It is this serious and literal use of the idea of divine intervention that concerns us here. The problem that it raises has led many to atheism. If, for example, in the car crash case, God intervened to save only one of the people in the car, who then gave God thanks for a miraculous delivery, this implies not only that God decided to save that person, but equally that God decided not to save the other two. It presupposes that it is, so to speak, okay from God’s point of view to intervene whenever God so chooses, and this inevitably poses the question why God intervenes so seldom, leaving unprotected the great majority of innocent victims of natural disasters and of human cruelty and neglect? Some years ago the atheist philosopher Anthony Flew wrote, ‘Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no sign of concern.’ (“Theology and Falsification”, reprinted in John Hick, ed., The Existence of God, p. 227). And given the biblical and traditional assumption that God does intervene miraculously whenever God so decides, one can understand why this belief has led Flew and many others to atheism. It is this implied picture of God as arbitrary, protecting some but not others, and thus as deliberately leaving so many in pain, hardship, misery and peril, that is so repugnant to so many people. If there is such a Being, why regard Him (or Her) as good and as worthy of worship, except by the chosen few who benefit from the special divine interventions?
The problem arises from the belief that it is, as I put it, okay from God’s point of view to intervene on earth whenever God chooses. Suppose, however, that, regardless of whether or not it is within God’s power to intervene, it is for some good reason not okay from the divine point of view to do so. Suppose this would be counter-productive from the point of view of a creative purpose which requires both human freedom (which is directly or indirectly the source of much the greater part of human suffering) and also elements of contingency and unpredictability in the evolution of the universe. The kind of theodicy sketched in this brief formula has been developed in a number of works, including my own Evil and the God of Love (2nd ed., 1977). This does not require the idea of special divine interventions in the form of open or covert miracles. However, as we shall see presently, whilst I think this is a viable position I now want to suggest going a good deal further.
For a non-intervening anthropomorphic God, who does not act within human history and human life, who does not cause things to happen which would not otherwise have happened and does not prevent things from happening which would otherwise have happened, seems religiously unsatisfying to many practicing Christians, a kind of deism which is little better than atheism.
So we have a dilemma. Can we find any way through it or beyond it? At this point I want to suggest enlarging our field of vision – or if we have emerged from the BC (Before Computers) age, extending our data base – by taking account of the other world religions as well as our own. After all, the large majority of religious people in the world are not Christians, and yet their religions involve forms of life and thought that claim to lead to a transforming relationship, of limitless value, with an eternal reality that both transcends, and in the case of the eastern traditions is also immanent within, us. But Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism and some strands of Hinduism do not see that eternal reality as an infinite Person. Suppose then, as an experiment, we now use the word ‘God’ as our western term for the ultimate reality which some do and others do not believe to be an infinite person. We then broaden the question, Who or what is God? by not confining it at the outset to a particular concept of the religious ultimate. When we do this some prefer not to use the term ‘God’, finding it almost impossible to detach it in most peoples’ minds from the notion of an infinite divine person and use instead such terms as Ultimate Reality, or the Ultimate, or the Real. But let us for our present purpose stick with the familiar term ‘God’, reminding ourselves however from time to time that we are not now using it in a sense restricted to what are called the western monotheisms – although in fact they all originated in the Middle East.
Where do we now go from there? I suggest that at this point it will be helpful to take account of an enormously important distinction drawn by some of the great Christian mystics, as well as by mystics of the other major traditions. Although the writer who has been given the derogatory sounding name of Pseudo-Dionysius is largely unknown outside the history of Christian mysticism, he has in fact probably been the most influential single individual in that history. He wrote in the name of Dionysius, the disciple of St Paul (Acts 17: 34), thus assuming a near apostolic authority, and he was a major theological influence throughout the thousand years prior to the Reformation. Thomas Aquinas, for example, quotes him as an authority some 1700 times. He is generally believed today to have been a Syrian monk writing around the year 500, and whether he would have exerted the same immense influence if this had been known before Erasmus and others became suspicious of his identity is one of history’s fascinating unanswered questions. But he did exert this immense influence, and in my opinion it was a very creative influence. For it reinforced the existing emphasis on the ultimate ineffability of God. I am not fond of the word ‘ineffable’ and prefer ‘transcategorial’, meaning beyond the range of our human systems of concepts or mental categories. Theologians have nearly always taken the ultimate divine ineffability or transcategoriality for granted, though usually without taking its implications to their logical conclusion. Augustine, for example, about a century before Pseudo-Dionysius, said that ‘God transcends even the mind’ (On True Religion, 36: 67), but did not develop this further. But Dionysius – or Denys, to give him a more user-friendly name – makes the divine ineffability central and begins at least to struggle with its implications. In his central work, The Mystical Theology, he says in every way he can think of that God is utterly and totally transcategorial. God is ‘indescribable’, ‘beyond all being and knowledge’. God, the ultimate One, is ‘not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. . . It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding . . It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding . . It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness . . It is not sonship or fatherhood . . There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it . . It is beyond assertion and denial’.