Polkinghorne on Miracles

I recently read Professor John Polkinghorne's short essay, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, a mostly enlightening essay. There is much to like in this work--though I question whether it really deserves the comparisons it draws from some reviewers to C.S. Lewis' works--but there is one passage in particular which has stood out especially:

"Science cannot exclude the possibility that, on particular occasions, God does particular, unprecedented things. After all, he is the ordainer of the laws of nature, not someone who is subject to them. However, precisely because they are his laws, simply to overturn them would be for God to act against God, which is absurd. The theological question is, does it make sense to suppose that God has acted in a new way? One thing that is theologically incredible is that God is some sort of celestial conjuror, doing a turn to impress today that he didn't think of yesterday, and won't be bothered to do tomorrow. God can't be capricious. He must be utterly consistent. However, consistency isn't the same as dreary uniformity. In unprecedented circumstances, God can do unexpected things. Yet there will always be a deep underlying consistency that makes it intellegible, for example, that God raised Jesus from the dead that first Easter Day, while, in the course of present history, our experience is that dead men stay dead. The search for this consistency is the theological challenge of miracle.

A simple parable drawn from science may help here. The laws of nature do not change, they are unfailingly consistent, yet the consequences of these laws change spectacularly when one moves into a new regime. Think of heating some water. The temperature rises steadily in a perfectly uniform way, until it reaches a boiling point. Then, something happens that, if we had not observed it every day of our lives, would astonish us. The steady rise is halted and a small quantity of water turns into a large quantity of steam. Physicists call this a 'phase change'. We have moved from the liquid regime to the gaseous regime. However, the laws of nature do not change at 100 [degrees] C, it is only their consequences that become radically different. It is a similar kind of account, with profound continuity underlying apparently discontinuous behavior, that we must seek if we are to understand the miraculous." (Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity pp 82-83).

Lots to think about here, plenty to like and some which doesn't quite sit right in my mind. The idea of a miracle being consistent with the laws of nature, but simply being a different sort of regime in which the consequences are different is certainly an attractive idea. It certainly gets around the theological problem which is presented by the notion of God's going against His own laws. It even suggests a certain amount of economy to God's miracles—though I question whether a boundless and bountiful being needs to exercise economy. God does not, in any case, violate the laws of nature, nor change them, nor even suspend them when a miracle occurs.

The suggestion that there is some underlying intelligibility to God's miracles is also important to note. The late Fr Stanley Jaki—another physicist-theologian—put this in another perspective when he noted that miracles have an underlying moral importance to them. God is not, after all, a conjuror of sorts Who does a few simple tricks to gain adherents, and indeed Fr Jaki notes that often conversion is not the outcome of a given miracle, though it can at times be a secondary effect of witnessing the miraculous.

In fact, many of the miracles we hear about in the Gospels might fit this mold of having an underlying moral purpose, and of being (moreover) a "different regime" of nature under which the laws are the same but the consequences different. The miraculous healings for example, might be an example of Christ's using the body's own abilities to heal, though under accelerated circumstances. And there are certainly some moral implications to the raising of the dead, and especially of Christ's own resurrection, which need not invoke a change in the laws of science so much as a reversion of those same laws to an earlier or "higher" state in which men do not die. Death and perhaps even (speculatively) entropy might be "consequences" of the Fall—certainly suffering is a consequence of sin. The multiplication of loaves and fish might be seen to counteract the physical hunger from which we have suffered since that fateful day on which Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of knowledge, though it certainly also points forward to the one meal whose effects are greater than the Fall.

Still, there is something to the good Anglican clergyman's interpretation which I find problematic, to say the least. I certainly agree that God is consistent with Himself, and that He does not simply violate the laws of nature, or even suspend them per se. However, it does not seem to me that every miracle is explainable as merely a "different regime" of physics in the way that Prof. Polkinghorne means. For one thing, there is Christ's own first miracle—the changing of water into wine (John 2:1-11). Sure, there is some moral underlying this transformation—and if water may turn to wine or blood (Exodus 7:17-19 and Revelations 16:4), what indeed does wine become?--but this does not seem to me to be merely a different regime in which the laws of nature are unchanged but "their consequences become radically different." The calming of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25) tends to lose much of its force when Christ merely predicts that end of the storm is near before "rebuking" the wind and waves (Mark 4:39)--not to mention that such an interpretation would render Christ a sort of charlatan, telling the wind and waves to be quiet implies His immediate command over them more so than mere foreknowledge that the storm had run its course.

There is, however, a way in which I think the interpretation of miracles as a "different regime of nature" might be reconciled with some of these objections. I noted before that Rev. Polkinghorne's essay drew a comparison to C.S. Lewis, so I suppose that I should turn now to Professor Lewis. In his classic children's story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis draws a contrast between the deep magic at the dawn of time—which might be comparable to the "normal" regimes of nature—and the deeper still magic from before the dawn of time—which might be the regime of the miracles, or of "supernature" (as Lewis calls it). According to the "deep magic," we live in a fallen world, a world of sin and entropy, a world in which there is hunger, disease, death: in a word, a world of suffering. Our lives are spent in a great struggle against emptiness, meaninglessness, in a word, against nothing, and then ultimately our lives come to an end, and we appear to be bound for nothing.

The "deeper magic", the laws above nature, the supernatural and perhaps also preternatural laws, say that this isn't so. They are rooted in the Law, the Logos, who "was with God and was God" (John 1:1). This Law has become obscured to us thanks to sin (1 Corinthians 13:12), though at times it comes into sharper focus in becoming tangible, a miracle. Man was not meant to die or to suffer, was not meant to be buffeted about by wind or wave, nor to go hungry but by his own toil and labor. Rather, these things are consequences of sin, and so we who can only read the "deep magic" see them as the normal consequences of nature's laws.

But these laws were made for man and not man for these laws (cf. Mark 2:27). God, then, is not being inconsistent when he temporarily suspends the laws of nature (as in a miracle), but rather is making nature conform with greater consistency to the "deeper" laws, the eternal laws.

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