I’ve just been listening to a very moving programme on BBC Radio 4, in which a man who had blamelessly killed another man in a car accident, recounted his own trauma and his journey towards some degree of healing. I hadn’t fully considered the terrible shock, grief and shame that a decent person would feel in such a case. The programme’s revelatory moment for me came when an American woman who had killed a young boy when he ran out into the path of her car, said that she had always been reluctant to accept that no meaning could be given to such an event; that “accident” means something that nobody willed or caused. She said that most of the time we cannot bear this knowledge, pretending that we and other human or divine beings are in control. The idea that ultimately nobody is in control is too frightening to contemplate.
Much of our contemporary culture is based on the illusion of control: life ought to be predictable. But science, surely, discovers the regularities of the universe, and successfully predicts events in it? Of course that’s true, but regularities are not controlled; like accidents they happen. And scientists now tell us that their capacity to predict is always partial, and that the more accurate their prediction of some aspect of a event, the more other aspects escape their grasp.
The desirability of control is part of the ethics of capitalism. Business people want stable markets, taxes, technologies and labour so that they can plan for steady profits, but in truth such conditions are rarely available in full and sometimes not available at all. The stock markets reflect this distressing freedom in the rise and fall of share prices. Because good capitalists recognise how little they can control the world, they are all the more insistent on rigid forms of control within their corporations.
Small wonder then that in this culture the prevailing image of God, if there is one, is as a fat controller of the universe, whose purposes may not be understood by human beings, but who controls the universal process as surely as the Chinese Communist Party controls its nation. Even when someting awful occurrs, people take comfort to themselves in imagining that the fat controller had a hand in it. “God needed another angel so he took our wee Jimmy.” If that sounds a pretty arbitrary act of God, we should realise that it is put forward to reject the more appalling possibility, that wee Jimmy’s death was an accident, having no meaning in a universe where nobody and nothing is in control.
I believe in a God who has abdicated control of creation. That’s an odd expression suggesting that this God did control the universe once upon a time and subesequently renounced control. That’s not my meaning. I believe that renunciation of control defines the nature of God. God is the opposite of control, namely persuasion. Having given total freedom to the creation right down to its fundamental particles, God wants to persuade it towards perfection. So when I say that the universe is out of control, I mean that God has given it the freedom to evolve according to its own laws. The result is the process of universal evolution which we partially know and of which we are a product. I can imagine how God’s persuasion works on humanity but am utterly ignorant of how it works on the rest of creation. Dante wrote of the “love that moves the sun and the other stars,” and I am happy in my ignorance to adopt that expression.
The story of the crucifixion of God’s Son is the perfect image of a universe out of control yet subject to the profound persuasion of God’s love.
So, the “ incidence of accident” does not destroy but rather constitutes my faith that the fat controller of the universe is a myth, and God, on the other hand, is real.