And then I wrote: As I have mentioned, in 2009 the Redemptorist Press invited me to write a series of reflections on issues of religion and science for the Sunday bulletins that are distributed in churches throughout the United Kingdom.
As it happens, the days of the week in 2009 match those of 2020 (after this year’s leap day) and the liturgical calendar also matches; thus, both in 2009 and 2020, the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time falls on 9 August. Here’s what I wrote for that reflection:
As a religious scientist, I am often asked about miracles: does God suspend the laws of nature if we ask? This is related to a larger issue theologians have pondered for centuries: how does God act in the Universe? If the world obeys the laws of science (presumably, set in place by the Creator), and God obeys his own laws, then how can God change the inevitable? For that matter, if all we know can be reduced to chemical reactions in our brains, subject to the laws of cause and effect, how can there be any human freedom?
The ways theologians have answered these questions can be complex and subtle. But there are some basic starting points…
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First, that old mechanical view of the universe as simply gears and levers working inexorably, according to Newton’s laws of physics, is actually not true. It may be useful for building bridges and steam engines, but modern quantum theory and relativity have shown that this sort of mechanical view can only be pushed so far. At the extremes in nature – the very small, the very distant – it doesn’t work.
That doesn’t mean that you can equate “free will” with the quantum uncertainty of nature; that answer, though beyond the understanding of most non-specialists, would still be too “simple”! But at the very least, it reminds us that we don’t know everything about how the physical universe works. Any philosophy or religion based on present-day physics will look ridiculous in a thousand years’ time, as our understanding of science grows.
Second, many events in nature are rare but not impossible. For example, some people have argued that the parting of the seas allowing Moses to lead his people from Egypt might have been due to a particularly unusual weather phenomenon. Maybe so; in that case, the miracle is not the drying up of the sea, but rather the fact that it happened at just the time when Moses needed it: a “divine coincidence.” We have all experienced such wonderful coincidences.
Finally, human free will is an observable fact, whether or not our present understanding of physics or biology is capable of explaining how it can be possible. If anyone insists that we do not have free will, then obviously it isn’t worth arguing the point – since, to be consistent, they must concede that neither they nor we would be free to change our minds, no matter how clever the arguments!
This freedom is one important way that God acts in the universe: by acting on our own hearts and souls, inviting us to be His agents in the world. When we choose to show our love for God by doing His will, God acts in the universe through us. That freedom to choose good or evil, independent of the laws of physics, is one mark of the soul: a piece of the supernatural that each of us embodies.
The ultimate miracle, of course, is the one person who did indeed shatter all the rules: Jesus Christ, Whose birth and death and resurrection showed the hand of the Creator Who has ultimate power over all His creation.
The miracle of the existence of Jesus is paralleled by one other miracle: the existence of the universe itself. There is no “reason” why we should even be here, in terms of mere physics. But here we are. And so we sing for joy.