Last week, we started our exploration of miracles by looking at the roots of Israel’s monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. We considered how that transition would drastically shape both that nation and the Bible. In that story, we are told that God cautioned his people on the implications of their choice of government. I proposed that God had two main concerns. First, allegiance to their human king could become a higher priority for the Israelites than their existing commitments to God. Second, human kings would provide poor models of kingship, leading us to make incorrect inferences about what God is like as a king.
Metaphors are central to God’s efforts to make himself known to us. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament illustrates various aspects of God through metaphors from nature and human experience. Jesus explained the kingdom of God through parables. Jesus himself came so that, by knowing him, we could know God. God cares which metaphors we use to know more about him.
One common, long-standing description of science is the process of identifying the laws of nature. For the Christian, those laws were enacted by God. This is part and parcel with God’s position as king; kings pass laws and their subjects obey them. If all of creation is under God’s dominion, it seems only reasonable to think that nature follows God’s laws.
Only, this entire concept of a law of nature is based on analogy from how government works. Laws are familiar; we understand laws. So it makes sense that we would use that idea to think about something harder to understand — namely, why math works so well for describing and predicting the world around us. That math should correspond to reality is widely accepted now, yet it is not at all self-evident that it should. As evidence of that correspondence accumulated, it created the impression that we were discovering the laws that nature follows and that they were written in math.
Once we starting thinking about nature having laws, the next step is to wonder about breaking them and committing crimes against nature. This raises some difficult questions. If all behavior of the natural world is governed by laws, what law is nature following when it breaks other laws of nature? Or if man is responsible for the law-breaking, why should man have the power to break those laws? Where does that power come from? If man is a product of nature, we are back to our first question. If not, why would God give man that power? And does God himself break the laws he wrote? If not, then how can it be possible for supernatural miracles to occur? Are these questions resolvable if we adopt another metaphor?
Still, these are largely philosophical questions. Given the appeal of the law metaphor, and the seeming ability of math to express those laws, is there any scientific reason to rethink our legal approach? Well, for one thing the math doesn’t always work out as cleanly as we might want. Even something as simple as the laws of motion that supposedly govern how billiard balls move on a pool table don’t completely describe how the ball will behave; they only work perfectly for perfectly round, perfectly rigid balls on a perfectly level, perfectly smooth table that can never exist. Yes, the force applied to the ball by the cue has a big effect on where the ball will wind up, but tiny features of the table’s felt, the topography of the table and the floor it sits on, and the air around the table and the ball will also influence the outcome. We could keep adding laws to handle all of those factors, and even then we’d have only covered a single shot. We still haven’t accounted for the human decisions about which shot to make next that also influence the full game outcome; maybe there is math for those, but we have yet to write it down.
In this respect, I see parallels to the overall Biblical narrative. Yes, God is a law giver. Yet over the course of the Bible we discover that the law was not God’s ultimate plan. As with pool, the law only really works when everything or everyone is perfect. In this way, the law served to point us towards our need for something greater. Perhaps a legal perspective on nature is meant to serve a similar purpose, to get us started on our understanding of nature rather than to provide the final word.
If the law is not the metaphor we are ultimately intended to use to understand the natural world, where does that leave us? Going back to pool, the biggest unanswered questions involved the human decisions. What if we took decisions to be fundamental, rather than an element to be explained by laws? What if God imbued creation with possibilities and the ability or will to choose among them? These choices needn’t be conscious. The interactions of different wills then determines what actually occurs, which in turn informs the available possibilities going forward. On some level, this is just another metaphor, but it’s likely we are going to need to start with some kind of metaphor. And it’s probably not a complete description; it’s meant to start a conversation rather than end it. But I think it has some merit as an alternative metaphor, as we shall see in the weeks ahead.
Now, probably the biggest concern with this metaphor is that perhaps it goes too far. If we rethink the idea of laws of nature, are we diminishing God’s status as king? If the natural world has the quality of will to decide for itself, does that take away God’s sovereignty, leaving us in chaos? As we’ll see next week, it may just be that chaos does not mean what we think it means.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.