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Random Events in a God-Created World

We live in a world characterized by a degree of randomness. Scientists speculate that randomness occurs at the quantum, genetic, and environmental levels of existence. But I’ve been wondering lately, What does this mean for theology?

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Apr

16

Random Events in a God-Created World

We live in a world characterized by a degree of randomness. Scientists speculate that randomness occurs at the quantum, genetic, and environmental levels of existence. But I’ve been wondering lately, What does this mean for theology?

SCIENCE

If contemporary science is to be believed, randomness seems at play, at least to some degree, from the bottom to the top of existence. Not only is the quantum level and simple organisms affected by randomness. Complex creatures like humans live lives characterized by at least some measure of randomness.

On its own, of course, science cannot judge whether chance is merely a matter of our lack of knowledge or actually real. Scientists rely upon philosophical assumptions.

But a good number of contemporary philosophers also argue that chance occurs in our lives. These philosophers explore the issues of chance in relation to probability theory and induction.

CS PEIRCE

A century ago, C. S. Peirce proved one of the most insightful among philosophers when it comes to explaining the role of chance. The advantage Peirce had for thinking carefully about chance was that his job required him to make careful measurements. Although a world-class philosopher, he worked for the government as a type of technician. His assignment was to measure things and to improve measuring devices. In this capacity – especially as Peirce found errors in observation – he realized the pervasiveness of chance.

Peirce’s inability to measure reality with absolute precision led him to conclude that a measure of spontaneity exists in the world. The world is not a determined machine, and chance emerging from spontaneity is inevitable. In fact, chance is irreducible, because randomness is a fundamental fact of life. Chance is genuine.

Peirce’s conclusions about the role of randomness ring true today. A number of philosophers accept that chance, randomness, unpredictability, and imprecision characterize existence, although specialists debate how best to speak of each. In this debate, philosophers sometimes use “random” to describe the product of a series of events and “chance” to describe the process of a single instance. There is no consensus on how best to conceptualize them in relation to each other. But the consensus among contemporary philosophers seems to be that randomness and chance is real.

THEOLOGY

Contemporary views about chance are at odds with the theological perspectives of Augustine and John Calvin. “Nothing in our lives happens haphazardly,” said Augustine. “Everything that takes place against our will can only come from God's will, his Providence, the order he has created, the permission he gives, and the laws he has established."

John Calvin argues the same: “We must know that God’s providence, as it is taught in scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings.”

Even one of my theological heroes, John Wesley, approved of cleromancy, which is the practice of casting lots (chance) to find God's will. Apparently, Wesley thought that chance events were determined by God in a hidden way.

I believe we cannot make significant progress in understanding our world if we ignore the role of genuine randomness. Theologies in conversation with science, philosophy, and other disciplines that accept randomness and chance must propose different ways for understanding how God acts providentially.

OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGIES

For my own part, I think open and relational theologies offer the best theological vision for affirming God’s providence and a world characterized by randomness. Open and relational theologies do not see God controlling all things. Out of love, God gives freedom and agency to creation. And this means random events can and do occur, events that even God may not have known with certainty.

I’m currently about half done writing a book on this subject. I’d love to have feedback that may help. If you have questions or issues that you think I should address, please contact me.

Posted in 2014 under Theology and Science

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Comments

Russ

04.18.2014
5:35am

Thanks Tom. Said as much the same the other day in an article here - http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2014/04/why-christian-evolutionist-cannot-be.html. And will reference you’re discussion to it. Good work. - RS

 

Bob Hunter

04.18.2014
6:28am

I love this! Maybe this explains my randomness. After all, am I not created in the image of God? Random chance occurs in my life on a daily basis.  It is evident in how I perform tasks and converse with others. I don’t think God particularly knows or determines what may come out of my mouth or how I might act. God certainly influences those actions and pure motivation can be achieved in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, but I don’t see where a loving God determines human behavior with precision. What if we celebrated our randomness? It seems doing so would validate a part of humanness.

 

Butch Karns

04.23.2014
4:26am

I would love to hear more!!!  I am a student at MVNU and have been trying to develop much of my own theology before graduation next year for my undergraduate degree.  This topic is one that has been given thought lately.  All through the OT we see things that were determined by God.  We also know that God does not determine all things.  One narrative captures the whole of the argument, the Flood Narrative.  Also, in the NT we see Jesus and the timing was also determined by the Triune God.  I do believe in the omniscience of God. However, the Omni doctrines are not always conclusive.  They always bring extreme into question.  I also think that when the extreme includes a logical impossibility going against the doctrine that God cannot be defined by a logical impossibility.  God is bigger and better than our comprehension.  Although it is hard for any of the major monotheistic religions to deny a level of determinism in this cosmos, what degree of determinism are we seeing?  The conclusion of my recent thoughts on this topic is therefore we have the freedom of choice.  This does raise more questions for me.  Are the damages of making the wrong choice completely left unchecked? Or does God reduce some of the damages if I made the wrong choice?  Did God limit my choices to try and persuade my choice making?  What is determined and what is not?  We claim to have free will but how truly free are we?  Since we recognize a level of determinism.  I believe God is not in to micromanagement therefore we do have freedom.  If we were left unchecked and God did not determine things how bad would we really be?  The reason behind all of this is that I have the idea that if we are truly completely free that would suggest that God is not present in the world and this could lead to a level of deism.  I do believe we have the freedom to make choices and follow our own path, or God’s.  I also believe that God determines things in this world.  The world is not completely left to chance and not everything is determined by God.  Therefore, my predominant question returns, what is determined by God and what is not?

 

Caleb Reynolds

05.02.2014
9:12am

Interesting read, as always.  I’m curious which Peirce text (or set of texts) you are interacting with on the topic of randomness. 

Upside of Peirce: He wrote so much that he engages with a ridiculous array of issues.
Downside of Peirce: He wrote so much that it’s hard to track down specifics issues!

 

Darek Barefoot

07.02.2014
10:21pm

Suppose that every event that is physically indeterminate under QM is supernaturally determined by God. But also suppose that genuine will (I dislike the term “free will” for reasons too long to recite here) exists. In other words, suppose that agency for intelligent creatures does not require that any physical events be absolutely undetermined (neither physically nor supernaturally determined). This might require that certain events are supernaturally determined but are not determined by God—not so inconceivable. This would allow for a breadth of God’s sovereignty more like an intuitive reading of Scripture implies, wouldn’t it?

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more