Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Act Naturally: Resurrection And A Theology Of Science

There are some words I avoid using because I find them vague and unhelpful. Among those most annoying is "nature". The English word has many meanings, from a general reference to anything not artificial through a technical, philosophical understanding of what a thing is. A thing's nature not only defines it, in so doing it sets down its end or goal as well as the means by which it will reach that end. Much of this technical understanding of "nature" is with us in our general discussions of the way the world works. Clarified by contrast, we understand some actions as "not natural". Some people insist there is such a thing as "the supernatural", a word I detest even more than "natural", precisely because it assumes we know what the word "nature" means and to which it refers.

"Supernatural" is often used as an adjective describing God and Divine action. "Miracles" (yet another of those words I would toss out of the English language without looking back) are often defined as Divine interruption of natural processes - water in to wine, walking on water, that kind of thing - that display God's freedom in the face of the laws of nature. The height of Divine supernatural activity is, obviously, the resurrection. When was the last time a person who had been dead for several days not only got up and walked around, but talked with people, and then disappeared? Stuff like that just doesn't happen in nature. Right?

Which was why the 18th century rationalists, in particular David Hume, weren't too keen on the whole concept. Miracles of whatever stripe were more than just oddities; they were offenses against what was thought to be the good and well-ordered running of the Universe. If God could decide, willy-nilly, to intervene whenever God wanted, multiplying loaves and fishes and making blind folks see, how was it possible to come to any understanding of the way the Universe works, which relies on an assumption of regularity, the repetition of certain processes that become so ingrained (Hume's favorite was cause-and-effect; something that didn't actually exist, but was assumed thanks to regularity) they seem to be like laws.

Folks like me who say, "Jesus was raised from the dead!" are more than just weird. We are threatening any attempt to understand the way the world works. Except, of course, this claim rests on the related ideas that (a) science as it has evolved over the centuries is the only sure means for figuring out how the world works; and (b) "how the world works" isn't, itself, subject to the theological condemnation of sin, rendering our understanding limited and flawed not only in the contingent sense, but in an ontological sense as well.

The counter-claim - it isn't original with me; I remember it most vividly in on of N. T. Wright's books - is simple enough. The resurrection, as the inauguration of the fulfillment of Creation as God originally intended it, displays for us the way God created the world to be, before that creation was marred by sin and death. In other words, rather than some violation of the laws of nature, an event so extraordinary it can only be termed "supernatural", it may well be the case that changing water in to wine, ending physical pain and social ostracism through touch, and rising from the dead are how the world is supposed to be. People living together, caring for one another, taking care of one another.

No longer living in fear of death and the threat of non-existence that rides in its wake.

None of this is to suggest that science isn't a marvelous tool for discovering all sorts of things about the Universe. On the contrary, it continues to provide us with all sorts of interesting and useful information about ourselves and the world. It is, however, just a tool. It has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limits. One of those limits is the assumption that its subject - the physical Universe, including human beings - can be and should be defined only in the terms set by scientific investigation. Those tools work well for science; they don't work quite as well for much else, yet we continue to pretend they do when we talk about miracles and the supernatural and the strangeness of the resurrection.

Nothing could be more natural, it seems to me.

Virtual Tin Cup

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