Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

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From Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1998, 137-143.  The divine lure attracts all, not just human, creatures and to it all respond according to their degree of freedom.


How Does God's Providential Care Extend to Animals?

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

As an undergraduate I majored in geology, with a special interest in palaeontology.  One day towards the end of the basic palaeontology course, deeply awestruck by my professor’s summary of the different types of animals that had lived and gone extinct, I asked him why all those animals had lived and died.  Most palaeontologists then and now would simply have told me that there is no reason other than evolution’s ceaseless exploration of any possible form of life and every possible niche for its survival.  But I was studying at a Catholic university and my professor was a man of deep religious faith; he told me that my question was theological in character, not scientific, and that he was not competent to give an answer beyond his conviction that there is some deeper meaning to the history of life.

I narrate this incident because for me it expresses several points which I wish to discuss.  First, the question of how divine providence may be bestowed upon animals must be addressed in the broad context of the evolutionary history of life on this planet, not just in the restricted context of animals presently living.  Whatever position we come to must take into account and test itself against that evolutionary history, in which contingency, chance, and the operation of blind natural forces apparently play a large role.

A second point we must address is the undeniable ambiguity of nature.  If there are experiences of beauty and harmony that lead a William Paley to affirm that ‘it is a happy world after all,’1 there are also experiences of pain, suffering, and horrible deaths that lead a Charles Darwin to exclaim ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!’2  Part of the motivation for my question to my palaeontology professor was a feeling for the magnitude of the suffering and death represented by the evolutionary history of life.  Any answer we give must deal with this problem of suffering and evil.

Another subject that any proposed answer to the question must consider is the relation of human beings and our history to animals and the evolutionary history of life.  Evolutionary theory discloses that we humans are but one of countless animal species, that we are creatures of the evolutionary development of life on earth, that we are related to all other forms of life and consequently are squarely within nature, not above it.  We can no longer assume that there is some immense gulf separating humans from animals, some ontological difference of status lifting humans outside the world of nature so that God’s providence for us can be understood differently from God’s involvement with the rest of creation.  Any position on God’s providence for animals must be consistent with our position on God’s providence in human life and history, and vice versa.

At root the difficulty confronting us is finding some persuasive way of understanding how God can act in a universe such as science and our own experience reveal to us.  Ultimately we need an ontology of nature and history that will enable us to construct a theological cosmology: a vision of how God interacts with the world, a vision that is at once compatible with what science reveals about the nature of reality and with what our religious faith holds about reality based on the revelatory ‘event’ of Jesus Christ.  I offer here a few of the considerations a theological cosmology must take into account, and provide an outline of how God’s providential care for animals might be understood.

A useful place to begin is to call attention to the history of life on our planet as we presently know it.  We do not know exactly when life emerged, but there is evidence of life in rocks 3.75 billion years old.3  For 2.4 billion years after the earliest evidence (approximately two-thirds of the entire history of life on earth), all organisms were single-celled creatures of the simplest kind: prokaryotic cells (possessing no organelles, no nucleus, no paired chromosomes, no mitochondria, and no chloroplasts).  Eukaryotic cells (with all the complex features lacking in prokaryotic cells) appear in the fossil record approximately 1.4 billion years ago; but for over 700 million years after their appearance, there apparently were no multicellular organisms.  Multi-cellular organisms emerged approximately 570 million years ago and their development into the multitude of extinct and presently living species of plants and animals occupies only one-sixth of the entire history of life on earth.  This represents a veritable explosion of experimentation in forms compared to the massive stability of single-celled organisms for five-sixths of the history of life.

What is more, instead of presenting us with a gradual evolution of many forms out of an original few (the classic ‘tree trunk’ model of evolutionary history), the fossil evidence for multi-cellular organisms seems to indicate a profusion of initial forms (more like a bush having many shoots emerging from the ground), which were subsequently ‘pruned’ by mass extinctions so that only a few of the initial phyla survived.  These surviving phyla diversified into many orders, genera, and species, which were themselves severely ‘pruned’ by the periodic occurrence of mass extinctions.4  One of the leading contemporary theorists of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, has argued that this evolutionary history of life is fundamentally contingent in character.5  He means that science can offer no reasons for the actual course of life’s history other than the facticity of the history itself.  The history of life appears to be exactly like human history, composed entirely of contingent events that might easily have been otherwise.

All this appears to indicate that we would not be wrong to affirm a great deal of freedom in the natural order, a great deal of flexibility.  Instead of being a realm of determinism, in which natural laws dictate all outcomes, the natural world appears to be a large-scale experiment in the pursuit of possibilities, in which the outcomes are largely a result of freedom, contingency, and even chance.  Just as the actual course of human history is the result of a combination of chance and what humans in fact choose to do in their freedom, so too the history of life seems to have just this sort of contingent character.  Contemporary physics, particularly quantum theory and the physics of dynamic systems, leads to similar conclusions concerning even ‘non-living’ matter and the world of sub-atomic particles.6  Our view of providence, of how God acts in the universe, must be able to deal with the freedom that seems to be pervasively present in nature.  It must be compatible with the apparently contingent character of the history of life (and perhaps of universal history).  Most importantly, our view of providence must have some way of reconciling a God of goodness and love with the horrendous suffering to which life on earth has always been subject and which manifests itself most strikingly in the periodic mass extinctions that punctuate the history of life.

To most theologians addressing these and related issues, it has seemed clear that an understanding of God and God’s action that is compatible with what science is revealing and implying about the nature of reality will involve several important revisions of the traditional idea of God.  Coming to the question with different approaches and utilizing widely different resources, theologians have achieved a remarkable degree of consensus on the general outlines of such a revised understanding.7  The major points can be summarized swiftly.

1. God as Creator is understood to endow all creatures, not just human beings, with genuine freedom.

2. In order to understand the world’s freedom as truly genuine, we must affirm a limitation on God’s power, whether it be self-imposed by God for the sake of the creature or an inherent feature of reality to which God is subject.8  In either case God can no longer be understood to be omnipotent in the classic sense.

3. Respect for the freedom of creation also requires us to understand the future to be truly open, for God as much as for the world; and this requires us to hold that God does not know the future, for the simple reason that the future does not yet exist to be known.  Thus although God’s knowledge of past and present is perfect and God grasps all future possibilities, we cannot affirm God’s omniscience in the classic sense.

4. God must also be understood to be receptive to and influenced by what is done in the world’s freedom.  God is consequently affected by the world, vulnerable to it, though not entirely or finally captive to it.

5. God must be understood as somehow experiencing time, as well as being transcendent to it.

In short, while maintaining many aspects of the traditional understanding of God’s transcendence, a contemporary idea of God consonant with the view of reality revealed by modern science must also affirm God’s immanence in the world in a new way: we must conceive of God being influenced by the world and interacting with it.

A view of God developed along these general lines implies an understanding of how God acts in the universe, which is the crucial problem in working out a contemporary notion of providence.  Different approaches are possible.  But in my own reflections on this topic I have found Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of God’s relation to potentiality or possibility most helpful.  Of all the philosophers with whom I am acquainted, Whitehead took most seriously the fact of the occurrence of novelty in the world and sought to deal with the underlying philosophical problem of potentiality or possibility. In Whitehead’s philosophy, God acts on the world by organizing and presenting potentials or possibilities.9  God creates the world by making it possible, by endowing each agent in creation with its potentials and the freedom to create itself on this divinely-given ground.   Each agent is free to actualize any of the potentials or possibilities open to it in its situation.  The only way God can influence the free self-actualization of each agent is by ‘luring’ it towards those possibilities God values as most beautiful and good.  Thus God acts in the world through persuasion, not through coercion.  What actually happens is finally in the hands of the causal agents of the world.

At each moment God experiences what each agent in the universe has chosen to do in its freedom and responds to it by presenting to each agent in the next moment new possibilities for good.  In this way God seeks to overcome whatever evils or tragedies have resulted from the exercise of freedom by all agents in the universe.  Thus, apart from the persuasion towards the best possibility (which is an unconscious experience even in those agents capable of consciousness), God can exert no direct causal influence on the world.  Anything we might want to consider divine action can occur only with the co-operative action of causal agents within the world.

Before employing this philosophical view to address the specific question of how God’s providence is bestowed on animals, we must test it to determine whether Christian theology can adopt such a theory of divine action.  I would argue that this view of God’s action on the world is in conformity with what we witness in the life of Jesus Christ.  When we examine Jesus’ life, we do not see him acting with coercive power, or the power of force.

Instead we see Jesus acting by teaching and living God’s ‘kingdom,’ acting with the persuasive power of ideals, with the ‘lure’ of beauty and value and holiness.  We see him unresisting at his arrest, trial, and execution; we see a deliberate rejection of violent means.  We see him suffering and dying, ‘powerless’ in the hands of those who opposed him and used coercive force against him.  Yet the tragedy and evil of his death was overcome and transformed in his resurrection, which gave new possibilities and new hope to his followers for ever after.

If Jesus Christ is our strongest clue to how God acts in the world, then what we see is a God who acts through the presentation of possibilities, ideals, and values; a God who must suffer what the world chooses to do with its freedom; and a God who overcomes and transforms the suffering and evil in the world with healing and new hope in redemptive love.

This view of how God acts does not demean God or render God ineffectual.  Persuasion can be a very powerful force, as we know from our own experience.  And our minds cannot begin to plumb the infinite wealth of possibility.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is for Christian theology the firmest sort of evidence that God can bring about the wholly unexpected.

As Jesus himself is reported to have said, ‘With God all things are possible’ (Matt. 19.26).  Thus we must not underestimate what God can bring about in the world through the power of divine persuasion.

With this view of how God acts, we can affirm that in a metaphysically general sense God extends providential care to animals in the same way God extends it to human beings: at each moment God endows each creature with its possibilities and seeks to ‘lure’ each animal to actualize in its freedom the best of the possibilities open to it given its situation.  God cherishes the beauty of each creature and through the divine ‘lure’ seeks to bring about the best for each creature.  Whitehead’s philosophy suggests this way of understanding God’s presence to, and care about, each creature in the world.

To recognize the foundational implications of the doctrine of creation, as Whitehead’s metaphysics does, is an important part of any understanding of how God’s providence is extended to animals.  There would be no universe at all without God’s role as Creator, making the universe possible at each moment.  In Whitehead’s philosophy, each causal agent in the world (each ‘actual entity’) begins its self-creative becoming in each moment by taking into itself the creative endowment it receives from God:  its possibilities and its drive to make something of itself in that moment.  As Whitehead once said, ‘The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself.’10  When one reflects on the implications of this position, one can conclude that it is not naive to believe that God cares for animal life, that God ‘feeds the birds’ of the air.  This belief is expressing a religious intuition of the underlying religious dimension of our universe; it is grasping God’s involvement and immanence in making our universe possible, and grasping as well that all good things can rightly be traced back ultimately to God’s creative action.

For a variety of reasons, however, the divine lure towards the good and the beautiful will not always be followed.  Creatures choose for themselves, and in their freedom may actualize any of the possibilities open to them, even the one God values least.  There is nothing in the nature of freedom itself that determines it will always be exercised for the best.  Thus we are not faced with having to say that God intended the actual course of evolutionary history or all the experiences of any individual life.  Because of the exercise of freedom in the entire natural universe, many things can and do happen to bring suffering to animals.  There is conflict of purposes pursued by different agents exercising freedom and this will result in great suffering, especially when animals are acted upon with coercive power they cannot avoid.  God can act in the world only through persuasive power and through the co-operation of the causal agents in the world.  The very freedom of all creatures in the world acts as a limit on what God can do; freedom cannot be coerced without destroying it.  Thus God can only seek to persuade the creatures of the world along the best path.  The coercive power exercised by causal agents in their freedom can ignore and trample upon persuasion and resist co-operation with the divine lures.  All God can do in such situations is to suffer with suffering creatures and seek to bring the best out of bad situations.  This view of God’s action and the limitations on what God can do takes seriously the contingent character and ambiguity of the evolutionary history of life and of the experiences in any individual life and offers a solution to the problem of evil.

There is one difference between God’s providen-tial care for animals and God’s providential care for humans that we must recognize.  Human beings, so far as we know, are unique in their ability to bring things to reflective consciousness.  We humans are capable of grasping God’s ‘lures’ to the good and the beautiful quite consciously, whereas for all other animals the experience of these divine lures is an unconscious one (as it is even for us most of the time).  One can argue that what the great religions teach is precisely this, the conscious recognition of God’s lures for us.  In Christianity, for example, the symbol ‘kingdom of God’ presents to us in all its richness God’s vision of what is possible for us and the world if we follow God’s lure.  We must recognize, then, our own capability of acting as instruments of God’s providence for animals, exercising our freedom in co-operation with God’s lures toward a universal ‘kingdom’ of peace and harmony.11  We can, to some degree, alleviate the suffering of animals, at least that which we ourselves inflict on them; and in this way we act as co-operative agents of God’s providential care.

But Whitehead’s philosophy also allows us to affirm a higher kind of providence: an ultimate redemption of the suffering, fragmented, disharmoni-ous world. In Whitehead’s philosophy, each moment of experience in the world affects God, is taken into God’s own experience, and lives everlastingly in God.  Although I do not have space here to explore the technical aspects of his argument, Whitehead affirms that in God’s developing experience all creatures are not simply received into God, but are transformed, ‘purged,’ and harmonized in the everlasting unity of God’s own life.12  What is ambiguity in the temporal world is redeemed and harmonized in God.  The sufferings and evils are still quite real, but they are healed and redeemed in God’s own life and find some ultimate meaning and harmonization in relation to God’s eternal vision of value and beauty.

This seems to me to give philosophical expression to the promise expressed in Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom where the lion and the lamb lie down together (Isa. 11.6-7· 9).

This vision and promise allows us to hope that the highest aspect of God’s providential care—ultimate redemption and inclusion in the everlasting life of God’s ‘kingdom’—will in fact be extended to all God’s creatures.



1 William Paley, Natural Theology: Selections ed. Frederick Ferre, The Library of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1963 p. 54.

2 Charles Darwin, letter to J. D. Hooker, 13 July 1856, More Letters of Charles Darwin ed. Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, 2 vols, John Murray 1903, vol. i, p. 94.

3 I am drawing this summary from Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, W. W. Norton 1989, pp. 58-60.

4 Ibid., pp. 299-308.

5 Ibid., pp. 277-323.

6 See e.g. John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World, Boston, Mass.: Shambhala Publications 1989, which summarizes much of the evidence for this view.

7 See e.g. Langdon Gilkey, Message and Exisetnce, New York; Seabury 1980, chs 4 and 5; Langdon Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History, New York; Seabury 1976, ch. 12; John B. Cobb, Jr and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology, Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1976; Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, New York: Crossroad 1982; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trs. Marget Kohl, SCM Press/Harper & Row 1985; Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science, The Gifford Lectures 1989-91, vol. 1, SCM Press/Harper & Row 1990, esp. ch. 9; Arthur Peacocke, God and the New Biology, San Francisco: Harper & Row 1986; Polkinghorne, Science and Providence; Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Philadelphia: SCM Press/Fortress Press 1987.

8 This expresses the major difference between the 'process' theologians, who generally treat freedom as inherent in actuality because of the operation of creativity in every actual thing, and those theologians who treat freedom as a gift to creation because of God's free self-limitation.

9 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edn, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, New York:The Free Press 1978; and Thomas E. Hosinksi, Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield 1993, chs 7 and 8.

10 See Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, New York: Macmillan 1926, p. 156.  See also Hosinski, Stubborn Fact, ch. 7

11 Jeffrey G. Sobosan has articulated the implications of Christian faith for the care of animals in his Bless the Beasts: A Spirituality of Animal Care, New York: Crossroad 1991.

12 See Whitehead, Process and Reality, Part V, ch 2, and Hosinski, Stubborn Fact, chs 8 and 9.

Posted March 1, 2007