NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.
There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.
I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance on scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.
Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency. Deism kept God in the picture, but relegated Him to bystander status.
Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.
The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).
Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time, matter and energy (whatever that is). They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality. They assume, therefore, that nothing exists that cannot be explained by science.
In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.
Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things is an unknown merely awaiting a natural explanation.
Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen.
This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We stopped looking for God because we saw order in nature and that God is of no consequence to the study of natural laws. from a determination that God is aloof it’s a short walk to the conclusion that God does not exist.
Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws, which we now view as random colocations of molecules.
Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, and that is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.
The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.
Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.
I suppose I should push back with the obvious: If God exists, we don’t define Him. A creature does not define its creator. Created beings don’t define the parameters of the creation of which we are a part. We may conceive of God as a cosmic watchmaker, aloof from the creation – or nonexistent altogether – but God is what God is, if indeed He exists.
A miracle is a term that we have created in our modern world to describe things that defy explanation on a rational, materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Miracles in the modern construct defy the laws of physics. Since the laws of physics seem to be immutable, we have determined that miracles do not happen.
David Hume famously argued that miracles are so unlikely to happen that they don’t, in fact, happen. Of course, he accomplished this exorcism of miracles from the universe by defining them (more or less) and by raising the bar on the proof required to confirm a miracle.
Hume’s constructs are artifices, though, designed to minimize the possibility that miracles and (ultimately God) exist. Hume and many of his contemporaries didn’t want God to exist. They fought for freedom from the concept of a God to whom man might owe allegiance, or at least respect.
These constructs don’t change reality as it exists, though, and they have no capability of excluding God from the world He created – if indeed God exists.
I have come to see that the wall modern skeptics have erected between science and faith is an illusory façade. We can no more define God out of the world (if He exists) than to create our own universe from scratch.
I have to come to realize that we can accept the universe as it exists, laws of physics (quantum mechanics) and all, and remain open to the proposition that God exists. The dependability of those laws reflects the faithful character of a God who established them as surely as they might suggest no God exists at all.
I am not going to try to “prove” that here. I will leave you the following dialogue between Stephen Meyer, a philosopher of science, and Dr. Michael Shermer, an atheist and skeptic who conducts the following interview. (If you take a left turn to watch the whole interchange and never make it back to my blog article, I am ok with that.)
(If you are still with me, I will carry on.) The Bible, and many people up to the present time, assume that God is active and present in the world in some way. That idea conflicts with the notion that the laws of nature (as we understand them) would have to be violated for miracles to occur only in so far as we have defined miracles.
There are reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments on both sides of the God equation. As I have been thinking about these things, I came across some writing about science and faith on a website I had targeted for exploration: Bible Contexts.
An article titled Science 2: God Does Work in the Gaps caught my eye. The author makes a case for ways that God can work actively in the universe without violating any laws of physics.
“It turns out that God’s actions might be found in gaps after all – but not in the gaps of our knowledge. God’s action may be situated in the quantum gaps we can’t predict or control. These tiny gaps of uncertainty can never be predicted, and although they appear to be insignificant, the tiny quantum actions within these gaps add up to the actions that our observable world is constructed from. Therefore God could, without breaking any laws of physics, change the physical world in all kinds of ways. If God controls all of these gaps at the quantum level, he would have no difficulty making any number of observable events occur in a way that is statistically improbable but not impossible….”
I have no idea whether the author is correct, but it seems he has posited an explanation that is plausible. Even if it is improbable, we have to admit that we live in a universe that is improbable. Skeptics have to resort to the idea of infinite multiverses to explain the existence of our highly improbable universe – a construct that is no more plausible than that of a creator.
The question isn’t whether believers cling to a God of the gaps. The question is: how do you fill the gaps? Skeptics stretch for “natural” explanations. Believers can accept the natural explanations while holding an open mind for supernatural inputs.
The natural world is our world – bounded by and filled with space/time and matter. God, if He exists, is the author and creator of the natural world, but He transcends it. From God’s perspective, it is all natural to Him – even the bits that are (or seem) foreign to us.
A more sophisticated view of God views Him the Programmer of the world and its laws. The utter reliability of those laws are derived from God’s character: supremely faithful and true to form. Our universe has order capable of being studied and observed by us because of a God who is orderly and capable of observing and being observed.
On the other hand, we are just beginning to learn of a quantum realm to the reality of the universe. In this quantum realm, underneath the order and laws, is mystery not as capable of definition as classic physics. At the quantum realm, matter seems to behave erratically and mysteriously until the point of observation.
Our very universe is highly improbable – exponentially so! Yet, it exists. People who do not want to ascribe a divine explanation to the existence of the universe rely on the brute existence of the universe (as if that explains anything) or multiverses (which is, itself, not scientifically provable) and other explanations that defy a divine source.
Some of those explanations are plausible. But so is the explanation that our universe has a divine source. Unless, of course, you start with a premise that excludes that possibility.
But such a premise is, ultimately, arbitrary. As finite creatures, we don’t define or establish the parameters of reality. The best we can do is seek to understand reality – such as it is. If we begin with an assumption that God doesn’t exist, we are not likely to find Him because we aren’t open to finding Him.
The Bible reveals that God is transcendent, which means that He is not defined by the world, and He cannot be found within the parameters of the world. Yet, a transcendent God is, at the same time, capable of being found everywhere and anywhere in the world.
“‘Am I only a God nearby,’
declares the Lord,
‘and not a God far away?
Who can hide in secret places
so that I cannot see them?’
declares the Lord.
‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’
declares the Lord.”
Psalm 139:1-18 reveals that God knows us intimately, and we can go nowhere that God is not present. At the same time, we must seek God to “find” Him. He knows us, but we don’t know Him unless we are intentional about seeking Him. This reality was intentional on God’s part:
“God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
I believe the reason for this is that God did want not robots. He could have created us in a way that we would have no choice, that we would be programmed to obey Him and do as He desired, but He didn’t do that. He didn’t want robots.
God created beings in His own image who could love Him because they choose to love Him. They would find Him if they choose to look for Him.
At the risk of taking another sharp left turn with this article, I am going to leave this here. If you are intrigued, I think you will find it interesting, at least.