the clouds and showed his face.” She assumed God had a body and face and could be in one place and not others. She didn’t seem aware God is an invisible spirit present to all creation.
The universal Spirit who acts does not watch from a distance, removed from the fray. God doesn’t sit on the sidelines. But neither is God the impersonal Force in Star Wars. The universal Spirit intentionally acts and responds… creating and sustaining the universe through persuasive love.
The Causes and God
I think God acts as a causal agent. Let me explain…
Sometimes philosophical language helps us talk about God. So let’s go philosophic to explain what I mean when I say God acts as a causal agent. Don’t let the word “philosophy” intimidate you! I’ll try to keep things understandable.
Philosophers identify many kinds of causes. Perhaps the most common is the “efficient cause.” Many have this in mind when they talk about “cause and effect.” Efficient causes are what much of contemporary science emphasizes.
An efficient cause is the impact of one thing upon another. Think of a football player’s body exerting impact — an efficient cause — upon another player. Think of the woman who slaps a man’s face. That slap is an efficient cause. Water cuts through the stone using efficient causation, even though this work may take centuries. Even mist exerts efficient causation, albeit in more subtle ways. Efficient causation involves a physical dimension, even if our five senses cannot perceive that physicality.
A second cause goes by the name “final” cause. This label doesn’t mean the last cause in a series. Instead, final causes are lures or attractors. We identify a beautiful car as a final cause when we say, “That car calls out to me!” We might be “drawn to” an attractive person, and in this, the person is a final cause. Final causes persuade, attract, or lure us toward possible action.
A third kind of cause is a “formal cause.” These causes are possibilities, opportunities, forms, and ways of being. The possibility I might have coffee tomorrow is a formal cause. The opportunity I have to exercise today is a formal cause. Notice these causes are not exerting impact on me in the way an efficient cause does. Formal causes suggest actions I might take, arrangements to which I might conform, practices I might pursue, or ways I might exist. They are possibilities.
God’s Causal Action
The uncontrolling love view considers God a universal spirit who acts as an efficient cause, attracts like a final cause, and offers formal causes as possibilities. As a spirit with being, God influences everyone and everything moment by moment. In this influencing, God calls, persuades, commands, or woos us to choose particular courses of action and ways of being. This is God’s causal action.
Just as invisible gravity influences us, an invisible God also influences us. Just as our invisible minds influence our bodies, so the invisible Spirit influences the world. Although we cannot perceive God with our five senses, we can directly perceive God through our minds and bodies.
Theologians of yesteryear thought we had “spiritual” or “divine” senses with which to perceive God. I’m not suggesting that. I think we perceive God directly through nonsensory perception. If you care about the details, I’ve explained this view in various academic publications.[ii]
The universal, invisible Spirit who acts has a physical aspect. To put it another way, God has both a mental and physical dimension. We cannot see these dimensions, nor can we taste, hear, touch, or smell them. But the God with a physical and mental dimension exerts causal influence on creatures with physical and mental dimensions.
Although invisible, the omnipresent Spirit exerts causal influence in diverse ways.
(This is a small portion of my chapter answering the question, “What Does an Uncontrolling God Do?” For the whole chapter and book, see this link.)
[i] Keith Ward is one of the most persuasive and productive advocates of God as a mind or soul of the universe. Among his many books, see The Christian Idea of God (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
[ii] See, for instance, my essay, “The Divine Spirit as Causal and Personal,” Zygon. 48:2 (June 2013): 454-465.