Random Events in a God-Created World
by Thomas Jay Oord
April 16, 2014
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?
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.
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 rings 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.
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.” [fate v.destiny]
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. [sic, goes to the nature of the event: "open" and "relational"]
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.
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* For further discussion see sidebars re "Theism - Open" and here under "Theism - Relational" along with additional discussions under God's Sovereignty.
** A recent discussion on these matters may be found here - Why a Christian Evolutionist Cannot be a Naturalist (or, the False Divide between Science and Religion)
- R.E. Slater