III. To the score of beautiful physics

Randomness and divine providence

This post follows on from the last one. Given that so few things in this world are truly random, could we really still believe in divine providence?

‘God is sovereign’, we say. This is generally taken to mean that God is in control; This is my Father’s world, o let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oh so strong, God is the ruler yet. But then scientists, Christian or not, investigate the physical world with the belief that it is rationally intelligible and regular. Gravity is down today, and will be so tomorrow and everywhere. In fact, the belief in a rational God who made the world like this is what got science started in the first place. But such an assumption also seems to make the world a giant machine, clunking along in a pre-determined way. Christian views on this range from foreordination or predestination on the one hand – where God decided before – to a kind of totalitarian divine sovereignty on the other – where God ‘determines’ everything instant by instant – where “everything happens for a (God’s) reason”. And thus God rigs the lottery. Then some Christians in the middle, not wanting to be Deists or hold God responsible for evil, think that God only interferes where necessary, but leaves the rest to the machine. Note that in all three cases God is still “in control” or ‘sovereign’ – they only differ on how much autopilot he uses. I actually find thinking about divine providence this way a bit boring, but it still is a question worth serious consideration: for God to be involved in the big picture, he has to be involved in the nitty-gritty in some way – in the (seemingly) mundane day-to-day events. But those are determined by physical laws. So what gives?

Is there any real difference between the left-wing and right-wing views? In other words, is there difference between God arranging the deck beforehand, or determining the cards one by one as they are dealt? Could God not accomplish his purposes in a mechanistic universe, so that even the granting of individual prayers were built into the initial conditions of the Big Bang? Think of it like a giant billiard table, where God hits the white ball at just the right angle and speed so that all the other balls (human history) hit it each other exactly the way he wants them to in order to accomplish his purposes. Is he then any less involved? Although possible, that doesn’t seem to be the way the Bible sets it out. More importantly, thinking about God and the world in terms of an inventor-and-machine metaphor can become misleading and limiting. It puts God and the world in boxes or categories that don’t quite fit.

But back to the metaphor, for the time being. How deterministic would containing free creatures really be? Left to run on its own, we might be able to predict the outcome of an unpopulated world the way we would if the balls on the billiard table were somehow in motion. But this is not our world. Our world is populated by gloriously irrational creatures. Male chauvinist jokes aside, I do think that human freedom (and divine-human interaction dissolves the determinism problem. Of course, we are influenced by the world around us – by people, things and by God through our consciences. In some sense, we are not totally free – but free enough to be morally responsible. We are not robots.

Better pictures

A close reading of the Biblical narrative reveals that He seems to be more concerned with people than with things ‘running like clockwork’ – more relationally than mechanically oriented. And yet he is still in control in the sense that he accomplishes his purposes. He even seems to take special delight doing good even when people freely choose evil things: think of Esther, Joseph, or countless other Old Testament characters. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. Think of Paul’s (captive) missionary journey to Rome, and ultimately, think of the crucifixion of Jesus. We are playing the chess Grandmaster, and he doesn’t have to meddle with our moves in order to win beautifully. Except that even when he wins, he doesn’t beat us. We also win.

So what happens when you throw that dice – if God is in control, does he determine the outcome? Because he seems to prefer heads 50% of the time. That is a really difficult and beautiful question. Why ruin it with an answer? Here is my (almost certainly wrong) attempt. If he does that every time, if he interferes with my hand, or turns gravity off for a microsecond so that it can land the way he wants it to, would that not make science a bit pointless? I think it would. On the other hand, if he does that every now and then, would we be able to pick it up statistically? We wouldn’t. The whole point of statistical distributions is to impose macro-order on micro-chaos. The integrity of Science may be preserved perfectly. Is it ‘beneath’ him to meddle? No, he is great enough to involve himself, although I don’t think this is his normal modus operandi. But all this misses the point. The glory of God lies not in him influencing coin tosses, but interacting with us and how we respond to world. That is a vastly more interesting option. God woos us.

So here is another way of looking at chance: God does not necessarily have to control and determine every outcome directly. All he has to do is know every outcome, and interact with the people in that situation. There is no such thing as ‘chance’ to God. And it isn’t even that he equips us for certain situations as a reaction to ‘the machine’ – to ‘face the world’. ‘The world’ is not something we fight; we co-create it by partaking with God. The battle was won by Jesus. We are here for the world and each other, and it is here for us. This is why “the world is a perfectly safe place to be for a Christian” as Dallas Willard says [1].

We worship the One who creates the world, not the way Toyota creates cars, but the way a virtuoso creates music. He didn’t manufacture it once; he’s playing all the time. God is not only a ‘thing’ like the world, but the ground of being – that is, Being itself. He doesn’t just exist, he is Existence. He didn’t just flick the light switch or make the lamp; he creates the electricity – he powers the whole show with goodness, energy, creativity, love, peace. Holding God responsible for evil is like holding Eskom (SA’s power utility) responsible for electrocution. Putting him in the puppet-master box is severely limiting; our idea of God is always too small. So think big: to say that because 50% of coin tosses land on heads and thus God can’t write his story is like saying that the average note in a Bach symphony is C, and thus Johann Sebastian can’t carry a tune.

The world is God dancing with seven billion people at once to the score of beautiful physics:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

[1] See also Danie Goosen, ‘Die verlies aan die wêreld’ in Die Nihilisme