The God of Chance

by Bradford McCall

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord says randomness andMcCall Author chance  are real occurrences in the natural environment. I agree. I find the notion of randomness and chance as operative in nature consonant with my view of a God who lures creation to higher levels of complexity through the processes of biological evolution.

As I see it, God does not determine the outcome of random events, but God does constrain randomness by setting broad boundaries. God empowers particles, systems and organisms to interact according to natural laws within these set boundaries and this produces a wide range of beautiful results.

Various sciences suggest randomness shapes the world, but there is debate about how much of reality is random. In his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould emphasizes the importance of recognizing both the reality of structural constraint and the historical origin of structures. Life’s pathway includes many features predictable from the laws of nature, but these aspects are too broad and general to explain evolution’s particular results – such as cats, horses, lilies and people..
According to Gould, the history of life is not necessarily progressive and it is certainly not predictable. The earth’s living systems have evolved through a series of unexpected and unplanned accidents.

Humans, for example, arose as a contingent outcome of thousands of linked events. Any one of those events could have occurred differently, thereby leading evolutionary history on a pathway making consciousness impossible.
There are many examples of massive randomness in evolution.

For instance…

  • Had Pikaia not been among the survivors of the initial flourishing of multicellular animal life in the Cambrian explosion some 520 million years ago, it is unlikely vertebrates would have inhabited the earth at all.
  • Had a small group of lobe-finned fishes not evolved with a radically different limb skeleton capable of bearing weight on land, vertebrates possibly would never have become land-dwelling.
  • Had a meteorite not struck the earth about 65 million years ago, dinosaurs would probably still be dominant today. Other animals would still be small creatures living within the dinosaurs’ world
  • Had a small lineage of primates (i.e. monkeys, baboons, gibbons, apes) not evolved the ability to walk upright just two million years ago, human ancestry might have wound up as a line of ecologically marginal apes.

Simon Conway Morris offers perhaps the most sustained critique of Gould’s radical randomness argument. Conway Morris argues that similar patterns regularly appear in widely divergent groups, and calls this “convergence.”
We find many examples of convergence in life. These multiple patterns and repeated histories suggest, despite some randomness, evolution is more predictable than Gould envisioned.

However, Conway Morris argues the likelihood of the same cognitive creatures – with five fingers on each hand, a blind spot in each eye, thirty-two teeth, and so on evolving again if, somehow, the Cambrian explosion could be rerun is remote in the extreme.

Convergence operates at all levels of biological organization. Humans are one of the best examples of the power of convergence. We are not entirely the products of a cosmic accident, but we are also not the result of a meticulously ordained plan.

Evolutionary convergence notes the repeated tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same “solution” to a particular “need.” What we regard as complex is usually fundamental in simpler systems, thus the real novelty in evolution is how things are put together. The number of evolutionary end-points is limited, which means not everything is possible. What is possible has usually been arrived at multiple times. Evolution takes billions of years to become increasingly inevitable.

In sum, convergence tells us evolutionary trends are real. Adaptation is not some occasional component in the machine, but is central to the explanation of the emergence of life.

So what does this brief analysis of Gould’s and Conway Morris’s writings mean for those of us who insist on God’s uncontrolling love? I suggest two things.

First, there is genuine randomness in nature. God does not control even nonhuman creatures and entities. God uses this randomness in order to achieve the filling of creation by maintaining dynamic stability in complex systems.

Second, this genuine randomness does not exclude the expression similar form, even among widely different evolutionary lines. Randomness isn’t the same as absolute chaos. Continuities emerge over time. In fact, constraints are part of the evolutionary process. Even considering elementary forms of life, the pattern of convergence dominates.

All of this suggests, even though God’s love is uncontrolling, God still acts with purpose. God woos and lures creation forward toward greater complexity.

Stuff Happens

Owen Authorby Dr. Dyton Owen

Countless times my wife, Tammy, and I have talked about a statement we often hear. We hear the statement – or a variation of it – frequently after some tragedy. Usually it is spoken by well-meaning people – often Christians – who feel as though they must say something in the face of another person’s pain or grief. For them, silence is not an option.

“Everything happens for a reason,” they say. “This must have been God’s will.” Both statements imply God causes – or wills – everything that happens.

At first blush, this statement seems encouraging. Think about it. You or your family have just endured the news of the loss of a loved one. Word quickly spreads to your friends, community, church and neighbors. As any good person would do, many flock to your side to shower you and your family with love and support.

During the rush of people coming and going, offering to help in whatever way they can – perhaps by providing meals, watching your children, taking care of household things – someone sits next to you on your couch, puts an arm around your shoulders and, as you weep at trying to take in all you have just heard, says, “Everything happens for a reason. It’s all a part of God’s plan. You may not know what the plan is, but God never does anything without a purpose.”

The person means well. He or she is trying to offer comfort in what is the most painful time of your life. The individual may actually believe everything does happen for some reason we may not be able to see or understand in the moment, but will become clearer as time passes.

Such a sentiment is often offered as comfort. The truth is, it often comforts the one saying it more than the one receiving it. In other words, it is spoken so the one saying it is comforted because he or she was able to“say something.”

It would be better to say nothing at all.

Such an idea portrays God as uncaring, distant, aloof. It implies God willfully brings about tragedy. It is as if God’s hand is literally guiding a person toward misfortune.

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Tulsa where my father would serve as the senior pastor of an up-and-coming church. Three days after we moved in – boxes still unpacked – Dad walked in the front door and called for my mother who was in the kitchen making a grilled cheese sandwich lunch for my brother and me. He announced their oldest son – our brother – had been killed in an accident while serving in the Army. At that moment the world stopped. I was too young to comprehend what dad had just told us. My mother collapsed on the floor; Dad sat next to her. My older brother and I just stood there, not knowing what to do or say.

Somehow, word had gotten out in the church. Within minutes, leaders of the church were at our door. They had come to express their sorrow and offer any help they could. One of them was a physician. He had come to offer his condolences and, thankfully, administer a mild sedative to my mother. As my brother and I stood there, trying to take it all in, not knowing a single person who came into our house, I saw one of those people sit on the couch next to my mother and heard her say, “You may never know what God’s will is in all this….”

It was the first time I remember thinking to myself, “Did God really cause my brother’s death? Was the accident really not an accident, but something planned…by God?”

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord helps clarify why this is poor theology. In the chapter entitled, “Randomness and Regularities of Life,” Oord addresses the misguided and harmful notion that God’s hand guides every incident of every day in every person’s life. In other words, the chapter suggests it is erroneous to believe there are no accidents, only “incidents in God’s plan;” and to reject randomness, therefore, to presume “everything happens for a reason.”

At the same time, Oord reminds us there are regularities we cannot deny. If the regularities of nature were dominant, nothing new would ever appear. On the other hand, if randomness ruled creation, chaos would ensue (p. 43).

Oord’s idea, God is “essentially kenotic” opens a wide door and allows a fresh wind of understanding to blow on how God acts in relation to creation. If God’s nature is uncontolling love – i.e., because God is love, God provides creatures freedom to do as they choose – then God cannot control every action of God’s creation. Controlling love is not love.

Oord goes on to show, because God is essentially love, all the regularities of creation stem from God’s loving nature. Because of God’s essential love, God never controls creatures or creation. Randomness happens; however, God is always calling creation on to love, beauty and health even in the midst of tragedy.

The accidents we experience in life – the accident which took my brother’s life – are just that: random events. Because of God’s uncontrolling nature of love, God could not intervene to prevent it.

It was not part of God’s plan.

It was not a case of “everything happens for a reason.”

It was not God’s will.

It just happened.

There is more to it, as Oord reminds us. Simply because a random tragic event occurs – as devastating as it may be – does not mean good cannot come from it. The death of my brother serves as an example. Because of his death, my family was better able to minister to families who have found themselves in similar situations. We know what it is like to lose a loved one to random events with tragic endings.

God’s uncontrolling love means God does not will everything that happens, but in everything that happens, God wills good to come from it.

When tragedy strikes, perhaps knowing this will move us closer to the love, beauty and wholeness toward which God is constantly calling us.

Dr. Dyton L. Owen is a United Methodist pastor, author, church consultant and clergy coach.  He is also a family system theorist which he utilizes in his ministry.

Randomness and the Sovereignty of God


by Cameron McCown

Frequently in our lives, we encounter events which seem to be random. CameronA tornado rips through a town which hasn’t seen one in 30 years. A child is born into poverty instead of into wealth. A woman contracts cancer and beats it, only to contract cancer again.

Sometimes however, events happen which also seem random but work in our favor. A person finds $10 lying on the sidewalk. A woman becomes pregnant with a long-desired baby when the doctor says there is no hope. A family is delayed only to discover that if they had left on time, they would have been in a serious accident.

Is there some grander design? Is someone pulling the strings? Are we at the mercy of a world which, however predictable it might be, is ultimately full of undetermined processes and events?

We attach reason to randomness, because we try to make rational sense out of a world in which we desire to have control. Even the most powerful among us must at some point admit we do not have ultimate power. So we turn to God. Surely God has control if we do not. Surely there is intention even in the most seemingly random events around us.

As I grapple with the notion of God’s essential nature being uncontrolling love rather than controlling power, I realize that I have to let go of the idea that God sends $10 bills my way and delays me so I won’t be in a wreck. I do not think God ensured I was born in America instead of Africa or sent Hurricane Katrina to destroy parts of New Orleans. I simply don’t think it makes sense for me to attribute either good or bad results of these events to God.

I find it much more constructive and satisfying to admit the following: Randomness is real. Life is full of chance.

So where does this put the sovereignty of God? If randomness is real, God might not be in control. Randomness is not more powerful than God. Randomness is simply a result of the kind of world that would best respond to a loving God.

Webster defines sovereignty as “possessing supreme or ultimate power.” Randomness is defined as, “without a particular plan or pattern.” Every effect may have a cause, but an immediate cause doesn’t mean ultimate intention.

Thomas Jay Oord, in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God, addresses God’s mightiness and power in the following way: 1) God is mightier than all others, 2) God is the only one who exerts might upon all that exists, 3) God is the ultimate source of might for all others.

For God to have ultimate power means nothing is more powerful than God. There is good reason to affirm this. Far from being powerless or weak, God can be the most powerful being but still necessarily influence the creation of a world that includes randomness.
Why would this world be the world God influences? A loving God would be intimately a part of such a world, because it’s the only kind of world with which a fair and loving God can co -create. I think randomness is the epitome of fairness. So to influence the creation of a world in which fairness exists, randomness would have to be part of that creation.

To explore this more deeply, imagine you had a set of die cut so that the 5 came up more often than the other numbers. Then six people each bet a set amount on a specific number to be rolled. The person who bet on the 5 would win more than the others, because the result of the roll was not truly random. Therefore, it would not be fair.

God’s co-creation with humanity includes cooperation with what God would like to do in every given moment. Determinism, design, and dictatorship therefore seems to be off the table.

Randomness, chance, and free will are part of God’s nature of love that is uncontrolling, noncoercive, and others-empowering. God gives creation freedom to cooperate fully with what God would like to do, and it is up to us to respond to that calling.