Monday, May 26, 2008

May 26, 2008 - Random?

Another thoughtful response from Christine, over in the comments section. She writes:

“Following from your proposition, by allowing ‘creation’s freedom,’ God has inadvertently (or not) introduced randomness of events/tragedies into the human realm. If this is so, then where I am today (with cancer) might possibly be the result of a random event. So essentially it boils down to the luck of the draw. And as such, there can be no purpose to life or life's struggles.”

I wonder if “random” was the best word to use, in my last post. In suggesting that God the creator allows certain things to happen randomly – like the genetic mutations that lead to the evolution of animal species – I didn’t mean to suggest creation is purposeless. Quite the contrary: God has imbued the world with such a powerful purpose – evolution – that a great many things we see around us are in service to that higher goal.

Take the human tailbone, for instance. Most anatomists agree it’s the useless, vestigial remnant of something that was far more useful to our distant ancestors. Lots of people’s tailbones give them trouble, causing back pain. Perhaps it’s a small comfort to some of those people (or at least, to those who contemplate such weighty philosophical matters) that the bone that causes them such pain at one time had a purpose – a purpose that was one of many factors leading to the appearance of the human race on earth. Because God’s temporal frame of reference spans eons rather than human lifetimes, this means generations of human beings will have to suffer with vestigial tailbones, until – through the slow work of genetic mutations that fuel natural selection – this annoying anatomical feature finally disappears completely.

It’s possible (although probably not terribly comforting) to say to a back-pain sufferer, “God is doing something about that pesky tailbone, but it’s going to take a few hundred thousand years before the job is done.”

Maybe the cell mutations that lead to cancer have a similar purpose. Maybe, without those millions upon millions of mutations – a very few of which are incidentally responsible for cancer – other, more positive mutations could never occur. Such mutations appear, from our perspective, to be random. But, from God’s perspective?

How can we possibly say? We don’t have the God’s-eye view. All we can do is trust, in faith, that God is working the divine purpose out.

The prophet Isaiah seems to think the God’s eye view is worth thinking about:

“It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” (Isaiah 40:22-26)

The classic Western image of the creator God is that of a divine watchmaker, creating an intricate machine by fussing over every flywheel and gear. It’s the sort of metaphor that worked well in Enlightenment times, but in this present era it’s more than a little dated. With what we know about the unimaginable complexity of evolution, it seems to make more sense to view God as the creator who cooks up the primordial soup out of which life springs, then steps back to watch it all unfold.

I don't see this as a Deist understanding of God (the cosmic watchmaker who winds the blame thing up, then slinks off, letting it tick away). Rather, the God of evolution is still involved with the created order, although without manipulating it like a puppetmaster. That’s because freedom itself is too important a principle to compromise. It’s the very fuel on which the universe runs.

I prefer to speak of freedom, rather than randomness, with respect to God’s creation. I believe there is a purpose to it all – although it’s a purpose we can understand only in the most fragmentary of ways.

We await the full revealing. In the meantime, we live by faith.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Carl,

The explanation may be one of perspective.

Darwinian evolution explains that the "random" mutations that lead to a variety of organisms each generation increase the chance of at least a few of these organisms surviving changes in the environment. So whether we are talking about fruit flies or human beings, the variety brought about by random mutations increases the chance of the species surviving. And, yes, it also means that individual organisms that are not well-adapted to the changing environment die prematurely.

While an unfortunate individual's lot may look "random" or "cursed," the process that led to an individual's situation reflects a benefit from the larger perspective: the process that increases the survival of the species.

If you put your nose up against a Monet painting, it might not make any sense why there is pink and blue splotches here and there. Step back, and you see lovely water lillies.

with hope, Wendy
Over thousands of years

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via Leroy Sievers; and I am thrilled that I have. I too have cancer - mine is stage 1V lung (I always feel when I say its stage 4 its like saying 'my daddy is bigger then your daddy! lol) - my own blog struggles with God, Jesus and cancer..gardening WHAT ever is on the days menu! I cannot wait to catch up on your writtings - off I go to make coffee and do some catch up reading!!



Carlos ("Carl") said...

I find it interesting, Wendy, that randomness on the individual level seems to us to be such a bad thing, but that on the species level it contributes to the species' long-term survival prospects.

Just another example of how God's perspective is different from ours...

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Glad you found your way over here, Carrie. What's your blog's URL?

Hope you're finding the strength you need to get through whatever treatments you're having these days.

Anonymous said...

Dear Carl,
It is fascinating, isn't it, that we could carry on this line of discussion and yet never reach any satisfactory answer - at least to the human mind.
After two years of struggling with cancer which unexpectedly fostered the exploration of my own spirituality, I am at the point of surrendering to "not knowing" and let life be the mystery that it is. I believe in God, beyond that everything is a blur. "Que sera sera". Christine

Carrie said...

Its a journey Christine - maybe just agree to 'come and see'..... I have struggled or been a seeker for over 20+ years.....never as much as I have now that I have canser -( I guess like buying bannans I cannot WAIT for them to turn yellow- no time!) BUT I know there is something or else the drive would never have been there. Did you know that its a global thing.....this internal drive to seek 'something' .....pretty amazing eh!