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:
Redemption.

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?

9 comments:

complete-joy said...

Hi Cliff,
I know exactly which accident you are talking about. It was an accident that had a huge impact on our college campus. I say that it doesn´t matter whether or not it was God´s will, or what kind of will. The questions should really be about who we are during the situation- how does this situation bring us closer to God?
Cara Ediger

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Cara,
I must confess that I hoped no one from GFU would notice this post ... I forgot that you are enrolled there and that you read this blog. I was afraid that those of you who were personally impacted would be unable to receive any thoughts offered by a a distant, emotionally insulated observer like myself. Thank you for you comment.

And yes, your comment cuts right to the point. If God is not the instigator of such events, he most certainly is a responder. He intimately involves himself in these tragic events ... not as the designer and engineer, but as the redeemer. As such, the question you ask, "how does this situation bring us closer to God?" is in keeping with his ways of responding. If we allow him to do so, he will turn all the circumstances of our lives into stepping stones across the gulf that separates our hearts from his.

For me, the concept of randomness in which God joins us in true sorrow and grief over these tragedies becomes a touch-point for binding our hearts together. He weeps with us. And is this not profoundly more comforting than the alternate approach ... striving to understand his "purpose" behind the accident, probing his schemes and supposed sovereign plans with the why questions?

No, when Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend, whatever else we may learn, we come to understand that cause of Lazarus's death was not of his (or his Father's) design; If his tears were real, he viewed the untimely death as did the sisters, as a horrible and tragic event, not the calculated plan of God.

complete-joy said...

Hi again Cliff,
I actually personally am quite pleased with your post about the accident. Both the question you and I asked are questions that were floating around campus after that, but you know that verse in Romans 8 that is very popular, 'God works in everything for the good of those who love him'.. or basically like that :) I prefer talking about what happened to ignoring it, so continue on please! Maybe I'll see you in the summer when I've finished my semester in Spain!

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Cara,
For me, Romans 8:28 becomes much richer in meaning when it is set against the backdrop of random events. Many Christians believe the verse teaches that God carefully plans out all the events of our lives such that they are for "good". In my view, it is not his planning and engineering that produces the promise of this verse, but his ability to respond, to redeem, to turn tragedy into glory and goodness. This is so much more remarkable as I consider its implications. In coming posts, we will consider openness (the concept that God does not see the future with absolute omniscience). When openness is combined with randomness, Romans 8:28 highlights God's wisdom and responsiveness. For those who love God and submit to his high and purposeful callings, events such as the fatal accident in November will, in the end, be transformed into things of beauty and glory. Bottom line: Love God, submit to his purposes, and trust him to write the last chapter of every circumstance in our lives.

David Swain said...

Cliff,

I have a problem with your premise, in that not all tragedies are random. A premeditated murder on a carefully chosen victim is still a tragedy even with no randomness involved. I think there is a deeper issue besides randomness. I also see no disunity in a YEC position that advocates order (not necessarily divine will) over randomness. God could've created the earth just as said in Genesis, and there can still be random tragedies as a result of the curse.

Thanks, y the way, for pointing me to your blog from Undeception! There is a lot of reading fro me to do :)

Cliff Martin said...

David,
Welcome to OutsideTheBox! And thank you for the comment.

Yes, you are correct. True randomness cannot truly persist in the presence of active free moral agents. The question posed here has more to do with whether God is ordering events, or responding to them. Whether I'm hit by a stray bullet, or one aimed at me does not change the matter of God's involvement.

I accept your view that randomness (or some form of it) is not inconsistent with YEC. It is not my purpose here to prove a particular view of origins. I am actually presuming theistic evolution. TE makes randomness necessary, so we must deal with it. YEC, obviously, does not demand randomness.

Tom said...

Cliff,

Finally took the time to read through your randomness postings. (I really haven't had a chance to hit the blogosphere for months, and I really want to have this conversation with you).

Anyway, this is a provocative post. While I can find solace in your God-as-redeemer/responder presentation, I still have to ask a couple questions.

Firstly, I can bet those girls offered up a split-second prayer before being hit. If not a legitimate folding of the hands and heads bowed prayer, the second-before panic would have been heard and felt by God. There still could have been intervention, so it must have been allowed.

Secondly, I don't know if the God-as-redeemer model holds up. In a random world, bad stuff is going to happen. So, is it not the same argument that God can paint himself as the goodie redeemer to help us through these times when he actually created the system that would spawn these events?

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Tom,

You correctly note, Firstly, I can bet those girls offered up a split-second prayer before being hit. If not a legitimate folding of the hands and heads bowed prayer, the second-before panic would have been heard and felt by God. There still could have been intervention, so it must have been allowed.

In my view, God does not necessarily intervene every time he is invited, or requested to do so. I might also assume that his “protection” is far more likely to cover those engaged in the purposes of his Kingdom, those who are seeking his protection in the kind of constant prayer which is part of an on-going healthy relationship with him. A split-second, terror-filled cry from a person who may or may not be regularly walking with God and God’s purposes would be another matter. However, we would not need to look far to find believers who are apparently in a healthy on-going relationship with God and who pray routinely for his protection who still become victims of tragic accidents. I cannot solve this dilemma other than by appealing to my response to your next question:

Secondly, I don't know if the God-as-redeemer model holds up. In a random world, bad stuff is going to happen. So, is it not the same argument that God can paint himself as the goodie redeemer to help us through these times when he actually created the system that would spawn these events?

God did indeed create a system that spawns tragic events, suffering, etc. This much we know. My primary purpose in this entire set of posts is to explore why he created the cosmos in this fashion. Why is the universe entropic in the first place? Why did he create a universe inevitably subject to violence, death, extinctions, pain, suffering, etc., and then call this finished product “good”? The answer to that larger question will, of course, offer an explanation for your question/objection. And I would suggest that there may be such an answer, hinted at in the scriptures, that would explain not only tragic events, but God’s reticence to stop such events even when they bring harm and disaster upon his own loved children.

I’ve already suggested what I think might be going on in this cosmos in earlier posts, and will revisit those themes in coming posts. In short, I have suggested the possibility (the only one that makes sense to me) that God’s hand was in some way forced by the emergence of evil in the rebellion led by Satan (which we read about in various Biblical texts.) And that in order to deal a final death-blow to this evil, it was necessary that many must suffer under a reign of evil and death. This fits perfectly with how Jesus (in Matthew 5 for example) teaches us to deal with evil when we encounter it. Non-resistance definitely involves willing suffering. But in the end, evil is robbed of its power, its venom is wasted, it finds no real victim, and it is ultimately vanquished. The New Testament places a very high value on human suffering. And, of course, the central theme of the entire Christian faith is that, far from sitting aloof and remaining immune to suffering, God, in Jesus, enters into the most horrific suffering imaginable. He leads the way in suffering under the reign of evil and death. I make no claim to understand why God has chosen to deal with evil in this way. My thought is that it was the only way to deal with evil with finality.

This scheme is the only one that I have been able to envision that 1) fits the data, and 2) makes sense of otherwise senseless suffering and death. And I find it in keeping with Christian teaching and many Biblical texts. And, in this view of things, God as redeemer/responder would be seen not only in his sometimes interventions in space and time, but also (and primarily) in the way he weaves our suffering into the ultimate outcome of evil’s utter demise.

Tom said...

Thanks for the response, Cliff. It's a little to faithy for my tastes (but what isn't?) I look forward to hearing your developments.

I might also assume that his “protection” is far more likely to cover those engaged in the purposes of his Kingdom, those who are seeking his protection in the kind of constant prayer which is part of an on-going healthy relationship with him.

Now, I know you say that I'm a little bent on redemption with respect to God's judgment, but you'll also have to weave justice into the equation somehow, too. Does God's intervention tip the scales and merely turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy of the saved continue to be saved and the unsaved continue to be unsaved? You don't have to answer that one here, but I hope you cover this topic in the future.