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Russell, Robert John. “Special Providence and Genetic Mutation: A New Defense of Theistic Evolution."

Robert Russell works within the context of theistic evolution: biological evolution is God’s way of creating life. God is both the transcendent source ex nihilo of the universe as a whole, including its sheer existence at each moment and the laws of nature, and the immanent Creator of all physical and biological complexity, acting continuously in, with, under, and through the processes of nature. But can we press the case further and think of God’s special providence in nature? And can we do so without viewing God’s action as an intervention into these processes and a violation of the laws of nature?

To many theologians, the connection between special providence and intervention has seemed unavoidable, leaving them with a forced option. 1) Liberals, attempting to avoid interventionism, reduce special providence to our subjective response to what is simply God’s uniform action. 2) Conservatives support objective special providence and accept its interventionist implications. The purpose of Russell’s paper is to move us beyond these options to a new approach: a non-interventionist understanding of objective special providence. This is only possible theologically if nature, at some level, can be interpreted philosophically as ontologically indeterministic in light of contemporary science. Russell’s claim is that quantum mechanics provides one such possibility. Moreover, since quantum mechanics underlies the processes of genetic mutation, and since mutation together with natural selection constitute the central features of the neo-Darwinian understanding of evolution, then we can view evolution theologically as genuinely open to objective special providence without being forced into interventionism.

In section two, Russell claims that his project is neither a form of natural theology, of physico-theology, nor an argument from design. Instead it is part of a general constructive trinitarian theology pursued as fides quaerens intellectum. He suggests why a non-interventionist view of objective special providence should be important theologically. He argues for an indeterministic interpretation of quantum physics. Finally he address three scientific issues regarding the role of quantum mechanics in genetic mutation and the role of genetic variation in biological evolution.

Section three reviews the history of the project, beginning with the writings of Karl Heim and William Pollard in the 1950s and including recent works by Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne. One key question is whether God acts in all quantum events (as Nancey Murphy claims) or merely in some (as Tom Tracy suggests). Another regards the problem of theodicy when God is taken as acting throughout evolution. Russell closes this section by reflecting on issues raised by these authors.

Section four addresses three caveats. First, Russell’s hypothesis is not meant as an explanation of “how” God acts, but merely one domain where the effects of God’s special action might occur. Second, it is not meant as either an epistemic or an ontological “gaps” argument. Still quantum mechanics may one day be replaced. Russell’s methodology is intentionally designed to handle “gaps” like this by incorporating implications from physics and philosophy into constructive theology while keeping theology open to changes in these implications. Third, Russell’s argument is not meant to exclude divine action at other levels in nature or “top-down” and “whole-part” approaches. However, these are unintelligible without intervention until the evolution of sufficiently complex phenomena. This leaves a bottom-up approach via quantum mechanics the most reasonable option for the early sweep of evolution.

Section five engages two final challenges. First, “chance” in evolution also challenges the possibility of God achieving a future purpose by acting in the present. Russell responds that God acts not by foreseeing the future from the present but by eternally seeing the future in its own present. In passing Russell comments on a potential conflict with the implications of special relativity regarding this claim. The second challenge is theodicy. Russell notes that suffering, disease and death are conditions required for the evolution of freedom and moral agency. He suggests that we relocate the question of God’s action in evolution to a theology of redemption and eschatology if we are to address adequately the problem of theodicy.

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