God of Chance

Written by D. J. Bartholomew Reviewed By L. H. Osborn

These recent publications from SCM deal with aspects of the impact of the scientific world-view upon Christian theology. The former is by a statistician who is dissatisfied with traditional theological attitudes to chance, while the latter examines the implications for theology of adopting an evolutionary epistemology.

Central to Bartholomew’s work is the belief that chance plays a much more significant role in the created order than is normally permitted in theology. In place of the traditional negative attitude to chance he proposes that it be regarded as a device which God uses to ensure the richness of creation. This is similar to the view expressed by A. R. Peacocke in his 1978 Bampton Lectures (work which Bartholomew uses extensively in developing his own thesis).

God of Chance contains a useful review of the concept of chance in modern science and, in particular, examines its mistreatment in both science and theology. Bartholomew’s starting-point is a critique of Monod’s contention that chance undermines Christian belief. He is equally critical of those Christians who use arguments based on the improbability of aspects of the created order in their apologetics. In the central chapter of his work he argues that chance and order have to be seen as complementary aspects of the world in which we live. Perhaps because of my training in classical physics I would be inclined to take a more deterministic line than Bartholomew, but, on the whole, I found his treatment of the scientific aspects of chance well-argued and generally convincing.

Less satisfactory is his treatment of the theological aspects of the subject. He sets out to present a number of suggestions which, he believes, would aid a theologian in the construction of a natural theology which treats chance positively. In fact, we get a rather inconclusive discussion of the problems facing any attempt to relate God to the world as it is revealed by modern science. Bartholomew believes that his view has no more difficulties than a deterministic view, but he does not succeed in showing that it is significantly superior.

Turning to Theissen’s work we find a survey of the central themes of Christian faith in the light of evolutionary epistemology based on the work of Karl Popper. He adopts such an epistemology in order to relativize what he perceives as contradictions between science and faith. In this way he is able to maintain that science and faith are complementary ways of coping with the mystery of reality. The cost of achieving this complementarity is that the content of faith loses its revealed status and becomes, like science, a set of unverifiable conjectures about reality. Analogous to the biological principle of selection is the principle of falsification which ensures that successful adaptations (whether scientific or religious) to reality are more likely to survive. Interestingly, he regards the rejection of biological selection as a central feature of successful adaptation in cultural evolution. Thus human culture transcends nature red in tooth and claw in so far as it turns its back on attitudes which would be praiseworthy to social Darwinists (e.g. laissez-faire economics).

The constant application of these views to Christianity results in a radical reinterpretation which may be illustrated by his treatment of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, like Buddha, is an example of cultural mutation. The raw materials of Greek and Jewish culture are brought together in a revolutionary synthesis which represents a successful adaptation to reality. Implicit in such a realistic treatment of Jesus’ teaching is a denial that Jesus is God incarnate.

Perhaps Theissen is uneasy about taking his reinterpretation to its logical conclusion. In any case he tries to inject an absolute element back into Christianity by affirming that Jesus was the perfect adaptation to reality. This does permit a metaphorical treatment of the incarnation but it seems to run counter to the spirit of Popper’s evolutionary epistemology (which seems to me to rule out the notion of a ‘perfect’ adaptation to reality).

Another disturbing implication of this is that God is presented as an essentially passive transcendent reality. The initiative for cultural and spiritual evolution lies with random mutations within the human race. At one point Theissen explicitly rejects the notion that God directs this evolution as introducing an unacceptable element of teleology into the discussion.

In conclusion, Bartholomew’s book provides us with a useful discussion of chance and an interesting example of a Christian scientist who is trying to reconcile his science with his faith. Theissen, on the other hand, represents a capitulation of theology to evolutionary categories which lead ultimately to a denial of the Christian faith.

L. H. Osborn