Naturalizing Miracles, or Miracle-izing Nature?

Posted on December 24, 2011 in Astronomy, Bible and Theology, Education, Intelligent Design, Issues, Media, Origins, Philosophy of Science, Physical Science, Physics, Space

Certain scientists feel a need to explain all phenomena by means of natural processes, including reports of miracles.  The word “natural,” however, is slippery, taking on a variety of meanings.  Is scientific reasoning, for instance, natural?  If so, it is not composed of atoms and forces acting according to “natural law.”  Is it possible that the tables can be turned on the naturalizers, to rescue Christmas from materialist re-interpretation?

Angels we have dreamed on high:  Natalie Wolchover’s in-your-face headline on Live Science casts immediate doubt on Biblical stories of Christmas: “Visions of Angels Described in Bible May Have Been Lucid Dreams.”  It’s a fact, she suggests: a team of LA psychologists basically told Matthew and Luke to step aside: “Sleep researchers say they have established that many of the visions of angels and other religious encounters described in the Bible were likely ‘the products of spontaneous lucid dreams.’”  (It seems odd to say something is both “established” and “likely.”)  And even if lucid dreams of angels do occur in some people, it’s another thing to claim they all are, or that God cannot speak through dreams. After describing her expert researchers’ experiments on dreams with modern subjects, Wolchover realized they crossed their eyes but didn’t dot their tease: “The research … has not been reviewed by peers for scientific publication….”  And besides, as one dream researcher countered, many of the Biblical dream stories occurred in the daytime.  Wolchover pointed out that the dream or hallucination theory is really an old skeptic’s argument.  Whatever she hoped to convey, it generated some lively comments.

Star of Bethlehem:  Of all the miracle stories in the Bible, the Bethlehem Star has been one of the most tempting targets to interpret as just a natural phenomenon.  Planetarium speakers around the world are undoubtedly re-telling one of the favorite natural explanations: it was a comet, a planetary conjunction, a meteror, a nova, a supernova, an especially bright apparition of the planet Venus.  Astronomers can investigate the story, because with planetarium projectors, they can turn back the clock of the night sky to see what shows up in the time period of Christ’s birth.  In addition, they can research from historical records the beliefs and knowledge of the Magi, who were professional astrologers.  It’s a story ready-set for naturalism.

As a young boy, one of my highlights of the Christmas season was visiting New York’s Hayden Planetarium where they would stage their traditional sky show in which astronomers pondered the age-old question of the possible origin of the Star of Bethlehem,” wrote Joe Rao for Space.com.  “At least four theories have been advanced to explain the Star of Bethlehem from a purely astronomical viewpoint.”  Those are the meteor theory (unlikely, too short); the comet theory, the nova or supernova theory, and the planetary conjunction theory.  But here, rather than tout his favorite natural explanation, Rao said they are all “matters for conjecture.”  And then he actually left open the door for the Star of Bethlehem to have been a miraculous sign.  Quoting an old 1967 lecture by Hubert Bernhard, long time director of San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium, he ended:

If you accept the story told in the Bible as the literal truth, then the Christmas Star could not have been a natural apparition. Its movement in the sky and its ability to stand above and mark a single building; these would indicate that it was not a normal phenomenon, but a supernatural sign. One given from on high and one that science will never be able to explain.”

Indeed, perhaps this is a mystery that modern science can never truly unravel. Astronomy has taken us as far as it can go. The final decision is yours, alone.

Faraday’s Christmas Lectures:  Candles are natural, right?  It depends.  For Christmas 1860 (a year after Darwin’s Origin began science’s wholesale capitulation to naturalism), the great Victorian chemist and experimental physicist Michael Faraday gave his famous Christmas Eve children’s lecture, “The Chemical History of a Candle.”  This was the only one of his annual Christmas lectures for children that was transcribed and published.  Jake Yeston, writing in Science (23 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6063 p. 1644, doi: 10.1126/science.1217498 ), celebrated the sesquicentenary publication of this scientific classic.  That anyone could hold the rapt attention of children and their parents for over an hour about so commonplace an object is a tribute to Faraday’s legendary presentation skills. Yeston noted that after 150 years, most of what Faraday taught remains scientifically valid, surviving the major upheavals of 20th century physics.  At this point, Yeston, too, took a turn away from pure naturalism.  Speaking of the introduction by J. L. James, he ended,

He [James] also touches on Faraday’s religious beliefs and the extent to which they influenced his deep appreciation of the natural world. There’s some irony in the fact that Faraday’s most famous studies—on electromagnetism—laid the groundwork for the mass electrification that ultimately supplanted candles as practical sources of light. It seems likely he would have appreciated their sustained current role in spiritual settings, as people continue to contemplate the strange beauty of their flickering flames.

(See the 8/25/2011 entry about candles producing 1.5 million diamond particles per second).  Indeed, was Faraday’s religious beliefs (he was a life-long member of a strict Bible-believing Christian denomination) that motivated his scientific work, and guided him to many of his most important discoveries, based on his faith that the forces of nature were unified by the wisdom of the biblical Creator.  At the end of his lecture, he extended the unity of a candle to the light that ties all of creation together: “So are we made dependent not merely upon our fellow-creatures, but upon our fellow-existers, all Nature being tied together by the laws that make one part conduce to the good of another.”  That mindless particles would conduce to the good of the whole is, one might say, miraculous.

The classic book Miracles by C. S. Lewis should be a must-read for those tempted to believe science disproves the Biblical miracles.  A shorter resource is an outline at this site, Naturalism and Supernaturalism: A False Dichotomy, to help clarify the many definitions of nature and avoid equivocation when hearing claims about the impossibility of miracles.  We’ve pointed out numerous times that Darwinists themselves employ miracles whenever it suits them (e.g., 11/26/2011).  Conclusion: everybody believes in miracles, and everybody believes in the supernatural.  The question becomes which miracles are the most logical and best attested.

Even skeptics should note that the Bible, miracles notwithstanding, advised against naivete.  “The naïve believes everything,” Solomon wrote, “but the sensible man considers his steps” (Proverbs 14:15).  “Examine everything carefully,” the Apostle Paul wrote; “hold fast to that which is good” (I Thessalonians 5:17).  Paul and the other apostles did not want Christ-followers to be like children, believing every claim that blows along, but to grow up and speak the truth (Ephesians 4:14–16).  Phony miracle claims are legion; they must be scrutinized.  A multitude of distracting phony miracle claims does not, however, diminish the verity of well-attested acts of God speaking to men and directing the processes of His own creation according to His will. 

For the best-attested miracle of all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, might we suggest for Christmastime the documentary The Case for Christ with Lee Strobel, a skeptic who examined the evidence and queried a number of scholars till he felt confident that the problem was not the resurrection account, but his own unbelief.  Once he decided it took more faith to maintain his unbelief than to follow the evidence where it was leading, he was a changed man, able to join in singing the good news, “Joy to the world; the Lord is come.”  To all our faithful readers, Merry Christmas!

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