National Catholic Register

Commentary

The Virgin Birth and the Zeitgeist

BY Mark Shea

Dec. 19, 2004-Jan. 1, 2005 Issue | Posted 12/19/04 at 12:00 PM

 

An Anglican cleric once asked the famous scientist J.B.S Haldane what we could discern about the mind of God by contemplating creation.

Haldane, a rather outspoken atheist, replied with dry English wit: “He appears to have an inordinate fascination with beetles.”

This illustrates nicely the difference between the ways that ordinary (and, I daresay, normal) people and extremely clever people tend to see the extraordinary creativity of God. A normal person — particularly a normal child — encounters an extraordinary thing like a beetle and feels he could spend a lifetime trying to fathom the wonder of this one unlikely and unutterably complex, frightening and beautiful thing.

The clever person sees this inexplicable wonder many times and somehow decides the constant repetition of the experience makes it both explicable and unimportant. Mere repetition and large quantities of the same mysterious wonder cause him to grow numb to the fact that he is not one inch closer to knowing what the wonder is.

Pharaoh felt the same way. He walked in a world of wonders. But being a clever, pragmatic, up-to-date and businesslike person, he thought it childish and simple-minded to gape in amazement when Moses wrought wonders before his eyes. A rod into a serpent? Big deal! He'd seen it before. The magicians could do the same. Nothing interesting here. And the Nile turned to blood? So what? His court magicians could do that, too! Somehow, mere repetition of the utterly inexplicable made Pharaoh think he had explained everything.

We're no different. Our minds slip back to this habitual way of thinking because we have mental ruts — well worn by centuries of mechanistic and naturalistic thinking — that tell us natural cycles and “laws of nature” are a function of a great, impersonal machine going through its motions. And so we labor under a curious form of brainwashing that regards “laws of nature” as sufficient explanation for natural cycles of the Nile, or planetary movements, or biological phenomena.

But what we forget is that all such language about “laws” of nature is merely descriptive, not prescriptive. In short, something happens a lot (or “always” in our limited frame of reference), and we call it a “law.” But we do not, in the final analysis, know why things behave as they do. They just do. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Why? Because it does. Hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water, and water, in turn, has various properties. Why? Because it does. However, these and many other inexplicable things happen so often that we call our ignorance “the laws of nature” and imagine we have explained something and, most importantly, declared to nature how it “must” act, thereby eliminating the supernatural.

The longer I live, the more I become convinced that this peculiar habit of mind will one day be looked back on by generations yet unborn as one of the weirdest blind spots of the 20th and 21st centuries. They will read the confident dogmatic pronouncements of our time — which declare that everything is the product of a glorious accident, or that life is merely complex chemistry and human beings are merely particularly complicated pieces of meat — and wonder how we could have made ourselves so blind to the miracle of creation and why we were so allergic to ascribing creation to a creator.

Future generations will wonder how so many people in our day could stare straight at the legion of finely tuned cosmic “coincidences” that had to happen to get a cosmos at all — not to mention to get intelligent life on our planet — and gape in incomprehension at our refusal to hear the word “DESIGN!” screaming at us. It will be a strange and fitting chastisement of our generation to have our descendants say, “Oh, yes. The 20th and 21st centuries. We don't understand how they could have made themselves stone blind to the obvious, still less how they could have thought that the supernatural had somehow been dis-proven by science.”

I always think of that this time of year as the normal rhetoric gets trotted out about how the virgin birth was “against the laws of nature, which we now understand.”

The fact is, of course, that it was not a news flash to St. Joseph or Mary that women don't normally conceive without the help of a man. They knew that law of nature as well as we. But they were also aware of something our age has forgotten: Laws of nature are no more immune from change by the Lawgiver when he thinks it's a good idea to do so than laws of the United States are immune to constitutional amendment by our lawgivers when they think it's a good idea to do so. So, Merry Christmas! It's not the law, but it's certainly a good idea.

Mark Shea is senior content editor for CatholicExchange.com.