“The Lord is subtle, not malicious.”
- Albert Einstein
“Einstein, stop telling God what to do!” - Niels Bohr
Assuming God, what is the relationship between God and chance? If the universe is the product of a divine plan, what is the meaning of randomness? And is it possible that these two ideas of chance and God might be compatible? In essence: does God play dice? Let us take a brief sojourn into modern theology.
Theology, the science of studying God, naturally presupposes God or else it could never be fruitful. Although it may seem anti-scientific to lead with an assumption, this is not uncommon in sciences. All modern astrophysics presupposes the constancy of the speed of light, and science in general presupposes that induction is reliable. Just as cosmology as currently practised assumes the absolute value of the speed of light, theology assumes God. Sadly, most theology is actually Christian metaphysics in disguise, but once this limitation is accepted, it can be an interesting field to explore.
The most interesting question in contemporary theology to my mind is the question: what is the relationship between God and chance? There are three basic positions.
Firstly, “God is in absolute and total control of every little detail throughout the universe”, which leads to a theistic determinism, with its own specific problems, most notably the problem of evil. If God controls everything (and God is good, which many theologians also assume) why is there evil in the world? This is the position of many Christian and other Abrahamic theologians, although many alternative views abound.
Secondly, “there is no God”, or atheology, a relatively new branch of theology that presupposes that God does not exist and then seeks to fortify its case. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a proponent of an atheology in which the universe in its entirety is explained by the action of natural selection (up to and including natural selection between universes) – an interesting metaphysical belief, to be sure, but by invoking a quantum multiverse it introduces as enormous an untestable deus ex machina as God. Dawkins denies that this position devolves everything to chance, since he asserts that it should instead be reduced to natural selection. However, in theological terms a focus on natural selection necessitates a central role for random factors, as in Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “extinction by lottery”, which substantially undermined the traditional paradigm of the “ladder of progress”. This position is thus chance and no God - the inverse of the traditional theistic determinism.
Lastly, the idea that God and chance are not incompatible at all – that in fact, chance may be part of a divine plan. This idea, which is comparatively recent and has been born out of the growing attention theologians are paying to the incorporation of modern scientific ideas about evolution and quantum physics into theological terms. What is most interesting about this attempt is its capacity to provide solutions to very old theological problems, in particular the problem of evil.
Sir John Polkinghorne, a former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and notable theologian, sees no conflict between God and chance. To Polkinghorne, God embodies that which sustains the laws and governs the equations by which physics functions (a metaphysical gap that science lacks a means to close), and additionally suggests that God uses the interplay of order and chance as a means to generate novel possibilities – as in the evolution of complex life.
Similarly, David J. Bartholomew has suggested in his free-to-download book God of Chance that theology has much to gain by accepting a role for chance. It immediately provides sufficient wiggle room to allow for free will, and bears directly on the problem of evil: free will explains why God must allow human evil, while in the context of natural disasters and the like, Bartholomew notes: “there seems to be a residuum of mischances which are part of the very nature of things.” This sidesteps the problem of evil, which stems from belief in an absolute determinism that was compatible with the Newtonian science of the previous few centuries, but not with twenty and twenty first century scientific thought. The recognition of both free will and chance allows theologians to preserve a notion of a divine plan without the need to explain every event in this context.
But can the notion of a personal God, which Einstein argued against, survive the incorporation of chance into theology? I see no reason that it should not. What is required for the idea of a personal God to be sustained is that God can have a personal relationship with an individual by some means, and this question is entirely independent of the wider question of God’s putative role in establishing and maintaining the universe. Indeed, in a theology with both God and chance, events become even more mysterious as one cannot establish what is a result of chance, and what is a result of the unseen action of divine forces.
I believe there is an additional benefit to theologians accepting the role of chance, namely that the issue of religious diversity can be seen from another perspective. There is a severe problem reconciling a traditional deterministic theology with the fact that people are born into different cultures and religions. The conventional Christian response, I’m sorry to say, has been to commit to converting people “unfortunate” enough to be born in different circumstances to Christianity in order to “save their souls”. Yet, in deterministic theology, these people were born into these circumstances by divine intent. This creates a conflict between a theology which acknowledges only one “True religion”, and the evangelical mandate to convert. Why would a God of love want to damn so many people as a result of the geography of their birth?
However, in a theology which acknowledges both God and chance, there is no difficulty explaining why people are born to different cultural and religious backgrounds and, either way, since a divine plan is assumed to be in place, does it not then make sense to imagine that each religion is its own part of the divine plan, as the Sufi, Bahá'í and others believe? Rather than salvation being a metaphysical lottery where some are destined to be born into the circumstances that lead to eternal life and others can only earn it through conversion, some wider plan may be seen to be at work, uniting diverse religions into a common framework that need not invalidate any religion’s vital beliefs.
In a theology of God and chance, the importance of the role of people is emphasised – since in such a theology, God’s capacity to act comes in two ways: through the influence of random events, and through the influence of people. While the former may create incredible miracles, such as the existence of human life, it is perhaps the latter which holds out the hope of the most amazing possibilities. Consider this quote by political theorist and British Baron, Bhikhu Parekh:
There is a pervasive tendency among religious people to claim to be in possession of divinely vouchsafed infallible and final truths which they are not at liberty to compromise and which others must always respect. This is a wholly false reading of religion. Every religion is a joint creation of God and human beings. Its origin and inspiration are divine but human beings determine its meaning and content. The divine will is revealed to a human being who, however inspired, has human limitations, and is communicated in a human language with all its obvious limitations.
What an astounding theology we might construct under such a perspective, one which – if you will excuse a lapse into overtly Christian terms – might truly bring to pass “the Kingdom of God” as Jesus arguably had always intended: “on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” Not by chance, and not by God alone, but through the actions of divinely inspired people working together to make a better world. If there is any chance that such a world could be the theological consequence of accepting God's dice, it's worth the wager.