Divine Conservation and Occasionalism

In my book entitled Ultimate Truth: God Beyond Religion I included a chapter called ‘God in Inanimate Objects’ (you can read it here) which argues that God’s being penetrates every atom of existence, so that even tables and chairs are a part of God. I am a panentheist (the word means ‘all in God’) and I believe in God’s omnipresence. Put more simply, I believe the whole of creation exists within God and everything that exists is a part of God.

I have studied Philosophy and Religion at postgraduate level but it is rare that I come across views of philosophers and theologians that resonate with my own beliefs about the God/world relationship. So I was pleased to stumble upon some articles expressing two philosophical ideas that I can relate to. The two ideas – Divine Conservation and Occasionalism – may sound rather cumbersome and boring, but I believe they are interesting and important. In this blog post I wish to explain these two ideas as simply as I can and explain why they are important and how they relate to my own philosophical outlook.

The Doctrine of Divine Conservation

Let us start with a definition:

In Western monotheism, especially the monotheisms of the Abrahamic tradition, God is conceived to be both the creator and sustainer of all that exists. Such a conception yields doctrines of creation and conservation, where the first concerns the origin of things and the second the continued existence of things.
(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creation-conservation/)

What we are examining here is what holds objects in existence. Deists argue that God created the world but does not play an active role in sustaining the world. They might say that the rules of science are sufficient to explain why matter exists, and that there is no necessity to speculate that God is holding anything in existence.

Those who believe in Divine Conservation would take an opposing view – God is not only the creator of matter but also the sustainer (or we might say ‘conserver’) and is causing all matter to exist by His omnipotent power and sovereign will in every moment.

It would seem that this idea is not entirely new, even if in my experience it is rarely discussed. The philosopher Edward Feser explains that the Doctrine of Divine Conservation can be found in the writings of the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. In the following quote he explains the Thomist perspective:

The Doctrine of Divine Conservation (DDC) holds that the things that God has created could not continue in existence for an instant if He were not actively preserving them in being. DDC is a standard component of classical philosophical theology. St. Thomas Aquinas holds that:

“Now, from the fact that God rules things by His providence it follows that He preserves them in being… [T]o be is not the nature or essence of any created thing, but only of God….Therefore, no thing can remain in being if divine operation cease.” [Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III]…

According to DEI [Doctrine of Existential Inertia], the world of contingent things, once it exists, will tend to continue in existence on its own at least until something positively acts to destroy it. It thus has no need to be conserved in being by God.
(https://whydoyoubelieve.org/tag/the-doctrine-of-divine-conservation/)

I would vehemently dispute the Doctrine of Existential Inertia mentioned above due to my belief that the very being of God penetrates every atom in existence. To describe things as existing ‘on their own’ is illogical and to support that view one would have to deny God’s omnipresence.

So according to the Doctrine of Divine Conservation, God is not only creator, but also sustainer of all. The whole of existence, in this single eternal moment, is totally dependent on God, and nothing could remain in existence without Him.

The Doctrine of Occasionalism

Occasionalism is an idea associated with the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, who was influenced by the thought of St. Augustine and Descartes. The idea is similar to the Doctrine of Divine Conservation, but there are some differences. It’s quite a complicated idea and I find the term a little clumsy but I will seek to explain my understanding of the concept as best as I can with the assistance of a few quotations.

Here’s how the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Occasionalism:

“…for the occasionalist, the regular operations of nature are governed by a system of occasional causes that cohere only on the basis of the regularity of God’s will concerning them.”
(http://www.iep.utm.edu/occasion/)

Before I elaborate on what that means, let’s also look at a definition from the website of the International Society for the Study of Occasionalism:

“…continuous creation may be interpreted in a way that denies the ascription of any causal power to finite beings. This is known as “occasionalism.” According to this view, everything is created only by God at each moment, and no finite being has a causal role in creation. In other words, God is the sole causal agent.”
(http://www.occasionalism.org/an-occasionalist-picture-of-the-universe-islamic-and-cartesian-approaches/)

There is no doubt that we witness regularity in existence. If I strike a match, I expect to see fire. If I drop a ball, I expect it to hit the floor. But the idea here is that these things only happen on a particular occasion because God wills it to be so. In theory, I could strike my match and water could come out of it, or I could drop the ball and it might rise up to the ceiling. Regularity only exists because God is willing the same thing to happen on each occasion (hence the term occasionalism).

I’m sure some of my Christian friends, believing the Bible to be the infallible Word of God, will be wondering where these ideas are evidenced in Scripture. Of course, these doctrines are not specifically named in the Bible but it is certainly possible to argue from Scripture that all will is God’s will, and if you’d like to see some evidence of this you might like to read this post entitled God’s Sovereignty in Scripture.

In conclusion, I am convinced that God is in sovereign control of the whole of creation, and that all of existence is a part of Him. The doctrines of Divine Conservation and Occasionalism serve to highlight the fact that wherever there is activity in existence, whether it be in the human body, in our actions, or in the movement of celestial bodies, God is the animating force behind that activity. He is not just creator, but sustainer.

Scientists are very good at explaining how things happen, but I believe for us to be able to answer the deeper question of why things happen it is necessary to look to theology and philosophy. I believe that the doctrinal ideas explored here are helpful food for thought as we grapple with some of the most fundamental questions at the heart of Christianity.

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