In Britain, where society is increasingly secular, Richard Dawkins’ new book “The Magic of Reality” has been high in the bestseller lists for weeks.
But while Dawkins insists there is a divide between the life of the mind and the life of the soul (”you can’t be an intellectual and a religious believer”) now in the UK, a number of Christian intellectuals are starting to take on the New Atheists. Prominent among them is John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. Here is Professor Lennox’s Christmas take on Dawkins’ latest book.
Christmas is real magic – not the magic of wizards, wands and wishes, not the stage-magic of illusion, but the poetic magic that derives from supernatural reality. What could be more awe-inspiring and worthy of celebration than that unique turning point in history when supernature invaded nature, the creator entered his creation, the Word became flesh, God became man? What story could be more suitable to tell to every generation of children? Magic because it’s true.
But now a mighty wizard has arisen who wishes by his own magic (what he calls The Magic of Reality) to rob the world of Christmas. Standing on Mount Improbable, he waves his wand at the sun, at earth and living things. He summons lofty words to describe all these in wondrous detail so that all are caught in his spell and sense not the sleight of hand when he then tells them that this is all there is – no transcendence, no supernature, no Creator, no God.
The spell is strong, for nature is wonderful indeed and many of the wizard’s words are true. And yet the mighty wand of science that he waves did not create the sun, the earth and living things. That wand of science was forged long before the wizard’s day by those who believed that the universe was worthy of attention because God had created it. The wizard tells us of the greatness of Newton, but not about the God of Newton. He dares not disclose that his chosen weapon is borrowed from his enemy.
But more. Whence come these wondrous words of reason with which the wizard describes the magic of reality? From his brain. And that, so he would tell us, is but the end product of a mindless, unguided climbing of Mount Improbable. Yet, passing logic, this wizard imagines that by some deep and mysterious alchemy this brain thus formed produces meaning. A fairy story this, an invention of his mind whose very activity is evidence of that transcendence he abhors. For do not his reason and his science point beyond nature to that divine Word that is the foundation for all rationality?
But this he cannot see for he fails to understand what explanation is: he says that ”to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all and even worse to rule out any possibility of its ever being explained.” What strange confusion is this – as if God and science were alternative explanations? God no more competes with science as an explanation of the universe than Henry Ford competes with the science of engineering and the laws of physics as an explanation of the motor car. Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Clerk Maxwell were not hindered but rather motivated in their science by believing that God created and upheld the universe. They simply did not confuse explanation in terms of agency on the one hand with mechanism and law on the other and so were happy to think God’s thoughts after him.
But not this wizard. Miracles violate the laws of nature and so they cannot occur– his wand forbids it. This, too, is false. For these laws, what are they? Our descriptions of what normally happens. Indeed, from the theistic perspective, the laws of nature predict what is bound to happen if God does not intervene; though, of course, it is no act of theft, if the Creator intervenes in his own creation. To argue that the laws of nature make it impossible for us to believe in the existence of God, and the possibility of his intervention in the universe, is plainly fallacious. It would be like claiming that an understanding of the laws of internal combustion makes it impossible to believe that the designer of a car could or would intervene and remove the cylinder head. Of course he could intervene. Moreover, this intervention would not destroy those laws. The very same laws that explained why the engine worked with the cylinder head on, would now explain why it does not work with the head removed.
It is, therefore, inaccurate and misleading to say with Hume that miracles ‘violate’ the laws of nature. C. S. Lewis writes: “If God annihilates or creates or deflects a unit of matter, He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately all nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it. It finds itself conforming to all the laws. If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born”.
In this vein we could agree that it is a law of nature that virgins do not become pregnant by some natural mechanism. But Christians do not claim that Mary became pregnant by natural means but by supernatural power, so that her son was fully God and fully man. By themselves, the laws of nature cannot rule out that possibility. When a miracle takes place, it is the laws of nature that alert us to the fact that it is a miracle. It is important to grasp that Christians do not deny the laws of nature, as Hume implies they do. It is an essential part of the Christian position to believe in the laws of nature as descriptions of those regularities and cause-effect relationships built into the universe by its creator and according to which it normally operates. If we did not know them, we should never recognise a miracle if we saw one.