A man was caught in floods, and climbed up onto his roof to avoid the rising waters. He prayed to God to save him from the flood. Along came a man in a monster truck, which had a high enough wheelbase to be clear of the water, and offered him transport out of there. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Along came a man in a boat, and offered him a place in the boat. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Then a helicopter flew over, and a man called from it “Here, I’ll drop you a ladder – climb up and I’ll take you to safety”. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Eventually, standing on the ridge of the roof, with the water lapping at his feet, the man prayed again “God, why have you not saved me?” A voice came from the clouds “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter – what more do you want me to do?”.
I’ve recently had a couple of exchanges on Global Christian perspectives revolving round the fact that I’m a methodological naturalist. That means that, when confronted with a situation, I look for natural rather than supernatural causes, i.e. I look for a scientific explanation.
What happens if I can’t work out a scientific explanation? In conscience, I assume that there actually is a scientific explanation, just not one which I can yet understand – maybe based on scientific principles which haven’t yet been discovered. What I don’t do is go the extra step and say that it is not possible that there is a non-scientific, supernatural explanation (which would be ontological naturalism, i.e. naturalism going to the root of what things are in themselves) – but for all practical purposes, that isn’t saying much. It caused a bit of a stir at my small group a while ago when I said that I couldn’t believe in any supernatural cause – how is it, one person asked, that you can be a Christian and not believe in the supernatural?
It’s actually entirely possible. There are even atheist Christians, who positively disbelieve in the existence of God, but much more widespread are a large number of what are commonly labelled “liberal” theologians, of whom a 20th century German theologian called Rudolph Bultmann stands out. His great project was to “demythologise” scripture, which meant to look for the meaning of scripture stripped of all the mythological elements, which included miracles, but also a large amount of the story told in scripture, in his case particularly any account of the historical Jesus.
Much of the academy (i.e. those who study theology and scripture professionally in universities) are in line with this kind of thinking. However, this relatively seldom translates into local churches, at least in my experience; theologically trained clergy put aside their philosophical positions when delivering their sermons, or they find some philosophical “work round” such as neo-orthodoxy or post-liberalism. I have never heard a sermon attempting to explain either!
In conscience, though, I also find that whatever the people in the pews state as their beliefs (which are usually far more historically conventional than followers of Bultmann), in practice they are also methodological naturalists. Most of them will respond very positively to the story I started with, variants of which I’ve heard in several sermons. Most of them will not rely just on prayer for healing, they will also see a doctor and take medicine. They are largely relying on naturalistic solutions, though they may well pray as well.
A few, a very few, actually go through life depending on God (or as an atheist would see it, chance) to provide for them. They appear actually to believe that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20). And, mirabile dictu, it quite often seems to work for them. Mind you, it also seems that non-religious people who are fired with unshakeable convictions can sometimes achieve things which the average somewhat doubtful person could not. To this congenitally sceptical observer, it also seems that sometimes both groups set themselves up for colossal failure by doing this, and that the positive impression I have painted may be largely the result of confirmation bias, but from where I sit, if you can live like that, do it. I can’t, however hard I may try.
I am not, of course, suggesting that people are being hypocritical or lying about their beliefs, or at least not any more than every human being does. Most people, I find, don’t actually examine their beliefs in very much detail, and those that do may well feel that a kind of desperate hope that, in fact, things might be the way they believe is sufficient. I can manage that desperate hope myself (and do, particularly when there’s no other option than desperate hope) – I just can’t any more elevate it to the category of something I really believe in
That, of course, extends to “faith that” statements which I am regularly asked to confirm I believe, and where those include a supernatural element (such as, for instance, the virgin birth) I have to say that I cannot actually bring myself to believe these; the nearest I can get is to suspend disbelief and (with Bultmann) look for what else such a statement is able to carry as a message.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no antipathy toward the supernatural – in fact, I would love there to be supernatural explanations for things. When younger, I was fascinated with claims of supernatural events and effects and spent a lot of time exploring groups and traditions which claimed to have special knowledge and/or special abilities in that direction. I am still keen on reading fantasy books for relaxation, and have a weak spot for superhero narratives. The trouble is, almost universally I came to the conclusion that in the world which we inhabit, supernatural forces are not at work. The most I can say is that we do not yet fully understand all of the natural forces which exist. That, tempered with the occasional desperate hope…
Mind you, in studying “the supernatural”, I very much took the view that it needed to have theories of how it worked, and experimental techniques, and confirmatory experiments – and all this would actually have reduced the supernatural to another set of natural forces, just ones which didn’t operate by the set of rules we currently have in science. The personal God would, in addition, have a character, and that could be analysed.
In other words, in doing theology, we are attempting to establish sets of rules by which supernatural events and effects operate, with a view to controlling their effects on ourselves. If we view God as having, in any sense, agency (i.e. being able to act in the world other than as an impersonal force), theologians are attempting to psychoanalyse God, to establish what God will do given a particular set of circumstances – and as time has gone by, they are less willing to accept a view of God as arbitrary and unpredictable (faithful, steadfast and just are frequently used terms, while philosophical theologians have arrived at terms such as unchanging and immutable). The gods of (for instance) Greece, Rome or the Teutons or Norse were hugely unpredictable, and historically they lost ground very rapidly to a God conceived of as being rather more reliable.
If we view God as being more akin to an impersonal force (which is broadly speaking the deist position), it is still possible to analyse how it is that this force operates in the world. Finally, if we end up in the position of God as “ground of all being” or “the condition for the possibility of existence”, analysis will still take place, although among philosophical theologians rather than what we might call “practical theologians”. The unpredictable is anathema these days (it wasn’t in the days of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods, who could be incredibly arbitrary and unpredictable), and most of us instinctively agree with Einstein when he said “God doesn’t play dice” – though, at a subatomic level, it now seems that this is exactly what everything we see depends on.
In this connection, I think it’s worth mentioning two approaches to conceiving of God. One is that of the philosophers, starting in the West (as far as our records show) with Plato. There is a splendid set of lectures by Professor Keith Ward outlining this general approach. The trouble is, the God outlined by the philosophers is usually a long way from both the interventionist picture of God and from the personal picture of God enshrined in Christian scripture. But then, I think that reasoning towards God from first principles is a fundamentally flawed idea; to me God is first and foremost an experiential reality, and any picture of God must be built up from that experience, and not from philosophical argument. In any event, these arguments end up with a God who is far more impersonal force than personal, relational entity, and I harbour the strong suspicion that any suggestion that this is what God most fundamentally is is eventually going to come up against a new discovery of science which actually describes how that force operates.
Another (and it is to some extent part of the philosophers’ armoury) is the appeal to a first cause, something which set everything we know of in motion, called it into existence; the creator God. Of course, science has taken over most of the history of the universe, and from the point of view of physics, it is fairly settled what has happened since the extremes of the first second or so after the Big Bang (and there really is no place for a creator in that account). However, a source of constant wonder for scientists (myself included) is the fact that so many physical quantities are so precisely fixed as to create circumstances in which all of the immensity and complexity of the known universe could exist. There is a good lecture by Professor Ard Louis on this subject, which I think illustrates well how finely tuned physics actually is to produce what we see.
There are a few problems with Prof. Louis’ account. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult and deceptive to calculate probabilities for something happening which has in fact happened – after all, the probability of something happening which has actually occurred is 100% (or 1). In any event, it can readily be suggested that the anthropic principle is fundamentally flawed in that, in order for us to be observing this amazing coincidence of masses of constants, those constants in any case had to be exactly as they are; had they not been, there would have been no observer.
Some physicists extend this thinking and posit that on every occasion on which more than one thing might happen, actually all possible things happen and the universe splits into multiple almost identical “multiverses”. It’s worth mentioning that this idea, which would have horrified William of Occam, who inveighed against the multiplication of metaphysical entities, is also attractive to some theologians, who find in is a solution to the freewill -v- determinism issue – with multiverses, everything can be simultaneously totally determined and totally freely chosen. I rather recoil against it myself. After all, one of the fundamental drives of both scientists and theologians is to simplify things so that they can be understood, rather than complicate them to an extent approaching infinity!
However, there is as more substantive problem, and that is that physics does not have any idea of a mechanism by which such physical quantities might be fixed. This feeds back into my first point – if you don’t know anything about a mechanism, assessing the probability of one thing happening rather than another is perhaps foolish. Also, however, it leaves the age old hostage to fortune in being a “God of the gaps” answer. Science has filled a very large number of those gaps in the past, and this one might get filled in the future. Also, I am inclined to go along with the argument of Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” regarding the Babel Fish, an universal translator:- “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. “
Finally, of course, it doesn’t paint a picture which the authors of either the New Testament or the Old would have recognised as being God.
Of course, this is all at base because science answers the question “how does this happen?”, generally with the subtext of “how can I make it happen, or prevent it from happening, again?” or “what new and interesting things could I see once I understand how this happens?”. It does not answer the questions “what is the purpose of this?” or “what does this mean?” Those questions, at least arguably, only have validity in the space of thought.
And, of course, whatever science may explain away, it is undeniable that God exists in the space of human thought and, as our experience is always in that space, in human experience.