I’ve had much the same kind of question asked of me a few times recently. In essence, it’s “Chris, you don’t believe in the supernatural, so how can you be a Christian?”
This tends to come up which someone puts to me that, in order to be a Christian, I have to believe that some supernatural event either took place or will take place (usually the first). It is, I’m sorry to say, completely beyond me to say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event actually happened. That said, I also can’t say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event didn’t or couldn’t happen. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic on the subject, though I have a powerful tendency against seeing supernatural causes for things.
This is because I am methodologically naturalistic. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that where anything happens, I look for naturalistic explanations, explanations which rest on the operation of established scientific principles. Almost every Christian I know tends strongly to do the same; OK, I did hear a preacher recently who claimed to have tried to walk on water, buoyed up by God’s power (he failed, on his account), but very few people of my acquaintance would try this with even a remote expectation of success. Most think that the popular story of the man caught in a flood quite reasonably justifies methodological naturalism even if you believe that God just might intervene (and I agree).
Where I perhaps start parting company with some more conservative Christians is that where I cannot find a plausible naturalistic explanation for some event, I assume that there actually is some naturalistic explanation, it’s just that either I’m not clever enough to figure it out or there is some feature of reality which science hasn’t yet found an explanation for, but might in principle. The figures aren’t as much with me there as in the previous case, but I think probably a majority of the Christians I know take pretty much that view except when considering miracles in the Bible. They would, for instance, take exactly the same view as I do when considering an account drawn from Judaism other than in the Bible (say the story of the Oven of Akhnai), but still hold that Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes.
Then there’s the case of events for which there’s definitely a naturalistic explanation, but which seem to people to be coincidental beyond the bounds of expectation. There, a majority of the Christians I know tend to talk of God guiding events, and I reserve my position, because I know too much about human tendencies to detect patterns in the random (hyperactive agency detection) and other cognitive biases. I notice, for instance, that the same people who detect the hand of God where something good happens to them very often don’t detect the hand of God where something bad happens, though some I know tend to identify those as the work of Satan.
Actually, the concept that God is not an agent in the world is a lot more respectable than many of my questioners might think. Formal scholastic Catholic thinking, for instance, as well as being keen on Aquinas’ for proofs of (the existence of) God, also decided that “exist” was the wrong concept to use of God, as it argued that God was a part of creation rather than the creator. I happen to disagree with Aquinas’ five proofs and the Catholic insistence on God’s complete otherness, but they do represent theological orthodoxy on the point. How miracles could actually happen on this basis rather escapes me, however, as a completely separate God would seem to have no mechanism to effect miracles!
Going back to the question of naturalistic phenomena for which science does not as yet have a viable explanation, I’m open to possibilities. Indeed, back in my youth I spent a lot of time exploring such concepts as astrology, astral projection, telepathy and telekinesis – I was, after all, 15 in the year when the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the New Age movement was becoming popular, and having just had a peak mystical experience which scientific naturalism didn’t have any good description or explanation of. I was, however, looking for evidence that the phenomena occurred, and trying to develop naturalistic concepts of how they did (if they did).
The snag is, I ended up with the conclusion that none of these things actually works, at least not in any remotely reliable manner. Not, at any event, in any place other than the consciousness of the person who is trying to do things; there, some New Age concepts can definitely have profound effects. I say this with one caveat; there is, I think, a small possibility that some of these may operate if and only if all the people involved fervently believe that they will (this would mean that they would probably not operate if any sceptical observer were involved). I think this unlikely, given that an “all believer” audience will be prone to detect what they expect irrespective of whether it has in fact happened, but I cannot rule out the possibility.
That said, I have personally experienced what I interpret as God breaking down the resistance of a very sceptical individual with no belief in any such thing as the supernatural, let alone God, and providing a set of insights; this was what happened in my first peak mystical experience. I have also experienced (due to a large amount of experimentation in my younger days) the apparent fact that certain techniques can improve the likelihood of such peak experiences happening, including certain forms of prayer and meditation (which I recommend); so can things such as sleep deprivation and temporary anoxia, and certain drugs (which I do not recommend).
Was this a “supernatural” occurrence? I don’t know. I have gone over the circumstances of my first such experience in detail with doctors, psychologists and several ardent sceptics, and we cannot identify a cause from within any of those science has identified a mechanism for. I had done nothing to facilitate such an experience and didn’t desire one, having no conception that that was a possibility. No drugs were involved, I was neither sleep-deprived, anoxic or stressed and electromagnetic stimulation was easily ruled out. I was not epileptic or schizotypal (or any of the other potential neuropsychological candidates). That leaves us with either an as yet unidentified physical (or neurological) cause or supernatural intervention.
In passing, I can’t really do more experimentation, as all repetitions of the experience have followed a lot of work conditioning my mind and practising prayer and meditation, so might well result from that rather than from whatever the cause of the original experience was. I can say, however, that I have not found it possible to “force” a full-bodied repetition – those are few and far between and seem to be “out of the blue” as well. I think the evidence is that certain practices improve the likelihood, however, and therefore recommend prayer and meditation without any note of caution (and anything else with considerable caution).
Of course, if God is conceived of as fundamentally supernatural, it was clearly a supernatural experience. However, one feature of what was an extremely self-verifying experience was that God was radically immanent, i.e. all things were at the least permeated by God to the very smallest and very largest scales, and probably all things could be regarded as being part of God as all fixed boundaries appeared capable (at least) of dissolution; I was a part of this, and all other things were also parts of it. If that is a true insight, then God is in any event able in principle to act through everything that is, including (of course) the material, if one assumes that there is anything which is not material in and of itself.
I therefore, on balance, think that there was some mechanism the details of which are not clear to me (though one of my atheist friends said it must have been a “brain fart”). It is, of course, possible that this mechanism was God (whether supernatural or immanent) deciding to do this. Another facet of the experience was that God had at least some aspects of what I understand as being a person.
I think it reasonable to point out that most people who believe in a supernatural God also believe that God acts in rational ways, and develop theologies which, probably non-accidentally, have an objective of being able to predict what God will do in any particular circumstance. This, it seems to me, is almost imperceptibly different from me seeking to establish by what mechanism this occurred. We are all, in one sense, trying to psychoanalyse God. There are plenty of scriptures to indicate both that one shouldn’t do that and that it won’t work, including Isaiah 55:8, the whole of Ecclesiastes and the last portion of Job.
These, indeed, illustrate my problem; I do not know how anyone else can experience something akin to my peak experiences (and I would dearly like more people, and preferably all people, to be able to – these have been by far the best experiences of my life), and if this all does indicate a God who is acting as an agent and can break into the minds of humans at will, why does this not happen more often?
This does, however, leave me with the conclusion that God acts in the world, in all probability, only by influencing the minds of His creatures.