Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Post #15 Addendum: DVD in Pocket Saves a Life

Please read Post #15 for the context of this news story and the following questions...

DVD in Firefighter's Coat Blocks Bullet
Feb 19, 11:05 PM (ET)

WALTERBORO, S.C. (AP) - A South Carolina man is thankful for a DVD that ended up taking a bullet for him. Colleton County Fire and Rescue Director Barry McRoy says he was leaving a Waffle House restaurant in Walterboro on Saturday morning when two men ran in fighting over a gun. Police say a bullet hit one of the struggling men, shattered a window and then hit McRoy.

The bullet hit a DVD McRoy was carrying in his pocket. He suffered a bruise but didn't realize he had been shot. As he told a police officer what happened he noticed a bullet hole in his jacket, the shattered DVD case and a piece of the bullet.

"I was saved by a DVD," McRoy says. "How lucky can you get?"
One man was arrested on assault and battery and gun charges.
The DVD was nicked. It was a gift from an employee who had recorded a TV show about fire extinguishers.


• Was Mr. McRoy one very lucky man? or was this divine providence?

• Would you first need to know if McRoy is a believer? or if he prayed for protection that morning?

• What about the thousands struck by stray bullets which were not deflected by a wallet or DVD case or other object?

• Random stroke of luck? or Divine Will in action?

Feel free to comment ...

Monday, February 18, 2008

POST #15: Randomness, and the Believer

Very early on a November morning, four young women students, all seniors from a small Christian College in Oregon, drive in the southbound lanes of Highway 99W. They had enjoyed an evening together in Portland, and were on their way back to their campus. Suddenly, the headlights of a misplaced northbound car appear in the distance, careening in their direction. When the dust and smoke settle, the scene is a tragic one. Three of the student passengers are raced off to the hospital with serious injuries. These three will survive, but the driver, just one month away from her graduation, and the driver of the other car both lay dead at the scene.

When I read of this heart-breaking accident the following day, I found myself formulating in my mind the predictable “purpose” questions. I wondered how they would be framed. We Christians often find solace in the thought that there is an ultimate meaning, some mysterious good divine plan, that plays out in such events. What was the divine purpose in taking a life of promise, so near to launching out with her degree? Why were the three so severely injured? Why were their lives spared, but not that of their friend? Why did God not cause the careening car to miss the students altogether? Of all the southbound cars on that highway that night, why was this car, with its precious cargo of young believers, singled out for the accident?

"Accident." The very word demonstrates our misgivings about questions of purpose. “There is no such thing as an ‘accident’ for the believer.” How often we hear this bold and confident assertion. There is a purpose for everything, we are told. This element of Christian faith could be found in these words, spoken by another student at the college: “Even though we can not understand the reason this happened, God does and there is a reason.” Is there?

This horrible tragedy is just one of a myriad of incidents we might cite. Each of us has a list of such stories, many that touch us personally and profoundly. None strike closer to my heart than the occurrence of life-threatening cancer in my wife. I have found that the “why” questions are seldom productive. But I am asking here whether the “why” questions are even appropriate.

The defenders of Reformed theology assure us everything that happens is “the directive will of God.” Other Christians have made room for the many incomprehensibly horrible events we observe with a sort of toned-down category of divine sovereignty called “the
permissive will of God.” Aside from the question of whether this notion is taught in the Bible, is there really any difference between what a sovereign God decrees and what he permits? There is little comfort for grieving families that the loss of their loved one was not directed by God, but merely allowed.

I should have thought that Jesus forever settled this matter in the simple and profound words of the prayer he taught us. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Whatever else he meant by that phrase, we can safely conclude that Jesus did not perceive events here on earth to be guided by the will of his Father. Praying believers have the great privilege of bringing the will of God to bear upon events of the earth. But such a truth is senseless if God’s will is already in force. In short, God’s will, permissive or otherwise, is simply not being done on earth at all times.

In coming posts, I will explore with you how randomness might actually serve the purposes of God. But before we do so, it is important that we consider the implications of randomness on the events that touch our lives. Consider with me how randomness, or the lack of randomness, relates to an overarching theme of the Bible:

We often credit God with redeeming circumstances in our lives. He has this amazing ability to turn tragedy into glory. He is so adept at redeeming. It is a finely honed specialty of God to take horrible things, redeem them, and make them into wonderful, beautiful things. This is his redemptive genius at work! Now consider with me this question:

Which is more glorious? which speaks of the skill and wisdom of God? redemption set against a backdrop of the tragic and horrible events of randomness? or redemption set against a backdrop of the tragic and horrible events of God’s own making? Is their glory for the man who heroically extinguishes a life-threatening blaze if we later learn that he set the fire in the first place? Is there glory for the one who lines the cloud with silver when he himself first brought the cloud? Shall we celebrate the man who frees the suffering animal from the steel toothed jaws of a cruel trap if we discover that he was also responsible for setting the trap?

It is true, God does at times intervene. When we pray for divine protection, he often, if not always, answers our prayer. But what a strange protector he is if the calamity against which he shields us is the very calamity he first sent our way.

No, I contend that our faith is much more meaningful if randomness is the backdrop. At best, the Bible is ambiguous on the matter. But I would suggest that much of the teaching of the Bible can only make sense if we see randomness as being central to the human experience, even in the life of the believer.

Did God merely execute a cold, calculated plan on that November night on Highway 99W? Or did randomness claim more victims, bringing fresh tears to the eyes of our Father?

What is your response?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

POST #14: Randomness, and Atheism

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
– Richard Dawkins,
River out of Eden (HarperCollins, 1996), page 133.
Dawkins hits upon an important point for consideration. If this universe is governed to some degree by randomness (and the sciences of physics and biology both suggest that it is), than there will be an element of undesirable outcomes, pain and suffering, seemingly without purpose. For Dawkins, and other skeptics, this cold reality points to an ultimately purposeless universe, which in turns bolsters their belief that we are alone: There is no wise, loving, intentional God ... there is no God at all.

My friend Tom, also an unbeliever, claims
here that for him, true randomness (as opposed to a mere guise of randomness) is necessary or life is meaningless. Imagine that. A thoughtful atheist sees existence as meaningless apart from randomness. While I am anxious to see how his thoughts unfold along that line, he has been waiting for me to elucidate how randomness can be meaningful to one who believes in God. He asks me,
I need you to clarify your opinion and your thoughts on my statement about an omnipotent/omniscient God and randomness. This is a square peg and round hole (and not a trap, I really want to know). If God has built in randomness, he is not in control, nor omniscient, right? I suppose he can stop the simulation, monitor the progress, and with an infinite knowledge of the past, have an intuition about where it's going, but this is not all-knowing.
So, randomness seems to fit well into an atheistic worldview, but doesn’t seem to work out in a theistic worldview. So say the skeptics, and many Christians would agree. The notions of a wise, all-powerful, and loving God just cannot be made to jibe with the concept of randomness.

On the other side of this conundrum sits Richard Colling, a Bible-believing Christian and author of
Random Designer, who declares early in his book that
... randomness is the star of this story! It is the dynamo that commands living things to create order out of disorder in the midst of a sometimes erratic and chaotic world. But there is more to this picture than meets the casual eye, for while randomness is the driver, amazingly, the products possess miraculous elements of design. All of life on earth, including human beings, derives its origin, nurture, and sustenance from the seemingly implausible interplay between randomness and order.
Random Designer, (Browning Press, 2004), page 2.
As we continue to explore randomness, we will revisit Dawkins’ assertion that randomness results in pointless pain for some, incredible luck for others, and that all of this suggests that there is no justice, no goodness, and no God. And we will develop an overarching story in which randomness may actually serve a vital purpose in the ultimate intentions of God.

But for now, reader, what about it? does randomness, by its very nature, imply atheism? Is an attempt to fit God into a random world (or to fit randomness into a divinely created cosmos) like a square peg in a round hole? Or could it be, as Colling suggests, that randomness is a necessary tool that, paradoxically, brings order to an entropic universe?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

POST #13: Randomness, and “Quantum Theology”

Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be America’s greatest Theologian. He was deeply interested in the interplay of science and the Scriptures. His confidence that science and Christian Theology will always find harmony is inspiring to me. And Edwards was convinced that there is a vital connection between the material and the spiritual worlds. His interest in science, particularly physics, was born of this conviction, and a desire to understand the nature of this interconnection between the two worlds.

As a contemporary of Isaac Newton, Edwards was captivated by Newton’s fresh new understandings of the physics of the universe. As a Calvinist, Edwards looked for and found confirmation to his views of the Sovereignty of God. He built these contemporary scientific findings into his defense of Calvinism.
... since God controls the destiny of every individual, human understanding can be considered to be the product of what God determines a person should experience. Edwards's reading of Isaac Newton also supported traditional convictions about the supremacy of God and the helplessness of man in the face of causes that lie beyond human control.

Edwards read widely in his era's scientific and philosophical literature and was fascinated by the discoveries of Newton and his successors.... He was not threatened by the discoveries of science because he felt they revealed the harmony of the Divine Being. A division between the spiritual and material was uncongenial to the pattern of Edwards's thought.

(these quotes from this site.)
Newton’s theories of physics were built upon the premise of absolute space, and lineal (unbending, unchanging) time. His laws of motion, coupled with absolute space and time, gave a scientific basis that everything was utterly predictable to, if not determined by, an All-Knowing Being. Here is how it works:

If we were to stop all movement at a point in time (any point) and learn the trajectory and velocity of every atom and every subatomic particle, and if we possessed the requisite intelligence and computational skills, we could with absolute accuracy determine where every particle was a second earlier, an hour earlier, and even 10 billion years earlier. Likewise, we could with the same absolute certainty predict where every particle of space would be 24 hours later, or thousands, millions, even billions of years hence. With fixed laws of motion operating in a fixed container of absolute space moving along an immutable time line, there can be no surprises to an Omniscient Being! Hence, for Edwards, his Calvinist views were substantiated, and (if we posit Newtonian Physics) scientifically proven.

Newton’s predictions proved true again and again, and his theories of motion and space and time stood for nearly 200 years ... until Albert Einstein stood the world of physics on edge with his theories of special and general relativity. Time, Einstein showed us, is not unbending. Space is not absolute. Space and time are locked into a continuum, playing off of each other in what might have earlier been considered fanciful ways. Time and space are relative. Today, Einstein's theories have proven the tests of countless experiments, and are almost universally accepted. Meanwhile, other scientists were learning remarkable and unsettling things about motion in the world of subatomic particles. Among other discoveries, they were discovering what is now generally accepted: the movement of these particles through space is completely unpredictable. It is not that we lack the instruments or the understanding to predict their movement; we are able to prove with a high level of certainty the impossibility of determining both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. This phenomenon is known as the Heisenberg 
Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, named for Werner Heisenberg, the 20th century German physicist.

Some mathematicians have developed an elegant mathematical proof that, as electrons move through space, not even an All-Knowing Being could predict their destination. Their conclusions were published in a short piece entitled “Electrons Have Free Will” in the January, 2007 issue of Seed magazine.

According to [John] Conway and [Simon] Kochen (two Princeton mathmeticians), even an omniscient mind, capable of knowing everything about everything, would still be unable to predict the position of particles ... [because] “the particles’ response to a certain type of experiment is not determined by the entire previous history of that part of the universe accessible to them.”
Some Christians might recoil from this claim, others would find it preposterous; perhaps we should instead be asking the appropriate “What if” questions of our own theology. If in fact God ordered his creation such that there would exist a randomness that is beyond his knowledge or control, what might that mean to our understanding of God?

(Some might argue that the very suggestion begs the question. Is it possible, they would ask, for God to create a universe he himself cannot control? as much, in their minds, a logical impossibility as “Can God create a rock so big and heavy that he himself could not move it?” But the Uncertainty Principle continues to be supported by experimentation, and it seems at least plausible that God created the cosmos with this strange, almost eerie twist.)

First, the support that Edwards found from science for God’s absolute foreknowledge and control has vanished with the Newtonian world that spawned it. Science may not yet be capable of confirming or denying free will and cosmic randomness, but it can no longer be called upon to confirm Newtonian determinism.

But what of the possibility that God did create the cosmos such that not even he could foresee all outcomes, much less engineer those outcomes. Why might he have done so? I have some ideas; but they will await future posts. For now, I ask my readers to comment. How does this notion of the possibility that God created a cosmos even he could not predict or predetermine sit with you?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Book Review: Exploring Reality

Reality: is anyone as well equipped to tackle such an all-encompassing subject as John Polkinghorne? Following a 25 year run as an accomplished particle physicist, Polkinghorne studied theology and became a priest in the Church of England. A result of this somewhat unique bi-vocational career is that Polkinghorne has become perhaps the most prolific writer on the intersection of faith and science. In Exploring Reality, (Yale University Press, 2005) Polkinghorne alternates between physical and metaphysical approaches to his subject matter. In this interweaving of hard science with the “softer” realms of theology, Polkinghorne has given us an engaging introduction to his view of reality.

Regular readers of Polkinghorne will find familiar discussions of subjects like quantum mechanics, relativity, evolution, and how these speak to questions of ultimate reality. For me, however, the value of the book was in Polkinghorne’s forays into such subjects as the trinity, evil, the historical Jesus and the nature of time.

Though I use a different path, I find common conclusions to the theodicy question in the writings of Polkinghorne. In the chapter titled “Evil”, Polkinghorne summarizes his
“free process theology” approach to the problem of evil (page 144):
A theologian would say that what is involved in the occurring costliness of creation is the divine permissive will, allowing creatures to behave in accordance with their natures. Bringing the world into being was a kenotic act of self-limitation on the Creator's part, so that not all that happens does so under tight divine control. The gift of Love in allowing the genuinely other to be is necessarily a precarious gift. I believe that God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of an earthquake, but both are allowed to happen in a creation given its creaturely freedom.
A central theme in Polkinghorne’s thinking about evil and suffering is found in the concluding paragraph of the chapter: God himself enters into the suffering of this cosmos (page 146):
The Christian God is the crucified God, not a compassionate spectator from the outside, but truly a fellow sufferer who understands creatures’ pain from the inside.
By far my favorite chapter, “The Nature of Time: Unfolding Story” outlines Polkinghorne’s understanding of the dimension of time. He notes with apparent approval that openness is becoming increasingly accepted. Polkinghorne’s makes clear his “openness” to openness (page 119):
It would be no defect in the divine perfection not to know the details of the future if that future is not yet in existence and available to be known.
Open Theism is a subject we will explore here at OutsideTheBox in the future. So I was very interested in Polkinghorne’s stated position. Other topics under the general subject of time include progressive revelation (which Polkinghorne sees as continuing to the present), the relationship of entropy to the resurrected body of Christ, and time’s continuance in the new creation. Polkinghorne departs from conventional evangelical theology when he declares on page 125,
The life of the new creation will be a temporal life, lived within the unfolding ‘time’ of that world to come, whose everlasting nature is the true meaning of the fullness of times.
In short, Polkinghorne questions the common thinking that “eternity” is outside the bounds of time, and that God lives outside of time. Since I have long been asking the same questions, it was gratifying to read Polkinghorne’s thoughtful comments about time.

An elementary understanding of science is helpful in reading Polkinghorne. However, this book is a collection of free-standing essays. And the chapters on theology can be read on their own. For those who are inclined to think outside the box, I recommend you pick up a copy of
Exploring Reality.