Apologetics: Doing the Job the ELCA Won’t Do

Well, one of them, at any rate. My wife alerted me to a recent question on the ELCA’s official Ask a Pastor [or Pastrix] page:

It’s evident that violations of the laws of nature do not occur in our universe. Christianity depends on the existence of events that violate those laws. How can an intelligent human being be a Christian? – Bob Lawrence, Chicago.

Two pastrixes and a pastor tried to provide Bob with an answer, but to call them underwhelming would be an understatement.

The first (after indicating that she could totally give an intelligent answer if she wanted to, she just doesn’t want to) essentially says that stupid people can believe in Christianity because of God’s gift of faith, so intelligent people can also believe by that same gift. This is true after a fashion, but dodges Bob’s question entirely (what is the intelligent person to do?) and thereby gives the distinct impression that intelligence must be voluntarily set aside to be a Christian.

The second is even worse. She defends the existence of God based on her own personal mysticism (“dreams and premonitions”) and suggests that Bob adopt mysticism as well because reason is just one way of knowing—and a faulty one at that. Now, reason may not be the only way of knowing something, but mysticism isn’t a way of knowing anything at all. Bob supposedly needs to try and feel God before trying to understand him. The message here seems to be “stop thinking so much and just feel instead.” Even if “feeling God” were an acceptable approach to Bob’s conundrum (it’s not), telling someone to feel a certain way is generally the surest way of making sure that they never do.

The third is better (kind of like how irritable bowel syndrome is better than smallpox or Ebola.) He tells Bob that he believes based on his own experience of the miraculous, and acknowledges that such experiences aren’t helpful to those who haven’t shared them. This is fair enough, but he doesn’t offer anything else. He says it’s impossible to convince somebody logically to come to faith and so doesn’t try (which is true, but that’s not the only reason to answer a question), then says that he does not believe this faith necessitates giving up on science, the laws of nature, and so forth. That’s it. He never explains why his faith is compatible with these things. He essentially tells Bob that he’s wrong but that he can’t explain why he’s wrong. It’s both honest and reasonable to admit that he cannot answer the question, but its pretty disappointing when “I can’t answer the question” is one of the three answers on a Q&A page. It’s doubly disappointing when the question is so common and has been answered so well by Christians over the past few centuries. Pastors, of all people, should be aware of this.

So much for always being ready to make a defense when someone asks for a reason for the hope that we have. Then again, given how much the Bible is ignored and/or denied by the ELCA, it’s not terribly surprising that 1st Peter 3:15 is likewise dropped along the way. Well, Bob Lawrence might not have received anything but fluff and nonsense from the ELCA, but for the sake of my Christian readers who have or know someone with this question, Bob’s question can be and has been answered.

First, its worth pointing out that Bob’s initial assumption should not be taken for granted. Whether it is indeed evident that violations of the laws of nature do not occur depends on what one means by “laws of nature.” If these laws are simply our summaries of how we observe nature working, then they can be “violated” whenever we come across new information, and they may have been violated in the past where our information is incomplete. If, for example, one presumes that “the dead stay dead” is one such law, then it is evident that this law has indeed been violated: all of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. When it comes to questions of nature and history, we need to allow the evidence to tell us what’s possible, and if the evidence tells us that what we consider to be laws of nature have been broken, then our philosophical protestations aren’t going to accomplish anything other than obscuring reality.

But what if one considers the laws of nature to be something akin to the laws of mathematics (e.g. that 2 + 2 = 4)? In other words, what if their violation is actually incoherent rather than merely unobserved by the skeptic? Even this concept leaves room for miraculous circumstances. Rather than the laws of nature being violated by the miracle, all it means is that there is more going on in such instances than just the laws of nature by themselves.

I’m a software engineer by day (lay theologian by night.) Throughout my career, I’ve received a myriad of comments from customers telling me that it is impossible to accomplish something with software I’ve had a hand in developing. They experience the software, they discover the various ways in which it works, and then find that it cannot do what they want. But very often, this is because they do not truly understand how the program works—their own experience of it is inadequate. I’ve been on support calls where I simply go into a menu, change a setting, and then immediately accomplish what they thought was impossible. Other times, I’ve fixed issues by changing data in the database that the customer was unable to access. By doing either of these things, did I change how the software works? Did I break the rules I programmed into it? No; there was simply more going on in the software than what the customer had seen and experienced for themselves—more even than what they were capable of doing themselves.

The laws of nature discovered by science are no different. As C.S. Lewis points out in Miracles, whenever anyone speaks of an action and reaction governed by the laws of nature, it is always conditioned by a sense of “all other things being equal.” His example was that if you hit one billiard ball with another, it will always react in a certain way governed by the laws of physics—unless somebody interferes. If someone reaches down and grabs the ball that was struck, then it’s not going to move the same way. This isn’t a violation of the laws of nature, it’s simply the addition of agency alongside those laws. Lewis writes,

If the laws of Nature are necessary truths, no miracle can break them: but then no miracle needs to break them. It is with them as with the laws of arithmetic. If I put six pennies into a drawer on Monday and six more on Tuesday, the laws decree that—other things being equal—I shall find twelve pennies there on Wednesday. But if the drawer has been robbed I may in fact find only two. Something will have been broken (the lock of the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken. The new situation created by the thief will illustrate the laws of arithmetic just as well as the original situation. But if God comes to work miracles, He comes ‘like a thief in the night’. Miracle is, from the point of view of the scientist, a form of doctoring, tampering, (if you like) cheating. It introduces a new factor into the situation, namely supernatural force, which the scientist had not reckoned on. He calculates what will happen, or what must have happened on a past occasion, in the belief that the situation, at that point of space and time, is or was A. But if supernatural force has been added, then the situation really is or was AB. And no one knows better than the scientist that AB cannot yield the same result as A. The necessary truth of the laws, far from making it impossible that miracles should occur, makes it certain that if the Supernatural is operating, they must occur. For if the natural situation by itself, and the natural situation plus something else, yielded only the same result, it would be then that we should be faced with a lawless and unsystematic universe. The better you know that two and two make four, the better you know that two and three do not.

The scientist studies nature, but the contention of the Christian is that nature is not all there is. The scientist forbids himself from considering supernatural options, and this is often a reasonable restriction in day-to-day life. If my car breaks down, I generally don’t have any reason to believe there is a supernatural force responsible, and so I take it to to someone who knows how cars work to repair it—a mechanic rather than an exorcist. However, science ceases to be the only useful tool whenever we do have good reason to suspect supernatural action (for example, when a man claims to be God and proves it by healing the sick, calming the storms, rising from the dead, and so forth.) When there is more than nature at work, a tool that is blind to everything but nature cannot be the only tool used to understand the situation—nor is such a tool capable on its own of affirming or denying whether there is anything more at work because it merely assumes there isn’t.

It is usually at this point that the complaint shifts away from “miracles are impossible” to “miracles are immoral.” In other words, the objection is raised that a good God would never “interfere” with nature in this way. As usual, anyone who starts making claims about what a good God would or would not do is merely stating what he himself would or would not do if he were God. The ancient Gnostics, for example, thought that the supreme God would never condescend to interact with this base physical world. But this is because the Gnostics believed the physical world was base and assumed that God must agree with them. What God said about Himself in this regard was never terribly important to them. The adherents of scientism take a similar approach. Because they idolize science and incoherently claim that it is the only way a person can know anything at all, they assume that any “God” they could imagine would never be so impious as to confound scientists by creating situations that science cannot properly analyze on its own.

But God does not respect our idols. Indeed, to what external standard can we expect God to conform? Did he gift us with an orderly creation? Yes. Did he gift us with intellects that help us understand that creation? Yes. Nevertheless, on what grounds do we forbid His interaction with that creation? The Deists thought of creation as God’s perfectly engineered machine—so perfect that any updates or adjustments would be both unnecessary and scandalous. But creation is not merely a machine; it is personal. It is personal because it includes persons such as ourselves and because it has character inasmuch as it reflects and expresses the character of its Creator. It is a work of art rather than of engineering. Why then should a God who is also three persons not have personal interaction with it—interaction that involves agency in addition to a set of rules?

Accordingly, miracles present no real difficulty to the intelligent as such. Granted, there are some forms of foolishness of which only the intelligent are capable, and these forms may pose difficulties. Miracles may be incompatible with philosophies like scientism, logical positivism, Humean skepticism, and the like. Nevertheless, God did not foist these philosophies on us, and our intellects do not demand adherence to them.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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