Saturday, April 26, 2008

Choosing our miracles

"We seek through doubt," wrote the philosopher Peter Abelard nearly 900 years ago, "and by seeking we perceive the truth."

Yesterday I suggested that the long tension between science and religion boils down to naturalism vs. miracles. Science began its long progressive march when it eschewed the miraculous in favor of natural law. It has found no reason to regret that decision.

Of course, science cannot prove that miracles do not occur. Faith can believe in the absence of evidence.

But what miracles to believe? Do I accept the corporeal Assumption of Mary, but not the literal Flood of Noah? Do I accept the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, but not the Assumption of Mary? If God is all-powerful and intervenes in creation, then every miracle is equally plausible.

The believer will say: God has revealed to us which miracles are true. Well, fair enough. But parsing revelation is formidable task in itself. The parsing that led to the Nicene Creed, for example, was as much political as theological. And let's be honest enough to admit that what one considers to be divine revelation is overwhelmingly dependent upon the religion of our birth. Mormons believe that God revealed the truth to Joseph Smith on a hillside in New York for exactly the same reason and with the same reliability of evidence as the Catholic believes in the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth.

All miracles are equally plausible. By the same token they are all equally implausible. The naturalist takes the latter view as being most compatible with commonplace experience. The religious naturalist finds more reason to celebrate the inexhaustible mystery of existence in the everyday metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly than in the problematic raising of Lazarus from the dead.

I have suggested in this series of posts that the church of my birth would lose nothing and gain much by shedding its supernaturalist baggage. I am not so naive as to believe it will happen in my lifetime, nor am I vain enough to think the Church should change to accommodate me. However, miracles have been in slow retreat at least since the preSocratic rationalists, and especially since the Scientific Revolution. Attrition will continue as science reveals more and more of the marvelous, naturalistic, and deeply mysterious underpinnings of reality.