Abraham's Dice

Chance and Providence in the Monotheistic Traditions

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Editor(s): 
Karl W. Giberson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2016.
     376 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190277161.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Abraham’s Dice: Chance and Providence in the Monotheistic Traditions is an eclectic collection of essays arising from a 2014 conference at Stonehill College exploring the relations between chance and providence in the “monotheistic religious traditions.” The conference organizer—and subsequently the book’s editor—Karl Giberson, had hoped to include material on each tradition, but in the end, he has assembled a series of studies almost exclusively focused on Christianity, with a rather sparse smattering of Jewish and Islamic thinkers and topics thrown in to mix things up. The dice here are thus strongly stacked in favour of just one of Abraham’s children.

The book is arranged roughly according to the chronological order of the subject matter addressed in each chapter, although this is not always the case due to the vastly different temporal spans covered by different authors. On one end of this spectrum are the chronologically limited studies that attend to just one or two figures or texts. These include Jennifer Michael Hecht’s exposition of the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes; Ignacio Silva’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas’s views of providence and contingency; Oliver Crisp’s examination of Jonathan Edwards’s metaphysical picture; and Alister McGrath’s discussion of relevant portions of William Paley’s oeuvre. At the other end of the spectrum is the ambitious overview of fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition offered by Mustafa Ruzgar, and Peter Harrison’s diagnosis of the challenges of evolutionary theory against the backdrop of a range of thinkers from Epicurus through Adam Smith, and beyond. In between are essays that take on a few centuries at a time, such as Richard Miller’s piece on early Christianity, and Byung Soo Han’s survey of Calvin and selected theologians from Reformed scholasticism.

In addition to this diversity of chronological range, the essays exhibit a variety of forms of argumentation. To give just a few examples, theologian Han situates himself within a primarily intra-Christian debate, defending the “biblically reasonable” Calvinist tradition against those who have condemned it as overly deterministic or fatalistic in its portrayal of providence. Only a handful of chapters later, the (atheist) philosopher of science Michael Ruse takes to task what he believes to be a central plank of Christian faith—that human beings are necessary—arguing that it is a highly implausible conviction for Christians to hold based on certain understandings of chance and providence. From a historical angle, John Hedley Brooke analyses the effects of the shift toward a more mechanistic model of the universe in the early modern period, crafting a careful argument about the theological ambivalence of the clockwork universe. Elsewhere, cosmologist John Barrow combines very brief historical vignettes with probability theory and recent scientific work on complexity and multiverses to assemble a patchwork reflection on chance and the nature of the universe.

The net effect of this chronological, argumentative, and topical diversity is to leave the reader with the impression that the collection is uneven and lacks unity. This is not to say that each essay lacks merit—far from it. There are some extraordinarily insightful and thought-provoking pieces here. But while there are some exceptional solo performances, in its totality, the book is somewhat unsatisfying. That Giberson has deliberately prioritized the parts over the whole is suggested by some comments in his introductory chapter which imply that his goal was to assemble the best slate of contributors that he could, rather than striving for, say, genuine comprehensiveness on a particular topic, comparative insight, or methodological or disciplinary uniformity.

Despite this, little else has been written on the relations between providence and chance in any of the religious traditions represented in the book, so from this perspective, the collection is a welcome addition to a fairly thin secondary literature. Even if there is no overarching narrative, argument, or purpose that clearly ties all of them together, the essays in Abraham’s Dice nevertheless shed some much-needed light on a complex and underexplored topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Jordan is Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karl Giberson teaches science & religion at Stonehill College and is a leading voice in the creation/evolution controversy. He is the author of ten books, including Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, a Washington Post "Best Book of 2008" and Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts and on the web at www.karlgiberson.com.

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