Miracles – and the Virgin Birth

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful. (82)

What an odd claim that second sentence makes. If one takes the typical, naive definition of a miracle, it is precisely a particular violation of scientific laws. Science as science may be in a position to say, ‘But that is not possible – it goes against everything we securely know!’, and the naive miracle-defender says, ‘Yes, that’s the point.’ It would be much more plausible to call it an historical question – to do with the evaluation of evidence about the likely course of particular events. (Of course, were Dawkins’ book a translation from the German, and were he really calling it a wissenschaftlich question, which covers both options, we might let him off.)

Let’s think about miracles for a while, though. It is not hard to find accounts of miracle that, like Dawkins critique, focus on (a) miracles as particular exceptions to the laws/regularities of nature, and (b) the supposed probative force of miracles, as demonstrations that there is something beyond nature. That is indeed one way of translating into modern terms a premodern understanding of miracle. I think we can do better than that, however, by focusing on (a) miracles as events that ‘stand out’ against the background of our expectations, such that (b) they are capable of acting as ‘signs’.

Suppose someone learns (as I have been suggesting all the way along) to see the world as coming from a generous, gratuitous, loving source. Particular events might stand out in some way, and display to this person in some particularly intense way this gratuitous, gifted nature of the world. That won’t be probative in some straightforward ‘if you see this, then you must believe that God exists’ kind of way – but it can be one of the doorways into, and supports for, this whole way of seeing the world. (Think of the boy lying on his stomach on the grass, on the first page of Dawkins book: that’s what I’m talking about!)

Now, let’s go further. Someone who saw the world in these terms (and who, in the ways I have suggested, could claim to have good reason to see the world in these term) might appropriately live in hope of these moments of generativity-beyond-expectation. When asked about how that hope meshed with her acknowledgment of the power of science to describe the regularities that structure the world, she might quite properly be somewhat agnostic. Some Christian thinkers have thought that the structure described by science is capacious enough to include this kind of generativity, and who therefore develop accounts of miracle that don’t involve any kind of law-breaking – though their reasons for saying that are unlikely themselves to be scientific (what would that look like?); they’re more likely to be properly theological. Others have insisted that it makes sense, within this whole worldview, to accept the possibility that the generativity that grounds the lawfulness of the universe might sometimes trump that lawfulness – and that miracles in the full-blown naive law-breaking sense might be part of the overall picture. Even so, from this angle the claim that such miracles are possible, or the claim that they do in fact happen, is not primarily going to be a matter of proving something, not a matter of demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that something scientifically inexplicable has happened. In the end, belief in miracle depends upon belief in God, not the other way around.

Incidentally, I don’t deny that belief in miracles seems to play a large part in many forms of popular theism, but I would hesitate before claiming that there is any strong sense in which popular belief in God rests upon a really or logically prior belief in miracles, even if belief in miracles acts as an important reinforcement.

Dawkins illustrates his claim that miracle claims are of course a scientific matter in the following way:

To dramatize the point, imagine, by some remarkable set of circumstances, that forensic archaeologists unearthed DNA evidence to show that Jesus really did lack a biological father. Can you imagine religious apologists shrugging their shoulders and saying anything remotely like the following? ‘Who cares? Scientific evidence is completely irrelevant to theological questions. Wrong magisterium! … ‘ The very idea is a joke.

Dawkins is right. If some such evidence did turn up, and were thoroughly convincing, I wouldn’t say anything like that. Instead I’d have to admit that I had been wrong: that my understanding of the meaning of the Virgin Birth stories, which didn’t seem to me to involve any claim that there was something odd about Jesus’ DNA for science to find one way or another, now seemed to be mistaken.

Much more interesting, of course, would be historical evidence. Suppose that, by some remarkable set of circumstances, archaeologists and historians were to turn up evidence that very convincingly showed that Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier called Panterus… or, suppose that by a similarly remarkable set of circumstances, archaeologists and historians were to turn up evidence that very convincingly showed that Jesus’ bones were lying in a gave near Jerusalem (perhaps also unearthing detailed records that showed us how the resurrection stories had got into such wide circulation). Those would be more interesting challenges. I know forms of Christian belief that would crumble with either; I know forms that would survive both; I know forms that would sail serenely over the first but hit big difficulties with the second. And I don’t know any way of seriously discussing the differences between those forms, or their relationship to earlier Christian tradition, except by getting stuck in to theological debate.

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