God does not have a magic wand: Reflections on Pope Francis' Address

by frankbeswick

Pope Francis is raising important points about divine action in the world

Omnipotence is a source of problems for Christian thinkers. Why did not God simply blot out Hitler, why cannot He end ebola and HIV, just like that. This is known as the problem of evil, but it is unavoidably tied up with how we understand the way in which the world works. The pope links his view of the divine action in the world with his understanding of evolution and his response to creationism and intelligent design

The Finger Clicking God.

In a recent speech to the pontifical academy of sciences Pope Francis dealt with some very significant issues. To a degree he surprised me, as I had thought that his focus was mainly upon the much needed re-organisation of the Catholic bureaucracy, but we like surprises, don't we? The job of pope involves teaching on every issue that concerns Christians, so maybe I should not have been surprised. 

There is a false view of omnipotence that seems to be found among both theists and atheists. I call it "the finger clicking God." We have an image of God sitting in heaven and saying something like, "I fancy creating another mountain range." Divine fingers clicked, Word uttered, then Sorted! There it is, one new mountain range, without effort or time. Many people believe that God can do this. But this view informs many of our expectations of God. We pray for help and expect it instantly, as we want it, delivered by post, as it were, like a heavenly form of mail order.

Pope Francis is opposing this false image. The pope is pushing the point that divine action takes time. God's just clicking his fingers [his/her, it does not matter] is not the way in which things work. Quite simply, the creation took ages. The Bible speaks of six days of creation, and we know that this is a mythical way of talking about vast aeons of time, so the idea that creation occurs over a time span is fully scriptural.  There is further backing for this awareness that God's action occurs temporally from the whole notion of salvation history, the narrative of divine action throughout the ages, from the beginning until Christ. This is a tale that the Bible sets over thousands of years, and it is not yet over, for the last book of the Bible, Revelations [Apocalypse in Catholic terminology] looks into the future to the consummation of the divine promises. Jesus himself implies a temporal aspect to the activity of God when in John 5:17 he says "My Father goes on working and so do I." Jesus gives us a picture not of a deity who has it easy, but a God who strives; and this is far from the finger clicking God of false theology. 

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The Problems of the False Image

People wonder why God God allows evil. Surely God can solve every problem with a  wave of his magic wand, a click of the finger, as it were. Thus when this instant quasi-magical resolution does not happen, they are disappointed. Why has God not answered my prayer, people sometimes ask? Their disappointment can undermine their faith. 

Francis' answer seems to be derived from both Scripture, the philosopher/mathematician Leibniz. and the scientist Robert Boyle. If we look closely at Genesis 1:11 we see that the author believed that God made the Earth produce plants, each according to its own kind. This author believed that God constructed humans out of the soil of Earth. The thinking here is that God works with the Earth, using it, rather than just snapping his fingers [metaphorically] and getting an instant result. Francis states that God created human beings and let them develop according to their own internal laws. This is consistent with the Scriptures just cited. This seems to be compatible with the thinking of the seventeenth century chemist, Robert Boyle, who believed that God's creativity came in designing the laws of nature by which all things ran, then respecting them. There is further compatibility with the thought of Leibniz, who argued that certain conceivable worlds were on reflection logically self-contradictory, so God could not create them. In this belief Leibniz reflects the views of Thomas Aquinas who argued in Summa Theologia that God's omnipotence did not entail his being able to do something inherently nonsensical and self-contradictory, such as make a square circle. The implications for Leibniz were that God had created the best of all possible worlds, but there were limitations and constraints.

So the image of a deity with a magic wand who sorts out problems instantaneously is one with which we can happily dispense. Francis is offering us a deity who works for us, oft-times working hard to get effect his will. Note that Jesus demanded faith for his healing acts to work. We sometimes think that this was somehow Jesus being authoritarian, it wasn't, faith was a requirement for the divine power to operate in the psycho-physical reality that is a human being. Furthermore, Jesus' death on the cross was a reflection of the fact that there are necessities that govern divine action. Jesus had to face the cross, not because the Father wanted him to suffer, but because this was a necessity for salvation. This was the way that things are, and God had to work with it. 

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Creationism and Evolution

The Pope also clarified Catholic thinking on creationism and evolution. Let us be clear, the R.C.Church does not definitively teach anything about the six days of creation. It teaches that God is creator, but is open on how he created.Thus the pope's address distanced Catholicism from Creation Science. This is a theory that goes beyond the doctrine of creation to claim that a scientific account of the creation of the world can be derived from the book of Genesis. Creationism, sometimes known as Creation Science, is a belief that is adamantly anti-evolution, and it has been performing intellectual contortions to prove that the biblical account is genuinely scientific. Francis wants nothing to do with this theory, and sees no religious value in it. He therefore is helping the church avoid a fruitless controversy with  science. 

It must be stressed that the church is not anti-science. It never was. There was a difficulty with Galileo, which was more political than scientific. The church disagrees  not with science, but with Scientism, a form of positivism that holds that all knowledge can be reduced to science and mathematics. Catholicism rejects this view, as it knows that there is religious and ethical knowledge that cannot be thus reduced. It is worth noting that the evolutionary controversy of the nineteenth century was mainly within Anglicanism. The Catholic Church took a back seat and since then the ongoing clashes have been between scientific atheists and fundamentalist Protestants. Since St Augustine's time the church has known that the Genesis account of creation is not literally true, so no one wanted any unnecessary clash on the issue.

Thus Francis stated that the church is comfortable with evolution. This does not mean that it accepts a purely secular account of creation and evolution. Far from it. For Christians the world is the theatre of divine activity, and this must be felt within evolution as well as in human lives. There are differences within evolutionary theory and the church does not come down for one or another. Teilhard de Chardin, for example, formulated a theistic model that runs counter to the  secularist model proposed by Darwin. Yet while Teilhard was a Catholic priest, the Church does not state for or against his theory. It is a matter of opinion among Catholics.

Francis also stated support for the Big Bang theory of creation. No surprise here, it was formulated by a Catholic priest, the cosmologist Georges Lemaitre,  and was always accepted as a theory compatible with Catholic teaching. 

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Intelligent Design

Francis made no statements on this theory, which holds that the universe displays signs of having been designed and that this implies a designer. Intelligent design interested Pope Benedict, but the problem is that it is often confused with creationism. We must be clear. Intelligent Design is not creationism, for it does not base itself upon the scientific and literal truth of the Bible, as creationism does. Nor does it deny evolution, which it generally sees as part of God's design.  It is a philosophical theory that is a response to observed phenomena in the universe, particularly to the semblance of design that can be traced. Nothing said by the Pope can be construed as either supporting or denying this theory, so those journalists who have interpreted the Pope's statement as a rejection of intelligent design are reading more into the speech than is present. 

Intelligent Design

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Conclusion

Thus the papal speech clarifies the position of Catholicism in relation to certain controversial issues, and draws the Church away from a fruitless controversy between fundamentalists on the scientific and the religious side. Hopefully, it will settle some confusions about the Catholic position and enable the church to focus more on its key message, which for Francis is the promotion of justice, love and mercy in the world.

Updated: 11/01/2014, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 11/23/2014

Thanks.

WriterArtist on 11/23/2014

@frankbeswick - No
I think you are referring to Shankaracharya who was a saint or the Hindu God Shankara. There is nothing common.

frankbeswick on 11/22/2014

Thank you.

Is there any link between this term and the eighth century Hindu thinker, Sankhara?

WriterArtist on 11/21/2014

When you act and behave in certain (any) way you are creating "Sankhara" which is nothing but the fruit of your action. For example if you help someone you generate a sankhara that has a positive bearing, likewise if you murder someone you are creating and storing a very evil(bad) sankhara.

In your existence or future existences when the time is reap, this sankhara comes out with a force and you experience fortune or misfortune. In Vipassana, we are taught how to observe these sankharas which surface as sensations (mild, pleasant or painful) without reacting thus weakening its power. If you react, you are again building over the sankhara and following the same old habit pattern of reacting. You have been doing this your entire life and your past lives too.

frankbeswick on 11/21/2014

Thankyou. Can you explain the term Sankharas? I studied Buddhism as part of my study of all world religions, but I need some clarification here. As I have said in my comment on your article, learning a religion from a participant is so useful.

WriterArtist on 11/20/2014

@frankbeswick - Buddhism explains evil in a very interesting way - we are an epitome of good and bad. Out actions give rise to Sankharas and under their influence the life force goes on. All that happens to us is the sum/resultants of our deeds, so we cannot accuse anybody even God for the misfortunes. Buddhism as opposed to Hinduism does not believe in existence of God but the existence of Natural Forces -"Dhamma". If we align with the universe and the good, we pave a path full of merits which eventually leads to enlightenment. It is a very long way though. Enjoyed your article and the chain of comments that followed.

Mira on 11/19/2014

Thank you, Frank!

frankbeswick on 11/19/2014

There are difficulties with omnipotence, in my view. Aquinas accepted that God could not do anything nonsensical and impossible in itself, such as make a square circle. This implies that the laws of logic/mathematics are not capable of being bent by God, as they govern the principle that square circles are impossible. Thus Leibniz was of the view that some worlds are logically impossible in themselves, as they contradict logical/mathematical laws, and thus God cannot make these worlds happen. Leibniz thought that God had made the best logically possible world.

If we take this further we reach the point when we suggest that there are also moral necessities with which God works, such as the need for the cross. The cross had to happen, but we must realize that the cross remains a profound mystery of which theology has but an inadequate grasp. In Christianity humans enter into an ocean of mystery and attempt to navigate it. The journey is oft-times stormy and the way is puzzling. The banquet of mystery,albeit little understood, is richer than the easily digested diet of materialistic mediocrity.

I am wrestling with deep issues here, and there are issues that need to be taken further. I am certainly not infallible or an authority figure to be taken uncritically. Rather I am groping to find a meaningful way in which humans can understand the God who transcends them.

Mira on 11/19/2014

Interesting article. But I'm puzzled by this: ". . . there are necessities that govern divine action. Jesus had to face the cross, not because the Father wanted him to suffer, but because this was a necessity for salvation. This was the way that things are, and God had to work with it."

That would imply that God is not omnipotent.

frankbeswick on 11/19/2014

Religions have different ways of expressing this insight. You are working in the Hindu/Buddhist view that is based on karma. Jewish rabbis expressed this insight as the belief that all acts produce appropriate fruit somewhere, sometime. Some of these rabbis believe in re-incarnation, but do not accept karma. In Christianity there is no clear place for karma, as it is with some notable exceptions a religion that does not rely on re-incarnation, but it accepts a divine judgment at the end of life where all acts acts are accounted for.

These religions explain evil in different ways. For Hindus it is illusion; for Christians it is a human flaw arising at the beginning, but Christianity varies in its views on this matter, too much for a simple comment to account for.


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