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.
As I mentioned last time in this space, it’s a strange time to be alive when an explanation of St. Thomas’ argument for the existence of God is attacked—by Catholics—as an assault on the Faith. But that is what I frequently found during the Natural Revelation discussion in November. On the central question—whether God exists and is Creator—I agree with the ID guys and not with atheists. I even made clear that I thought the basic intuition of some kind of design in nature was something that ID guys got right. So you’d think that whatever else may be the case, the argument I was making for God as Creator would, on the whole, be welcomed by the ID guys in my combox even though we disagree on details of how to argue for that. But in fact, I found that the other big pushback came, not only from atheists, but from advocates of ID, who displayed various levels of resistance to my points ranging from disappointment that I don’t buy ID to accusations that I am part of the Harlot Church foretold in the book of Revelation. (To his credit, ID advocate Mike Behe, who got cc’d by the “Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon” guy, repudiated this crazy fundamentalist nonsense as the faithful son of the Church he is. We have our differences, but Dr. Behe and I are both Catholics.)
Still and all, it was interesting that the general tenor of the ID arguments in the comboxes seemed to the express the notion that it was more important that I disagreed with ID than that we both affirmed that You Know Who is Creator. One reader really telegraphed the problem pretty well in an unexpected way: He charged that because I was talking about natural revelation (i.e, the very limited bits we can discern about God from looking around at stuff) I was somehow denying the need for any supernatural revelation at all—as though the God who reveals himself through what he has made has to contradict himself in his supernatural revelation to Israel and through Jesus Christ. Another person insisted that if I conceived of creation (as Thomas does) as having placed within it the ability to “roll out” (evolvere) its potentialities over time in a seamless act, I was somehow denying the very possibility of miracles. Basically the proposition seemed to be that I either accept the ID vision of a Tinkering God who is perpetually “interfering” with the normal course of nature in order to suddenly create a new species of cow or tyrannosaur or I have to just bag the whole idea of the Resurrection and the miracles of Jesus. What both reader’s charges have in common is the assumption that nature is the opposite of supernature and therefore any time we encounter nature we are not encountering God.
Now if you think “Where nature is, God is not” then sure: every time you find out how a natural process works, you are (irrationally) declaring God exiled from that process. This seems to me to be the “kill or be killed” approach that both atheist materialists and ID guys assume. As Stephen Barr puts it succinctly:
[W]hereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.
But (following Thomas) I don’t think we have to assume that Zero Sum Game at all—precisely because Thomas does not appeal to exceptions to the Rules, but to the Rules themselves, as evidence that there is a Rulemaker, which everybody calls God. Funnily enough, one particularly desperate atheist in my combox, dimly intuiting that Thomas’ design argument was stronger than ID, reflexively tried to claim that the laws of physics are not consistent. He was, I think, making a garbled attempt to say that, for instance, water boils at lower temperature in higher elevations, therefore “laws have exceptions” therefore God the Logos behind nature does not exist. But, of course, all this really shows is that the physical laws are more complex than we might suppose and that it is the task of science to understand those laws, precisely so that we can predict the metric properties of nature. So it is not the case that different boiling points of water point to a lawless nature, but to a nature whose laws are more subtle than we may have thought. To deny that nature has laws in order to deny the existence of a Lawgiver is, in short, to deny that science itself is possible and to place ourselves back in a sort of Sumerian chaos of utterly unpredictable and irrational forces. Not a smart strategy for the apostle of Intellect, Reason and Science. Exactly where the sciences came from was the medieval Latin Christian conviction that the cosmos was a cosmos and not a chaos and that the unity of physical law was rooted in the unity of the Lawgiver who made it.
And Christians—and especially Catholic Christians of all people—should know that. It is the proud heritage of Latin Catholic Christendom and no other place and time that it gave birth to Science because of its conviction that the laws of Nature were, so to speak, the “habits of God”. Catholics should be the first to understand that Nature is the orderly creation of an orderly God who has invested it with the power to “roll out” its potential over time. They should be the first to assume that, within their proper sphere, the physical sciences have the same job as the mystery writer, not to solve the problem with “Then a miracle occurs and an angel points out the murderer!” but to make use of the physical evidence he has to come up with an explanation for the metric properties of time, space, matter and energy. As St. Albertus Magnus put it in De vegetabilibus et plantis:
“In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.”
And in his De mineralibus, he writes:
"It is the task of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of things."
This does not mean the physical sciences are competent to understand all of reality (what is the chemical composition of love? how do we detect the green fumes of human depravity, how much does beauty weigh?). Still less can the physical sciences make grand pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of God--or even of the number 4 (which likewise is composed of no matter nor energy and exists in neither time nor space). But it does mean that, as Thomas makes clear, we don’t need to set up a pointless conflict between the laws of Nature (and those tasked with learning about them) and the Lawgiver. Leave that fruitless endeavor to atheist materialists. Christians have nothing to fear from the physical sciences because the same God who made the world also redeemed it in Christ.
"So then, you do believe in miracles, Shea?"
Of course I do--as St. Thomas did. Of which more next time.