Re: [asa] on miracles

From: David Clounch <>
Date: Sat Mar 07 2009 - 21:14:23 EST

On Sun, Mar 8, 2009 at 4:12 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

> 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.

To his credit Kenneth R Miller has a section on this in his new book, which
I have here on my desk, but don't have room for in my head this week. He
talks about baseball and a set of events in a series, and the rule about
how sometimes one must go back to a certain point and play the game over
from there forward, the idea that the outcome cannot be predicted or
determined from the state at that point, and one thus never gets the same
result twice from a given point. He is saying evolution is like that.

 I haven't got my head wrapped around this yet. But - it seems to me its a
dent in the fender of those who hypothesize that God used a statistical
universe to produce any given individual person. To do this latter the
path forward from any given state must be predictable and repeatable. This
is necessary for any deistic notion to allow God to produce a desired
outcome. But the universe isn't like that.

But perhaps I merely fail to understand Miller. I haven't read the book yet.

> 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.
> Shalom
> George
> ----- Original Message -----
> *From:* David Clounch <>
> *To:* Ted Davis <>
> *Cc:*
> *Sent:* Saturday, March 07, 2009 11:10 AM
> *Subject:* Re: [asa] on miracles
> Ted,
> "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?
> Thanks
> 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.
>> Ted
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Received on Sat Mar 7 21:14:52 2009

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