Secondary Causes: Both/And, not Either/Or

How the Grand Canyon was formed depends on who’s talking.

Scientists say it’s what happened as a river cut through the Colorado Plateau.

Since I think scientists are right about the Colorado River’s role in making that mile-deep gulch, and think that both are part of God’s creation, maybe an explanation is in order.

To begin with, I’m a Christian and a Catholic, so I must believe that God made and makes everything. Which doesn’t mean I see God as a supercharged Paul Bunyan.

Origin Tales, Science, Logic and Me

William B. Laughead's illustration, a tale of Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox and efficiency engineering. (1922)
(From William B. Laughead, via The Red River Lumber Company, Project Gutenberg, used w/o permission.)

American folklore says Paul Bunyan made the Grand Canyon by absent-mindedly dragging his axe, or maybe a ski pole. And credits the giant lumberjack with making many of my country’s other landmarks.

I enjoy my homeland’s origin myths, but don’t see a point in trying to impose profound spiritual principles on them. As for why I’m also not upset that myths aren’t “true” in a hardwired American literalist sense, that’s another topic.

Anyway, getting back to Paul Bunyan and secondary causes —

Climate change protestors in penguin suits. (2015)A fair fraction of Paul Bunyan stories come from North American lumberjacks via publications like the Duluth News Tribune and The Red River Lumber Company’s “The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan.”

Since the written tales grew from oral traditions of lumberjacks, with roots going back at least to the days when companies clear-cut forests,1 I could put on an ‘environmentalist activist’ hat and call for a ban on P. Bunyan tales.

Because they glorify destruction of forests and cause global warming.

But I won’t.

That’d be as silly as slapping the “Satanic” label on Paul Bunyan stories, and insisting that God made the canyon by dragging an axe. Or that, since there’s no scriptural reference the Grand Canyon or Arizona — neither exists. Because they’re ‘not Biblical.’

I’d like to think that nobody could be quite that crazy.

I’m [not] a “Belivir”

But then there’s this discussion, from about 8 years back:

#3
“Two errors in posted image:
1) The dates are significantly too long ago.
2) The Flood, which caused the immediate burial of dinosaurs, etc needed for good quality Fossilization, is absent.”

#5
“Not sure if serious or trolling..”

#6
“Please cite the Bible as your source, so that everyone can be keenly aware you have made no distinction between mythology and science, and thereby safely ignore you.”

#7
“As a beliver in the one true God who created all things, who is over all things even science, and logic…..”
(Google Developers post, Google+ (October 11, 2013))

Orlando Ferguson's 'Map of the Square and Stationary Earth.' (1893) The legend at top says, in part, 'this ... is the Bible Map of the World.'If I thought the “beliver” and an earnest young chap who told me the sun goes around Earth because the Bible says so were typical Christians, then I might be an atheist today.

Or, more likely, since I’ll willingly think that spirit exists, maybe an agnostic or Buddhist; maybe a Hindu; all of which were popular options in my youth.

But my parents were both Christian and accepted that this universe is considerably older than Ussher’s six and a quarter millennia.

I don’t know how many American Protestants are still faithful Ussherites, much less why some Catholics apparently believe that accepting an anti-Catholic British bishop’s chronology is vital to being Catholic. And that’s yet another topic.

My faith isn’t built on science and logic, but I don’t have to ignore either.

As for how I can think that God makes everything we see and that stuff like erosion and gravity are real, it’s basically about secondary causes. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 306-308)

“…God Fixed a Certain Order….”

Detail, Gentile da Fabriano's 'Valle Romita Polyptych.' (ca. 1411)St. Thomas Aquinas talked about that sort of thing. At length:

“…God’s immediate provision over everything does not exclude the action of secondary causes; which are the executors of His order, as was said above (Question [19], Articles 5, 8)….”
(First Part, Question 22, Article 3)
“…For the providence of God produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, as was above shown (Question [22], Article 5)….”
(First Part, Question 23, Article 5)
“…The fact that secondary causes are ordered to determinate effects is due to God; wherefore since God ordains other causes to certain effects He can also produce certain effects by Himself without any other cause….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 1)
“…God fixed a certain order in things in such a way that at the same time He reserved to Himself whatever he intended to do otherwise than by a particular cause. So when He acts outside this order, He does not change….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 6)
(“Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1265-1274))

Briefly — I suspect St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t say anything briefly — and that’s a very brief excerpt — I think God creates everything.

I’d better, if I’m going to be a Catholic. (Genesis 1:1-2:3, 2:4-25; Catechism, 279-314)

Before I go on, an explanation: why I said “God creates” instead of “God created.”

Genesis and Bemidji, Minnesota


(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox” in Bemidji, Minnesota. (2006?))

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.Several decades back now, I read a discussion of why God probably doesn’t exist, and anyway couldn’t be all that all-knowing or all powerful.

The author pointed out that nothing can travel faster than light, so if all Hell broke out and God was a light year away, the “all-knowing” deity wouldn’t have a clue until a year later.

That almost makes sense.

If God was like us, an entity existing in a particular part of time and space, then God couldn’t know everything.

But since I’m a Catholic, thinking of God as a supercharged Paul Bunyan, living in Bemidji, Minnesota, or any other spot in this space-time continuum: that’s not an option.

God isn’t ‘in‘ time and space. Not the way I am, at any rate. He’s ‘there,’ immediately aware and present at every time and every place: past, present and future. (Catechism, 300, 600)

So “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth —,” as Genesis 1:1 puts it, is accurate enough: from our viewpoint. The moment at which this universe began is in our past, hence “God created.”

But God, again, isn’t ‘in’ time and space. Although the Almighty is still ‘here and now,’ and “at every moment, upholds and sustains” every creature. (Catechism, 301)

So that’s why I use present tense when talking about God creating this universe. It’s my way of saying that God’s actively engaged in creation in whatever “now” I’m in at the moment.

Talking About God, Appreciating God’s Work

My 'Cosmic Coffee Cup.' (2014)

Illustration of a spherical Earth 'L'Image du monde, by Gautier de Metz. (14th century copy of a 13th century original)God is large and in charge. (Catechism, 268)

“Our God is in heaven
and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

I figure God could make stars, planets and people pop in and out of existence: but that’s not how this universe works.

I’m assuming that God isn’t also updating our memories to make reality in the current ‘now’ closely resemble ‘five minutes ago’ and ‘last year.’

At any rate, I think that God weaves knowable physical laws into reality’s fabric. What we observe are parts of creation acting in ways determined by their nature. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301-305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

Folks who converted the Genesis narratives and other parts of Sacred Scripture from oral tradition to writing had a habit of giving God credit for events in this universe.

I could claim that, since they didn’t discuss the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric,2 Biblical authors were ignorant and simple-minded; but that would be silly.

As I see it, they were talking about God: and recognizing that God is what philosophers call the first cause. (Catechism, 304-308)

On the other hand, recognizing that God makes reality possible does not mean I must try hard to ignore — or at least not think about — this wonder-filled universe.

Everything — every grain of sand, every galaxy, every butterfly, every scientific law, everything reflects a facet of the Creator’s truth. What it reflects comes from its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

And since I believe that God creates everything, learning about this universe gives me more reasons to admire God’s work. (Catechism, 159, 214-217, 282-283, 294, 341)

I’ve talked about that before. A lot.

“…Who’s Right?”

Bill and Jeff Keane's 'Family Circus' at the Grand Canyon: a river, a ranger, God and a good question. (August 14, 2021)Billy asked a good question last Saturday:

“The ranger said the river dug the canyon, Mommy, and you said God did it. Who’s right?”
“The Family Circus,” Bill & Jeff Keane (August 14, 2021)

As I see it, since I think God creates everything and maintains a universe in which creatures produce effects according to their nature, they’re both right.

God made the river, made both the rock and water which form their substances and determined the physical laws they follow; so God is the first cause.

Water, rock, gravity, and all natural laws involved in forming the canyon exist because God wills it, so they’re secondary causes.

Which reminds me of natural law: something I haven’t talked about for some time.

I asked a priest about natural law and how it’s defined, this was a month or three ago now.

Up to that point, based on what I’ve read, I’d taken natural law to mean ethical principles written into reality’s source code.

The priest defined natural law as that subset of God’s rules for how things work — what we call physical or scientific law and ethical principles — that we’ve noticed.

That makes sense, particularly since we’re starting to learn that altruism has specific and measurable effects.3 And that’s yet again another topic.

Finally, the usual links to more stuff:


1 It’s true! Wood does grow on trees:

2 Dealing with knowledge – – –

3 – – – and still learning:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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