Philosopher David Hume should be celebrating his 305th birthday about now. He was born on May 7th (which was April 26th before the Calendar Act of 1750), so his birthday was either this week or the previous week, depending on how you look at it. Hume’s work, particularly when combined with the thinking of John Locke, exerted tremendous intellectual force throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is still felt regarding the possibility of miracles. Essentially, Hume’s intellectual remains haunt us with the idea that every “miracle” can be explained through science (thus making it no longer a miracle) and, if science can’t explain an event, then the reports of the event are wrong (hallucinations, misinterpretations of the event, or something that our scientific thinking hasn’t yet unraveled—but will).
Had Hume lived today, I doubt his thinking would have been exactly the same. While the traditional definition of a miracle is, simply, “something inexplicable through science or natural law that is thus attributed to divine agency,” our best science is increasingly demonstrating that such “natural law” is no less mysterious than God himself. Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis, Chaos Theory, and Dark Energy are just a few examples of areas in which mathematics and science reveal to us how little we actually know about the universe we inhabit and its mysterious workings. One could say that we are only now learning what Hamlet told us centuries ago: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Recognizing everything we barely understand isn’t to say that we humans can’t and won’t continue to learn more. But, if we are to learn anything from the history of science, it is that we keep building on our understanding, often disproving our previous thinking and discovering new, unimagined worlds.
These new, unimagined worlds that science reveals are actually why I find Christian faith so compelling. Although Christians have often reacted with suspicion, hostility, and stupidity toward science, there is no doctrinal or biblical reason for such responses. In fact, the Christian understanding of the universe is far more accommodating to intellectual inquiry and scientific discovery than church history suggests.
Christianity teaches that, at the core of the universe, there is an infinite mystery that is the ground of all being. This ground of being is not an impersonal force but itself a mysterious being, who in its very nature is relational and personal. This mystery is creative and loving, and calls us to explore and learn and grow—while assuring us that we will never fully understand everything. Christians recognize this loving, relational, mysterious being as the Triune God. To identify God as both a personable, knowable, loving being and a fundamental mystery isn’t an easy, religious way out of something that is intellectually challenging. Mystery is an invitation to long, hard, creative thinking. But along with this invitation to explorative thought comes the comforting reassurance that we cannot, will not, and do not have to find all the answers or come to perfect comprehension. The great game of human knowledge will not end. The proper “end” of our thinking is not intellectual mastery but being known and loved by the God who made us. And it is only through the experience of being known and loved that we finally come to know and love ourselves…and learn to extend the gift of knowing and loving to each other.
Postscript: (And again, it seems that the poets “get it” long before either scientists or theologians. )
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
From “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Special thanks to Keith M. Collis for the inspiration behind this post.