Modern science, classical theism (1)

Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s book Creator God, Evolving World is fighting a two-front war. On one side, they argue, against scientific atheism, that an evolutionary worldview is compatible with theism. On the other front, they uphold a form of classical theism against various revisionist views like process theology that ascribe change, passibility, becoming, and temporality to God.

C&O offer a characterization of natural processes as an interweaving of universal laws and more probabilistic events. Nature is neither purely deterministic–with phenomena deducible from universal, invariable laws–but neither is it wholly “random” or chance-like. As revealed to us by the sciences, nature is better understood as a series of relatively stable systems of nested complexity.

There is order and regularity–some things occur in the same way always and everywhere, all things being equal. Other things occur without a systematic pattern or a direct causality but according to probabilities. And just as the two types of inquiry intersect and are mutually creative, so those events that occur according to probabilities (by chance) and those that occur systematically (according to natural laws) interweave to make a stable world process that is nevertheless subject to conditions that change. (pp. 31-2)

It is sometimes thought that theism is incompatible with a world of chance, but C&O argue that a certain directionality can be perceived in the world process–toward greater integration and higher levels of complexity. Subatomic elements stabilize in atoms, atoms stabilize in molecules, molecules form living organism, organisms increase in complexity and integration, and consciousness, and eventually self-consciousness, emerge from life. This process is not pre-determined; there is a genuine element of chance, as each of these levels of complexity is built on contingent events. But we can nevertheless trace a general arc toward greater complexity.

But what role does God play in this? C&O criticize the view, popular in science and religion circles and best exemplified by process theology, that God is also to some degree subject to chance and contingency. It is sometimes maintained that the God of classical theism–characterized as impassible, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient–is inconsistent with a dynamic, evolving world-process that includes unpredictability and chance as essential elements. To be related to a changing world, God would also have to change.

But C&O argue that classical theism is actually more congruent with the world-picture offered by science than process theism and related views. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causes, they contend that God is better thought of as the primary cause of all that exists–the ground of the entire world-order. The entire cosmos is contingent in the sense that it could have not existed, and God is the necessary being who actualizes this particular universe from a sea of possible universes.

Contrary to process theology, C&O say that it is difficult to make sense of the notion that God is subject to time and change. Drawing on relativity theory, they point out that there is no non-relative “now” that God could be present in. In fact, physics indicates that time is actually an aspect of the material world, so God as creator is also the creator of time. As Augustine saw, there is no sense in asking what God was doing “before” creation, since time is an aspect of the created order itself.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there is no chance in the universe or that everything is determined. God actualizes this particular universe with its necessary laws and contingent events. God does not need to be invoked as an explanation for particular events (the “God of the gaps”). Rather, God is the ground of the entire series of events:

With perfect intelligence, God grasps all possible worlds, with all possible branchings, in all possible “universes,” precisely as possibilities, in a single act. With perfect wisdom and love, God chooses one possibility in its totality from its beginning to its final consummation, from all the myriad options presented by divine intelligence, in that same creative act. In Martin Ree’s expression, God “breathes fire” into one of the many mathematically possible worlds on offer. And so with complete power God realizes that one possibility, making it the one universe that exists, the one we inhabit, in all its necessity and contingency, determinisms and chance events, again in a single divine act. God’s election of this creation eliminates none of its contingency because God knows, loves, and creates this universe with precisely this set of contingencies “built in.” We do not need to place God in time in order to preserve the contingency of the universe, nor do we need to eliminate a divine and efficacious providence. For God is the answer, not to the contingency of chance events per se but to the much more profound contingency of being. It is the contingency of the very being of the universe that requires a necessary being as its source. Once we grasp this fact of divine transcendence, transcending matter, space, and time, the divine knowledge, love, and creation of the lesser contingency of chance events is implied as an automatic consequence. (p. 55)

C&O go on to discuss the implications of their view for providence and the problem of evil, human agency, ethics, and whether a transcendent God along the lines of classical theism can still be a “personal” God. I plan to dedicated at least one more post to their book.


2 thoughts on “Modern science, classical theism (1)

  1. Pingback: Modern science, classical theism (2) | A Thinking Reed

  2. Pingback: Modern science, classical theism (3) | A Thinking Reed

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