In this thread at BioLogos, which I think was a spin-off from a remark of Eddie’s (but it was all so long ago) I spent some posts trying to field the difference between a theistic God, who is immanent in his world, and a “deistic” God (put in scare quotes to avoid pinning this view to all aspects of historical Deism) who sets the world up to run under its own steam. I didn’t really touch on the incoherence of the post-deist Evangelical attempt to have ones cakes and eat it by “allowing” God to answer prayer but not act within nature – as if the two are separable. Along the way I posted this quote from a philosophy of religion site on the difference:
In its more specific sense, theism usually describes a classical form of monotheism which conceives of God as personal, all-powerful and active in his involvement in the world. Such a definition includes traditional Christianity and has been the most common focus of philosophical enquiry.
In contrast to this, the seventeenth century saw the emergence of a rational attitude towards God that became known as deism. As the explanatory power of science increased, thinkers began to trust less in church authority and more in reason and observation of the natural world. To a deist, God is merely the grand architect of the laws of nature: he does not interfere in the world but allows nature to develop according to those laws. As a result, deists reject any form of revelation such as miracles, prophecy and scripture.
So, although I developed some of the ideas I’ve been exploring here recently on chance and providence, the basic thrust was to make a simple distinction between a God who guides outcomes through special providence, and one who uses only general providence through “natural laws”. That is a distinction that’s utterly conventional in theology, and closely associated with Deism v Classical Christianity, as my piece this May on Wesley shows.
Now, in response to my posts there was partial agreement, some disagreement, certainly a good deal of confusion (such as George Brooks’ persistent failure to see the weaknesses of the Deist division of the world into “natural” and “miraculous”). I guess I’m not surprised by that – and to be frank a lot of it has to do with totally inadequate teaching on theology, or even on the Bible, in Evangelical churches. But it’s all the legitimate stuff of discussion.
What was, in the big picture of Origins Culture Wars, more interesting was the sheer animus against the idea of a God of providence amongst several BioLogos regulars. Some of that might be down to neo-McCarthyist paranoia about the Intelligent Design Movement. I dared to suggest to “Beaglelady” that a good range of views on “The Nature of Nature” could be gleaned by the massive symposium of that name by Bruce Gordon and William Dembski, prompting her to conclude that, by such unhealthy reading, I demonstrated my lack of interest in mainstream science! The Christadelphian Jonathan Burke even asked who had put me up to writing my posts, claiming on questioning that he had nobody particular in mind… maybe it’s routine to ask people who’s pulling their strings where he comes from? But the suspicion must be that he assumed I am a sock puppet for some anti-social elements like the Discovery Institute. (“I am not now and have never been a member of the Discovery Institute.” Ah – but he would say that, wouldn’t he…)
There was much more of the same on this thread – when I cited the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Church Tradition and Experience) for my views, it drew the accusation that that sounded like Calvinism – tell that to George Whitefield! Some of the usually more vehement posters were, I believe, absent from this long thread, but in similar conversations, again what comes across is the anger at the very idea of somebody positing an active God, not just disagreement.
Now, apart from seeing IDists under the bed, I’ve been around long enough to have seen some other explanations for this. When ID is in question, of course, Bad Science is blamed for their ire in addition to its undermining Democracy and the American Way. That and “insisting on persistent miracles”, for which this quote from Michael Behe, posted only today, is relevant and typical:
But how could biochemical systems have been designed? Did they have to be created from scratch in a puff of smoke? No. The design process may have been much more subtle. It may have involved no contravening of natural laws.
But even outside the ID Aunt Sally, providence in evolution has been angrily attacked at BioLogos for being Fundamentalist, for being Calvinist, for making God the author of evil, for suggesting Pantheism or even for being supported by white male Evangelicals (yes, really!). That’s one reason I’ve made a point in the past of dredging up the views of Catholics, Wesley and Arminius, and so on, in order to show that providence has always been a mainstream doctrine of the Church (a view with which Jon Burke vehemently disagrees – one of us must be wrong).
But none of these “it’s not the theology, but the implications of the thing” triggers to Evolutionary Creationist wrath really seem to hit the mark. In a group not noted for deep theological or philosophical reflection, they sound more like excuses than real justifications for wrath. Put it this way – BioLogos commenters have coped quite easily without being angered by Thomas Jay Oord’s attempts fundamentally to redefine the nature of God. Original sin has be denied and it scarcely attracts comment. Most people politely agree to differ on such matters, in the spirit of concord BioLogos fosters. But mention that “chance” may not be a viable concept in a truly theistic evolution, and one becomes a pariah – and it seems to be on the grounds that this undermines science.
Now, it’s Deism that came up with the philosophically dubious idea that God cannot violate the laws of nature. But this isn’t really the issue – at least, if one is not blinded to the limitations of science and of the laws it describes. As you’ll know if you’ve read the previous few posts on “chance”, I contend that you cannot invoke laws to explain contingent (chance events): or else they would be predictable, and in violation of the only scientific definition of chance. Chance then, whilst it does not lie outside the experience of nature (and can be observed by scientists), is properly speaking outside the realm of scientific explanations.
Chance can never be a cause of anything because it is not a thing, but just an acknowledgement of incomplete knowledge of causation (and, as I reminded one poster on the BL thread, probability distributions do not determine events either – it’s events that determine probability distributions).
Maybe one example may be added here: a social scientist measures preferences for different brands of cars, or cookies, and produces a probability curve. He may truly predict that n percent of some similar population will own VWs, but the probability caused nothing whatsoever of itself – everything was down to human choices, which might quickly change when news of fiddling the fuel consumption emerges, probability functions notwithstanding. Chance is not a cause – but God might very well be a cause of “chance” (to us – to him it’s about choice) events – and he need not violate any scientific law, because laws are about the predictable things; though there are good scientific and philosophical reasons for disbelieving the Deist insistence on exact and inviolable laws anyway.
Despite all this, I have a strong suspicion that it is providence’s undermining of the irrational idea that chance is a real cause, especially in evolution, that brings out the accusations of “anti-science”. Since I happened to see it today, another quote from the Michael Behe article already cited may speak to this, and give me a chance, as a TE, to use a scurrilous source quite shamelessly. Here is Behe’s quotation of one of his scientific detractors:
The Way of the Cell, published last year by Oxford University Press, and authored by Colorado State University biochemist Franklin Harold, who writes, “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity (Behe 1996); but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”
Now, on what overriding principle should design be rejected in favour of chance and necessity, when only necessity (in the form of natural laws) is a coherent causal entity in the first place? And why would that be a principle binding Evolutionary Creationists too, who believe in God and – from the majority evidence of the “Deism” thread – that God directs the ends of evolutionary events (through chance and necessity, bizarrely)? I’m not really sure – perhaps others can enlighten me. But unless it’s just swallowed uncritically from materialist scientists, perhaps it appears to be more consistent with methodological naturalism (though it isn’t, for that has everything to do with repeatable causes, and nothing to do with uncaused contingencies).
But it’s not clear why, outside the laboratory, somebody questioning naturalism as a complete explanation should make anybody calling themselves Christians angry. Does not such disgruntlement only belong with metaphysical naturalism – which amounts to nothing but scientism? I can understand why a New Atheist would prefer to reject a real but transcendent cause – God – and retreat into the only thing left, a metaphysical nonentity called “randomness”, charitably given some scraps of clothing by scientific ignorance of particular causes. The stubborn atheist, after all, has nothing else to rely on if science does not uncover everything about nature.
But the special providence of God, to the Christian interested in science? What is in the least objectionable about that, unless one has some motive for keeping the Living God within safer bounds? Why should they scowl and say, “You’ve got a nerve – suggesting that God actually governs nature!”?
To close, here’s the actual source of the title of this piece in a song by the unique Richard Thompson, which captures, I think, albeit with completely different subject matter, the aggression both of the objector to providence – and the anger of those of us who find turning the other cheek doesn’t come so easily.