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Governor Cuomo and God’s Noncompetitive Transcendence

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.” I won’t waste a lot of time exploring the hubris of that remark, which should be obvious to anyone. I might recommend, out of pastoral concern, that the governor read the first part of Genesis chapter eleven.

What I will do instead is explain the basic intellectual confusion that undergirds Cuomo’s assertion, one that, I fear, is shared even by many believers. The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. On this reading, God does certain things—usually of a rather spectacular nature—and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane. Thus, we can clearly parcel out responsibility and credit—some to God and some to finite agents. But this account is deeply unbiblical and alien to the Catholic theological tradition.

To understand the scriptural sense of the play between divine and human causality, it is helpful to consult the cycle of stories dealing with King David in first and second Samuel. What strikes the attentive reader is that nothing obviously “supernatural” takes place in these accounts. Practically everything that happens to David could be adequately accounted for on psychological, historical, military, or political grounds. However, throughout the narrative, God’s activity and involvement are assumed, for the author takes for granted the principle that the true God works not typically in an interruptive way but precisely through a congeries of secondary causes. Mind you, it is not the case that some explanations of David’s story are political or psychological and some properly theological; rather, everything is, at once, natural and supernatural—precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively, on a qualitatively different level than creaturely causality. If you want a one-liner summary of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better than this, from the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12).

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