May 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Note: This is part 2 of 3 in my summary of C. S. Lewis’s Miracles. Part 1 can be found here.
The Probability of Miracles: Nature and God
Miracles are inconsistent with neither the character of nature nor the character of God. The supernaturalist can only refute them categorically by adopting questionable understandings of nature and/or God.
1. If we are now at a place where we can agree that there is not a sufficient philosophical reason to exclude the possibility of the supernatural – indeed, even probable grounds for accepting it – we still have a way to go before we can admit the possibility of miracles. Either the character of God or the character of nature might exclude the possibility of God interceding in or influencing the course of nature.
2. On the one hand, the character of nature, as we understand it, in no way excludes the possibility of “outside” interference. Nature is known to behave according to fixed laws, which, if only we knew enough, would allow us to accurately predict her behaviour in a given set of circumstances. However, a miracle does not break those laws, but rather introduces new factors which nature must acclimate. Miracles “tamper” with the raw material, but not the laws of nature.
3. On the other hand, the character of God, as perceived by some, excludes the possibility of the miraculous. This sort of God often springs from some form of pantheism, which states, “God is everything and everything is God.” The pantheistic God is simply the name given to the vague entity or force that pervades all and is all. Therefore, all works of nature are “miraculous” in the sense that all are a part of the great divine Everything. The pantheistic worldview is contrasted by the Christian worldview, which attests to a living, personal, and active God – the very sort of God who might intervene with the regular course of nature. Pantheism, which employs high modes of speech and grandiose metaphors in the attempt to move beyond the “childish” notions of a personal God, does more to obscure the character of God than to clarify it. A God who is merely an abstraction could not be the source of anything concrete; only a living being could be the source of all being.
4. Even if we accept the existence of a personal God, the sort of God who could and might actually do something, is there any reason to suppose that this God actually would do anything? One objection, which typically comes from the deists, is that a perfect creator would have no need to intervene with the created order, because perfect creation ought to tick forward with the regularity of an immaculate timepiece. Miracles are here seen as a some sort of last-ditch effort to get out of a bind that ought never to have occurred if the grand designer had only done his job properly from the outset. But this is based on an assumption about the sort of world nature was intended to be, the sort of “story” nature was designed to tell. What if the methodical working out of fixed laws from the beginning to the end of time is not what the universe is about? What if God’s work in and among creation actually constitutes its intended meaning?
5. Supposing that there is a personal God who might intervene in creation, and that such interventions do not contradict the laws of nature or the character of God, nor do they call into question the artistry of the created order, it has nevertheless been (rightly) observed that miracles are rare if they occur at all, and they are often understood as so improbable that even the most improbable natural explanation for a miracle is more likely to be true than the miracle itself. Historical probability (following Hume) rests on the majority vote of human experience, whereas the course of nature (which a miracle, by definition, contradicts) is supported by the unanimous vote of “firm and unalterable experience.” A miracle is therefore the most improbable of all events, for it casts a single “yea” against an infinite mass of “nays.” However, Hume’s probability assumes and depends on the uniformity of nature (i.e., “the universe always behaves as such, and always will”); his answer is of no use when our real question is whether the assumption itself is correct. The conviction that nature must behave uniformly largely stems from the fact that, in the end, a universe that behaved with utter irregularity would be repugnant to us. Indeed, scientific progress is driven primarily by the search for order and regularity in nature. However, as demonstrated earlier, this conviction that “nature simply must be this way” cannot be construed as valid (in any real sense) from a purely naturalistic point of view, for the conviction itself would simply be a bare fact, a natural event. If we are to trust this conviction, then we must wander into the camp of the supernaturalist, and there we risk finding a few miracles.
May 26, 2010 § 1 Comment
[C. S. Lewis's Miracles was my first encounter with his writings, and indeed the first intellectually stretching Christian book I had ever read. I remember being surprised that books like this even existed, and it opened up a whole new world of reading to me. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that reading this book was the first of many steps that eventually led me to pursue a theological education. I knew after I had read it that I would eventually like to evaluate his argument more carefully. That was about seven years ago, and for whatever reason I decided to pick it up off the shelf and go through it again. What follows is part 1 of my attempt to summarize his main flow of thought and offer a condensed view of his argument.]
The Possibility of Miracles: Naturalism and Supernaturalism
Miracles, as supernatural intrusions into to the regular course of nature, can only be considered possible from a supernaturalist framework, i.e., a belief in something beyond nature that might interfere. Naturalism, which would reject such a belief outright, is difficult to maintain because its own conclusions negate the validity of the means by which these conclusions were drawn.
1. When deciding whether or not we can believe in miracles, we cannot rely on experiential or historical evidence, since the interpretation of experience is made from within a philosophical framework. Any person operating from a framework that excludes the possibility of miracles cannot be fazed by personal experience of that which might be deemed “miraculous,” still less by a third-party witness to such an event. We must examine the framework itself.
2. Since miracles, by the common definition, are events which occur in nature that have their origins from beyond nature, the first choice we must make is whether or not we believe that there is anything behind or beyond nature that might interfere with the “natural” process. Broadly put, this is a choice between naturalism and supernaturalism.
3. The cardinal difficulty of naturalism is that it leaves the validity of human reasoning in doubt. All of our inferences about the world are based on our reasoning applied to the data presented to our five senses. As such, the certainty of knowledge depends on the inherent validity of reason. Thoughts in and of themselves cannot be either “true” or “false” since they are merely psychological events––they can only be declared true when they accurately correspond with the object they consider. Thoughts as events are true only insofar as they do indeed occur, but pure naturalism provides no basis on which we might trust these thought-events as corresponding truthfully to the way things actually are. When acts of reason are seen to have their origin from within the total interlocking system we call nature––when minds are products of the mindless––their trustworthiness is forfeit, for then they become just another event created by the great chain of Cause and Effect which stretches from the beginning to the end of time.
4. If reason is a means of determining truth, then it must be seen as having an existence outside of the truth we which to apprehend. If we decide that we can indeed trust the human faculty of reason, then we must acknowledge that we are tapping into or gaining access to or utilizing something that exists beyond nature. Here we have entered the realm of supernaturalism, and unavoidably the possibility of God.
5. The “If A then B” of reason corresponds to the “I ought” of morality. Both appeal to some sense of truth that is self-evident. As with reason, this sense of the “moral law” cannot be deemed trustworthy from the framework of pure naturalism. As with reason, the validity of moral truth cannot have its origins from within the structure of a self-propelling nature, or else it cannot necessarily be “true” in any real sense.
6. The question might arise, “If reason and morality are incontrovertibly true, beyond all need for proofs either for or against, why is not the existence of the supernatural, to which these faculties are supposed to point, just as self-evident?” In other words, if we accept that the inherent validity of reason and morality has a supernatural origin, why is not the supernatural itself self-evident? Actually, it is not difficult to imagine something being so obvious that we fail to notice it at all, such as the window through which we gaze at a scenic view. The question then is not why the supernatural fails to be self-evident, but why we so consistently fail to notice it, and how we might again learn to attend to it.
May 20, 2010 § 1 Comment
I am currently slogging through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics 2/2, my first foray into this monumental work. Though I have (predictably) been unable to absorb the whole of his argument, the bits which have seeped into my crowded mind have edified me a great deal, and (I hope) helped equip me to better understand Scripture––particularly that oh-no-John-Calvin-might-have-been-right-after-all passage, Romans 9-11. Like many, I have always found it difficult to grapple with how God could choose some and reject others. What is the basis of this decision? How can the rejected be at fault? Is their salvation forfeit?
Barth’s main thesis in this volume of CD (unless I misread him) is this: Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected human being. As such, God’s election of grace comes to humanity through the eternal election of his Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, the Father speaks an eternal Yes to the Son, and it is only in and through Christ that this Yes is spoken to humanity. For Christ has taken on humanity’s rejection of God so that God’s No to sin and death is at last spoken only to Christ. In Christ, God assumes the rejection of humanity and its consequences, and chooses humanity to participate in his glory.
Starting with Christ––rather than “who’s in” and “who’s out”––makes for a very felicitous reorientation of the doctrine of election and predestination. God’s predestination of humanity begins with and has its basis in God’s predestination of himself. From here, we are in a better place to speak about the “elect” and the “rejected.”
This, then, is how the elect and others differ from one another: the former by witnessing in their lives to the truth, the latter by lying against the same truth. It ought to be clear that to this extent they belong together. The elect are obviously to be found in the sphere of the divine election of grace, in the hand of the one God, under the reign whose beginning and principle are called Jesus Christ. But the others are also to be found there. The former are there in obedience, the latter in disobedience; the former as free children of the household, the latter as forced and refractory slaves; the former under God’s blessing, the latter under His curse. If the former testify by their truthful witness to what God wills, the latter no less expressively testify by their lying witness to what God does not will. Thus both serve the revelation of the divine will and decree which by nature are wholly light, but which cannot be revealed or recognised except as light and shade. Believers “are” the elect in this service so far as they bear witness to the truth, that is, to the elect man, Jesus Christ, and manifest and reproduce and reflect the life of this one Elect. The godless “are” the rejected in the same service so far as by their false witness to man’s rejection they manifest and reproduce and reflect the death of the on Rejected, Jesus Christ. Because this One is the Elect and the Rejected, He is––attested by both––the Lord and Head both of the elect and also of the rejected. Thus not only the former, but no less indispensably, in their own place and after their own totally different fashion, the latter, are His representatives, just as originally and properly He is theirs. (Barth, CD 2/2, 346-47)
So, for Barth, we don’t have two diametrically opposed groups of the “in” and the “out.” For even the “out” are not outside the realm of God’s redemptive and loving work in the person of Christ. God’s already accomplished work in Christ is accomplished for all. It is not accomplished merely for a select group who have rendered an acceptable response. God’s election of grace means that God freely determines himself for humanity. This is good news! As for who is among the elect and who is among the rejected, we must be silent. Our mission is not to judge, but to spread the good news in word and deed.
Here is a quote from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which I read differently after encountering Barth:
When the New Testament transfers the concept of the body of Christ to the church-community, this is in no way an expression that the church-community is first and foremost set apart from the world. On the contrary, in line with New Testament statements about God becoming flesh in Christ, it expresses just this—that in the body of Christ all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and that the church-community of believers is to make this known to the world by word and life. This means not being separated from the world, but calling the world into the community of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 67).
So one final question: how might missions change if we treated the world like they already belong to Christ?