Re: [asa] on miracles

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sat Mar 07 2009 - 17:12:02 EST

The reference to contingency in the ASA statement is due to Torrance's influence, especially on Jim Neidhardt who was on the committee that drafted the statement (as was I). Torrance spoke of "the doctrine of the contingent rationality of the universe," meaning that God created a rational universe but that God could have created other rational universes. In other words, it's an affirmation of God's freedom in creation.

I think there would probably be a considerable spread of views among non-Christians, & especially atheists, about whether or not the universe has to be as it is. Very crudely speaking, there's a tendency for physicists to say "Yes" & biologists "No." Steady state cosmology & the bootstrap theory of particle physics of the 60s (which you can find expounded in Capra's _Tao of Physics_) were expressions - failed, as we now know - of the 1st tendency. Gould's very explicit emphasis on the contingency of evolution in _Wonderful Life_ is an expression of the 2d. Those who stress the role of chance in evolution of course are likely to insist that things could have turned out differently. Einstein once said "The thing that really interests me is whether God had any choice in creating the universe." (Of course one wonders what that really meant for a pantheist for whom God and the universe are identical!) I think that he really wanted the answer to be "No" but was honest enough to know that the question was open.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Clounch
  To: Ted Davis
  Sent: Saturday, March 07, 2009 11:10 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] on miracles


  "We believe that in creating and preserving the universe
  God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of
  scientific investigation."

  When I joined the ASA I asked Elving Anderson what the meaning of contingency meant in this context. The answer, as I remember it, was to the effect of the order in the universe is "unnecessary". This seems to align with a volunteerist viewpoint. I polled some other local ASA members and got pretty much the same view. So I was able sign the statement of belief.

  Let me ask this: Would it be true that materialists (Dawkins, Meyers, etc) think order is not contingent? Does contingency separate materialism from non-materialism?

  Or does contingency separate deism from theism? Or is the question too simplistic?

  David Clounch

  On Sun, Mar 8, 2009 at 7:47 AM, Ted Davis <> wrote:

    I've said a lot of things in the past about miracles, including the
    resurrection (the miracle that literally created the church out of a group
    of trembling and downcast disciples), and I really can't repeat all of that
    here. The conversation here about Jesus walking on water (or "the sea")
    does IMO illustrate some of the ways in which the modern "dialogue" of
    science and religion can come very close to becoming a monologue, in which
    science reigns unchallenged in an inappropriate way. Keith's point here
    could be seen as an example:

    <Nothing prohibits God from doing whatever God wants to do. The issue
    seems to me to be one of our understanding of God's character, not of
    God's capability. So one question would be why would God create the
    physical universe in such a way that God had to break chains of cause-
    and effect in order to accomplish God's will? Why would God create
    in such a way as to frustrate God's creative will.

    Another perspective is that God never acts in a way that violates the
    created capacities of the creation. MORE snipped>

    Keith is right that questions about the character of God and the "created
    capacities of creation" come up in this connection. I certainly agree that,
    for someone who wants to engage the "miracle" question at a high level they
    can't be ignored. The danger of course is that the opening sentences of the
    two paragraphs quoted above are not simply in tension; the second, IMO, is
    rationalistic in the extreme and flatly contradicts the first. The second
    is pure David Hume, though I doubt that Hume would have put it that way
    since I doubt that Hume believed in God at all. The first is both biblical
    and orthodox, and IMO it is the first that ought to be the stated or
    unstated background assumption of Christians who approach this issue. The
    rest of that first paragraph could be seen as an inquiry into that
    assumption, since many thoughtful Christians would not want to say that
    "whatever God wants to do" extends to putting on circus side shows of
    pointless miracles, such as some of those in the non-canonical stories of
    Jesus. However, IMO, the latter part of that paragraph starts to employ too
    many implicit assumptions about the amount of confidence we ought to place
    in our understanding of what Calvin (perhaps a greater theologian than any
    alive at the moment) would have called the mysterious counsel of God. I
    spent several years working on "rationalist" and "voluntarist" theologies of
    creation (those might or might not be the best terms to use, but they are
    the terms most often used by the relevant scholars), and I admit that I fall
    squarely on the "voluntarist" side of this. Both are involved, of course,
    but the definition of voluntarism is essentially that God's will is not
    wholly conformable to God's reason--or, more to the point practically, what
    God wants to do and actually does is not wholly conformable to our reason.

    The position I just articulated, let me point out, is pretty much the
    official position of the ASA. I don't declare that as ASA V-P; I have no
    authority to make any such declarations. Rather I state it on the basis of
    the official ASA statement of faith, which all regular members and fellows
    affirm, and my expertise in science/religion. The third plank in our
    platform states, "We believe that in creating and preserving the universe
    God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of
    scientific investigation." The explicit reference here to "contingent
    order" is undoubtedly a reference to what I just said at the end of the
    previous paragraph above. The term comes from Thomas Torrance, and the
    theology comes from the best parts (IMO) of the classical doctrine of
    creation, in turn based on biblical theology. This does not shut the door
    to reason--the "order" part of that term is a direct reference to our
    intelligence, made in the image of God, which enables us to comprehend quite
    deeply a great deal of the magnificent and subtle creative acts of God. But
    the "contingent" part means, as Keith said, that God does whatever God
    wants--and that (here I am drawing on my work as an historian of
    "contingency" in the relevant sense) our minds aren't going to be able to
    limit what God wants. As in, we won't be able to do it, b/c we aren't
    omniscient; but also, we won't be able to do it, b/c God can and does do
    things that lie utterly and entirely outside our ability to know them. That
    is precisely what is meant by "contingent" in this context.

    To summarize: go slowly here. It's not hard to understand why one might
    raise questions about the authenticity of any given "miracle" report,
    whether in the Bible or anywhere else. It's not hard to understand why a
    careful theologian might need to develop a coherent set of criteria for
    affirming the likelihood that God did act "miraculously" in a given instance
    (the resurrection would be simply one such instance, IMO, and many more
    could be added). At the same time, we must take appropriate care not to
    raise our limited intellects over God's freedom. Most of us probably
    believe that, without freedom, we wouldn't be human; some go further and say
    that, without freedom (in the sense of being a creature whose integrity is
    respected by the creator), the creation would be a genuine creation; I am
    stressing the essential point that, without freedom (in the sense explained
    above), God would not be God--and, I would add, if God isn't free then you
    can pretty much give up any illusion that you are, yourself.

    I had a detailed, lengthy exchange about this very point--that God would not
    be God, if certain theological assumptions were not challenged--several
    years ago with Howard Van Till, on this list. The archives should contain
    it, for anyone who wants to read more about this crucial issue.


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Received on Sat Mar 7 17:12:46 2009

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