Where to locate the mystery

We customarily assume we know a lot about creation but very little about God. After all, we can see creation but we can’t see God. Creation is finite but God is infinite. While we can explore creation, we can’t explore God. And since it is assumed that God directly or indirectly controls everything in creation, we are inclined to attribute the arbitrariness of creation to his mysterious will.

…I argue for the opposite view. Because of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass.

This is not at all to suggest that we know everything about God. To the contrary, there are aspects of God that are utterly beyond comprehension. But we can know what is most important to know, namely, that when we see Jesus Christ we see God. In Christ we confidently know God’s character and purposes. Hence, unless we have good reason to think otherwise, we can assume that whatever appears inconsistent with the character and purposes of God revealed in Jesus Christ ultimately comes from agents who oppose God. However, we know next to nothing about how these agents wills affect what comes to pass.

Behind every particular event in history lies an impenetrably vast matrix of interlocking free decisions made by humans and angels. We experience life as largely arbitrary because we can’t fathom the causal chains that lie behind every particular event. In Christ, God’s character and purposes are not mysterious, but the vast complexity of the causal chain is. The mystery of evil, therefore, is about an unfathomably complex and war-torn creation, not about God’s character and purposes in creation.

– Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame?

16 thoughts on “Where to locate the mystery

  1. Janet says:

    I’ve been mulling over the idea that freedom is in the very nature of reality, not only in beings that have consciousness, but in the random movement of electrons, the processes of evolution that lead to a lot of “dead ends” biologically speaking etc. That God set up the physical laws of the universe, but allowed some room for the universe to play.
    Any thoughts on the subject Matt?


  2. Matt Stone says:

    I’m not so sure we should locate freedom in randomness.
    Besides, what do we mean by randomness? To fully appreciate the problem I think we have to grapple with the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity. Quantum mechanics, which introduces the uncertainty principle, only makes sence if there is a universal now, such that the wave function can collapse everywhere simultaneously. This seems to be the perspective that you are coming from. But Einstein’s theory of relativity introduces the relativity of simultaneity, that is, the assertion that whether or not two events occur at the same time or different times depends on the observer’s reference frame. This ultimately leads to a “block time” view of the universe where the future is just as existant as the past and the present, even if it is not exactly accessible to us. In such a universe even “random” events are unavoidable because the future is unchangeable.
    So this drives me to the question: can there still be freedom in a universe where the future is as set as the past or the now?
    It may be counter intuitive, but I’m inclined to say yes.
    To bring this down to the human level, let me ask this: just because I can reasonably predict the choises my son will make in some situations when offered two mutually exclusive alternatives (say, between ice cream and spinach), can I say his choises are any less free than the times when I can’t predict what he will choose? Is the freedom found in my lack of knowledge? Or is the freedom found in his will?
    To my mind there is no freedom in randomness because there is no will in randomness. And this is very interesting, because it suggests freedom has a subjective quality that is resistant to objective scientific investigation.
    So here is another question: is the subjective any less real than the objective?


  3. Janet says:

    MMmm… well you see, I’m a bit of a physics ignoramus… I start to glaze over at all the paradoxes thereof I’m afraid. (I did TRY to read “A Brief History of Time” but… uggh… pretty unreadable IMO). So my thoughts are more intuitive than that.
    But I suppose the randomness of electrons etc. I would see as not “freedom” in a moral sense… more that God has created a universe where he doesn’t chose to direct absolutely everything. The universe is not “morally” free, but neither is it totally determined down to the finest detail. Perhaps I need to find a different word to “freedom”… a level of unpredictability?
    Watching what happens without knowing the exact outcome is more interesting is it not? Which is why a live broadcast is more interesting than a sporting match replay when you know the result.
    (Not that I’m saying God gets bored or anything…)
    Is the subjective any less real than the objective? Mmm… if a person is mentally ill (or just vaguely delusional), yes. Is subjectivity in general “unreal”… no…
    Can you clarify what you mean by that?


  4. Matt Stone says:

    Ah but you see I would say your very question priveledges the quantum mechanical view over the general relativity view without establishing why this should be so. The 4D block time view is no less “live” than the 3D flow time view. Nor does it necessarily condemn God to being a puppet master. To say the future is fixed is not to say it was all fixed by God. It is just to say God acts knowing the full consequences of his actions in a way we cannot.
    As for the subjectivity-objectivity thing, I am just wondering if contempoary privileging of objectivity is a hangover of modernist materialism.


  5. Janet says:

    Oh dear… I have a lot of trouble getting my head around all of this… as I said, I’m a physics ignoramus. For the viewers playing at home, the 4D block view of time is described here:
    And quantum mechanics is described here:
    But frankly, I’ve never understood quantum mechanics…
    Now back to biology (more my area) … I had someone questioning me recently why God would create so many evolutionary “dead ends” … used as evidence that chance (atheistic or uninvolved deism) rather than design (Christian view of creation) is a better explanation of reality.
    I think it’s an interesting argument… I was playing with the idea that in some areas God puts the laws of nature in motion then sits back to enjoy the action… rather than deliberately making mutations all the time (most of which are damaging to life anyway).
    But I’m assuming a common sense view of time and space in that reflection, because I have trouble seeing reality in any other way.


  6. Matt Stone says:

    What constitutes a dead end? I tend to take a systems view where everything has it’s place in the overall scheme of things.
    On mutations, it’s interesting to read what Richard Dawkins has to say about this. He suggests the bigger the mutation, the more harmful. But consequently, the more beneficial the mutuation, the less likely we are to observe it over human timespans. So, our perspective on mutations is jaundiced.
    Question, where do negative spiritual forces figure into your understanding?


  7. Janet says:

    Well, I’ve participated in and personally experienced deliverance ministry, and to me bad spirits are real and personal… it would hard to explain my experiences in any other way.
    What do they actually do? I think there’s a level at which one can only speculate… the bible doesn’t say a huge amount about this, science doesn’t tell us anything, and there’s both real and counterfeit spiritual discernment out there amongst human beings.
    So… I don’t know… I’d be guessing they generally operate in the physical world via the spiritual and physical creatures that are human beings, and hence by influencing the decisions humans make and the systems humans create. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it a great deal.
    What do you think?


  8. Matt Stone says:

    I think we have to consider how the involvement of multiple agencies in everyday events complicates what we mean by “causation” irrespective of whether we’re speaking from the flowtime (unfixed future) perspective or the blocktime (fixed future) perspective.
    I mean, say we go with the blocktime perspective and affirm God, in his blocktime omnipotence, responds to our future acts in our present. And say, in response to God’s action, someone commits an evil action. Now some may ask, despite that person’s actions being against God’s expressed commandments, is God still not somehow implicated in this evil given God could have acted differently and changed the situation? I think we need to be careful here because such thinking can lead to accusations that God is more responsible for evil than fallen humans or fallen angels! So I would affirm that God is the NOT the only agency worthy of consideration even from within a blocktime perspective. And because of that, I’d say randomness is an “unnecessary” solution to the problem. I agree with Boyd that the mystery of evil resides in the multiple agencies at work.
    Let me give an example. As a social observer I am aware there is a greater than 50 percent chance that children born into our society will experiment with drugs. Knowing that I have still chosen to have two children. So you might say that I have chosen to have kids knowing that, on the balance of the odds, there is a 100 percent chance that one of them will experiment with drugs. So, does my choise in having them make me responsible for their bad choises in life? Is ignorance a parent’s only chance for exoneration?


  9. Janet says:

    All other things being equal, I think the way the probability falls is that there is a 25% chance of both experimenting with drugs, a 50% chance of one experimenting with drugs, and a 25% chance of neither experimenting with drugs.
    But they’re not all equal, are they? As a loving parent, you actually can reduce the chances of their doing this by talking about drugs with your kids in a loving and informaed way at age appropriate stages.
    And in the analogy, might God do more to stop evil… be more proactive, so to speak?
    Regardless of who or what is involved, evil and suffering eventually lead us back to either God is not omnipotent, God is not good, or God choses to limit his activity for purposes we do not fully understand. God’s “limits” may be around free choice for other conscious beings, and/or because God choses to limit intervention in the laws (and perhaps random activity) of the natural world.
    Perhaps this is around my inability to comprehend block time, but I don’t see that this hypotheses changes the options I’ve listed… and that God choses to limit his power sits most comfortably with me of these.


  10. Matt Stone says:

    There is a fourth way I think, a more eschatological way (with a hat tip to N T Wright). And that is the affirmation that, whatever we see now, evil does not have the last word and God will have his day. Precisely because he is all powerful and all good. And what may seem like weakness or limitation in the present says more about our perspective than God’s goodness or power. I know that sounds a bit like the third way, but I don’t like the time symmetric quality of the third way.


  11. Janet says:

    “whatever we see now, evil does not have the last word and God will have his day”.
    Well, this is the language of a more linear view of time isn’t it? Although that’s nearly unavoidable because this is how we actually experience time… and as Christians we actually look forward to God’s full reign.


  12. Matt Stone says:

    Not necessarily, the difference between flowtime and blocktime could be compared to the difference between reading a book “page by page” and reading “all pages simultaneously” by laying them out on the floor. Either way though, the first page is different from the last page. So to speak of “the last word” is perfectly consistant with either view. Switching between reading styles doesn’t change the book.
    What I was pointing to in the last comment was somewhat different. In saying the third way seems too “time symmetric” I’m suggesting it doesn’t sufficiently distinguish between the first page and the last page. That I prefer an explaination that incorporates an arrow of time, a time asymmetry, however that is experienced.


  13. Janet says:

    “And what may seem like weakness or limitation in the present says more about our perspective than God’s goodness or power.”
    Is this like CS Lewis’s (or whoever came before him) view of “the best of all possible worlds”?


  14. Janet says:

    He explores in “The Problem of Pain” that you cannot have real love without genuine free will, and you cannot have genuine free will without the possibility of evil. You cannot have courage without challenge or nobility without problems. A perfectly ordered world is possible, but a world of genuine freedom, allowing love and personal growth, is not possible in a perfectly ordered world. Or something to that effect… it’s ages since I’ve read this.


  15. Matt Stone says:

    Yes, I’d agree with that. For us to choose God we must have a choice. If we (or God) see voluntary discipleship as better than involuntary discipleship the possibility of non-discipleship must be allowed. This is not a weekness so much as an expression of values.


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