A former Archbishop of Canterbury said a damaging North Sea storm surge was caused by global warming whereas the then Archbishop at the time called the disastrous 1953 East Coast floods an Act of God. Who was correct? What is the relationship between God and events in the world?
A. Ignoring atheists (who have far too much faith – that there isn’t a God – for my liking), at one extreme there is Deism, a theological view beloved of the English. This basically holds that God created the universe, and, so to speak, wound it up like an enormous clockwork machine, and then withdrew, leaving it to run on its own without divine intervention.
B. Traditional Christian belief is that God intervened in history, including in the incarnation, the resurrection, the work of the Holy Spirit and Christians believe in the concept of petitionary prayer (prayer which asks God to intervene).
C. At the other extreme are the Christians who believe God intervenes constantly, even in the tiny details of life. Almost everything is an act of God, unless it is bad, when it is perhaps an act of the devil. Such people would pray for a parking space in a busy town centre. But is this so unreasonable? It certainly raises some interesting issues:
1. Is God interested in whether I find a parking space? If not, is he not interested in the details of my life? What then did Jesus mean by saying that God cares when a sparrow falls to the ground or even the very hairs of our heads are numbered?
2. Why should I be deemed worthy by God of getting a parking space (unless I am facing some serious emergency), which probably means a fair number of other people might not get it and might even experience difficulties finding one at all? But one could argue like that against much petitionary prayer: if I pray for a person to be healed, why should that person take precedence in God’s eyes, when so many people need healing? Or is healing enough to warrant such prayer whereas divine parking assistance isn’t? Then what is the criterion which makes some such prayer topics important and other topics not?
3. Is it possible that God responds to faith wherever he finds it, even if it is deemed naïve and misplaced by others? If I pray for a parking space but noone else locally is doing so at that time, could he respond to my currently unique act of faith and grant my request, even though managing multi-storeys is not normally on his agenda? After all, petitionary prayer is not telling God something he doesn’t know about! It is mainly about our relationship with him, which is the priority (the first commandment is to love God). In such prayer we are affirming our trust in God and this strengthens our relationship with him, deepens our faith and calms our anxieties.
4. In praying for a parking space, am I being pig-selfish because there are so many other greater needs in the world? But doesn’t that presuppose that God has to take time off from those greater needs in order to take care of my motoring needs? And again, isn’t God concerned about the details of our lives? (Obviously, I would be selfish if I didn’t also pray about those greater needs).
5. Maybe praying for a parking space is not so daft after all. But there are conditions attached by Jesus to petitionary prayer, in particular praying according to God’s will, not my own. I have to say that I find insurance company theology quite offensive. Acts of God include storms, earthquakes, etc. God is a God of disasters. If God is constantly intervening, pulling the strings of every event, then such disasters are his work (unless, with some Christians, you attribute them to the devil). Some Christians, as well as people of other faiths, seem to hold this fatalistic theology about God’s intervention.
However it seems that God has allowed a “freedom” to nature which is parallel to the freedom of humans. This freedom can work out for good or ill. Nature red in tooth and claw, raging volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis etc., seem to be a manifestation of this “freedom.”
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction