It’s 12-12-12 today ((or was exactly 2,000 years ago to be pedantic)), and we are nearing the day (21-12-2012) which is heralded by some as something of an apocalypse and an end-of-the-world event.
Among other things, this highlights to me the reality that scientific discovery does not wipe out superstition. People have always been superstitious and will always be. Conversely, people have always denied any inherent purpose or meaning to the world – and they always will.
Science is great and helpful. But I think Dallas Willard is spot on when he says “you can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 106; emphasis original)
People wrongly think and speak as though at some point in history we learned some fact that forever sealed off the cosmos from any and all miracles; whereas the ancients, blissfully ignorant of this elusive fact we now know, had no other option.
In addition to ignoring the reality of ancient unbelief and scepticism, this way of thinking also misses the blindingly obvious truth that it’s psychologically and linguistically impossible to think or speak of a ‘super’-natural event if one has no idea of what a natural event is. As Lewis said, when Joseph learned of Mary being pregnant, he was startled – not because he didn’t know how babies were conceived, but precisely because he did.
From Lewis, Letter’s to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 38-39.
It is true in one sense that the mark of a genuine science is its power to predict. But does this mean that a perfected science, or a perfected synthesis of all the sciences, would be able to write reliable histories of the future? And would the scientists even want to do so? Doesn’t science predict a future event only in so far as, and only because, that event is the instance of some universal law? Everything that makes the event unique – in other words, everything that makes it a concrete historical event – is deliberately ruled out; not only as something which science can’t, or can’t yet, include, but also as something in which science, as such, has no interest. Take away from the sunrises that in which they differ and what is left will be identical. Such abstracted identicals are what science predicts. But life as we live it is not reducible to such identities. Every real physical event, much more every human experience, has behind it, in the long run, the whole previous history of the real universe – which is not itself an “instance” of anything – and is therefore always festooned with those particularities which science for her own purposes quite rightly discounts. Doesn’t the whole art of contriving a good experiment consist in devising means whereby the irrelevancies – that is, the historical particularities – can be reduced to the minimum?
Later in his essay Burnaby seems to suggest that human wills are the only radical unpredictable factor in history. I’m not happy about this. Partly because I don’t see how the gigantic negative which it involves could be proved; partly because I agree with Bradley that unpredictability is not the essence, nor even a symptom, of freedom. […] But suppose it were true. Even then, it would make such a huge rent in the predictability of events that the whole idea of predictability as somehow necessary to human life would be in ruins. Think of the countless human acts, acts of copulation, spread over millennia, that led to the birth of Plato, Attila, or Napoleon. Yet it is on these unpredictables that human history largely depends. Twenty-five years ago you asked Betty to marry you. And now, as a result, we have young George (I hope he’s got over his gastric flu?). A thousand years hence he might have a good many descendants, and only modesty could conceal from you the possibility that one of these might have as huge a historical effect as Aristotle – or Hitler!
These quotes from early 20th century remind one of the “new atheism”:
“That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healing, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology.”
“[S]trange as it may appear I am quite content to live without beleiving (sic) in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming up to an almost impossible ideal… […] “As to the immortality of the soul, though it is a fascinating theme for day-dreaming, I neither beleive nor disbeleive (sic): I simply don’t know anything at all, there is no evidence either way.”
They were written by good ole Clive Staples Lewis, to his pen pal Arthur Greeves, before he ended up becoming “the most reluctant convert in all England.” (source here)
I’ve enjoyed reading a few Lewis books recently (Miracles [which addresses nearly every new atheist argument I know, way back in ’47]; A Grief Observed; The Great Divorce; Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). His sceptical mind not not only assisted him in critiquing his own naturalism and eventually converting, but also helped him to meet common and difficult questions head on.
Some uses/senses of the word ‘miracle’:
- Something happened: Literally anything ‘happening’ – any phenomena as opposed to a non-phenomenological non-existence (existence is action – matter doesn’t just exist, it happens). This can be called miraculous in the sense of ‘everything is a miracle’ or ‘look around – miracles are all around you’. This concept, in my view is rightly held by those with both simple minds and very bright brains. Existence is happening, and it’s a miracle.
- Something happened that was good: Someone (the mayor?? I cannot remember of hand) called the no-death result of the otherwise tragic Christchurch earthquake a ‘miracle’. Of course, I hesitate to mention as the ink is still hot off the press for tomorrow’s newspapers, as is the case with today’s tragic conclusion of the mining incident, someone (comparing with the earthquake) called it ‘the miracle that didn’t happen’. One hears this use of the word often. I don’t deny that some of what are called ‘luck’ events can rightly be called a miracle, but I think it is but one sense of the word.
- Something just happened to happen: These are usually cases where timing or coincidence was involved to make the happening ‘just right’. Meeting a stranger who has exactly what you’re looking for… Having a tax return be exactly the amount needed for that thing… etc. Like the above case, this one also has it’s negative twin – cases where things worked out to be ‘just wrong’. A car-wreck where the driver was killed by a mostly empty tissue box that ‘just happened’ to hit him in exactly the wrong place, etc.
- Something happened that doesn’t happen: Whereas the previous two are cases where the laws of nature are undisturbed, unbroken and/or uninterrupted, this is the sense in which things happen in a way that is utterly distinct from nature’s habitual pattern (though not without some continuity – see below). Cancers simply disappear. Dead people live again. I don’t think this kind of miracle happens, as they say, ‘willy nilly’. I also like C.S. Lewis’ distinction between impossibility and impropriety. The real issue is not if miracles are possible (it is quite literally impossible for anyone to support the claim that they are not), but whether they are ‘fitting’. God could, in principle, make my laptop float in the air at this very moment, but what propriety would such a phenomena have? A bodily healing, however, says something about the body. In the Christian sense, bodily miracles are eschatological – foretastes or ‘first fruits’ of the bodily resurrection.
“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… the astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you have ever thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women. She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tells [sic] us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.” – C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 71.
God was (for most of our western egalitarian sensitivities) scandalously ‘narrow’ or ‘choosy’ or ‘particular’ in his way of saving his creation. He saves his creation by uniting to and thus transforming it. He did not unite to all created nature in general (this or that star, or planet, or soil or rocks, trees, etc.: the sun would have been perhaps a good marketing move, as many humans have seen the sun as divine anyway), but to human nature in particular. He did not unite to all humans of all traditions, all races, all places, all times, all genders, all vocations, etc., but to a Jewish, male, bearded, 1st century Palestinian carpenter. Lewis says it best: “The world which would not know Him as being everywhere was saved by His becoming local.” (Somewhere in his book, Miracles, and probably less-than-exactly quoted)
In and through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and Spirit of this scandalously particular Man, God is (paradoxically) available to and for humans of all traditions, races, places, times, genders, and vocations in general.
Christmas season. The real doctrine that the Christmas season emphasises is the doctrine of the Incarnation. I’ve enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’ ‘little book’ Miracles, written back in 1947. His chapter, ‘The Grand Miracle’ has some delicious passages on the Incarnation (my annoying notes in brackets). Continue reading “incarnation”