Posted by Sappho on February 18th, 2013 filed in Theology
“Yes, I know that miracles happen,” said “Demeter,” “because I lived one, when I got my daughter back.”
“That’s not a miracle,” a man in the Bible study objected.
“She’s not your daughter,” Demeter replied.
I mean my nature/nurture series to be more about science than theology, but there was one post I meant to slip in already that was more oriented toward theology and ethics than science, and, as it happens, a response to my Alexandria co-blogger Hector’s post about miracles will make a good segue to that post. So, for now, let me set aside my discussion of DNA for a brief discussion of miracles, faith, and science.
When Einstein made his famous remark that “God does not play dice with the Universe” (and Nils Bohr made his annoyed reply “Stop telling God what to do”), the “God” in question was not a literal personal God, but a metaphor for the order of the universe; Einstein expected more ultimate predictability to quantum mechanics than Bohr did. But I think the metaphor of God playing dice also fits the tug of war within Christianity between those more willing to accept a world with miracles, and those described by my co-blogger Hector as “the sort of well-meaning folks who will tell you that the real miracle of the loaves and fishes was that Jesus taught people to share, or that his exorcisms of the possessed were really early demonstrations of cognitive-behavioural therapy avant le lettre, or that his healing of the man born blind was a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment.”
Not all things that are miracles to people of faith are “miracles” in the Hume sense of being extraordinary events that require extraordinary explanations. Demeter’s daughter “Persephone,” taken by Demeter’s ex-husband to another state and hidden from her, could be recovered without violating any of the normal order of nature. The same applies to some more publicly acclaimed miracles. It was said that Elian Gonzales was rescued by dolphins, a miracle to many in the Cuban-American community in Florida, but also a not all that extraordinary behavior on the part of dolphins, who, like many other species of mammals, sometimes extend their mammalian caregiving impulses to the helpless of other species. Those who doubt these miracles doubt less that such things can occur than that they were guided by a personal God.
Not so the empty tomb. Hector addressed the question of whether Christianity can still be Christianity without accepting as actual miracles Jesus’ birth, resurrection, and miracle working during his lifetime. Is a Christianity that takes an “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” interpretation of the resurrection still Christianity? Or is our faith, as Paul says, vain if Christ is not raised?
I want, though, to address a different question, the one of at what point you find a God who “plays dice” theologically troubling. For some, that point would come with any God who works miracles at all. A deist God, who sets up the laws of nature and lets them work, or a panentheistic God, whose ongoing activity consists of, let us say, being the breath that keeps the order of nature that we observe going, may be acceptable, but one who from time to time steps in and suspends a law here and there is unacceptably arbitrary.
For me, though, the point at which a God who plays dice becomes theologically unacceptable to me comes at the point where I think I’m being offered a God who plays dice so often that the whole universe has become one big casino. By this I mean that I draw the line at accepting any theology that requires me to reject science wholesale, in particular young Earth creationism. If young Earth creationism is true, then so much of science would have to be false that God must have created a world fundamentally incapable of being observed reliably by science, one designed to trick us, or so it seems to me. Given a choice between believing in that world and believing that an account that looks as if it uses the language of myth (what kind of tree is a tree of knowledge of good and evil?) is in fact myth, I’ll go with the Genesis account speaking as myth rather than as science.
A Jesus who was actually born of a virgin and who actually rose from the dead, on the other hand, whatever other challenges he may pose, does not require that God have made the whole world a casino. We can argue about whether Tertullian’s defense that no one would write the story thus if it were not true is persuasive, or whether, as a skeptic would have it, Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory better fits the bill. But a world in which Christ is risen requires that one particular event that no one normally sees happening have happened at a particular time, not that whole fields of science be systematically wrong; it’s a world in which God, at least, is selective and constrained about that dice playing. I find it easier to trust such a God that one who has supplied me with a book of nature that can’t, in fact, be properly read.