Random Numbers

I love the city of Paris.

Paris is my favourite city in the world (which, since I haven’t visited all that much of the world, is probably a less spectacular claim than it sounds). I first went there when I was 16 years old, and immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I must have visited it somewhere approaching thirty times, and I never tire of it. But there are two particular particular things that have happened to me in Paris that will stay with me forever.

The first: I was in Paris with my wife and kids one weekend around ten years ago. We’d been facing some major life decisions, and just as we thought we’d worked out a way forward, things changed very abruptly and unexpectedly, and we were plunged back into uncertainty. As we walked around the city, taking in its familiar landmarks, our minds were full of questions.

I knew that my dad was also going to be in Paris that weekend. He was on a short bus-and-hotel tour. We’d had no contact and made no plans to meet up, since we knew we’d be busy and he had his own pre-programmed itinerary to follow.

So imagine my surprise when, as we walked round a corner onto the Pont d’Iéna under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a honking of horns and a knocking on glass and we looked up to see my dad waving to us from the window of a bus! The bus that was taking him on his package tour happened to have stopped at some traffic lights right by where we were walking.

I’m no statistician, but I know that the chances of us being in the exact same place at the same time in a city of three million people are pretty slim. It was one of those surreal moments of bizarre coincidence that happen to us all from time to time. We took it as a sign that, in all our uncertainty, God knew exactly where we were.

The second: my wife and I were in Paris for a long weekend with some friends about eighteen months ago. We’d all spent a fairly intense three days together, and on the Sunday afternoon decided to split off and have some downtime. My wife and I were strolling at a leisurely pace through the Marais quarter when we happened upon an estate agent’s window. Just for fun, we decided to stop for a moment and look at property prices. As we were marvelling (and drooling) at some of the properties on offer, a voice behind us said “Bonjour!”, and we turned round to find a dear friend whom we had known very well when we were living in Normandy a few years earlier. She was on her way to a meeting nearby and had just happened to spot us as she hurried along the street. Had we not stopped for a moment at the estate agent’s window, she would doubtless have missed us.

Same city, two different occasions, two bizarrely improbable coincidences.

I tell these two strange stories as an admittedly rather lengthy introduction to my main point, which is this: we twenty-first century postmoderns tend to think that, in teaching us so many facts, science has made the universe a much more certain and predictable place. In fact, the more science uncovers about the truth of how the universe works, the more we discover just what a bizarre and improbable place it is.

Consider: we now know that everything, no matter how apparently solid, is made up of units that are both particles and waves (this is known as wave-particle duality). How can this be? I have no idea, but it’s one of the things that quantum physics has taught us, and it’s been experimentally verified.

Consider further: some subatomic particles can exist in two locations at the same time (except when you begin to observe them, at which point they appear to only exist in one location). This peculiar property is revealed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Weird? Certainly. Imagined? No, sir. Leave all your notions of certainty and predictability at the door: welcome to reality.

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, don’t worry: things will now take a theological turn.

In light of both what science tells us and what my own experience suggests, I’ve come to certain conclusions about how God has created the universe. In particular, I conclude that God set up the world as an ecology – a balanced system – that operates according to certain carefully designed rules. He created us to live within, and to have influence over, this ecology. He set it in motion and he allows it to run its course, influenced by us.

Now, when I say that God set up the world to run by certain rules, this needs to be qualified in light of everything I’ve said up to this point. Specifically, I think God set things up in such a way that there’s a high degree of latitude for weirdness and seeming randomness in the universe. I don’t quite know exactly why he chose to set things up that way; you can take it up with him if you want to.

It seems to me that many Christians want God to be the kind of God who engineers every little action and event in the universe. Every coincidence, every interaction, every tiniest occurrence all unfold directly under the eye and the hand of the All-Controlling Deity. For these Christians, this is the meaning of sovereignty: specific, minute control over every last detail. Let’s call this what it is: Christian determinism.

To me, this kind of view of God just doesn’t tie up with reality. But more than that, it doesn’t tie up with the character of God as progressively revealed in scripture, and as perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Bible tells us that God is love. And Jesus shows us just what that love looks like: the surrender of control. To my mind, the two are intimately connected and necessary. Love must necessarily be a freely chosen response, otherwise it isn’t love. For that to be the case, it follows that the first mover – the one who loves first before being loved back – must love in a way that is free of all coercion. And since God is love, we can therefore infer that God himself is without coercion.

Once we understand love and the God who is love in this way, we realise that there is no room in the universe for the kind of minute control that so many Christians seem to think God exercises. God’s sovereignty is a sovereignty not of control but of love. It is a sovereignty of consent. God is, to use Richard Rohr’s phrase, the Great Allower.

Now, those whose faith is in a deterministic God who presides over a mechanistic universe will invariably object that a God who allows so much suffering cannot be a God of love.

But…

Before we complain about all the terrible things that God allows, we need to think about the alternative. If we really want God to be a micro-managing God who controls every last event in the world, then we have to reckon with not only the good things that flow from God’s hand but also all the awful stuff. God becomes the source not only of every perfect gift but also of every tragedy and disaster. This is the destination to which the hyper-Calvinism of John Piper takes us. Personally, there’s only one conclusion I can reach: the kind of god that would directly run the world in such a way could not be a god of love.

In summary, then: the universe is unpredictable and profoundly weird; this is exactly how God has set it up to be; and God somehow reigns over it all not by pulling all the levers and pushing all the buttons but by letting it all unfold and consistently being and embodying love towards all his creatures.

[ Image: David ]