12. God and the Universe

Can God really intervene?

If you’ve meditated on this material so far, you have probably become aware that some images of God work better than others in the context of this understanding of our universe. We have typically imagined an all-powerful Being, somewhere “out there” who seems to respond sometimes to prayer and intervene in the normal course of affairs of the world. Some theologians refer to this as “supernatural theism.”  Some people talk of “God’s Plan” as if God were some sort of architect of a universe which somehow unfolds – or doesn’t – according to God’s Plan. A lot of our early sacred texts, along with a good portion of our devotional practice, and especially our practice of intercessory prayer, rely on a theological belief that God can intervene in world affairs whenever and however God wants.

Science provides a very different understanding of the way the Universe functions. If we truly want our theology to avoid being in violation of the basic understandings we have of the Universe from contemporary science, then we need to be especially careful of this: we need to be aware that, fundamental to the contemporary view of the Universe, the universe is a closed energy system. Energy is neither lost nor created. In such a universe, it is a violation to imagine a situation in which new energy is added to the universe from the outside. Now, there are three ways to avoid violating this law and still have God interact with the Universe: 1) God is not “outside” the Universe, but the Universe is “in” God, and God is in all things; 2) God’s intervention is not an infusion of new energy, but of information; 3) there are forms of energy which science is unable to measure because of its quantitative approach – love is such an energy. None of these violate the Law of Conservation of Energy.

Philosophers and theologians have been debating this matter for some time, especially as many scientists basically declare that the notion of a “God” who cares about this world and interacts with it is untenable in view of the scientific worldview. Well-known Quaker theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton, in his God and Contemporary Science, is clear: to avoid violation of our scientific understanding of the Universe, there are only five ways in which God can relate to this world: 1. creating it, 2. sustaining it, 3. collapsing probability waves, 4. modifying initial conditions in non-linear systems, and 5. whispering suggestions to those who are open. Items 1 and 2 are possible because they describe a metaphysical, not a physical situation, and, as such, are not amenable to the constraints of the scientific method. Items 3 and 4 do not violate the Law of Conservation of Energy because God is introducing information, not matter or energy. And #5 is of the realm of human experience, not fully explainable by the scientific method. Clayton, along with many other contemporary theologians, prefer “panentheism,” the view that God is in all things and all things are in God. Unlike pantheism, God is in all things but is vastly more than that.


This one will require a lot of reflection and meditation because it attacks – or at least seems to attack – the very heart of our understanding of prayer and of the nature of God’s Presence in our lives. We don’t want our thinking to devolve into some form of “deism” where God is out there completely cut off from God’s creation, uninterested in and unable to intervene in an autonomous universe that simply unfolds according to its own internal laws and dynamisms. Nor do we wish to despair about the central act in our relationship with God – prayer. So, how do we make sense of this? How do we remain faithful to our deepest beliefs about God and prayer and not violate the tenets of a science that we believe to be providing us with a pretty accurate picture of how our universe works? How do you experience God’s Presence? How do you make sense of the miracle and intervention stories in our Scripture? What understanding of prayer and of God’s “answer” makes sense to you at this point? How do these reflections make you feel?