Toward a Theology of Divine Action: William R. Stoeger, S.J., on the Laws of Nature

By Edwards, Denis | Theological Studies, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Toward a Theology of Divine Action: William R. Stoeger, S.J., on the Laws of Nature


Edwards, Denis, Theological Studies


William Stoeger, a Jesuit of the California province, was a staff scientist of the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson until his death on March 24, 2014. He specialized in theoretical cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and in the interrelationship between science, philosophy, and theology. He earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Cambridge, where he was a classmate of Stephen Hawking and studied under Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees. Guy Consolmagno, another US Jesuit on the Vatican Observatory staff, points out that Stoeger's scientific output was prolific and highly regarded--including the publication of two major papers on cosmology or general relativity each year, most recently on the interconnection between theoretical cosmology and the observed structure of the universe, as seen in distant galaxies. (1)

There is another side to Stoeger's academic work--his contributions to the dialogue between theology and science. One aspect of this was his long-standing and faithful commitment to the "Theology and Science" topic sessions of the conventions of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Another aspect, the focus of this article, was his role in a series of research conferences on divine action that gathered scientists, philosophers, and theologians from around the world. These conferences began when Pope John Paul II asked the Vatican Observatory to further the science--theology dialogue by organizing a conference to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Isaac Newton's Principia, (2) at which key participants began to consider the possibility of a series of such conferences. To test the feasibility of this idea, Stoeger, of the Vatican Observatory, and Robert John Russell, of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley (CTNS), organized an initial conference at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome in September 1987. The publication that resulted from this conference, with an opening message from Pope John Paul II, is a wonderfully rich resource in the dialogue between science and theology from the late 20th century. (3)

The success of this conference led George Coyne, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory, to propose that a series of five such conferences be held over a decade. A long-term steering committee was set up made up of Stoeger, Russell, and Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary. Coyne invited CTNS to cosponsor the series of research conferences with the Vatican Observatory. (4) It was agreed that the organizing theological theme would be the nature of divine action, and that this theme would be taken up in the light of advances in five particular scientific areas: quantum cosmology, chaos and complexity, evolutionary and molecular biology, neuroscience, and quantum mechanics. The focus would be not simply on God's continuous creative act, but on the Christian conviction of God's particular acts in the history of salvation and in human lives ("special divine action").

Stoeger's contribution involved not only planning, organization, and coediting of volumes that emerged from the colloquia, but also his own substantial essays in each volume. In one of these he develops his own approach to a noninterventionist theology of divine action in relation to Aquinas's theology of primary and secondary causality. (5) Apart from Stephen Happel, Stoeger was something of a lone voice in embracing a Thomist account. (6) A substantial group of scholars (including Russell, Murphy, George Ellis, and Thomas Tracy) explored the idea that God acts in the indeterminacy of quantum events to bring about particular outcomes in the macro world. Others, such as Ian Barbour, contributed insights from Whiteheadian process theology. John Polkinghome saw God as acting through the openness of nature, by the top-down imparting of information. Arthur Peacocke saw God as acting in and through every aspect of nature, acting on the system as a whole, by analogy with a whole-part or top-down cause. …

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