What if supernatural miracles matter less than natural means?
Questions at the intersection of faith and science
The title isn’t just clickbait, just so you know. I’m totally serious. And if you’ll just hear me out, I’m fully prepared to explain myself.
I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between faith and science, because in a sense I’ve always lived on that intersection: I’ve been captivated by both the Christian faith and scientific thinking from as far back as I can remember, and as far as I’ve known both, I was aware of the tension between them, and curious to know how it could be resolved.
But curiosity was as far as it got. It wasn’t life or death.
Not until medical school, that is.
I clearly remember the woman. I was in my fourth year and she was in late-stage breast cancer. And even if you knew nothing about cancer, the putrid odour of it filling the ward was knowledge enough. The really tragic thing, though, was the story behind her condition: she had been diagnosed with the cancer in a much earlier stage, but had declined surgery. Her reason? She’d trusted that God would heal her.
That was a year previously. She had been pregnant then, and while she was running the gamut of churches for her healing, the pregnancy had, unknown to her, been feeding the cancer and accelerating its growth. In the end, facing harsh and foul-smelling reality, she had returned to seek medical help.
But the surgery that would have been enough at the early stage when she came was now nowhere near enough. She would now require the more aggressive options of chemo or radiotherapy, and even then her chances were slim. Having put off coming as long as possible, she had come too late.
She didn’t make it, in case you were wondering. (But read to the end to learn more about her.)
And I remember, even then, the consultant surgeon launching into a rant about unscrupulous “men of God” whose promises of healing sent people to their doom.
What does a person of faith say in such a moment?
I said nothing, but something changed in me. I no longer merely wanted to understand how to reconcile what I had come to believe was a false dichotomy between faith and science. I needed to know.
Over the next decade or so, I came slowly to the following conclusion about the Biblical portrayal of God’s relationship to the natural world…
God, having made nature, not only loves it, but even prefers it.
I understand if that sounds absurd, so like I said, I’ll explain myself.
But a couple caveats before I proceed. First, if you’re wondering why I’m focusing on Christianity, it’s because that’s the religion I practice, just as I’m focusing on healthcare because that’s the specific branch of science in which I can claim expertise. Second, while you don’t have to be Christian, or even religious at all, to find this worth your while, you at least have to be interested in this question.
In the end, whether you are Christian or not, religious or not, all I ask is that you consider everything I say in light of one criterion and one criterion alone: internal consistency. That is, whether or not you personally agree with the Bible, do my conclusions logically follow from what it actually says?
Deal? Cool. Let’s do this.
I came to this conclusion through a series of steps.
1. What many call “faith” is really often overcompensated fear.
This was my first lesson, from the woman with breast cancer. When she opened up, it was pretty clear that she’d had fled surgery for fear of dying on the table (never mind the hundreds and thousands of uneventful unreported surgeries that happen everyday). But unfortunately, rather than face the fear, she told herself she was having faith, added by God knows which “men of God.”
That got me thinking about what did it mean to have faith in God, anyway? And not just theoretically, but in light of these very real issues? And one of the things I concluded was that real faith doesn’t deny what is happening. Even Abraham, the father of faith was said, to described to “not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Abraham’s faith did not require him to deny the state of things.
Then I made discovery number 2…
2. God (as described in the Bible) REALLY likes nature
This was not something I was explicitly taught in Sunday school, but the more I considered the matter, the more I found reason to believe the God of the Bible likes the physical world. Here’s a few.
- He created it! Plus he called it good. And even though it’s broken, he promises to redeem it.
- There’s a whole book in the Bible that celebrates love, a pretty good chunk of which is the lovers celebrating each others’ bodies.
- A lot of Jesus’ miracles were nature-restoring: providing wine at a wedding and food in the desert, making sick bodies well, or raising them to life.
- Perhaps most significant of all: Jesus was very particular about clarifying that his resurrection was bodily, and not ghostly.
- Also, Holy Communion. A memorial could have just been a ceremony of prayers and song, but there just had to be bread and wine, didn’t there?
- It was even later that I learned that this was historic Christian teaching: that God isn’t just coping with the physical world, barely tolerating it, he delights in it.
- Overall, Christian thought doesn’t agree with the idea that “spiritual” is synonymous with “disembodied,” or that spiritual is the opposite of physical. In Christian thought, the opposite of spiritual—driven primarily by spirit—is not physical but carnal—driven primarily by senses. (Similarly, the opposite of faith is not logic or science, and not even doubt — asking questions—but unbelief—making conclusions.)
And then, I started to notice something else…
3. Supernatural means tend to be withheld or downplayed in favour of natural ones
- My first indication of this came one random day when I read a rather obscure line, tucked away in the middle of Joshua (5:12): “And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.” The first time I really saw that was a massive mental shift. Like, what? So the manna was strictly to tide them over? It felt like when I first got paid as a doctor: I took a bus home to tell my parents, and then when I was leaving no one mentioned transport money!
- Also, two of the times Jesus is recorded to have raised the dead, he gives rather interesting instructions to the bystanders: to give the girl food to eat, and to loose Lazarus’ wrappings. I don’t know about you, but there totally seems to be a sense there of something like, “Well, I’ve done the miracle, do you expect her to feed on air and his wrappings to unwrap themselves? What do you think this is—Hogwarts?” If nothing else, these two cases at least suggest that even miracles requires natural means for their continuation.
- And before you mention the king who died because he consulted physicians (2 Chronicles 16:12): that wasn’t his mistake. His mistake was consulting only physicians and ignoring God.
- Two more examples: the guy at the pool of Bethesda or the crippled guy at Beautiful Gate. After the excitement, both would face reality the next day: they couldn’t go back to beg. They would have to find work. Natural means would be required to continue what the miracle kick-started.
- In all these cases, the miracle goes only as far as necessary and no further. To be clear, that’s NOT the same as “continuing in the flesh what began in spirit.” Natural simply means of nature which is amoral, neither good nor bad in itself, while “flesh” specifically means of sinful nature. (It is to avoid the confusion that newer translations generally avoid the KJV “flesh.”)
4. A lot of miracles occur in otherwise hopeless situations with no (at the time) natural solution
A lot. I didn’t say every. But, without actually counting every single one, I can say with some confidence that the majority of recorded biblical miracles occurred to help people in dire situations, with no known solutions at the time (or even since). Do this one yourself: think of practically any 10 (besides the water to wine one), and check how many weren’t for people in desperate circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this is the only time miracles happen (after all the Cana wedding wasn’t exactly desperate) — God is free to do them when he likes. I’m saying, based on the biblical record, there does seem to be a recurring pattern to them: again and again, broken as nature is, God isn’t shown to tend to override it Hogwarts-style, just because he can. He does it most often when things are dire, and even then not necessarily every time. (Remember the “others” of Hebrews 11:36?)
So what does all this mean?
Well, here’s what I think.
- Being a Christian is no reason to ignore natural means, including science. If anything, it’s the more reason to take it with the utmost seriousness. Because God has a vested interest in nature, and certainly in science, because that’s how we understand nature. It’s not for nothing that a good number of science fathers were people of faith seeking to better understand nature — aka God’s work.
- I think, based on the overall thread through the Bible, that one can argue that God is less likely to act directly (supernaturally) when there are functional indirect means? Which isn’t to say he can’t act, anyway, but the point is that would be his prerogative, and to insist otherwise would be to as we say in Nigeria, “find trouble.” It would be like the guys who insist on facing lions, because they want to reenact Daniel: deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way to, so to speak, force God’s hand. “Do not test the Lord your God.”
- Based on (2), it would be reasonable to assume that people who are by virtue of their religious work necessarily often in desperate situations are likely to see more occasions of supernatural intervention. And indeed, I think most of us will find that this is indeed the case.
- I think it is a grave mistake to assume that our ability to explain something is reason enough to lose a sense of wonder at it. Nature in itself is miraculous. A glorious sunset, a new born baby, the smartphone you hold in your hand, the various medicines that save millions of lives every day…these are miracles. We take things too much for granted. Health workers, everyday, make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and even the dead rise. Why on earth do we treat this with contempt because they are explainable? If great food is any less sweet because we can cook it, isn’t that suggestive of something wrong with us as people?
And this last point not perhaps be why the supernatural is not as commonplace as we would like it to be? After all…
We’re capable of getting tired even of miracles. We already do it every day.
If you enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy this post as well (and yes, I mention the woman here too).
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