Monday, October 26, 2009

On Barbour's Natural Theology: Consonance


In a short story I once portrayed God as an overweight hack romance novelist, his son Jesus as an exiled Israeli construction worker, and the Holy Spirit as a little yipping dog they kept in their shared and tremendously cluttered Cleveland apartment. The Holy Spirit was taken captive by a cabal of Pythagorean geometricians; an order of Franciscan mystics eventually rescued the pup.

I liked that tale. I felt it had good cheer. The developments in Eden, the story-within-the-story, were a scripted surprise for everyone, one of those moments that astonishes you but you really should have seen coming all along.

So I resonate strongly with the idea of creation being both structure and chance; it relates to my elsewhere paradoxical notion of truth being both constitutive and transformative. And I am glad to see that we are perhaps ready to stop seeing God as some kind of damned German engineer, though I doubt we’re ready for the lesbian poet-goddess. Maybe God as an Anglican lion singing creation into existence is about as far as we dare go. I’d settle for that.

Regardless, chance seems required. One can only change a system by introducing elements not contained within the system – a system can only transform itself if it has maintained some elements over which it does not have absolute control. And one can certainly say that there are vast elements of nature which seem to be under no one’s absolute control, however interconnected they might be: it is difficult to imagine God juggling the atoms of Hurricane Katrina.

The play in the universe is like the play that used to exist in the drive chain of my father’s Ford Bronco: it thumps, especially in reverse. The drive chain of the universe works but does have its hiccups. One can perhaps imagine God as a jazz musician listening for the right cords to play along the resonating frequency of the universe. Does God incorporate the discord? Doubtless it only makes full sense at the end of the performance, however the trends play out along the way.

But it does not need to even do that much. A philosopher of religion once noted that determinists have a hard time with chance, via the quantum firings of our brains, being an element of free will: our choices being subject to the laws of probability does not seem to make us any freer than being subject to the laws of biology. I insist, on the other hand, that it is precisely the element of chance that makes free will possible, lest we be like computers programmed by our own reasons. Choices might be to some degree arbitrary; they certainly seem that way.

We have to be willing to surrender absolute control of our self-systems for our self-systems to change. Chance critiques the universe. Or, the Christian account is not that the raw self is free, but the transformed self is. To continually run out the script of one’s own desires is to be no more free than one would be under the laws of probability. So, surrender as such cannot be to God lest it be a bribe; it must simply be surrender, resignation to the chance that God will work.

Did I even read the reading? Yes, yes I did – creation ex nihilo means that God creates forever! – but there is no greater demonstration of play in the universe than the emerging reality of global climate change. It is not our will, lest it destroy us. It is not God’s will, lest God’s work be undone (or it is the apocalypse, but it seems too restrained for that). Yet it happens nonetheless, contingent both on our willed behavior and God’s continuing willed creation of the universe.

The system, to change, must incorporate elements external to the system. Order and chaos displayed in the symphony of humanity’s ongoing brinksmanship with its own destruction. We can tell that something enormously bad is going to happen, but cannot say precisely what, let alone our ability to reverse the damages. God must surely sympathize. Not all creation may have will, but all creation does have freedom. One doubts that even God could run computer simulations capable of predicting the results of excessive carbon emissions on long-term worldwide atmospheric conditions – though God might, of course, be able to write a pretty bad novel about it.

Truth is both constitutive and transformative. Creation is an avalanche: you can tell that there’s going to be one, but even God can’t say precisely where it goes.

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