Norwich lecture report on science and miracles
Miracles can happen – or can they? Around 130 people gathered in Norwich Cathedral to hear leading scientist Professor Sir Colin Humphreys explore how science can fit with Biblical miracles.
Report by Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin
First, Sir Colin asked whether miracles must break scientific laws. Richard Dawkins, following Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), described miracles as violations or transgressions of nature, but Sir Colin noted that the great theologian, St Augustine (354 – 430), wrote that miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. This suggests that miracles need not contradict scientific laws. Sir Colin doubted whether this did justice to miracles like the resurrection, but certainly, St Augustine did not define miracles in terms of breaking laws. He was seeking a consistent understanding of God’s creation.
As an example of a miracle fitting with science, Sir Colin described the crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites at the climax of the Exodus. He noted that, in the Biblical account, the waters of the Jordan stopped far away, at a town called Adam. This specific detail is surprising if the story is just a legend invented as miraculous propaganda. By combining our modern knowledge of geophysics with a careful analysis of the ancient biblical texts, it is reasonable to conclude that the waters of the Jordan were blocked by the effects of an earthquake. Owing to a geological fault-line, similar events have occurred many times at this particular spot on the River Jordan, most recently in 1927. Thus, this miracle need not involve breaking scientific laws, though it apparently involved miraculous timing.
In the same way, the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses is entirely consistent with the way in which a strong wind can drive back sea waters by many metres, providing the temporary causeway that enabled the Israelites to get across, and signs of these natural causes remain in the Biblical accounts. These two events, crossing the Jordan and crossing the Red Sea, represent what might be described as “miracles of timing” where a rare but natural event is amazingly coincident with the needs of God’s people. The events in themselves do not contravene natural laws, but this does not explain them away, since the repeated coincidences are wonderful. God is thus working in, with and through the nature he created to perform such miracles.
Professor Humphreys argued that the Biblical picture is of a faithful, consistent God, so breaking laws presents a problem to both scientists and theologians seeking consistency. Sir Colin did not think Augustine’s language about miracles seemed adequate in the context of the resurrection of Christ. The New Testament describes the resurrection as the beginning of a new creation, fundamentally transforming the way we behave in our natural, carbon-based bodies. The risen Jesus is portrayed as a tangible figure, eating meals, and often experienced by many witnesses at once. He also appeared in locked rooms, and then disappeared.
By way of explanation, Sir Colin offered a musical analogy, allowing for three kinds of miracles. God’s action is like a musical composition in a certain key. Miracles of timing involve coincidences among different instruments, but God is free also to introduce accidentals, notes from a different scale to the original key signature, and even to make a change of key signature. Temporary miracles like raising Lazarus would be like accidentals, but the resurrection of Jesus would be more like a key change. Nonetheless, all these coincidences, accidentals and key changes would be consistent with the composer’s overall intention to produce a better piece of music than would be possible without them. Scientific study of nature can help us to understand some miracles, but recognising the Creator helps us to understand why there is a comprehensible nature at all, and why some things only make sense by considering his overall intention. Sir Colin is pleased to be a scientist who believes in miracles.
A video link for the lecture is found on the Cathedral website: https://youtu.be/NqXEJR9snDg. This was the 14th annual Cathedral lecture organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group that provides a forum to explore contemporary scientific issues from a religious perspective.
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