Chance, Purpose, and the Order of Nature

by L. Charles Birch

Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith.

This essay originally appeared as chapter 13, pp. 182- 200 in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Because science investigates nature as if it were machinery, it does not follow that nature is therefore machinery. Thus science concludes that all of nature is a product of chance and necessity, thus leaving no place for God’s purpose and creativity.

When Bishop William Paley [1743-1805] wrote his Natural Theology, he intended his work to be an exaltation of God. Arguing from what he took to be the machine-like nature of the universe, a universe operating like clockwork, Paley felt he could deduce the existence as well as the many divine characteristics of God. His theology -- and natural theologies of the time like his -- filled out the argument for the existence of God from design with mechanistic understandings of the universe. But such "proofs," such exaltations, came at the great expense of adopting, continuing, and extolling a view of nature we have come to realize as ultimately destructive. The mechanistic, deterministic views of Paley and others like him since the Enlightenment have often led us astray philosophically and theologically. Indeed, as Harvey Sindima’s essay in this book attests, mechanistic views have contributed to the threatened destruction of the earth not only in the West but also in Africa. What is needed are alternatives to the mechanistic orientation.

Charles Birch offers one such alternative. In many ways his essay is a response to Paley and those like him. It emerges out of Birch’s own dialogue with the best of contemporaly science. Birch’s aim is to offer a nonmechanistic understanding of nature and to show how such an understanding elicits a new way of thinking about God. For Birch, and for several others in this volume, such as Haught, McFague, McDaniel, and Sindima. the new sensibilities that Christians need in our ecological age include, among other things, more ecological ways of sensing the Divine.


The central issue in science and religion today is whether nature in its evolution has any purpose or ultimate meaning

(Haught, 7).

Neither pure chance nor the pure absence of chance can explain the world

(Hartshorne 1984, 69).


According to the traditional scientific picture the universe is a random collection of particles with blind forces acting upon them. Yet the universe has an elaborate structure and order. How then does a seemingly directionless assembly of entities produce the complex organization that we refer to as the order of nature? What is the origin of this apparent creative activity? This is a deep mystery for science. Sir Karl Popper has described the creativity of nature as the greatest riddle of complexity. Some physicists, such as Leon Legerman, director of the Fermilab in Illinois, have the faith that physics will ultimately reduce this mystery to a single mathematical formula so simple "that you can wear it on your T-shirt"! Others are less sanguine about the capacity of reductionist physics to so explain the order of nature.

Other Views on the Origin of the Order of Nature

In his satirical song "Friday Morning" Sydney Carter puts a view of the origin of the order of nature thus:

You can blame it onto Adam,

You can blame it onto Eve,

You can blame it on the apple,

But that I can’t believe.

It was God who made the devil and the woman and the man,

And there wouldn’t be an apple if it wasn’t in the plan!

That the order of nature was the product of a predetermined plan or design in much the same way a building is the product of an architect’s blueprint executed by the builder was a view widely held prior to Charles Darwin. Nothing is left to chance.

Darwin’s theory of the natural selection of chance variations put an emphasis on the role of chance in determining the order of nature in the living world. The evidence from nature, which he accumulated over many decades, no longer supported the religious determinism that saw in the order of nature a predetermined design accounting for every detail from the apple to the man. Indeed the neo-Darwinian view is that these same principles account for the order of nature not only from the apple to the man but from the primeval soup of molecules from which life is supposed to have arisen. The Darwinian alternative allowed no place for a monarchical God in charge of nature and put the spotlight on the role of chance. Opponents of the view that chance has any part to play in the order of nature tried to ridicule it in the famous analogy of the typewriting monkeys, asking if a million monkeys banging at random on a million typewriters could by chance produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. A modern criticism in the same vein argues that for higher forms to have evolved by chance is like the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard will assemble a Boeing 747 aircraft from the materials there. Both analogies are glib, meretricious, and false. They completely misinterpret the role Darwinism gave to chance in the evolutionary process. They are false for several reasons. The most obvious of these is that they ignore reproduction and selection.

For many years I have put to students another analogy, which I think gets closer to the Darwinian proposition. Instead of a million monkeys banging at random on a million typewriters, imagine a million, indeed billions of blind painters each sprinkling a few splashes of color on billions of canvases, one before each painter. Of these only the few that show the first feeble suggestion of a meaningful picture are preserved; the rest are destroyed. The selected rudimentary pictures are reproduced a billionfold. And again billions of blind painters add a few random touches of paint to them; again the best are selected and reproduced, and so on millions of times corresponding to the number of generations that have elapsed since life appeared on earth. We might expect that such a process of chance, selection, and reproduction might produce a painting that had some order and meaning to our eyes. This analogy gets closer to what is meant by natural selection of chance variations, though it still does not do justice to the full picture of Darwinian evolution. The analogy has recently been put in much more sophisticated terms by Richard Dawkins in computer models that incorporate random elements, reproduction, and selection, much as in the model of the blind painters (Dawkins). He demonstrates quite convincingly that an ordered outcome can be the product of such operations. What more general conclusions might we draw from this image about the origin of the order of nature?

Dawkins concludes that the order of nature is to be explained solely in terms of such models. Similarly before him the distinguished molecular biologist Jacques Monod claimed that "Chance alone is at the source of every innovation of all creation in the biosphere" (Monod, 110). For Dawkins, Monod, and many of their followers, chance is the one and only principle in nature. They contrast their position with those who seek to find in every detail of nature evidence for deterministic design in which living organisms are compared with contrivances such as a watch, which a watchmaker designs and makes. There is not much room for chance in designing a watch. There is no room at all for chance in designing a space vehicle for the safe transportation of humans. It is thoroughly determined to the last detail by its designers. The deists at the time of Darwin and before said the design of nature was like that. And so do the so-called creationists today. And so do other theists who are bound to the image of God as monarchical and imperialistic. The order of nature for them is the creation of an all-powerful deity who left nothing to chance, nor for that matter, to the entities the deity created. This is the concept of ex machina.

But the alternatives we are faced with are not simply a world of chance or a world excluding chance. There is a third possibility, namely, a world of chance and of purpose. One does not exclude the other. In considering this alternative we need to be clear about what we really mean by chance, so as not to be misled by false analogies, and what we mean by purpose, so as not to fall back into the discredited model of design and manufacture. In doing this we need to explore models of God alternative to the imperialistic and monarchical ones many of us have inherited. That implies as well a model of nature that is less mechanistic, less materialistic, and less reductionist than traditional science has tended to bequeath to us.

In pursuing these avenues I have found much inspiration in the thought of process theologians, who have made a conscious effort to interpret Christian faith for our time in terms that appropriate the insights of science. This is not to propose that the only criterion for theology is its fit with the reigning understanding of reality. But as McFague has said, "for theology to do less than fit our present understanding -- for it to accept basic assumptions about reality from a very different time -- seems blatantly wrong-headed" (McFague, 14).

Besides finding insight from process theology I have found much inspiration in the attempts of McFague to experiment with new models of God to flesh out these new concepts of God’s working in nature. Her images of the world as God’s body and her models of God as mother, lover, and friend of the world illuminate the more philosophical understanding I derive from process theology.

But first we need to get some clarity into the meaning of chance events in the order of nature that goes beyond analogies of monkeys and painters and computers. I believe that leaves us with the necessity of recognizing that any credible account of the order of nature must accept chance as part of the nature of nature. Then we can proceed to find a meaning of purpose that is relevant to a nature that is not completely determined by some external influence.

There is no role for God in a completely mechanical world any more than there is in the workings of my motorcar. There is no role for God in a world completely dependent upon chance events. Nor is there any role for God in a world that is completely determined from start to finish. I shall argue that we can draw from modern science a vision of nature that accepts the existence of chance and a degree of self-determination and freedom for the entities of the creation. I believe it is possible within this model to find a working out of purpose in the creative process. The world becomes much more a body in which God lives than a machine in which the laws of mechanics reign supreme. A truly incarnational theology is one in which God becomes incarnate in the world as it is created. As self is to the body so God is to the world. Such a theology promotes an ethic of justice and care and a profound acceptance of human responsibility for the fate of the earth.

I am convinced that when we find an understanding of nature that incorporates a role for chance which Darwin emphasized, and a role for purpose, we enlarge the Christian understanding of nature. Bishop John Austin Baker, as dean of Westminster Abbey, put it this way -- in a guide to the Abbey -- commenting on the fact that the Abbey is the final resting place of Charles Darwin: "Today most Christians . . . are glad that one of the intellectual giants who laid the foundation of our modern understanding of the world should lie here in the house of God in whom he himself did not believe but whom we know so much better as a result of his discoveries."

The Meaning of Chance in the Evolution Oo Nature

The idea that the origin and evolution of plants and animals and all living creatures depends in part upon chance events is largely due to Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. Darwin didn’t always think this way about nature. On the contrary, when he left Cambridge to take part in the epic voyage around the world in the Beagle he was a convinced creationist and thus a determinist and a theist. He had read Paley’s Natural Theology as a student at Cambridge University and was impressed by its arguments for the existence of God from the design of nature. The "doctrine of divine carpentry," as a later vice-chancellor of Cambridge called it, was promulgated by bishops from their pulpits. Students were expected to provide more and more evidence for it. In that respect Darwin became a traitor. His observations on the continents of the southern hemisphere changed his views of the source of the order in nature. The author of The Origin of Species had failed to perform what the public expected of its biologists. It was as if the Pope had announced his conversion to Buddhism.

Darwin’s conclusions included three critical concepts: (1) Nature was not complete and perfect once and for all time, it was still in process of being made. (2) The process involved a "struggle for existence." (3) The process involved chance. What could have been more devastating for the design thesis than imperfection, struggle, and chance at the heart of the creative process?

The element of chance in Darwin’s theory was the genetical variation on which natural selection acted. Instead of the tiger being designed with its stripes for camouflage once and for all time, Darwin invoked the notion that originally tigers had all sorts of patterns on their coats. This was a consequence of chance genetic variation. But only that pattern persisted that gave the animal an advantage in its struggle for existence and that could be inherited. This is the principle of "chance and necessity" Monod considered to be the one and only principle of nature. Darwinism was a shattering blow to the notion that the order of nature was completely determined in all its details by an omnipotent deity outside nature. This does not mean that Darwin showed, as many claimed, that there was no purpose in nature. What he did show was that existing views of design by an external agent were invalid. Darwin’s theory did nothing to prove that God did not exist, but it did destroy the only argument by which many people thought the existence of God could be established.

Neo-Darwinism, which is the dominant view of biologists today, is an interpretation of Darwinism in terms of a modern understanding of genetics. The basic source of genetic variation in the living world is chance variation of the DNA molecule. This molecule can come in an infinite variety of forms; which form is a matter of chance. At the beginning of life on earth there may have been just one DNA molecule. The DNA molecule has the peculiar capacity to be able to replicate in the appropriate environment. Had it replicated forever with deterministic perfection, that is, without any chance variations, there would have been no evolution. Evolution was, and is, utterly dependent upon occasional chance in the molecule when it replicates. This is what mutation is in its basic form. It involves a rearrangement of the base-pairs in the steps of the ladder-like DNA molecule. This basic event in evolution is a random or chance change, an accident if you will, during replication. One might well expect that accidental changes in DNA during replication would be deleterious to the organism that harbors the changed DNA. And indeed that is the case. Most mutations are deleterious. Some few are not. By chance they confer some advantage upon the organism that harbors them.

The meaning of chance in this context is quite specific. It is often misunderstood. It does not mean being without a cause. We know many of the causes of mutation, such as radiation. Whether or not a particular mutation will increase the chance of its possessor to survive and reproduce is dependent upon a second chain of events, which is quite independent of the event of mutation itself. This second chain of events has nothing to do with the environment in which the organism finds itself. For example, the DNA of a fly mutates to confer upon its offspring resistance to the insecticide DDT. This chain of events is quite unrelated to whether or not the environment contains DDT. Indeed there is good evidence that such mutant genes were being produced long before DDT was invented. When the environment does not contain DDT the mutation confers no particular advantage upon the organism. It is important to understand that the DDT does not itself cause the mutation. All it does is act as an agent of selection. The important point is that the two causal chains are entirely independent.

We say that mutation is random in relation to the needs of the organism at the time the mutation occurs. That the two chains of events intersect with advantage to the organism is a matter of chance or accident. Darwinism thus introduced an indeterminacy into the concept of the evolutionary process. A determinist might want to argue that there is an omnipotent observer, who sees that the appropriate mutation occurs at the appropriate time so that the two chains of events interact with benefit to the organism. That this is not the case is a scientific fact known from careful experiments. There are no two ways about it. All sorts of mutation occur all the time; most are deleterious. By chance, some few are not.

This schematization of the two pathways tends to exaggerate the separation of chance and purpose. The acceptance of a role of chance in nature does not exclude a role for purpose. Indeed, as I shall argue, it makes a role for purpose possible.

The world of Paley’s Natural Theology was a completely determined world. The world of Jaques Monod was one of chance and chance alone. There is a third possibility: one of neither pure determinism nor pure chance alone, but chance and purpose together. As Hartshorne has said, "Neither pure chance nor the pure absence of chance can explain the world" (Hartshorne 1984, 69). The recognition of chance and accident in the natural order is critically important for a realistic theology of nature. Without chance there could be no freedom. If the universe and all its happenings were fully determined by some omnipotent power, attributed by some to God, there would be no freedom for the creatures.

To take chance seriously is the first step in moving away from the concept of deterministic design, whether by an omnipotent designer or as some in-built principle of nature. It is also the first step in moving toward a realistic concept of purpose. Monod, who took chance seriously, failed to see its implications for freedom. Chance alone was for him the one and only principle in nature. Darwin never came to this conclusion. Indeed, it seems he was reluctant to admit the reality of chance, despite the role he attributed to it. In this respect he was like Einstein, who said he could not believe that God plays dice. Darwin probably admired the deterministic universe of Newton. Perhaps he saw himself as the Newton of biology. The key to Darwin’s thinking on chance and determinism is not to be found in The Origin of Species but in Darwin’s correspondence, especially with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray in 1860 and 1861. Charles Hartshorne is, so far as I know, the first person to appreciate the significance of this correspondence (Hartshorne 1962, chap. 7; Hartshorne 1984, chap. 3).

The critical passage in Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray is the following: "I cannot think that the world . . . is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design. . . . I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle" (F. Darwin, 353-54). And "But I know that I am in the same sort of muddle . . . as all the world seems to be in with respect to freewill, yet with everything supposed to have been foreseen or pre-ordained" (p. 378). Darwin repeatedly declared in his letters to Asa Gray as well as to others that chance cannot explain the world as an ordered whole. Again and again Darwin asks: Is it all ordained or is it all a result of chance? Because of his dilemma Darwin gave up theism. At the same time he could see there must be pervasive limitations upon chance since unlimited chance is chaos. Yet he was bewildered. Why?

Hartshorne makes two suggestions: (1) Darwin tended, like many others, to think of science as committed to determinism; he even suggested that what we call chance may not be chance at all; and (2) it was not apparent to Darwin why cosmic purpose should leave anything to chance (Hartshorne 1962, 207). The God of deism was identified with absolute law and non-chance. The dominant theology of his day was of no help to him in this respect. It had no clearly conceived creationist philosophy. God must do everything or nothing. And if God is responsible for everything then why all the evil in the world? Darwin wrote to Asa Gray, "You say that you are in a haze; I am in thick mud; the orthodox would say in fetid, abominable mud; yet I cannot keep out of the question" (F. Darwin, 382).

The Meaning of Purpose in Evolution

The "mud" in which Darwin found himself immersed was the opacity that always characterizes a deterministic world view. Darwin argued correctly that the facts of evolution are in conflict with belief in deterministic design by a benevolent designer. But only one of his correspondents suggested to him that God was other than an omnipotent determiner of all the details of nature. The English vicar and novelist Charles Kingsley wrote to Darwin, "I have learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful . . . as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He himself made" (F. Darwin, 288). And elsewhere Kingsley wrote about Darwin’s contribution thus: "Now that they have got rid of an interfering God -- a master magician as I call it -- they have to choose between the absolute empire of accident and a living, immanent, ever-working God" (quoted in Raven, 177). In his evolutionary epic, The Water Babies, which Kingsley wrote for his children just four years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he tells of how God makes things make themselves. There is no evidence that Darwin appreciated Kingsley’s alternatives to the omnipotent deterministic God of deism.

Darwin needed a Jacques Monod to convince him that chance and accident were essential to the order of nature. He needed also a Charles Hartshorne to persuade him that there was a credible alternative to the deism of Paley and other nineteenth-century divines. But in fact he never did resolve his dilemma of chance and determinism.

Hartshorne hit the nail on the head when he said, "There must be something positive limiting chance and something more than mere matter in matter or Darwinism fails to explain life" (Hartshorne 1962, 210). What is "the something positive" that limits chance and what is the "something more than mere matter in matter"? The answer to these questions depends upon how we conceive of the origin of the order of nature.

Darwinism rules out the concept of an all-determining orderer. In so doing it opens the door to another concept of ordering. There are only two ways of ordering. One is dictatorial. The other is persuasive. Process theology takes its cue from the latter. The "something more than mere matter in matter" is the concept of the entities of nature as not being substance or mere objects. They are subjects, that is to say, they are sentient to the possibilities of their future, within the limitations imposed by their past. There is no such thing as mere matter. Quantum physics certainly opens the door to a nonsubstantialist concept of matter, where the words freedom and choice are relevant. And so far as those entities we call alive are concerned, the most characteristic feature about them is not the survival of the fittest but their urge to live. Life is anticipation. Whitehead’s more complete statement is -- the present is memory tinged with anticipation. What the entities of creation respond to -- "the something positive that limits chance" -- are the persuasive possibilities relevant to their future. Order by persuasion is the factor-limiting chance. The possibility of chaos and disorder in a lecture theater full of students is immense. The lecturer who is any good, will by persuasive influence create a high degree of order in a large class. The students are free to make chaos if they wish. Sometimes they do. But under the influence of a persuasive lecturer they choose not to. That is the nature of order in nature. This introduces another meaning to chance: namely, that there is no certainty that at any moment any entity will respond to the lure of creation. Self-determination means that it may or it may not. The degree of that uncertainty is presumably small at the level of the electron but greater with entities such as ourselves.

We can say with Hartshorne, "The only positive explanation of order is the existence of an orderer" (Hartshorne 1984, 71). The orderer is no longer the deus ex machina of the deists, which Darwin rightly rejected. Kingsley hinted at the alternative when he said that things tend to make themselves. Creativity exists within the entities of the creation. That is the first step in the argument for order. Many people, indeed many Christians, find this difficult to grasp. For, as Hartshorne says,

Since teleology has been thought of as unilateral creativity on the part of the deity, unshared in any appreciable degree with the creatures, indications that the world had far reaching potentialities for self-creation were naturally startling. But only because creativity had not been grasped in its proper universality, as the principle of existence itself (Hartshorne 1962, 209).

Today that should be a less startling concept (see Birch and Cobb). Science is leading in that direction as witness, for example, the recognition of "self-organization" as a principle in cosmology (Davies) and in molecular biology (Prigogine and Stengers).

The combination of sentience in natural entities, be they electrons, cells, or human beings, together with the lure beyond themselves for their possible futures is the source of their creativity. Nuts and bolts can’t evolve. They are aggregates of natural entities. Aggregates have no intrinsic creativity. That belongs to the natural entities such as atoms and molecules which constitute them. Creativity is not simply rearrangement of bits and pieces of stuff like nuts and bolts in simple or complex arrangements. The relation between the individual natural entity and the ensemble of which it is a part is entirely different in a creative agent as compared with a machine. In a machine the entities that compose it maintain their identity, whether the machine be a washing machine or a computer. Not so in a natural entity such as a living cell. As one moves up levels of organization -- electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, and so on -- the properties of each larger whole are given, not merely by the units of which it is composed, but by the new relations among these units. It is not that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The parts themselves are redefined and changed as a result of their new relations to one another in the process of evolution from one level to another. An electron in a lump of lead is not the same as an electron in a cell in a human brain. The mechanical assumption of classical physics that it is the same everywhere is no longer a part of quantum physics. All this means that the properties of matter relevant at, say, the atomic level do not begin to make predictable the properties of matter at the cellular level, let alone at the level of complex organisms.

The parts of a machine, its cogs, levers, transistors, or chips, have external relations only. They can be pushed and pulled in different directions, but their nature remains unchanged. The parts of a natural entity have, in addition to external relations, internal relations to their environment. Their being, indeed their existence, depends upon their internal relations. The idea of an internal relation is a relation that is constitutive of the character and even the existence of something. We are aware of the role of internal relations in the way in which chosen purposes determine what each of us becomes. Our chosen purposes are powerful internal causes in our lives. Goal-directed integration is found wherever there are entities that have some degree of self-determination. Quantum physics recognizes the possibility of similar influences at the level of the electron type of entity. For many quantum physicists these entities are no longer to be called particles. There are no particles because there are no substances in nature. The word substance is used in this context in its classical meaning as defined by Descartes: "And when we conceive of substance, we merely conceive an existing thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist" (quoted in Whitehead 1930, 92). But as Whitehead said "There is no entity, not even God, which requires nothing but itself in order to exist" (Whitehead 1930, 12).

Biology has been slower than physics in moving away from the substantialist prejudice. It recognizes the role of purpose in cultural evolution. At the level of molecular biology the argument becomes complex, but I believe we are beginning to see a meaning for it there (Birch 1988a). Molecular biology, which was the last to come into mechanistic biology may well be the first to opt out. The point I want to make is that science itself is beginning to see the limitations of the substantialist prejudice, the reduction of everything to "mere matter" The new physics and to some extent the new biology recognizes the entities of creation as subjects and not simply Objects pushed and pulled like billiard balls (Birch 1988b).

A multitude of creative agents implies the need for the rule of one. Too many cooks spoil the broth! There must be something that sets limits to the confusion and anarchy possible with a multiplicity of creative agents. Individual purposing agents need to be coordinated. The key here is not manipulation of the entities by an external agent but persuasion. The persuasive ordering principle, which coordinates the creativity of a multitude of creative agents, is given the name God in process theology. An orchestra consists of many creative players. Each player interprets the score in his or her own way. But the over-all coordination is provided by the conductor. God is like a composer-conductor who is writing a score a few bars ahead of the orchestra, taking into account their harmonies and disharmonies as he proposes the next movement of the music. God does not determine the outcome. The power of God is the power of persuasion to harmonize the whole. The brilliant television documentary made in 1984 showing Leonard Bernstein conducting rehearsals of his own composition "West Side Story" struck me in this way. The musicians, composer, and conductor became one. Bernstein originated the music. Each player was making an interpretation from what Bernstein had written and from the grimaces on his face. Sometimes the orchestra seemed to exceed the conductor’s expectations and he responded with intense delight. It was clear also that every performance was creatively different, both for the orchestra and for the conductor.

Instead of being an all-powerful manipulator of creation, the God of process theology is its persuader, providing each entity with specific goals or purposes and coordinating the activity of all. "What happens," says Hartshorne "is in no case the product of (God’s) creative act alone. Countless choices, including the universally influential choices, intersect to make a world, and how concretely they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be . . . Purpose in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone" (Hartshorne 1967, 58).

This argument carries the principle of cultural evolution all down the line of natural entities from the human and the rest of the living world to entities such as electrons. The idea of cultural evolution, which is most clearly seen in humankind, is that humankind transmits information from one generation to another by teaching and learning so that successive generations learn to purpose their lives in particular ways. For us this has meant learning to control our environment through science and technology and to use them creatively or destructively. Through cultural evolution we take charge of much of our environment and that in turn changes the direction of natural selection of genes. The latter becomes less important as cultural evolution takes over. The main difference between us and the cave people of hundreds of thousands of years ago is cultural and not genetic. We have good evidence that cultural evolution is a feature in the evolution of mammals and birds, and there is evidence that it may apply all down the line (Birch and Cobb). In cultural evolution humans accept the role of purposes that make choice possible. There is no longer any reason to draw a line below which choice no longer operates at all. Of course the nature of the choice and the degree of freedom are very different at the human level compared to that of a frog or an electron.

Chance, Purpose, and the Anthropic Principle

The modern discovery is that chance and purpose can live together. Indeed one is not possible without the other. A world without chance is a totally determined world. In such a world there can be no freely chosen purposes; freedom excludes preprogramming. There was a chance that life might not have arisen in the universe. A slightly different sequence of events in the first microseconds of the "Big Bang" would have resulted in a universe of all helium and no hydrogen. Without hydrogen there would subsequently have been no heavy elements such as carbon and iron, which were formed by the fusion of hydrogen nuclei. Heavy elements are essential for life as we know it. One chain of events led to hydrogen and subsequently to heavy elements. Another chain of events led from heavy elements to life. The second chain was dependent upon the first. There were indeed many such chains of causes. For example, if the relative masses of protons and neutrons were different by a small fraction of one percent, making the proton heavier than the neutron, hydrogen atoms would be unstable. Hydrogen, on which the origin of life was dependent, could not then have existed. These and other examples suggest that the universe is finely tuned for our existence. The sequence of necessary events seems to put too great a burden on chance. Hence the formulation of what some physicists have called the anthropic principle asserts there must exist a guiding principle that ensures the fine tuning of the cosmos to enable life to evolve. The early states of the universe are to be explained by the fact that they made subsequent states possible. But it is quite fallacious to infer that because the present is sufficient for inferring the occurrence of a given past history, it explains that history. This is no better than supposing that symptoms of syphilis explain syphilis. Physicists who promote the strong anthropic principle seem to think that this universe has been given exactly those properties that ensure the eventual production of physicists. This is the fallacy of a posteriori reasoning or thinking backward. It is the same fallacy embodied in the deistic explanation of nature that Darwin refuted -- that God designed nature in all its detail for the benefit of humans. Shades of it are to be found in Hugh Montefiore’s advocacy of the anthropic principle in his argument for the existence of God (Montefiore).

If we accept that the universe in all its details is not determined completely by some outside power, and if we accept a role for chance, accident, and some persuasive purpose, there is no need to invoke the strong anthropic principle or its deistic variant. The principle of natural selection at the cosmic level, together with chance and purpose as organizing principles, provide another way of looking at the order of the universe. Our universe may be one of many possible universes that could exist, have existed, or exist now. Ours happens to be the one in which the physical realities are such that life as we know it could evolve. From the foundations of the universe there was the possibility that life could evolve. But it had to wait for the appropriate coincidence of many chains of physical events. Maybe it had to wait trillions of trillions of years. There was no inevitability that the chain of events that led to stable hydrogen and then to heavy elements had to occur. There was always the possibility that they would.

The dinosaurs that had dominated the earth for 100 million years became extinct about 65 million years ago. The early mammals lived in the interstices of the dinosaurs’ world. Had the dinosaurs continued, the mammals would probably still be small creatures living in these interstices. A conceivable cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs is the impact of some large extraterrestrial body upon earth. Suppose that without it the dinosaurs might not have died out. We know of only one lineage of primates, a little form called purgatorius that lived before this potential asteroid hit. Suppose this lineage had become extinct? Many lineages of mammals did become extinct at that time. The primates would not have evolved again, as we know evolution does not repeat itself detail for detail. In that scenario the impact of a large extraterrestrial body, that greatest of all improbabilities, may have been the sine qua non of the development of the primates and hence our existence. And as Gould, who gives us this scenario, points out, hundreds of other historically contingent improbabilities were also essential parts of human evolution (Gould, 103).

The Presence of God in the World

An ecological doctrine of creativity implies a new kind of thinking about God. "The center of this thinking," says Moltmann, "is no longer the distinction between God and the world. The center is the recognition of the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God" (Moltmann 1985, 13). And as Whitehead said, "God is not before all creation, but with all creation" (Whitehead 1978, 343). There are three views of the relation of God to creation, only one of which conforms to the ecological doctrine of creativity: (1) God is identified with the cosmos and in all aspects inseparable from it and all that exists. This is pantheism. (2) God is not identified with the cosmos and is in all aspects independent of it. This is called classical theism. (3) God is involved in the cosmos but is not identified with it. God is both within the system and independent of it. This is panentheism.

The position developed by process theology in its ecological model of creation is that of panentheism (neo-classical theism). It has a long tradition that in some of its elements goes back to Hindu scriptures, Lao-tse, and parts of the Judeo-Christian scriptures such as sections in Genesis 1, Psalm 103, Psalm 104:29-30, Proverbs 8:22-31, and various parts of the New Testament. Its modern development in the light of science is largely the work of Alfred North Whitehead and those process philosophers and theologians who have taken their lead from him.

The presence of God in the world is referred to, in Whitehead’s terminology, as the primordial nature of God. In the ecological model a constant tension exists between chaos and order since order is neither the outcome of one all-powerful orderer nor of deterministic necessity. At the heart of the universe, even before there were cells or atoms, there must have been the possibility of these entities coming into existence. The general potentiality of the universe is an aspect of God’s nature. These possibilities of the universe are realities that constitute a continuous lure to creation. They are in the primordial mind of God. In God’s primordial nature God confronts what is actual in the world with what is possible for it. This is that aspect of God which is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God is the ground of order but the order is a changing and developing one as the many become one, else ours is a multiverse and not a universe. The creative activity of God involves the creation of novelty that itself adds to the existing unity. The parts are members of one another. This is both a biblical concept and a principle in quantum physics. God as persuader, lure, and ground of order finds an appropriate expression in McFague’s model of God as lover (McFague, 125 ff.). We speak of God as love, she says, but are afraid to speak of God as lover. The gospel of John gives the clue in the phrase "God so loved the world." When the divine love meets the human eros toward God the only appropriate response is with zest, with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength. The response of the creature to the divine eros is passionate and transforming.

Multiple creativity makes some disorder and conflict inevitable. It allows for the possibility of great disorder and evil. In the ecological model evil springs from chance and the freedom that it allows -- not from providence (Hartshorne 1979). Providence does not eliminate chance because a world without chance is a world without freedom. For God to completely control the world would be the same as to annihilate it. It follows that it is nonsense to ask why God allowed Vesuvius to pour its molten lava on populated Pompeii or why God allowed the holocaust. People who ask these questions have not been liberated from the concept of God as omnipotent dictator of the universe, who is responsible for everything that happens and who, if he willed, could change the course of events by sheer fiat. It is this concept, says Whitehead, that has infused tragedy into the histories of both Christianity and Islam (Whitehead 1978, 342).

The creative working of God’s primordial nature includes the concept "in the fullness of time." At each step in the evolutionary process there is a response that is appropriate. There are no shortcuts. A billion years ago there was no possibility then and there of humans becoming a reality on earth. A million years ago human values began to be realized, but there was no possibility of a mature society then and there. A Jesus or a Buddha would have been an anachronism a million years ago. In the fullness of time they appeared out of their own societies, and some were ready to respond to the call. Bertrand Russell said that if he were God he would have skipped the million years of the dinosaurs and gone straight to man. But God is not a magician, though Bertrand Russell seemed to think this was the main quality endowed upon God by theologians.

The doctrine that the divine element in the world is to be conceived as a persuasive agency, not a coercive one, should be looked upon, says Whitehead, as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of religion (Whitehead 1933, 196). It was plainly enunciated by Plato. "Can there be any doubt," asks Whitehead, "that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act of that which Plato divined in theory?" (Whitehead 1942, 197).

The power of the Christian gospel is the experience of divine love in human life which transforms life. The God of the universe who touches us as we experience life in its fullness is vaster than our experience of him. When I go down to the Pacific Ocean to swim on its shore I get to know one part of the ocean -- its near end. But there is a vast extent of ocean beyond my experience that is nevertheless continuous with that bit of ocean I know. We touch God at the near end, yet that same God extends into the farthest reaches of the universe and there too is persuasive love. This is the full meaning of incarnation. The universe exists by its incarnation of God in itself. It is the sort of universe in which God can be incarnate. God could not be incarnate in a machine! God works in the universe through influence (literally meaning inflowing) as God’s universal mode of causation.

To see the universe as a whole in this way with the same God working in the universe at large, in the life of Jesus and in our lives was put in highly symbolic language by Paul in his letter to the Colossians about the Cosmic Christ. The affirmation "In him all things hang together" (Col. 1:17) is repeated in the rest of the chapter no fewer than five times. For Paul, God is the God of "all things." Nature as well as human history is the theater of grace. This panorama is caught up also in the prologue to St. John’s gospel and becomes particularly pointed in John Robinson’s paraphrase which begins

The clue to the universe as personal was present from the beginning. It was to be found at the level of reality which we call God. It was personal from the beginning. Always it was transcendent to the world, always it was involved in the world, drawing the world to itself, brooding over the face of the earth (Robinson, 98).

In God’s primordial nature God draws the world to greater richness of experience as each entity responds to possibilities for itself over eons of evolutionary time. But we ask what value has been achieved if in the long run our earth collapses into the sun and life on earth is no more and indeed if the universe collapses upon itself? That there will come an end to our earth seems inevitable. What then of the purposes of God? What matters matters only if it matters ultimately and it matters ultimately only if it matters everlastingly. And it matters everlastingly only if it matters to the one who is everlasting. We come face to face with the proposition, the faith, and the conviction that God, in addition to being creative out-going love, is also responsive love. This is Whitehead’s doctrine of the consequent nature of God or the doctrine of the presence of the world in God.

The Presence of the World in God

In God’s consequent nature God responds to the world as the world is created and lives its own life. And that makes a difference to God, for the life of God is enriched by experiencing the new creation. God lives in his world. In Whitehead’s image God saves the world in his experience as a sort of memory; God saves all of value that has become concretely real in cosmic evolution and in every moment of the life of the cosmos. The intrinsic value achieved in the experience of each entity will never be nullified. The merest puff of existence has some significance to God. All experience in the cosmos will be retained as imperishable treasure "where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break through and steal" (Mt. 6:20). The image -- and it is but an image -- under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost. . . . He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved" (Whitehead 1978, 346). God rejoices with the joy of the world and suffers in its travail. This image is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The "pathos of God" (as contrasted with the concept of the "impassability" of God), according to the Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Heschel, is the central idea of prophetic theology (Merkle, 494). In McFague’s model

God as lover cannot be aloof like the artist nor identify at a distance like the educator but will be totally, passionately involved in the agency of the evil that befalls the beloved. God’s involvement with the world in its struggles with evil will embody passion as both deep feeling and suffering (McFague, 142).

When Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing, was he portraying God as a counter of dead sparrows? Or did he mean that God was involved in the life of the sparrow such that even its experiences were of value to him? When the writer of Romans 8 speaks of the whole of creation groaning and suffering in travail as in the agony of childbirth, he adds that God is not simply watching from afar as a producer of a play might watch the performance from the wings. God is in the drama feeling every feeling in ways that words cannot express. God is no mere detached spectator of the ocean of feelings that is nature. God is the supreme synthesis of these feelings. Hence Hartshorne says that "all life contributes to the living one who alone can appreciate life’s every nuance. He experiences our experiences and that of all creatures. His feelings are feelings of all feelings" (Hartshorne 1979, 60). The chief "novelty of the New Testament," says Hartshorne, "is that divine love . . . is carried to the point of participation in creaturely suffering, symbolized by the Cross taken together with the doctrine of the Incarnation" (Hartshorne 1967, 104).

In this ecological concept of creativity there is an inside story to evolution in addition to the outside story on which science concentrates its attention. Presumably God knows the inside story as direct experience. We cannot have the experience of even another person, let alone that of a tiger or a sparrow or a dinosaur. We can participate in it imaginatively, as indeed we seek to do in the lives of our fellows. The world will then no longer be seen as a factory to provide for our every need, no matter at what cost to the creation. Its eventual worth is not its worth to us, but the contribution it has made to something more enduring than any particular atom or sparrow or any species of plant or animal. The "final beauty" says Hartshorne "is the beauty of holiness" (Hartshorne 1970, 321) -- which I take to mean the enrichment of the life of God in God’s consequent nature from all the creation.


The dominant model of nature derived from science is mechanistic or substantialist. Science investigates nature as if it were machinery. It does not follow that nature is therefore machinery. Science does this by excluding from its consideration all subjective elements of nature, mind, and conscious feeling. The quintessence of this approach is to conclude that nature is the product of chance and necessity. There is no place for purposes as causal agents, or for God other than the God outside the machinery. However, there is a post-modern understanding of science, which seeks a more inclusive view of nature. This finds its deepest expression in quantum physics, which has rejected the substantialist model of nature. It is also highly relevant to biology and is recognized as such particularly by some workers in neurophysiology, development, behavior, and evolution. There is no place for the workings of purposes as causal agencies, or of God as involved in nature, in the substantialist model of nature. However the post-modern model of nature is highly relevant to an understanding of both the role of purposes and the role of God in the creative process. The meeting of science and theology in this context leads to a view of nature that includes the following characteristics: (1) Chance is a component of nature and its evolution; nature is not the product of preprogramming or some deterministic design as might be specified in an architect’s blueprint of a building. (2) Since nature is not one-hundred percent determined, there is room for freedom and a degree of self-determination on the part of the created entities. There is thus a multiplicity of creators. (3) The existence of freedom and self-determination allows for the influence of purposes as causal agencies and therefore of internal relations as well as external relations as influential in nature. (4) Insofar as the entities of creation are themselves creative and to a degree self-determining they are subjects as well as objects. (5) A multitude of creative agents makes some disorder, conflict, and evil inevitable. But a multitude of creative agents also implies the necessity of the rule of one if total chaos is to be avoided. The nature of the rule of one, which coordinates the creativity of a multitude of creative agents, is persuasion, the persuasive love of God in the world. (6) God is present in the world. God as cause is not outside nature as an external coercive agency but is involved in the being of the created entities through persuasive love. The creation has its own degree of freedom in its response to God as lure. (7) The world is present in God. God responds to the creation as it evolves and lives its own life. God experiences the experiences of the created entities in all their joy and their sufferings. The image of incarnation is extended to the whole of creation and it, together with the symbol of the cross, becomes central in the ecological understanding of nature. (8) The ecological model of nature and the involvement of God in nature leads to a view of nature not simply as the stage on which the drama of human life is performed but as itself the drama. Since every creature, not only humans, is a subject with intrinsic value, this leads to an ethic of high responsibility of caring for the world.


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