EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is part of a series adapted from a scholarly essay titled "Miracles and Science: The Long Shadow of David Hume," first published in 2010.
If Martin and I would have time to get this far in conversation, I’m sure we would have swiftly passed the red herring of natural science being the touchstone upon which to examine biblical miracles. But Martin could point out that Hume made a number of other arguments against miracles, namely:
- Witness testimony is often suspect.
- Stories get exaggerated in the retelling.
- Miracles are chiefly seen among ignorant and barbarous people.
- Rival religions also have miracle stories, so they cancel each other out.
These arguments are substantial, and I refer to footnote 3 [see part 1] for an introduction to the voluminous literature they have inspired. However, we can take a little stab at the first two objections. It is true that witness testimony cannot always be trusted and that stories change with time. But these are the same problems that face legal systems and historians. Nonetheless, we can employ the tools of these professions to examine biblical miracles. Take, for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is significant extra biblical historical evidence that he indeed lived. Much has been written about the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. For example, there is much internal evidence, in both the style and content of the narratives, that the writers themselves were convinced that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Tradition holds that 11 of the 12 original apostles were martyred for this belief that turned a group of cowards into a people who “turned the world upside down.” Although it is well beyond the scope of this essay, a very strong case for the plausibility of the resurrection can be made. Similar analysis can be brought to bear on other miracle claims, including those of other religions. After all, every meaningful system of thought must be open to careful scrutiny.
But I suspect that often, underneath the surface, it is really the third argument that carries the most persuasive force. In part because history is littered with claims for the miraculous that seem bizarre, or smack of superstition, and in part because the incredible advances of modern science and technology inspire awe, we can intensely feel the attraction of identifying with the latter and not the former. This disposition is exemplified in the following quote by the theologian Rudolph Bultmann, a man famous for his attempts to de-mythologize the New Testament:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.
By getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible, Bultmann and his followers hoped to make the Christian story more palatable to modern man. Although I recognize the emotional weight of this sentiment, I am not convinced that it is an intellectually coherent approach, mainly for reasons of self-consistency. If the New Testament itself asserts, both directly and indirectly, that the historicity of the resurrection is foundational to Christianity, then it would seem to stand or fall by that fact. As a physicist, I have a natural penchant for wanting to see how an idea relates to more basic principles. And to analyze the validity of a quote like the one above, we must take a cold hard look at our fundamental presuppositions. In the words of John Polkinghorne:
If we are to understand the nature of reality, we have only two possible starting points: either the brute fact of the physical world or the brute fact of a divine will and purpose behind that physical world.
Where does each of those two fundamental starting points take us? When we use them to construct a worldview, what kind of sense does it make of experience, morality, truth, beauty, and our place in the world? These are not easy questions. There is so much mystery around us. Perhaps the best way to move forward would be to borrow Mermin’s tapestry analogy and carefully investigate whether the different threads of historical evidence, philosophical consistency, and personal knowledge can be woven together into a worldview that is robust. In particular, does our tapestry possess those qualities of coherence and (surprising) fruitfulness that characterize the best scientific tapestries?
If I start from the brute facts of nature, I personally am unable to construct a tapestry that is both rigorous and rich enough to make sufficient sense of the world. By contrast, if I assume a divine will and purpose behind the world I believe that I can construct a much more compelling tapestry that incorporates all of the threads of human existence. Within that purposeful world, the case for Christianity is much more persuasive. To use a famous quote from C.S. Lewis:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.
It is the sum total of all those arguments that convinces me of the veracity of biblical miracles
Nevertheless, I recognize that no matter how cogent, say, the historical evidence for the resurrection is, if I start from a different worldview, as Martin and Rudolph Bultmann do, then it will be virtually impossible to accept the existence of biblical miracles. (In the end I think this is what Hume is really saying). Miracles cannot be interpreted independently from the theological context in which they function. They are part of a package deal.
I don’t know what Martin would make of all that. We would surely need more than one glass of wine to complete this discussion (but wouldn’t it be fun?).
Finally, what would I say to John and Ruth? If they are like many Christians I know, they might feel a slight uneasiness with science, a subconscious fear fed by the pontifications of some popularizers who seem keen to equate science with atheism. So perhaps I would first point out the obvious limits of science. But then I might tell the story of Leibniz and Newton’s exchange, and point out that Newton was a good enough theologian not to turn the alleged instability of the planets into a God of the gaps argument. Similarly, if it is true that we don’t yet understand how birds can navigate so accurately over large distances, then surely it would bring more glory to God to search for the mechanisms by which such remarkable feats are accomplished:
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings (Proverbs 25:2)
Perhaps because evolution has been a particularly favorite bludgeon of the science = atheism cabal, a Christian mini-industry has sprung up to debunk it. Unfortunately, this only feeds the public misperception that the core of the conflict between science and faith concerns scientific mechanism (evolution did or did not occur) rather than one of the philosophy and interpretation of science. God could, of course, have regularly used miracles to create throughout the time-span of natural history. He is free. But whether he did so in natural history is fundamentally a question of Biblical interpretation. Surely it is even more glorious if God could design a physical system that creates itself through the regularities of his sustaining action. Like many of my Christian scientific colleagues who hold to a high view of Scripture, I believe the biblical text allows itself to be interpreted in this way, that sentient beings arose primarily through the ordinary “customs of the Creator,” and that moreover it glorifies God to seek to understand these patterns.
John and Ruth might then ask: if I emphasize the integrity of the regular action of God in sustaining the universe, and even in creating us, then why should miracles occur at all? Can they occur today? Rather than answer that theological question directly, let me resort to a musical analogy borrowed from Colin Humphreys. Suppose you are watching a pianist play a classical piece. You will notice that there are certain notes that he plays, and certain ones that he never does. The choice of notes is constrained because the music is being played in a particular key signature. But then, occasionally he may break this rule and play an unusual note. Musicians call these accidentals, and a composer can put them in wherever she likes (although if there are too many the music would sound strange). As Humphreys puts it,
If he is a great composer, the accidentals will never be used capriciously: they will always make better music. It is the accidentals which contribute to making the piece of music great. The analogy with how God operates is clear: God created and upholds the universe but, like the great composer, he is free to override his own rules. However, if he is a consistent God, it must make more sense than less for him to override his rules.