I’m excited to welcome to the blog friend and well-known science and theology scholar, George L. Murphy. George graduated from Ohio University in 1963 and received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins in 1972. He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. He has published six books and numerous articles on faith and science and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area.
George taught “The Science-Theology Dialogue” at Trinity Lutheran Seminary with the goal, as in other work, of helping clergy and congregations to deal with issues raised by science and technology. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction (CSS, 2005), a collection of science fiction story sermons, and Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), which discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.
Here’s hoping this is the first of many posts, George!
“Evolution is God’s way of creating.” That’s easy enough to say, and many people, convinced by scientific evidence that life has developed through evolution, are content with it. But does it make sense? How can we think about God acting in a way that’s consistent with the laws of physics but also with the kind of randomness that evolution seems to need? Perhaps surprisingly the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the key.
In the middle of the eighteenth century the successes of Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation had given rise to a picture of the world as a single giant machine. God could be pictured as the one who had made the machine and started it running.
But could God do anything in the world? If Newton’s laws gave as complete a description of the world as some Enlightenment intellectuals thought then no. The mathematical form of those laws means that if the positions and velocities of all bodies of the universe, as well as the forces acting on them, were known at one instant, their positions and velocities could be calculated for all times. The state of the universe would have been predetermined in the beginning.
This means that there would be no point in praying for daily bread, rain, healing or anything else because God would have to violate the laws of nature to answer those prayers. The idea that God didn’t do anything in the world after making the cosmic mechanism and setting it in motion was consistent with the popular Deism of the time.
Well, it turns out that the world isn’t quite that simple. Both quantum mechanics and the unfortunately named “chaos” theory have shown in different ways the limitations of rigid determinism. There is a basic element of chance, of randomness, in the universe.
This shows up, in particular, in biological evolution. Quantum phenomena at the molecular level in DNA can cause mutations, there is randomness in the pairing of organisms in sexual reproduction and in the way their chromosomes get matched. The course of evolution would have been quite different if something had happened to change the orbit of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. With chance involved in so many ways in evolution, many have wondered how could God have anything to do with the process?
In fact, both statistical variation and law-like regularity – “chance and necessity” – play roles in what happens in the world. The results of individual quantum processes, like an emitted electron sent toward an array of detectors, are random. We can’t predict which detector will be activated by a given particle. But the probability of many such identical processes can be predicted because it obeys a definite law, the Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics.
Living things are built up from atoms and molecules that have certain properties and interact in certain ways, all of which are described by the laws of physics. These laws determine the way in which the four molecular adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine can be connected in DNA, and thus the possible structures of that molecule that carries genetic information. But the ordering of the base pairs brought about by chemical reactions is not predetermined, so that there is a vast number of possible DNA messages.
And if an X-ray photon strikes a DNA molecule in a germ cell of an organism, there is an array of probabilities for the outcome. Whether or not a significant mutation of the organism’s offspring will occur is a matter of chance.
One way in which theologians have spoken about God acting in the world is with the metaphor of cooperation. God “works with” created things as a human works with some tool. That’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough to address the specific issue of necessity and chance. We need to think of God not simply as a unitarian deity but as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Significantly, the Son of God is called the Word, Logos, in John’s Gospel. Logos, from which we get our word “logic”, can mean “reason” as well as “word”. The statement in John 1:3 that “all things came into being through” the Word then means that he is the source of creation’s rationality, of its law-like behavior. The world is logical because it was made by the Logos.
And the Holy Spirit, whom the Nicene Creed calls “the Lord and giver of life”, is also active in creation. The Spirit of God is pictured in the Bible as acting in less than orderly ways, coming unexpectedly upon men and women and inspiring them to prophesy or do heroic deeds. In the words of the early Steve Martin, the Spirit is “a wild and crazy guy” – or, since the Hebrew word for spirit is feminine, “a wild and crazy gal.”  In John 3:8 Jesus compares the Spirit’s action to the unpredictability of the wind, which may remind some of the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory.
The great Christian theologian Irenaeus in the second century spoke of the Word and Spirit and the two “hands” through whom the Father works in creation. From a theological standpoint we can correlate the interplay of necessity and chance, of the law-like character of a world of probability, with the trinitarian nature of the world’s creator. It is a world in which there is both predictability and spontaneity, in which we can anticipate the future on the basis of the past and in which new things can happen.
It should go without saying that this is in no way a “proof” that God is creating through evolution. It isn’t supposed to be. But I hope that it is helpful in showing how one can, from a Christian standpoint, see God at work in the world that science describes.
 Editor’s note: nice.