We know Richard Dawkins for his provocative claims. After examining both simple and complex life, Oxford’s former Professor for Public Understanding of Science reaches this conclusion: the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”
Because he’s an atheist, it’s no surprise Dawkins thinks the universe is without ultimate meaning. As a biologist, he points to randomness, suffering, and evolutionary dead ends to support his view. As an observer of history, he points to harm religious people and institutions sometimes cause.
But does science require us to reject God? Or consider life meaningless?
Another British intellectual, William Paley, offers a different conclusion. Because of the design he observes in the universe, Paley says there must be Something “more than what we see… amongst the invisible things of nature, there must be an intelligent mind concerned in its production, order, and support.”
For Paley, design points to God. Some contemporary biologists agree, especially those who believe life to be intelligently designed. Many believers in God say what seems disordered, ugly, purposeless, and evil is not so. From God’s perspective, it’s all part of a divine blueprint.
Does theology require us to reject disorder, randomness, and evil in nature?
Many people feel they must choose between science and theology. They must choose between a scientific view that says existence is purposeless, meaningless, and ultimately random. Everything’s up for grabs. Or they can choose a theological view that says everything is part of a divine plan. It’s all what God wants.
But must we choose between “everything’s up for grabs” and “it’s all what God wants?”
Let me offer a third alternative. It looks at research in the natural and social sciences and at our experiences in everyday life. From these observations, this alternative concludes that some occurrences in life have purpose. Others do not. Sometimes we see good, and love wins. Other times, we encounter genuine evil. Some events are random; others are intentional. And so on.
Instead of thinking it’s all meaninglessness or meaningful, random or ordered, good or evil, the third alternative says we live in a both/and universe.
What kind of God creates a both/and universe?
In my view, a both/and universe points to a God who creates and loves in uncontrolling ways. To put it another way, an omnipresent Spirit acts in the universe without controlling anyone or anything.
In widely diverse ways, this uncontrolling Spirit lures, calls, and woos creation toward goodness, beauty, and order. This Spirit wants the well-being of all. It offers specific purposes to each entity, creature, or world without singlehandedly determining any.
The genuine evil, ugliness, and pointless death we witness are not part of a predetermined divine plan. Evolutionary dead-ends are not necessary evils pre-orchestrated by a God outside the flow of history. Pandemics, cancer, and moral evils are not part of a divine blueprint. Evil is evil from our perspective and God’s.
This uncontrolling Spirit inspires creaturely acts of goodness, truth, beauty, and love. “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father above,” as St. James puts it. But creation plays a necessary role in whether goodness becomes a reality. God always works for well-being, but God can’t secure it alone. Creatures may not cooperate with this work. Or the conditions of inanimate creation may not align for goodness, beauty, and order to manifest.
From an uncontrolling love perspective, the world we observe makes sense. Both order and disorder, design and chaos, good and evil will be features of a world God creates but cannot control. The world we study is consonant with believing an uncontrolling God creates.
So… what kind of God fits what science tells us and the world we experience? It’s a complex question with many nuances. Good and wise people have different intuitions and different answers.
I think the best insights of science and everyday life point to a God who loves everyone and everything but can’t control anyone or anything. A Spirit of love acts in our universe and every universe that might exist.
Let me close by changing Richard Dawkins’s words. In my view, the universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, a loving but uncontrolling God who creates and interacts with all creatures, great and small, and all creation, simple and complex.
Thomas Jay Oord
Thomas Jay Oord (PhD) directs the doctoral program in Open and Relation Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary. He also directs the Center for Open and Relational Theology.
You can read my review of Tom's <em>Open & Relational Theology<em> <a href="https://sidestreetgod.com/sidestreets/open-relational-theology-a-review/"><u>here</u></a>, <em>Pluriform Love</em> <a href="https://www.theologybrewingcompany.com/pluriform-love-by-thomas-jay-oord-a-review/"> <u>here</u></a>, and <em>God Can't</em> <a href="https://www.theologybrewingcompany.com/god-cant-t-j-oord-a-review/"><u>here</u></a>.