Beyond a Clockwork Universe

 This post is from Neil Earle who teaches Christian History at Grace Communion Seminary.

Though the Universe reflects the rationality of its Creator, it has surprise factors built into it. Powerful insights like this animated the observations of Trinitarian theologian Thomas F. Torrance in applying the insights of scientific discovery to what he knew about the Triune God. He especially explored the startling implications of what was called the "New Physics” of the early 1900s--the work of Planck, Einstein and Bohr, in particular.

Across a distinguished academic career, Torrance advanced the themes of the openness of the created order to newness and new creations. By some estimates, 10,000,000 new suns have been created since homo sapiens emerged, using the conventional phraseology. The latest pictures from deep space show colorful but eruptive patterns that either reflect faraway explosions or new star systems coming into existence. “Rationality and surprise” in Torrance’s theology amounted to a philosophical approach more fitting the current quandaries that bedevil scientists—the world of particle physics, quantum fields and bewildering entities such as quarks, etc., the stuff of popular journalism today.

The overlooked transition

These insights take on more relevance in an obituary of the death of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong on September 12, 2021. Shelby was heavily criticized for bringing a Bultmannian view of the New Testament into the modern-postmodern church. Spong asserted, as had Rudolph Bultmann the Demythologizer (1884-1976) and many other writers in the middle-and-late 20th century, that the Bible writers were using a “pre-Newtonian” view of the universe in such depictions as Psalm33:6, 

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deep in storehouse.

This is a primitive worldview, claimed Spong: “The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events." (The Living Church, 9/13/21). For teachers such as Spong, virgin births and resurrections were not relevant to the “advanced” populaces of the 20th century and therefore had to be significantly revised, if not scrapped altogether. The success of scientific thought under Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and his cohorts was thought to have rendered miraculous and supernatural views obsolete.  

In essence, Newton’s generation had set forth a picture of the Universe based on cause and effect, a closed system. Newton’s big word was gravity, which had compressed the clouds and dust and gas of primeval matter into galaxies, sun systems and planets. It had thus produced much of what we see about us. Newton himself saw this as reason for a Creator God since neither gravity nor the Cosmos could be explained out of itself. As a dedicated Bible student (in his own way) Newton knew Hebrews 11:4 which says “the things which are seen were not made out of things which are visible.”

Revising Newton

Yet Newton’s impact helped create the 1700s notion of the Clockwork Universe. This was the analogy from the functioning parts of Nature itself whereby things could be predicted, charted and measured in advance. This fruitful idea greatly accelerated the scientific process in the Western world. Newtonian science rested very much on the visible world, the world of matter all around us. And of course, much of this still works. It took us to the moon, in the words of one astronaut when asked who was flying his capsule. “Isaac Newton,” he replied.

The world of Newton, the world of simple cause and effect, of the Clockwork Universe--this  ruled the roost well into the late 1800s. Then things began to change. A group of investigators curious about such anomalies of the Newtonian system as to why Venus rotates backwards (!) began to upset the applecart.

Researcher John Dalton focused attention on the old Greek idea of atoms. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) explored the invisible lines of force emanating from a magnet, things that had been the stuff of carnival sideshows. In the late 1800s investigators with new tools of inquiry such as J.J. Thomson discovered the electron inside the particles and James Clark Maxwell developed a theory blending magnetism, light and the atoms into the potent new notion of the electromagnetic field. The Invisible was coming into its own. It was not for nothing that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) kept a portrait of Maxwell in his study.   

As the 1900s dawned, Max Planck had discovered small bits of energy emanating from the electron inside the atom. These “quanta” led to Niels Bohr’s (1885-1962) mysterious “quantum leaps” which really stood the seemingly solid world of Newtonian mechanics on its head. Einstein published his famous papers in 1905 showing things were far more complicated than simple cause and effect at work and that phenomena often acted in ways no one could predict.

All of this fascinated Thomas Torrance as he read of this “New Physics.” He wondered why so many theologians weren’t paying attention while the older “Newtonian” ideas were being used to undermine the world of the Gospels, the world preeminently of virgin births, resurrections and ascensions. Torrance began to intuit deeper theological principles from such ideas as “the Uncertainty Principle” presented by Bohr’s student Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s. While order and rationality is a hallmark of the universe, Torrance saw, there is also the fact that the cosmos is capable of surprise and innovation. Quantum theory had shown that most dramatically to the extent that the sometime devout Albert Einstein had remonstrated that “He (the Old One) does not throw dice with the universe.” (Some of today’s mathematicians conclude that God is able to determine even the outcome of the dice). Rather than the long dreary process of evolutionary selection working itself out smoothly and seamlessly across eons of time, Torrance saw the evidence in the New Physics for an ongoing creative process at work. There was a variational process ceaselessly churning out new aspects of matter both under our feet and in the nuclear blast furnaces of the stars where spectacular new entities are constantly emerging.

The spontaneous universe

This Torrance saw as the Signature of the Creator: a rational and reliable universe yet one many times mysterious in its surprising spontaneity, its ability to generate newness as part of the cosmos’s freedom. This freedom to develop had been conferred upon it by God himself. Torrance knew that earlier theologians had called this surprising openness “contingency.” The inherent powers and forces built into what we call Nature could work to produce either a creative development or a plunge into destruction. Torrance could see this implied in some elementary texts in the Bible:

Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, and it was so. (Genesis 1:11)

The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground and should sleep by night and rise by day and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. (Mark 4:27)

Here is a process that is truly dynamic, but, as Torrance interpreter, the late Professor John McKenna of Grace Communion Seminary stated, “it could go either way.” As an early mathematician, McKenna was one of those who saw Torrance’s Scientific Theology as more accurately accounting for a much wider Reality than the Newtonian “closed system” allowed. It gave a better explanation for the anomalies and forces around us, whether under our feet or in the stars.

In Torrance’s teaching, the created order is alive with spontaneity, pregnant with possibility. It is an open system yet possessing an inherent unifying order. Chaos can occur (“I make peace and create calamity”, Isaiah 45:7) yet chaos never has the last word. Science, argued Torrance, often surprises itself when probing more deeply into the system: quarks, leptons, antimatter, dark matter and all the giddy discoveries of our age that animates popular science. Torrance also saw that puzzles and paradoxes often get solved when higher knowledge from another field is supplied. Can 60,000 tons of steel float? Yes, when higher knowledge is applied.

We see a 13.5 billion year old universe with a double nature, i.e. it has the potential to be either independent or to seek out its Creator. This baffling mysterious nature of the cosmos cries out for a guiding and controlling (as well as originating) Reason. So we read: “All things were made by Him (God) and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Or as in Colossians 1:17 where the Godhead is described as being the One “in whom all things hold together.” Yes, there are countless examples of the dynamic forces built into the created order whether exploded star systems, jagged asteroids the Bible calls “wandering stars” or new suns and galaxies seeming to be made in the nuclear blast furnaces of deepest space. Torrance reaffirmed what Christian thinkers had asserted since the early days of systematic theology: It takes watchful management to keep things from reverting back to what both scientists and science fiction writers call “primal chaos.” St. John’s term “Logos,” after all, is the root for the term “logical.”

Nature’s double nature

Things carried on across the century. In 1938 Swedish researcher Lisa Mitner bombarded U238 atoms which had the biggest nucleus. She split the atom. After the split the nucleus was lighter. Where, she wondered, had the energy gone? Now we know. The matter had been transformed into energy. Four years later the Manhattan Project was started. Torrance’s hunches were all the more confirmed: The greatest forces truly are invisible.

Applying knowledge from a higher source gave us atomic energy. As a devout Christian. Torrance concluded that in a universe oriented to order and innovation with a strong subtheme of surprise and predictability, into such an open system virgin births and resurrections are indeed possible. This was a conclusion undermining both Bultmann’s assertions and Spong's and his generation’s assumptions. These were now virtually obsolete by the innovative working out of historic scientific inquiry. 

Surprise along with Rationality (nature’s Double Nature) testified to the invisible nature of God, “the God who hides” (Isaiah 45:15; Psalm 104:29).

Thus Torrance’s approach to science offered an alternative to the controversial, speculative, endless, long drawn-out processes of organic evolution. By building surprise and order into the universe God still gave it an overall direction and guidance to keep moving and transforming itself. “I will do a new thing.... New things I declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them” (Isaiah 43:19; 42:9). Behind it all, Torrance asserted in a long corpus of writing still not fully appreciated, the universe is “upheld by his powerful word.” It is impossible without his orderly control.  

Torrance’s Contingent Theology offered both science and religion a superior alternative, a new way of looking at the creation around us. Surprises within order. Considering the scale at which this one principle works “out there” in the universe, where cosmic explosions produce baby stars with regularity, it is not abnormal to conclude that a powerful invisible hand is behind it all. As one British science writer summarized: “After quarks, the virgin birth is a boodle [i.e. no trouble at all].”

Christians have long advocated that the sciences (and human knowledge itself) depend upon a structured rationality reflecting the order originally built into the universe (Isaiah 40:26). That order can be sketched out to a very large extent (Proverbs 25:2). Torrance advocated for a Creator who is also a Sustainer and Upholder and Redeemer, the One who initially set all its dynamic forces and stimuli in motion and (no less a feat) keeps it from collapsing upon itself. He is the One whom rational people can intellectually respect and worship as the Surprising God.