By Joseph M. Incandela

Christian ethicists confidently assume that God acts in the world--but largely avoid the awkward question of how.

An Arab proverb admonishes the faithful to "Trust in Allah, but tie your camel." And there is a story of a man who fervently prayed week after week, month after month; "Please, God, let me win the lottery." Finally, he heard in the stillness of his nightly meditations a whispered answer from on high: "First: buy. . . a. . . ticket." These seemingly mundane reminders have celestial implications, for they call attention to a crucial issue: the relation between God's activity and human activity in the world. What is the responsibility of God and what is the responsibility of human beings, and where and how do these intersect, overlap, or differentiate? Are there really activities belonging only to God? If so, where and how do we draw this line and make this distinction between what is up to God and what is properly within the purview of human agents?

In another context, John Noonan has remarked, "The drawing of lines, of course, is the moralist's business...."[1] In particular, Christian ethics cannot get by for long without the distinction presupposed by the expression "playing God." There must be some lines on the field of free creaturely activity which should not morally be crossed. Christian ethics studies the actions of the creature in the shadow of the creator. As such, it presupposes some understanding of the relation between divine and human activity. Perhaps the primal evil of which religious folk are capable is confusing the two and arrogating to themselves or others activity or status which properly belongs to God. In technical terms, that's called idolatry, termed by St. Thomas Aquinas "the gravest of sins."[2] In more colloquial language, it's known as playing God. Christian ethics drawn outside the lines necessarily lacks brakes against idolatry, as there would be nothing preventing human activity's unbounded proxy for divine activity. But, lacking such brakes against idolatry, Christian ethics also ceases to be properly Christian to the extent its commitment to monotheism becomes suspect.

An appeal to etymology may prove instructive. The word "ethics" is derived from the Greek "ethos," meaning "an accustomed place or habitation."[3] Going further back, the Indo-European roots of "ethics" underscore the sense of one's own place or habitation. When we do ethics, therefore, we ask where we belong; we try to place ourselves in our proper location.[4] Christian ethics does this by delineating the realm of creaturely responsibility, drawing lines between fields of divine and human activity. "Ethos" can also refer to the abode or stall or enclosed space in which animals are put for protection.[5] Here, the notion of setting up boundaries becomes even more pronounced. Ethics partakes of this shade of meaning when it specifies restrictions of activity that protect us by fostering growth and proper development; Christian ethics sets up lines to enclose the creaturely activity conducive to the growth and moral development of a follower of Jesus Christ.

But if ethicists agree on one thing today, it is that they agree on very few things. Fragmentation is the buzzword. Ethicists "are divided not only in their opinions but in their vocabulary," Basil Mitchell tells us. "They inhabit different worlds of discourse, and are perpetually arguing at cross purposes--when, that is, they bother to argue at all."[6] And in a recent monograph, Jean Porter offers a skillful exposition of the fragmentation of contemporary Christian ethics:

I suggest that the roots of the fragmentation of Christian ethics are similar to those that Alasdair MacIntyre has identified for secular moral discourse. Like their secular counterparts, today's Christians ethicists have seized on fragments of what was once a unified moral tradition as the basis for their interpretations of Christian ethics. But unfortunately, while those fragments once fitted together and made sense as part of one unified theory of morality, none of them on its own seems to be adequate as a basis for a convincing, contemporary theory of morality. If this line of analysis is correct, then no one of these theories will have the cogency to be fully adequate on its own terms, much less to convince those who adopt different starting points in their interpretations of the Christian moral tradition. Hence, we would expect to see what we do see in the field of Christian ethics, namely, either interminable debate or a frustrated suspension of all attempts at conversation.[7]

From my perspective, however, the balkanization of the ethical landscape results in large part from disagreements about the nature and extent of divine activity and, therefore, about the corresponding nature and extent of proper human activity. And as I show later, suspending conversation is the natural result when unarticulated premises clash and productive arbitration is precluded by theologians' silence.

I am not saying that usurping the place of God is the only or exclusive factor making something wrong. An action may be wrong on other grounds (for example, cheating on one's taxes may be wrong, but it raises no imminent specter of transgressing a boundary at which we must defer to divine action). It is also possible that some actions may be wrong for even God to do. Nor do I mean to draw boundaries so broadly that any wrong action counts as playing God (because God wills that we do the morally right; whenever we fail to do this, we substitute our will for God's). Rather, playing God will only mark out a distinctive set of wrong actions if these two conditions are met: (a) there are some actions permitted to God, but not to us; and (b) some of these actions are wrong for us because they are reserved for God alone.[8] Hence, the moral sanction against crossing the line marking the boundary.

It is perfectly understandable that the questions about "playing God" appear in bioethical issues concerning birth and death. But concerns about playing God appear in discussions of issues other than the bioethical. Recent Roman Catholic social teachings are a particularly rich source for references to divine activity. One of the most intriguing is found in John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus[9] in which the pope interprets the geopolitical changes of the year 1989. In his view, Communism was mass idolatry founded upon a false anthropology breeding disastrous social consequences. He begins by describing the drag on the human spirit which is "the wound of original sin."[10] A stable social order will strive to take this "human reality" into account by incorporating self-interest into the interests of society as much as possible. Pretensions to a perfection from which self-interest has been entirely uprooted for the sake of the state will inevitably involve using violence to bring the imperfect into line and be compounded by the self-congratulatory deceit that the violence is necessary and justified in light of such a noble end. "Politics" says the pope, "then becomes a 'secular religion' which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world." But no earthly society should be confused with the Kingdom of God; and until God (and God alone) separates in judgment at the end of time "the subjects of the Kingdom" from "the subjects of the Evil One," the weeds will grow among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-30; 36-43). Perfect social systems attempt to do what cannot be done before God's good time. In this way, a respect for the integrity of divine activity creates moral boundaries where human agency may not tread: "By presuming to anticipate judgment here and now, man [sic] puts himself in the place of God and sets himself against the patience of God."

Another common appeal in Catholic social teachings emphasizes the responsible participation in God's own work of creating a more just society. The United States Catholic bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy entitled Economic Justice for All provide a case in point:

Men and women are also to share in the creative activity of God. They are to be faithful, to care for the earth (Gen. 2:15), and to have "dominion" over it (Gen. 1:28), which means they are "to govern the world in holiness and justice and to render judgment in integrity of heart" (Wis. 9:3). Creation is a gift; women and men are to be faithful stewards in caring for the earth. They can justly consider that by their labor they are unfolding the Creator's work.[11]

Later, the bishops explain that "although the ultimate realization of God's plan lies in the future, Christians in union with all people of good will are summoned to shape history in the image of God's creative design... " ([section] 53). Here the bishops echo a point made by John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens:

The word of God's revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man [sic], created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man [sic] in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.[12]

The idea seems to be, then, that God's agency is made concrete or complete in human activity in the pursuit of justice. All of which means that those who quarrel with the ethical conclusions must also take issue with the view of God's activity on which they are based. For example, Stanley Hauerwas objects that the pope's declarations in Laborem Exercens represent a counsel to idolatry.[13] He sees the pope's (and would see the Catholic bishops') invitation to think about work as the sharing of the creator's activity as an invitation to think of ourselves as "nothing less than co-creators with God."[14] Hauerwas argues that the suggestion of co-creator status seems oddly out of place for anyone who has learned the real lessons of Genesis:

The good news of the creation account is that God completed his creation and that mankind needs do nothing more to see to its perfection. That is exactly why God could call it good and rest--and more importantly invite us to rest within his completed good creation. Indeed, John Paul II's interpretation of the invitation to become co-creators is uncomfortably close to the view Eve accepted by allowing herself to be tempted by that subtle serpent.[15]

No less than those he criticizes, however, Hauerwas deduces ethical consequences from theological understandings of divine activity. The line is simply drawn in a different place. That is, where the pope emphasizes human cooperation with God, and the bishops affirm that "all people of good will are summoned to shape history in the image of God's creative design," Hauerwas maintains that shaping history is not something we are called to do, since God has already turned our history into providence and redeemed it through an act needing no collaborators. For this reason, "attributing greater significance to work risks making it demonic, as work then becomes an idolatrous activity through which we try to secure and guarantee our significance, to make 'our mark' on history."[16]

Hauerwas's contribution calls attention to the view of divine activity on which his own position is grounded. In so doing, it underscores the central place of divine activity in Christian ethics, even as it disagrees about what that place is. It also leads us to consider another example of an ethical issue in which notions of divine causality set in proper relief the limits of responsible human activity: war and peace.

In an important sense, the debate between Christian pacifists and just war thinkers boils down to a disagreement over the manner and extent of divine activity in the world. John Howard Yoder's "What Would You Do If... ?," a classic in Christian pacifist literature, emphasizes the possibility of miracles and the obligation of Christians always to be receptive to them.[17] Yoder explains that it is the duty of Christians to trust in divine intervention and the ability of God to provide a providential "way of escape" in situations that seem to demand either killing or being killed by an armed aggressor. Because intervention is always possible, he says, the Christian is never justified in assuming that killing or being killed are the only two options. Choosing the former as "the lesser evil" denies the possibility of divine action by too quickly interposing one's own:

If I now act not only on the assumption that I can foresee no creative alternatives, but on the further assumption that there are no divine possibilities available which I do not foresee, and thus justify a choice limited to one of the two most undesirable outcomes which can be foreseen choosing namely the one which I feel would be least undesirable to me and mine, am I not assuming that God has no redemptive intention in this situation? Or that if God has such an interest, I am his only tool for bringing it about, which I can do only by my own final choice of the lesser evil?. . . it would be logical to assume that if [God] is to act at all in a saving way, my having tried to settle the matter on my own in a destructive way would be little help to him.[18]

For Yoder, therefore, divine providential intervention becomes crucial for justifying nonviolence, with providence defined as "the conviction that the events of history are under control in ways that are beyond both our discerning and our manipulating, although their pattern may occasionally be perceived by the prophet, and later will be celebrated by the community."[19] This particular conception of God's activity in the world clears space for nonviolence. Human violence only clutters the arena in which God's saving intention may operate unhindered. In The Original Revolution, moreover, Yoder no longer talks merely about the possibility of miracle; instead God's people must be "dependent upon miracles for survival" and "Christian ethics calls for behavior which is impossible except by the miracles of the Holy Spirit."[20]

In short, miracles let God be God, and Christian ethics must give them space. Christians should be those who refuse to encroach upon God's control of history by manipulating events violently. Since this is God's world, Stanley Hauerwas says we can "rest in God because we are no longer driven by the assumption that we must be in control of history, that it is up to us to make things come out right";[21] Christians are called not to be effective in the world but rather to acquire the skills needed to be faithful to the example of nonviolent love found in the person of Jesus Christ. Trust in God replaces human control: because of this, "Christian social witness can never take place in a manner that excludes the possibility of miracles, of surprises, of the unexpected."[22]

Yoder's and Hauerwas's claims about divine agency have ethical consequences. God is relying on human agency to witness to a truth that can only be displayed nonviolently. And God can rely on human agency because God controls history with truth and power that "refuses to compel compliance or agreement by force."[23] The truth God offers puts limits on the actions Christians may perform. Christians have the great luxury and dignity of witnessing to a truth they did not create, and cannot defeat, but which claims them only when they renounce the temptation to promulgate it violently. This is, of course, not to argue for ethical quietism or deny any responsibility to human agency. But it is to enclose that realm of responsibility with definite lines.

A different view of God's activity produces a different relation between divine and human activity, which in turn has consequences for ethics. In Basic Christian Ethics, for example, Paul Ramsey puts forward a just war position premised on what he terms "the substitution of human power-controls for divine power and, it may be, human directed violence for the divine violence entailed literally in Jesus' eschatological expectation."[24] Justified conflict becomes the instantiation and prosecution of God's own justice through human agency. Hauerwas would almost surely regard this sharing of divine power with human power as another instance of idolatry, of playing God. Sin, Hauerwas says, "is the attempt to live sui generic, to live as if we are or can be the authors of our own stories. Our sin is, thus, a challenge to God's authorship and a denial that we are characters in the drama of the kingdom."[25] In contrast, Ramsey would have us be ghostwriters of God's story substituting our authorship for what we would still claim to publish in God's name. But that he thinks certain human actions do amount to copyright infringement is made clear by Ramsey's firm commitment to the just war moral absolute of never directly killing the innocent. Ramsey differs from Hauerwas and Yoder, then, not by failing to draw any lines at all, but in where he places the line at which human action must stop and trust in divine action take over.

Witness a similar controversy in the 1987 declaration of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on reproductive technologies. Speaking of the virtually inevitable loss of embryonic life in the course of artificial reproduction procedures, the document explains: "By acting in this way the researcher usurps the place of God; and, even though he may be unaware of this, he sets himself up as the master of the destiny of others inasmuch as he arbitrarily chooses whom he will allow to live and whom he will send to death and kills defenseless human beings."[26] More broadly, the Roman Catholic Church maintains that new life licitly comes into the world only through the purposeful action of God aided by the "responsible collaboration" of two married heterosexual people through conjugal intercourse.[27] This qualification of the identity of the "responsible collaborators" aside, a particular conception of divine activity in the world is here linked to very specific ethical consequences in a relationship with definite boundaries. If you change the former, you change the latter. So Charles Stinson criticizes the kind of perspective found in the Vatican statement as "a faulty theology of creation which assumes that God intended certain aspects of natural structures and forces to remain always beyond the control of man's [sic] intelligence.... Genesis depicts Adam as God's special viceroy in terrestrial creation, as the one creature who 'names' all the others."[28] Make the human the viceroy of the divine, though, and old lines which once signaled moral trespass now limn new vistas to explore and conquer.

Similar controversies appear regarding the end of life. In the 1980 Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia,[29] we are told that God is "the creator, provider and lord of life," and that life itself is a "gift of God's love." As a result, a form of mercy killing which intentionally brings about one's own death using means which directly cause that death is termed "a rejection of God's sovereignty and loving plan."[30] Sovereignty connotes supreme power in and over a given realm. For God, the church is clear, that realm is life. Or as the pope has said most recently in Evangelium Vitae, "Only God is the master of life!"[31] In this way, acknowledgment of a creator God--and all that that entails theologically--implies a moral statement about the boundaries of creaturely responsibility. From the ethical perspective of Catholic social teachings, though, if we are truly God's image, then we are truly God's co-creator. In the course of arguing for limited moral applications of mercy killing, Daniel Maguire pointedly questions the implications of viewing biological life as solely a divine proprietary right:

When God wants you to die, your organs will fail or disease will overcome you. Organic collapse is the medium through which God's will is manifested. Positive action to accelerate death, however, would amount to wresting the matter out of God's hands and taking it into your own. It is a sin of arrogant presumption.[32]

Maguire's point is that one who truly shares in creation truly shares the creator's mastery over life and death. To deny that mercy killing is ever licit would vest more authority in diseased tissue than in the creature made in God's image.

Medical advances have given us choices that we simply did not have before. As more aspects of our lives come under our voluntary control, we are faced with more ethical issues. Simply put, what we cannot control, we cannot control well or badly. Precisely out of a sense of historical progression--or perhaps digression--moral issues surrounding the front and back ends of human life have left many anxious that, like Prometheus, we have stolen fire from Olympus. But unlike Prometheus, we have kept it for ourselves and may unknowingly be using that stolen spark to fashion our own undoing. Medical advances are seldom unambiguous, precisely because they frequently conduct us to boundaries both enticing and entrapping. We approach in wonder, we cross at our risk. In either case, moral sensitivity may be gauged by the precision of our gait and the awareness of where we tread, for we walk in twilight near lines deserving profound ethical respect.

In Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics (1978)[33] James Gustafson suggested that theologians need to reflect in great detail on the implications of doctrines of God for Christian ethics. Gustafson's own work aside, so little has changed that that same suggestion must be made today. As common (and necessary) as appeals are to God's activity in Christian ethics, explanations or analyses are still all too few. Charles Curran has written, "An overview of Catholic moral theology indicates that providence is seldom mentioned...."[34] And Yoder, for his part, explicitly begs off the question: "Precisely because it is He who must act, I cannot suggest how that might be.... " [35] This seems an appropriate admission of humility; we should perhaps expect no other. After all, the very subject matter theologians study imposes severe limitations on what can be known; and the theologian's art largely consists in showing how a lack of direct epistemic access to the object of one's inquiry can nonetheless yield rich insights. Theology,, we might say, is hard enough without bringing God into it. But, begging off the question when one has already based so much of one's ethics on (at least a kind of) an answer to it makes the theologian's humility suspiciously selective.

Their failure to pay explicit attention to divine activity leads me to raise the same objection to Christian ethicists that Langdon Gilkey raised to biblical theologians in a 1961 essay which has been called "epochal."[36] Gilkey's "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language" originated in the inconsistency he perceived in contemporary theology which left it "half liberal and modern" in its cosmology or worldview and "half biblical and orthodox" in its theological language.[37] It would yield to scientific authority in interpreting biblical events and attribute the rescue of the Hebrew slaves to, for example, "an East wind blowing over the Reed Sea,"[38] but wanted to continue to speak of God's mighty acts in the Exodus event.

This created what Gilkey terms "an uneasy posture"[39] of boldly proclaiming that God acted without being able to answer the apparently simple question, "All right, what did God do?"[40] Daring incursion into "the forbidden precincts of cosmology and ontology only far enough to deny miracles,"[41] the theology of Gilkey's day covertly denied what it explicitly affirmed about divine activity. Gilkey was comfortable with God's actions being epistemologically indistinguishable from other events to those lacking faith. But what he insisted on was precisely what proved so elusive to specify: some objective, ontological difference between God's act and other events not celebrated as God's act. "Otherwise," he wrote, "there is no mighty act, but only our belief in it, and God is the God who in fact does not act. And then our theological analogies of 'act' and 'deed' have no referent, and so no meaning. "[42]

These travails of biblical language, I suggest, seem disturbingly similar to the travails of contemporary Christian ethics. If we rest weighty ethical positions on gossamer-thin conceptions of divine activity, we deserve the kind of criticism Gilkey leveled at biblical theologians. Gilkey explained that unless biblical theology "take[s] cosmology and ontology more seriously," it is in danger of degenerating into a purely poetic view of religion "in which believing man [sic] paints the objective flux of matter in the pretty subjective pictures of religious language and myth."[43] If Christian ethicists stake no ontological claims about divine action, and if (as I hope to have shown), Christian ethics is fundamentally indebted to this language, then as Jeffrey Eaton explains,

God is simply a metaphor for the way the one who uses that metaphor would like the world to go. Agency is the only image in which the otherness of God can be intelligibly maintained. If this image is given up, and with it the possibility of interaction with God's will, theology becomes little more than "sentimental atheism."[44]

Unless claims about divine agency in ethics really do make ontological assertions, moral theology can never be more than ideology--a pious overlay that keeps people in a club without their paying proper dues.

But neither can Christian ethics simply collapse the divine into the human and feel itself properly insulated from metaphysical questions about the difference God's agency makes in Christian ethics. Charles Curran appears in some places to come close to this. His main point in "Providence and Responsibility: The Divine and Human in History" is that the Catholic tradition has historically so stressed human responsibility (or in philosophical jargon, secondary causality) that divine providence as an independent agent in the world essentially factors out without remainder. It may be true, as Curran says in the last paragraph of this essay, that "God acts in and through the human,"[45] but surely a Christian ethicist cannot leave it at that. Doing so cedes the field to all sorts of potentially idolatrous activity. It also means that any limitation on human behavior would limit divine behavior as well. And if we choose not to limit God's behavior, then the reductive formula that says "God acts in and through the human" thereby insures the inability to limit human behavior as well. Condensing divine agency [46] to human agency leaves the Christian ethicist in the precarious position of lacking conceptual resources to identify idolatrous activity.

Despite the occasional extended treatment of divine activity in Christian ethics, then, it remains a subject much appealed to, but rarely analyzed in any depth. If this topic is as crucial as I have made it out to be both in understanding the present state of Christian ethics and in moving forward, why are there so few explicit discussions of divine activity in Christian ethics? Here are four reasons:

First, as Iris Murdoch has said, "We live in a scientific and antimetaphysical age.... "[47] Gilkey too was struck by this. It is, I think, fair to say that ours is an age of metaphysical reserve. This is evident even in theological writings. The confident claims to metaphysical truth so evident in the premodern theological era have gradually been attenuated through the modern and especially postmodern eras.[48] But as one scholar has put it, "It is hard to think of God without being metaphysical, covertly and implicitly, if not openly and explicitly."[49] To the extent that inquiries into God's activity and divine agency are metaphysical in nature, they have been affected by cultural ambiance and intellectual trends. With good cause, then, has Gilkey referred to the doctrine of divine providence as "the forgotten stepchild of contemporary theology." [50]

It is ironic, as Thomas Tracy has perceptively noted, that the metaphysical caution currently exhibited by many theologians was largely induced by those philosophers of religion who now for the most part no longer exhibit it themselves![51] It is as if only theologians continue to take seriously arguments A. J. Ayer and Antony Flew made decades ago. Most philosophers of religion have long since learned better.

Second, this metaphysical shyness has been reinforced by an ongoing dispute concerning the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. Christian ethicists have been asking how the adjective Christian introduces anything distinctive into the content of the noun it modifies. Or, does the content of Christian ethics, the material norms, reduce without remainder to human ethics, albeit with a religious motivation? If the former, exactly where and how is Christian ethics distinctively Christian? If the latter, can the teachings of Jesus be anything other than redundant at some level if what he taught is or can be known apart from him?

It is less important for us to address this issue itself than to note how the controversy leaves both sides with strong incentives not to appeal to the kind of metaphysical considerations presupposed in any discussion of divine activity. Specifically, those who equate Christian ethics with human ethics would not desire to bring in a great deal of religious metaphysics; their whole point is that such theological elements are dispensable, or at most will make little difference to the content of the moral code. Timothy O'Connell suggests that

... the fundamental ethical command imposed on the Christian is precisely to be what he or she is. "Be human." ... Christian ethics is human ethics, no more and no less.... Thus in a certain sense, moral theology is not theology at all. It is moral philosophy, pursued by persons who are believers.[52]

Conversely, for those emphasizing the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, metaphysical concerns, which are in principle available to anyone, will occupy a secondary role at best. As Hauerwas writes,

such "beliefs" look like descriptions of existence, some kind of primitive metaphysics, that you must then try to analyze for their moral implications. To force Christian moral reflection into such a pattern is to make it appear but another philosophical account of the moral life. [53]

Either way, then, both sides have reasons not to engage their differences around the topic of divine activity. And that is unfortunate from my perspective, for it is exactly this issue that makes the debate interesting.

Third, both the loss of metaphysical confidence and the debates about the distinctiveness of Christian ethics have undoubtedly reinforced a sense of uncertainty about just what theology--and theological writing--should be in our time. Gustafson has written, "Consensus in the strongest sense has never existed in the history of Christian theology, though probably the present circumstances are more chaotic than before."[54] Like one observing an eclipse through a pinhole camera, Gustafson witnesses this chaos by looking away from it to the proliferation of studies on theological method, and the tendencies of certain scholars to pen, in his words, "propadeutics to one's propadeutic." Such methodological house-cleaning may reflect a residence in disarray.

Certainly there is nothing wrong (or especially new) in summoning to explicit speculation an analysis of how one does what one does. At the same time, flourishes of methodological speculation may be cause for alarm. When accompanied by the decline of metaphysics and challenges about the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, concern about method may be the theologian's way of attempting to maintain academic respectability while confronting doubts--one's own or others'--about whether what one is doing is indeed academically respectable. But, as Jeffrey Stout writes, "preoccupation with method is like clearing your throat: it can go on for only so long before you lose your audience."[55]

The resulting methodological (and metaethical) insularity is fatal to the kind of inquiry I am proposing. For questions about the role of divine activity in Christian ethics survive only within the crossdisciplinary conversations between ethicists and philosophical theologians that concentration on method seems to inhibit. Not surprisingly, links between these two groups have tended to be tenuous at best and conversations few. Those in ethics have often treated doctrines of God and conceptions of divine activity as irrelevant to the practical concerns of Christian living or perhaps even as a temptation to sinful hubris (in a memorable line, Barth said, "What the serpent has in mind is the establishment of ethics"[56] while those investigating doctrines of God have frequently done so in specialized ways largely inaccessible to anyone other than immediate colleagues.

Fourth, philosophers have been engaged in their own disputes which have diverted attention from this issue or, more truthfully, never really allowed interest to develop. For them, "the key issue in the general problem of God's activity in the world"[57] is the so-called problem of double agency: how both human and divine agents can fully act in one event. That is, the question of double agency investigates how the free activity of God does (or can) coexist with the free activity of God's creatures.

Contemporary philosophical concern for double agency will forever delay any contribution from Christian ethicists. That is, if philosophers are simply trying to see how divine and human freedom are related, they cannot yet address what God and creatures actually do with their freedom (the province of Christian ethics). Hence, even for philosophers of religion explicitly concerned with questions of divine agency, there are obstacles against extending those concerns to ethical questions.

Despite these differences, there are real opportunities here for those philosophers of religion interested in divine activity to dialogue with Christian ethicists, whose discipline compels their involvement with the topic. And there are real benefits to be derived for both sides. For Christian ethicists, exploring divine activity delivers if not a way around current impasses, at least a better view of what creates them (which is always the first step around them). For philosophers of religion, there is the happy prospect of an amiable embrace of an old adversary. Widespread agreement exists that the rise of empirical science has had a deleterious effect on discussions of God's agency in the world. Not only did growing awareness of physical causality seem to leave less for God to do and less room for God to do it, but the empirical mindset that scientific successes bequeathed to culture induced many philosophers and theologians to assume a defensive posture that largely conceded science's advances while scrambling to find scholarly niches not yet affected by them. The irony is that the march of science (both biological and social) in our day is exactly what motivates and renews questions about divine agency. Namely, as I discussed previously, concerns about crossing "the line" lead many to ethical boundaries they acknowledge as well-nigh numinous. Since these moral boundaries limn areas of divine activity, there is real opportunity for philosophers interested in this issue to converse with Christian ethicists (as well as scientists).

At the end of the day, if there are no nonarbitrary ways to draw these lines between divine and human activity, there are no nonarbitrary ways to do Christian ethics. My own concern about arbitrariness bespeaks not a wistful longing for bedrock certitude; for such forever eludes us no less in metaphysical questions than in other areas of life. The lot of humankind begins and ends immersed in practices and awash with prejudices. We exhibit rationality (again, no less in metaphysical questions than in other areas of life) by how well we become aware of our epistemic surroundings and how well we journey out from where we find ourselves situated to address outstanding issues and questions that matter. And in the questions I've been addressing, consistency becomes an essential virtue, for the measure of how successfully we have placed our guidelines is how well they allow us to navigate very different landscapes.

How we act and what we think already commits us to particular positions on God's activity in human history. For example, if we must wait for the miraculous on the battlefield, mustn't we keep similar vigil for the miraculous at the bedside of the dying patient?[58] If so, whenever we allow a patient to die by removing burdensome medical treatment, we sinfully prevent possible divine activity (if a miraculous cure were forthcoming) and sinfully anticipate divine inactivity. No less than trying to create an earthly utopia, allowing a patient to die sooner rather than later may attempt to do what cannot be done before God's good time. Note, though, that while openness to divine intervention seems to bow in the direction of divine freedom and sovereignty (evidenced in Gethsemene by Jesus' resignation to his fate[59]), it may also in its own way become presumptuous (evidenced by Jesus' reply to Satan on the mountain parapet[60]). To preserve a heartbeat at all costs by withholding human activity in deference to the divine may itself become idolatrous by treating as an ultimate prize what from a Christian perspective can be at best a finite good. But if we may assist divine activity at the bedside of the imminently terminal, couldn't we--in Ramsey's words-- substitute human power-controls for divine power when at war?

Why not, some may ask, assist divine activity at the bedside by directly killing patients who are both biologically tenacious and in need of our mercy? If, however, we go down that road and directly dispatch the innocent (albeit for praiseworthy motives), I fear that we thereby erase the line preventing us from inflicting similar harms on the innocent in war (for praiseworthy motives that lie closer to home). And if that barrier falls in war, then surely life and death are ours to arbitrate in the reproductive laboratory as well.

In this regard, it is significant--though perhaps less than consistent--that Catholic bioethical teachings do not follow Catholic social teachings in elevating the creature to co-creator. That is, whereas the former teachings suggest some sense of human participation or assistance in divine activity, the latter imply that creatures perfect or unfold the creator's action. To participate or assist is to remain tied or indebted to. To perfect or unfold is at least in part to go beyond, even while still representing (as viceroy, for example). I've earlier referred to how the latter notion of the divine/human relationship might substantially change official Catholic teachings concerning reproductive technologies and euthanasia. Make humans truly co-creators, for example, and it becomes difficult to discern which forms of assisted reproduction wouldn't be licit. But Stanley Hauerwas is surely correct that co-creation is sloppy theology at best, idolatry at worst. It is at odds with significant strands of the Christian--especially the Catholic--theological tradition: to the extent co-creation perfects or unfolds or goes beyond divine activity, it bestows status on the creature by withdrawing it from the creator and prevents the drawing of lines necessary to insure the dignity and singularity of God's creation. If it is invoked selectively and not implied consistently, we ought to be all the more suspicious.

With this reference to lines, we seem to have come full circle. I began this essay by trying to describe why Christian ethicists must be concerned with questions of divine activity in the world. I then attempted to explain why--for the most part--Christian ethicists and philosophers are not. At the same time, I indicated why the way forward appears promising and mutually beneficial for both groups. Finally, the attempt to draw these lines challenges all believers by urging consistency and greater scrutiny of what it means to say that God is acting in the world and how and when we mean to say it. For all these reasons, attend carefully to this issue is worthy of our combined best efforts.


[1.] Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 459 (italics mine).

[2.] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (hereafter ST), II-II.94.3.

[3.] "Ethos," Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary of the English Language (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1974), 628.

[4.] See Joseph T. Shepley, The Origins of English Words (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 392-93; Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Co., 1971), 259; and W. W. Skeat, Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), 201. The latter makes clear that "The Sanskrit form is easily resolved into...'a placing of one's self. . . .'"

[5.] I am indebted to Fr. James A. O'Donohoe for this point, and for the reference to H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, "ethos" and "ethikenomai," A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), 1:766.

[6.] Basil Mitchell, Morality: Religious and Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 3. Of course, the classic source for the observation that contemporary moral discourse is badly fragmented is Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). See especially chapters 1 and 2.

[7.] Jean Porter, The Recovery of Virtue (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 15-16.

[8.] I want to thank Thomas Tracy for helping me to distinguish some of the ideas in this paragraph.

[9.] Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1991).

[10.] All references in this paragraph will be to [section] 25 of Centesimus Annus.

[11.] U.S. Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1986), Section 32.

[12.] Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1981), Section 25.

[13.] Stanley Hauerwas, "Work as Co-Creation: A Critique of a Remarkably Bad Idea," in John W. Houck and Oliver F. Williams, Co-Creation and Capitalism: John Paul II's Laborem Exercens (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983), 42-58.

[14.] Ibid., 44. While the term "co-creator" is not itself found in papal texts, it was used by Karol Wojtyla in his earlier writings and so seems a wholly appropriate distillation of Catholic social teachings. On this, see Edward Vacek, "John Paul II and Cooperation with God," The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 101 n. 2. Moreover, the editors of the volume cited in the previous note explain on p. 14 of their introduction: "And while he does not use the words co-creator or co-creation in Laborem Exercens, there does not seem to be among the scholars in this volume any controversy about the appropriateness of either co-creator or co-creation as descriptive of John Paul's position."

[15.] Hauerwas, "Work as Co-Creation," 45.

[16.] Ibid., 48.

[17.] John Howard Yoder, "What Would You Do If... ?" Journal of Religious Ethics (1974): 81-105.

[18.] Ibid., 96.

[19.] Ibid., 96-97. Hauerwas quotes this statement on p. 126 of his The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) and appeals often to Yoder's essay in chapter 7 of this work.

[20.] John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971), 101, 115. Hauerwas quotes this remark approvingly on p. 106 of The Peaceable Kingdom.

[21.] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 87.

[22.] Ibid., 106.

[23.] Ibid., 15.

[24.] Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950); paperback edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 38 (italics mine).

[25.] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 31.

[26.] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, section I.5, in Origins 16 (1987): 698, 699-711.

[27.] Ibid., Introduction, 5.

[28.] Charles Stinson, "Theology and the Baron Frankenstein: Cloning and Beyond," Christian Century, (January 19, 1972): 61 "italics his).

[29.] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia, in Origins 10 (1980): 154-57.

[30.] Ibid., 155.

[31.] The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitoe) (Boston: St. Paul Books, 1995), [section] 55.

[32.] Daniel Maguire, Death by Choice, Updated and Expended Edition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1984), 119.

[33.] James Gustafson, Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 158. Gustafson has definitely taken his own advice. In his more recent Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective (vol. 2), he writes that the primary task of theological ethics "is to establish convictions about God and God's relations to the world" (Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. 2: Ethics and Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 98.

[34.] Charles Curran, The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 183. See also pp. 195 and 209. This is one of the few texts that begins to raise the issue of the implications of divine activity for Christian ethics.

[35.] Yoder, "What Would You Do If?. . . " 96.

[36.] Owen C. Thomas, "Introduction," in Owen C. Thomas, ed., God's Activity in the World The Contemporary Problem, AAR Studies in Religion no. 31 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 5. The Gilkey essay appears in this volume on pp. 29-43, having been reprinted from the Journal of Religion, 41 (1961): 194-205.

[37.] Gilkey, in God's Activity in the World, 29.

[38.] As does Bernhard Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 47-49. Gilkey quotes this remark. Ibid., 35.

[39.] Ibid.

[40.] Ibid., 37.

[41.] Ibid.

[42.] Ibid.

[43.] Ibid., 41.

[44.] Jeffrey Eaton, "Divine Action and Human Liberation," in Brian Hebblethwaite and Edward Henderson, eds., Divine Action (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), 213.

[45.] Curran, "Providence and Responsibility: The Divine and Human in History," 213.

[46.] To be fair, in "Providence and Responsibility," 208, Curran denies that divine power should be "totally identified" with human power, but I fail to see what resources he has left us with to effect even a partial separation.

[47.] Iris Murdoch, "Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch," in Hauerwas and MacIntyre, eds., Revisions, 43.

[48.] An excellent account of this is found in Gregory C. Higgins, Theological Responses to the Breakdown of Metaphysical Language, Authority, and Spiritual Confidence," Encounter 51 (1990): 33-60. I am also indebted to the author's careful reading of an earlier draft of this essay.

[49.] James Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. I, 64. Thomas Morris's introduction, in Morris, ea., Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), provides an excellent defense for reinvigorating metaphysical language about God.

[50.] Langdon Gilkey, "The Concept of Providence in Contemporary Theology," Journal of Religion 43 (1963): 174.

[51.] I owe this observation to Thomas Tracy's introduction to the collection he edits entitled, The God Who Acts: Philosophical and Theological Explorations (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 4.

[52.] Timothy O'Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39-40. Hauerwas quotes this statement on p. 56 of The Peaceable Kingdom and criticizes this position on pp. 56ff. For a nice development of this idea in relation to Catholic social teaching, see Charles Curran, "Catholic Social Teaching and Human Morality," in The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology, 160-81.

[53.] Stanley Hauerwas, "On Keeping Theological Ethics Theological," in Hauerwas and MacIntyre, Revisions, 34.

[54.] James Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, 62.

[55.] Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 162.

[56.] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 448. I owe this reference to Gilbert Meilaender, "Eritis sicut Deus: Moral Theory and the Sin of Pride," Faith and Philosophy 3 (1986): 397.

[57.] Owen C. Thomas, "Recent Thought on Divine Agency," in Hebblethwaite and Henderson, eds., Divine Action, 46. I find recent attempts by Thomas Tracy to address these issues especially promising. See his "Divine Action, Created Causes, and Human Freedom," 77-102 in Tracy, ed., The God Who Acts: Philosophical and Theological Explorations.

[58.] I am indebted to Tracy for calling this point to my attention.

[59.] Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42.

[60.] Matthew 4:7 (Deut. 6:16); Luke 4:12.


JOSEPH M. INCANDELA, associate professor in the department of religious studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, has published articles and reviews in the areas of contemporary philosophy of religion, medieval theology, and Christian ethics.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring96, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p59, 18p.