The Spiritual Connection: How God Acts In The World -- By: Frederick Sontag

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 32:2 (Jun 1989)
Article: The Spiritual Connection: How God Acts In The World
Author: Frederick Sontag

The Spiritual Connection:
How God Acts In The World

Frederick Sontag*

Those who consider God, and the possible way in which divinity might influence the world, have always had difficulty trying to spell out how this effect might take place. In point of fact the question is not so different from the one any nontheologian might consider: how the soul affects the body or vice versa. Of course there are behaviorists who want to get rid of the problem by doing away with any nonmaterial notion such as “soul,” and there are materialists who solve the problem by claiming that nothing exists except forms of matter. Still, the mind-brain problem offers us a perplexity even in modern times, since it seems impossible to reduce what we know as mind (or consciousness) to the physiological brain (or the physical body).

In any case a secularist who allows more than one type of basic substance in the world has the same problem any theologian has in describing how forms of substance different in kind can act on each other. We know that Spinoza solved the problem by claiming that there is only one substance with infinite attributes (e.g. thought and extension) and that these parallel each other so that no interaction is either necessary or possible. Of course Spinoza does this by accepting the loss of human freedom or contingency, since perhaps only in an interaction between substances different in kind and in mode of operation (e.g. mind, body) does the possibility of contingency and uncertainty enter in. Descartes stressed the autonomy of mind, and he had trouble accounting for how it might link with and affect the body’s action.

In a sense our root problem goes back to Aristotle, as it so often does. Aristotle liked neither Plato’s concept of the soul nor his World-Maker. The Aristotelian Unmoved Mover does not need to worry about interacting with the material world, since the Unmoved Mover did not create it (it is eternal). The divine method of imparting motion is by arousing a desire to imitate its excellence, its state of perfect actuality and rest. Many later theologians took over some of Aristotle’s attractive metaphysics, but the problem in doing so is that it does not easily fit the Christian notion of God’s relationship to the world. Of course modifications were made, but the basic problem of how to specify God’s avenue of interaction with the world is still present. The difficulty was that God had to remain unmoved in any and all action, if one begins with Aristotle’s metaphysics.

* Frederick Sontag is professor of philosophy at Pomona College in Pomona, California.

To continue our parallel, Aristotle’s problem of the relationship of body to sou...

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