Good and Humble God

I consider here two aspects of Bonaventure’s theology in relation to God’s Goodness made known in the world and the nature of God as Self Emptying. How does this fit with an evolved cosmos and suffering in evolution?

 The God who is “Good”

St Francis called God “All Good” and that all goodness came from God. He also encouraged the setting up crib scenes in churches at Christmas to remind people of God coming into the poverty and simplicity of the stable. God in the straw. It is such simplicity and goodness that finds a stronger theological expression in Bonaventure’s accounts of God and the life of the Trinity that interacts with the world, and so with the cosmos as we know it.

In On the Mystery of the Trinity” Bonaventure writes about the Goodness of God saying that no one can be ignorant of the fact that this is true: the best is the best and that the best is complete without needing any other addition to it. Goodness completes or perfects something, “the best” must be “a being which is fully complete” and what is absolutely complete must possess all possible perfections. That goodness and perfection may be known and discovered by faith and reason. The Goodness of God may be understood by us by what we observe and then know of that goodness already present in the world. It follows other aspects of Franciscan theology that God is known in the world through aspects of observed nature.

The observation of aspects of God’s character in nature is very much in accord with the biblical revelation in psalms 19 and 104 and also in Job. Nature and the “heavens” and movements of the planets, the wonders of the natural world are all signs of the “glory of God”. It is a cause of wonder and summons to worship. Today even in the vast sweep of cosmic time and space and process of evolution the workings of the world and all the variety of life still are a means by which God may be contemplated in Transcendence and also signs of Immanence, and all of it points to aspects of the nature of God. Creation is a supreme marvel and leads us to God through contemplating and studying it. The Transcendent God is known through creation and can be understood in part by the senses. As we contemplate the aspects of the world and vastness of space and time we know that this is also the revelation of the God who is Infinite and beyond it. We may also see other good things in the world that lead us to know the even greater Goodness of God that is its origin.

Goodness with suffering?

This approach to knowing God through creation and our senses is not without its problems. If we consider for instance the suffering and death in evolution, it seems that God allows suffering and must take responsibility for it. Under many traditional theologies the death so prevalent in creation was seen as outcome of the Fall of humanity. Modern science however points to an essential truth that physical death has always been present and indeed an integral component of the development of organic life. Everything is limited and will end in death. There has always been constant struggle against death that has given birth to new developed organisms and that extinctions of some organisms have been the path to hominid successions.

How can God be seen and meditated on as “good” in this context? Perhaps we can consider the following.

1)      The death of species as part of the food chain and web of life is an involuntary but necessary sacrifice. Even predators must eventually die and become food for carrion eaters. The death of creatures leads to life and continuity of others and descendants.

2)      There are relationships between some species that have evolved with shared benefits (symbiosis) and even altruism.

3)      The extinction of many species led the way for others to adapt and fill the niche spaces in the environment. Again death leads to new forms of life. There have been many times of re-immergence of new forms of life in the wake of catastrophic events. Death has again led to life.

Bonaventure made a connection between observed death in the world and the revelation of Jesus Christ. The world is “cruciform” and shows the cross of the suffering Christ. Death in creation may be innocent and in this we also see the innocent Christ, Himself a victim and not a cause of his own death.

“The entire universe is an intelligible cross in which the entire structure of the universe is described and made to be seen in the light of the mind.”

 The pain and groaning in nature points towards the cross of Christ and God’s sharing suffering innocently in the world. we have a God that shares the suffering in creation and for creation. As also emphasised by Jurgen Moltmann, Christ shares our death and the death of all things. Contemplation of the suffering world should lead us to the contemplation of the self -offering of God in Christ and a God who suffers with creation that is free but also flawed. There has often been an emphasis in theology, from Greek philosophy, that God is self contained, self sufficient, needing nothing, not having the passions of the gods. But this does need to be balanced with the emphasis that God is Trinity, grounded in a love that makes them one and is given to creation in self offering.


Kenosis – Self Emptying Love

The great hymn of the self-emptying Son of God in Philippians chapter 2 sets out the image of part of God emptied of power and glory and coming as Servant into creation in the person of Jesus. What God does in this is a revelation also of the whole Trinity as self-emptying power it is the very nature of the love within the Trinity. The Greek term used is Kenosis.  In this view the Son/Word of God lays aside majesty and power and influence in order to participate in creation. What the Son does in this is a sign of the totality of God who has this same character.  The self-emptying Son is showing the character of what all of God is like. The Son is not exceptional in this act. It is an image of the very nature and character of God that creates, interacts and sustains creation through such Kenotic character. Indeed it is because of this very divine character of self-emptying love that the cosmos has come into being as God made space within the glory of divine nature as Trinity to make and create the universe. The cosmos is from the overflow of the original divine love and exists because of it. Scotus would also concur that God does not need to create the cosmos, but creates it because of love.

The expansion of the cosmos and the evolution of life is an expression self-emptying divine love that gives the universe freedom to evolve and for life to arise in struggle and freedom. Questions may arise as to how and under what circumstances these things have operated. Has everything been ordained and controlled in the process? Has God set all the parameters so that the universe is directed in specific ways? Does God have controlling direction of everything? Is the sovereignty of God as creator to be understood as a deliberate and precisely defined unfolding of the universe in a plan?

Is it true in the words of the hymn “.Jesus is Lord, the universe declares it, for by His power each tree and flower was planned and made”? Certainly from some biblical perspectives God’s creation is a directed set of acts within a plan but I think we need a more dynamic and flexible understanding to such a statement, that God has “created” through the free flowing events of natural processes. Individual things are loved into existence without a neccessary making by design.

Such questions take us back to the philosophical consideration of God as First and Final Cause. I discuss elsewhere the Scotus emphasis of God as First Cause of all. Does this mean that God controlled and continually intervened in creation to initiate new events and changes? Does God act as a controlling agent?

If God causes things to happen towards and end and specific future how may this be made present in the context of evolution? Arthur Peacocke and others have argued that the very potentials and possibilities within nature are realised in time and even in what may seem to us to random events. For instance, the desire of God to create rational beings would have been fulfilled through the evolution of life somewhere in the cosmos. It’s just that from our point of view it happened here, on this planet under the sequence of conditions that occurred. Such and evolution of intelligent life could have happened in a different way and our bodies could have a different shape and biochemistry. In such a view God would in no way need to intervene in cosmological and evolution history to make something like this happen. The initial conditions from God’s original creative activity was enough to ensure that beings like us would occur.

In an article by Ilia Delio about the question of God’s activity in creation she considers the question from the point of view of the theology of St Bonaventure. She contrasts an essentially Thomist (Thomas Aquinas) outlook in which God as First Cause seems to address God as a singular agent rather than a co-operative agent in which the Word and Spirit are also present. This is contrasted with the theology of the Paris school of Franciscan theologians including Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure. Theirs is a theology of Goodness that is self-giving and a fittingness between the nature of God as Trinity and the world. The world is formed from God’s love rather than an act of power. Since God is Trinity in God’s own self and nature this has specific implications for creation and the acts of God in nature. The Triune nature of God affects all the activities of God. It is a theology that also points to a Kenotic view of God who allows things to unfold without direct intervention.  The notion that the Kenotic humble love of God comprises the inner force of the created universe underscores the notion of a self-organizing universe, one that can entertain chance, randomness, complexity and chaos, and give rise to beauty and order that can be intelligibly perceived. God can be completely present to creation as humble love without diminishing God’s transcendent life creating activity and omnipotence to do otherwise.

If we take this Kenotic approach (in which God humbly creates out of love) and simply gives the universe a freedom to evolve in its own way then the mixture of determined agents and probabilities may occur but God may not in fact directly control everything. The idea of a universe with freedom to evolve and unfolds according to a freedom given by God may more meaningfully help to explain the suffering within creation rather than something that has been directed by God. For if God has purposed suffering in creation and directed it all then it may make God into an arbitrary ruler that seems to make God a tyrant.

The unfolding of the evolution of the universe and the life that comes into being may have a great scope for freedom that brings about the diversity and interactive forces and patterns within creation. But the downside of this freedom is a cosmos that suffers. There have been great catastrophes and mass extinctions. These allowed space for new forms of life to replace former ones. If there is a God given freedom in creation there is also potential for hurt and death. If there is freedom for rational creatures then there is the potential to live in opposition to God and the divine purpose, from which may flow all manner of evil and hurt. However, God will ultimately take responsibility for the suffering caused by this freedom, and that taking of responsibility will come about in the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus, His suffering and the Resurrection that points beyond it to a greater recreation for all nature.

As noted above, Scotus following a usual traditional theolog that God does not depend on creation and that God only acts from the divine free will. That may be so in some respects that God does not need creation. However I would contend that the free flowing love of God, giving the universe free flowing chains of causes and events must mean that in some way God does humbly rely on events within creation for the divine purpose to be fullfilled. If God acts with kenotic love then to some extent that love waits upon the effects within the world to establish the divine purpose.

Conclusion – The tension between directed causes and humble freedom

In conclusion there is tension between the ideas of God as First and Final Cause, with God the author and initiator of things in creation, and the idea of a God who is less “hands on” and giving the cosmos a great degree of freedom to expand and evolve according to inherent physical laws and potentials for change with randomness and patterns of potential outcomes. These two views need not be exclusive, with the First and Final Cause acting in a Kenotic way. A Kenotic view would however make more sense for a suffering creation than one in which suffering is somehow determined.


 You are holy, Lord, the only God

And your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong, you are great.
You are the Most High, you are almighty.

You, Holy Father, are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all good.

You are good, all good, supremely good,
Lord God, living and true.

God in Trinity, in greatest humility

The Eternal in the temporal, in space and time

All things ordered for the freedom of love

All things unfolding in patience and purpose

Such is our freedom but also our beginning and end