Does Science Allow for Revelation and Divine Action?
(does quantum physics put materialism in question?)
The Possibility of Particular Divine Acts in the World
Religions do not consist solely of sophisticated beliefs about the ultimately spiritual nature of reality. At the level of everyday practice, there is a layer of beliefs about the actions of spirits, ancestors, or gods who listen to prayers, show concern with what is going on in the world, and give advice and practical help from time to time. Angels and demons and spiritual beings of various sorts are all parts of the ontology of religion.
This may be embarrassing to some theologians, who may wish to classify most of these beliefs as "superstition." But a theoretical line between superstition and religion is hard to draw, and while mystics may speak of wordless communion with an ineffable God, many religious practitioners will claim a much more direct and conversational relationship with a deity, a saint, or an ancestor, or will say that God speaks to them every day on very practical matters.
It is important to try to understand the sources of such beliefs. I think that they express a general, if vague and variously interpreted, sense that there is some sort of plan or destiny for our lives (perhaps the influence of the stars), and that there are active causal forces in nature that are nonmaterial and are closely related to human good and harm. I suspect that most of these beliefs are remnants of the first stage of religious life, the stage of local traditions, before close observations of nature or critical reflection on such observations had taken hold.
The major religious traditions either try to suppress such beliefs (as with most forms of Protestant Christianity) or incorporate them, appropriately modifed, into religious life as popular practices (as with many forms of Catholic Christianity). The main religions develop ideas of human destiny and objective spiritual causality so as to account for popular practices as ways of access to a Spiritual Reality that, in fact, has a deeper intellectual base. The problem for religions is to contain such popular beliefs and guard against the misunderstandings they may show, while encouraging the development of more complex understandings for those who are open to them.
It may be noted that, in science, similar problems exist. Fortunately, not many people need or want to know about quantum physics. But popular understandings (or misunderstandings) abound, and scientists may want to encourage attempts to understand, while accepting that it will not be possible to provide an accurate account of electrons, for example, if people cannot grasp what a probability wave is.
Unfortunately, in religion, many people who are unable to cope with the complexities of academic theology tend to think that they have a better grasp of spiritual realities than mere scholars. But that is rather like the thousands of people who think they can disprove Einstein's theory of relativity or Darwinian evolution, even though they cannot solve differential equations or do not know how to identify a gene.
The problem in religion is clearly shown in the development of the Hebrew religion, as illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. Many popular practices, like witchcraft, communication with the dead, and the use of fertility spells, are forbidden. They are taken to be attempts to use spiritual powers for immoral ends or by immoral means. On the other hand, prayers for healing, prophetic foretelling of the future, and the use of blessings and curses are legitimated because they can be positively related to Hebrew belief in one creator God who controls the future and acts in history to bless and judge the people of the twelve tribes.
The important element is the devotion of all life to God. Practices that ignore or impede this are forbidden. But it is not denied that there is a destiny, indeed a special calling or vocation, for the Jewish people and that there is a spiritual power, God, who acts to influence human good or ill. Spirits, angels, and demons continue to be part of the biblical worldview. They are increasingly seen in the Bible as aspects of the Divine Being itself, as it relates to the human world. Yet, most biblical writers, in both Old and New Testaments, continued to think there are many finite spiritual agencies, both good and bad, who act in the human world.
In the New Testament, if it is read literally, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, long-dead prophets, was nourished by angels, exorcised demons, and spoke of Satan's "falling from heaven" or being defeated by the healing power of the Son of Man. These spiritual agents are parts of the second stage, the canonical, religious picture. Many believers in the third, critical, stage of religion banish all such agents as legendary, fictional, or purely symbolic characters. They may be figurative symbols for the corrupting force of human egoism and the integrating power of compassionate thought.
But is God, also, a figurative symbol? For some believers the answer is "yes." Certainly, the picture of God as a bearded father figure is such a symbol, one that fails to speak to many these days. But, for most believers, the symbol of the Father seated on a throne does symbolize an objective consciousness and will, however far beyond our imagining such a reality, in fact, is. It may be thought to do so more adequately than the symbols of many competing gods or spirits of nontheistic religion, though it should never be taken as a wholly adequate picture of the Ultimate Reality of perfect consciousness, wisdom, goodness, and beauty that underlies the visible universe.
If there is such a reality, God, it will affect the nature of the universe. But will God act in the human world to influence human good and ill? The Abrahamic religions seem to give an unequivocal "yes" to that question. The God of Abraham "speaks" to Abraham and the prophets, tells them to do specific things, delivers Israel from Egypt, judges their evil acts, and gives them a historical destiny to be the "priests of the earth."
Although the biblical God can and does act miraculously, in amazing ways that seem to transcend the regularities of nature, God usually acts in more normal ways that do not surpass nature's regularities. This difference between miraculous and ordinary divine action is confusingly put by saying that some divine acts "break the laws of nature" and others do not. That suggests the eighteenth-century picture that the laws of nature are universal and inflexible rules, which God would have to break in order to act.
What is needed is a different account of the laws of nature, as abstract mathematical descriptions or models of some artificially isolated aspects of physical phenomena. Such models are often stochastic or probabilistic, and, as discussed in chapter four, they are never exhaustive or complete, capable of providing full information about all aspects of phenomena and of predicting exactly how objects will behave in future.
For such an account, a miracle is defined in terms of its amazingness, its religious significance, and the impossibility of giving an account of it in terms of natural regularities, however mathematically modeled. Ordinary divine acts will lack these features, but they will still describe features of physical situations that are not fully accounted for by mathematically formulated laws of physical regularity alone. Natural regularities continue to obtain—we can give an account in terms of natural regularities. But such regularities allow for causal influences of a non-physical sort. In fact, such influences are a normal part of any physical world in which persons exist.