An Elephant in the Room: Divine Action, Naturalism(s), and Why the Causal Joint is Still Worth Talking About
The question of divine action has been a perennial focus of the science and religion field: how, exactly, does God interact with the created world? Perspectives on this question are best compared by their respective approaches to the infamous “causal joint,” the theoretical nexus in which divine intent meets material processes. Can science point us to a physical process or sphere where God acts specially? This causal joint problem is increasingly pertinent as the boundaries of scientific explanation are pushed further and further back: the naturalizing trajectory of scientific knowledge poses a real challenge to contemporary theology. A sizable literature has accumulated around the topic of divine action, most notably shaped by the influential Divine Action Project and its attendant responses, critiques, and commentary. However, many conclude that the causal joint not only remains elusive, but may even be an inadequate concept altogether. Moreover, the overall divine action conversation in recent decades may have constrained approaches to the causal joint by implicitly assuming certain metaphysical frameworks in the questions being asked, the categories being assigned, and even the terminology used around God, divine action, and the natural world. Recent years have thus seen alternative metaphysical approaches to divine action: these include, for example, panentheism, pneumatological approaches, participatory ontology, versions of neo-Thomism, and a variety of strong theistic naturalisms. These approaches attempt to reframe the causal joint conversation in different God-world models than those implied in the ‘intervention vs. nonintervention’ dichotomy. In so doing, they shift the conversation to a metaphysical/theological level that limits the scope of scientific knowledge. The task, it is argued, is to ask the right metaphysical questions about the God-world relationship, which are supposedly unanswerable by scientific methodology. But do these metaphysical ‘correctives’ adequately address the causal joint? Is there a better alternative to placing boundaries around what science may and may not tell us about reality? This paper surveys the current landscape around these questions, asking how non-standard approaches to divine action fare and pointing out potential areas for real progress.