Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Signs and Wonder

Whenever I run in more liberal Christian or atheistic circles (I don't place those two groups together to draw any sort of parallel - this is just an observation), I often find myself confronting the view that science has disproven miracles. Now, I don't think it makes sense to claim that God's action is limited by the observed physical laws of the universe. I've touched on my thoughts on that subject before, and I hope to go into more detail soon, but I've been thinking lately about another view of the whole question.

In the Bible, miracles are often referred to as signs and wonders. I like this description, because it shows that the meaning of a miracle is not: "Look! God broke the laws of physics!" Instead, it is an event that evokes a sense of awe and wonder that points to something or someone - namely, God. Of course, it makes sense that the unexplainable is so often viewed as synonymous with miracles. Often, it's the things that fall outside our everyday experience and knowledge, things that contradict our understanding of how the universe works (i.e. break the laws of science) that catch our attention enough that they can break us out of our comfort zone and point us to the possibility of God's action in our lives. The point here is that it's not our inability to explain things that is important - it's our response to God and our acceptance of His action in our lives.

Given that, I'm going to try to dissect the daily human experience of "signs and wonders" into 3 different views.

1. Signs are things that science can't explain adequately, and there are many of those. Advance of science destroys wonder and signs.

This is the "God of the Gaps" argument that looks for holes in our knowledge and tries to fill them in with God. The problem with this view is that it puts belief in God at odds with the advancement of human learning. While outspoken proponents of this viewpoint may be trying to nudge scientists to admit uncertainty and give in to humility, the result of this reasoning is that it equates uncertainty with God. A good scientist is humble and knows the limits of her knowledge, and a good Christian is humble and knows the limits of her power. Those are two related but ultimately different things, and one does not logically and necessarily lead to the other. To try and force a person to admit God's power based on his lack of knowledge will usually just lead to greater stubbornness and less public admission of uncertainty.

2. Signs are things that science can't explain adequately, and there are none of those. We have wonder without signs.

This is the scientistic view of the world. When we begin with the assertion that science can explain everything, then as built into our starting assumptions, science can explain everything. We throw out anything that science can't explain, or we chalk it up to "not understanding it yet." After all, there's always room for scientific progress (I'm a fan of that - that's why I have a job!) Although there are no signs that point to God, we can still be filled with wonder. The famous scientist that comes first to mind is Carl Sagan - every bit of his writings and speech oozed with scientific - and scientistic - wonder.

3. Science doesn't destroy wonder, but wonder is not the end - all wonder, whether or not we understand the scientific process that brought it about, is a sign to God.

I believe that most religious/spiritual believers who have been confronted with and in any way accepted the modern views of science subscribe at least partially to this view. For that reason, it may be a way for "conservative" and "liberal" religious believers to find some common ground in understanding God's work in the world. Believers acknowledge God's presence in their lives, not because (or not entirely because) it explains things that science can't explain, but because they see acknowledgment of God and gratitude as the natural response to their sense of wonder. Maybe they haven't thought through it in that way, but I find that this is a common thread that I hear from people describing their experience of God.

We believe that God's daily work in our lives doesn't happen apart from the processes of the universe, but in and through them. When someone or something arrives in our lives at the right time and the right place, we see that hand of God in that, not because it defies reason, but because we know that the laws of the universe allow for many possibilities and we are grateful that they have worked for our good.

With acceptance of the current state of scientific knowledge, our minds can experience the fullness of scientific wonder, but our wonder grows beyond what anyone like Sagan was ever able to experience. The Psalmist said it very well:
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place--
What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
- this is where scientism must end. We are filled with wonder at the greatness of the heavens and the earth and the comparative smallness of "mere mortals." Yet, the Psalmist continues:
Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them rule over the works of your hands, put all things at their feet.
Our wonder encompasses the fullness of scientific wonder at the universe, but then it grows exponentially beyond that, when we acknowledge in faith that God has given us a mind to understand the world, the ability and duty to care for it, and the honor of His presence among us and His providential care for us.

I pray that this Lent, we would open our eyes to God's work in our lives. May we recognize that, as John Paul II said, "We are certainly not left to the mercy of the dark forces of chaos or chance, but are always in the hands of a just and merciful Sovereign." May our minds be filled with wonder, our hearts with gratitude, and our souls with humble trust in the one who Created in wisdom, who Redeems us in love, and who Sustains us in hope all the days of our lives.

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