Thursday 30 March 2006

Hans Küng and divine intervention

Via Pontifications, check out this interview with Hans Küng about theology and science.

When asked about the concept of divine intervention, Küng explains: “The word ‘intervene’ is not very good because it means to come in between. An intervention is usually something violent or aggressive. What I would reject is the idea that God could intervene against the laws of nature. I would even go further and say that for science, God is not a category because God by definition is a reality beyond time and space, and therefore does not belong in the world of our scientific experience.”

What do you think about the concept of “divine intervention”? I hope to post a series on this topic one of these days; so in the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think about it.


Chris Tilling said...

You beat me to the publish button with this one, so I won't bother!

Mike L said...

What Küng says is better than a lot of what gets said, but I’ve still got three major beefs.

1. He says: "What I would reject is the idea that God could intervene against the laws of nature." If so, then miracles are impossible. One might of course defend Küng’s statement by saying that miracles do not so much override the laws of nature as merely exploit their contingency by bringing “higher” laws into play. Thus if, as I believe, “the laws of nature” do not tell us how natural things must behave simpliciter but only how they must behave when not interfered with, that would be true. But Küng’s apodictic statement seems to rule out that defense. So much the worse for him as a theologian.

2. He says: "The fundamental question of philosophy, according to Leibniz, is “Why is there anything at all and not simply nothing?” It is true that Leibniz asked that question, but as I argued in my doctoral thesis, the question is ill-posed. To suppose that there being anything at all requires explanation is to suppose that nothing is what one would expect unless something brings it about that there is something. But of course, if there’s anything to have brought it about that there is something rather than nothing, then there was something, not nothing, to begin with. Hence, the sort of explanation invited by the answer is possible only if the question’s supposition is false.

3. He says: "A religious person can say that creation obviously has a goal. We shouldn’t talk of intelligent design. That we have emerged is a product of necessity and chance." This is just confused. If what emerges in creation is, quite generally, a product only of “necessity and chance,” then creation does not “have a goal” and the religious person is simply in error. That is clearly not what Küng wants to say. What he does want to say is that the question whether creation has a God-given goal expressible in its design, which includes our emergence, is not a scientific question and therefore not one for scientists to answer either way. That is certainly true. But then it is false to say that “we shouldn’t talk of intelligent design.” What would be true is that one shouldn’t talk of intelligent design, in the sense at issue, qua scientist. I, for one, never thought one should.

Anonymous said...

Küng is rightly concerned about the idea of "divine intervention" in nature if it necessarily suggests acts "violent" and "aggressive". But why let this typically cynical British empiricist approach to "miracle", with its idea of God as an onto-theistic intruder in his own creation (the term "violating" the laws of nature is suggestive) dictate the terms of the discussion?

The issue looks very different, for example, if God is understood, not as an distant yet tinkering monad, but as both the immanent Trinity -Father, Son and Spirit who eternally indwell each other in love, a love the Trinity then freely spills over into creation, - and the economic Trinity that indwells the world, guiding, preserving and bringing it to perfection in love (the doctrine of providence - with an accent on pneumatology?) When it comes to the God-world relationship, "indwelling" is certainly a more theologically appropriate and fruitful concept than "intervention".

In the background of Küng's unease is surely the identification of the God-who-intervenes with the discredited god-of-the-gaps, Bonhoeffer's deus ex machina. Perhaps Küng has Intelligent Design in his sights.

But, again, while I agree with Küng that God, as the creator of the universe is not a member of the universe and therefore cannot properly be deployed in scientific accounts of the universe without himself being reduced to the status of a creature (and so the bad science of ID becomes even worse theology), nevertheless I also want to resist the hegemony of the Kantian dichotomy of "facts" and "values" that might suggest that science and theology are two incommensurable areas of discourse - not least because, as with science, so with history - and the next thing you know we're down the forked road of the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith".

The relationship between science (and histroy) and theology is more complicated than Küng allows. And if the resurrection of Jesus is the test case, Küng's theolgy (in my view) has us walking on too many liberal eggshells - e.g. his description of the empty tomb as an "illustration" rather than a "precondition" of the resurrection, and his reference to the disciples' experiences of the Risen One as "inward visionary events and not external reality."

Ap said...


Interesting comment--indwelling rather than intervention. I have no problem with "indwelling." But I do believe "intervention" is appropriate and quite helpful. For example, we use the expression "God intervened in history" quite often and I believe it is quite right that we do so. The Incarnation was a divine intervention in human history. The human race, because of sin, was separated from God and could not ascend to God. Man kept ascending but could not reach infinity. God gave Israel the law so that they can know their sins and through the law we can see that man by nature could not ascend to God; "law of man" is not to "touch" the tree of life, not to ascend to the life of God. But God intervened and became man so that he can ascend to Him and love Him. The law is fulfilled and we are now in the "law of the Spirit." In this way, I believe "indwelling" is a good term. The indwelling of God is the continuation of His intervention; the Church is the continuation of the Incarnation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Apolonio,

Writng about doctrine in the 18th century, Jaroslav Pelikan observes that "Less controversial [than the infra/supra-lapsarian disputes] was the insistence that although the fall of man had made the incarnation necessary, it was the divine image in man that had made it possible."

My analgous suggestion here is to see God's indwelling his creation not only as "the continuation of His intervention" but as the precondition that makes his intervention possible in non-aggressive ways, and therefore changes the way we understand this intervention from the external and alien to the internal and intimate. The resurrection, for example, then becomes an eruption of the divine love from within rather than an intervention of divine power from without (divine power, that is, undeconstructed by a trinitarian theologia crucis).

I'm thinking out loud here, trying to be sympathetic to Küng's unease about the coercive overtones of the language of intervention without ending up with a deistic deity, the absentee landlord becoming, finally, just an absentee.

Anonymous said...

I like all of what Kim had to say on the subject. My own belief and experience is that God is radically present and radically close to the world. Everywhere you turn, there is God, though as I blogged earlier this week, that is not always our experience. Through the Eucharist, prayer, daily devotionals and Scripture reading, and all the other practices of ministry, we come to have faith in God's presence and learn to actually experience God.

When we have that faith and can recognize God's presence, I do believe certainly laws of the universe can be broken, especially of biology and so forth. I believe Jesus actually healed the sick, caused the blind to see, and raised people from the dead. It is important to note, though, that this recognition of God's work in their lives was necessary before he could work among those people. When faith was absent, the radically close Divine Other still could not break past the wall we build to keep the universe functioning "normally," "reasonably."

Ap said...


Try concurrentism. That's what most medieival theologians thought. Here is Alfred Freddoso's take on it:


I don't think I disagree with what you said. God is immanent in the world and causes effects along with secondary causes (sorry for using Greek categories here). I also believe that the image of God in man shows that God dwells in persons even though they are in the state of original sin or even mortal sin (St. John of the Cross says that God is near man in some way although he is in the state of mortal sin). I do believe that God's indwelling is a precondition for the dramatic divine intervention of God. But a new type of indwelling occured when the Logos became man. God now communes with man and man can partake of His divine nature; there is a true communio with God and man that was not there in the beginning. In that way, the term "divine intervention" is very helpful since it reminds us of the dramatic structure of the economy of salvation.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for all these valuable and interesting comments -- this has given me a lot to think about. I'll aim to post on the topic some time in the future.

To anticipate: My own general approach would be to start with the definitive and quintessential case of the resurrection of Jesus, and to ask whether this event should be understood as an "intervention" in God's creation, or rather as the eschatological goal of the entire creation.

And you can probably tell from the way I'm framing the question that I'd also end up pretty close to Küng, albeit perhaps for different reasons.

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