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Supernature and Nature Are Not Opposites

Friday, January 17, 2014 1:01 AM Comments (28)

Last time we talked about the fact tnat Truth does not contradict Truth and that the same God who creates also redeems. For that reason, Catholics have nothing to fear from the exploration of the physical world. It is also why Catholics should be the last to assume that the God who made an orderly Creation cannot alter or suspend the course of Nature with miracles. He is, after all, God. So I see no reason why denial of the miraculous follows from acknowledgement of the natural order and the sciences, any more than I see why Shakespeare, imposing a metrical form on himself and his characters, might not choose for his own artistic reasons to switch from iambic pentameter to prose when he deems it fitting. So I take it for granted that certain miracles—pre-eminent among them the Incarnation and the Resurrection—have occurred, for the very good reason that I think the evidence is powerfully in their favor. I’m even willing to grant that supernatural occurrences (of a sort) are far more common occurrences than most people think.

”Well then, there you go,” says the ID guy. “Why not then grant that God is constantly tinkering with creation to produce new species and irreducibly complex biological systems as we say?”

Because of William of Conches, a medieval Catholic who says:

"[They say] 'We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.' You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so."

So: God may well be tinkering with creation. But if he is, science can, at best, say nothing about it. It can, so to speak, only say nothing about it. The most the sciences can say, even about a real miracle is, “We don’t what caused that exception to the Rules.” That’s because the physical sciences can only measure time, space, matter and energy. Science not only can’t tell if God is personal, it can’t tell if you are personal either. As far as science can tell, you are an unusually sophisticated bag of chemicals. That’s why Thomas doesn’t waste his time with “scientific proofs” of miracles (i.e. “exceptions to the rules”). It is metaphysics, not physics, that is the proper instrument for seeing if God is there. It’s not that Thomas doesn’t believe in miracles. It’s that he doesn’t think them the best approach to demonstrating the existence of God (particularly to people who deny the possibility of the miraculous). In the words of Chesterton:

It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else's principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours.

What Thomas does is not deny the possibility of the miraculous, but not demand that somebody who does not believe in the miraculous start by accepting it. Instead, he starts on the ground of the rationalist: who insists that nature is intelligible and operates according to knowable laws. It is from this ground—upon which stand all the physical sciences the unbeliever trusts in, that Thomas builds his argument.

So: all of that said, I thought that it might be fun now to completely switch gears from natural revelation to supernatural revelation. Having made clear that I have no problem with the ancient Catholic belief that God is (partly) knowable via the things that he has made, I thought it would be amusing to go to the far end of the spectrum of revelation and talk about the ooky dimension of revelation called “private revelation”: a species of revelation that is positively chockablock with the weird, the Tales of the Unexplained, and the strange. What is it? We’ll, let’s talk about that next time.

Filed under natural revelation

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.