July 26, 2006

Supernatural Acts

1521 page17 capn my beginning,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “is my end.” As Seventh-day (the beginning) Adventists (the end), we know that one (the beginning) contains the other (the end) as surely as the whole does the half. That’s why the current naturalistic view of the beginning, which has life originating from meaningless chance, has it end that way as well, with the universe either burning out or folding back on itself in “the big crunch.” What a contrast to revealed knowledge, which—because it has our beginning rooted in the creative act of God—does so to our end as well: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isa. 65:17).
Too bad, this radical break between naturalism and supernaturalism, or between science and faith, because it didn’t start out that way. The early heroes, Bacon, Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, all worked from a theistic (hence a supernaturalistic) presupposition, which was that God had created everything. Only in later years, the eighteenth century in particular, especially in France with the works of folks such as Baron d’Holbach, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, did this dogmatic atheistic naturalism take hold, pushing out God and replacing Him with mathematical formulas, a legacy that reaches into the twenty-first century as well. Reason, so long a powerful tool in defending faith, had been turned against it. “The process,” wrote Susan Nieman, “by which the wish to defend God with reason would become the wish to displace God with reason was a long one.”
1521 page17Now, it is true that the existence of the supernatural does debunk contemporary science’s a priori materialistic view of reality. How could something supernatural occur in a universe that functions only within the parameters of natural law? It couldn’t. However, the obvious existence and function of natural law doesn’t exclude the supernatural. In other words, though even one supernatural event undermines the philosophical foundation of the whole modern scientific tradition, the obvious existence of natural law in no way undermines the supernatural. The concept of the supernatural is big enough and broad enough to embrace the natural; the natural, however, is too limited, too narrow in its approach to embrace anything outside its own dogmatic parameters. Naturalism presents the mask of reality while denying the face behind it.
The supernatural’s ability to encompass the natural appears in the first chapter of Genesis. Scholars have long noted the “naturalistic” elements there, a radical difference from other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, in which things like the sun and the moon were deemed as deities, a concept foreign to Genesis. The book uses naturalistic language to describe the results of God’s supernatural work. “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also” (Gen. 1:14-16).
Speaking something into existence is about as supernatural as we can imagine. Yet what’s spoken into existence, the sun and moon, which were worshipped by the ancients as gods, are here depicted as mere lights (Genesis doesn’t even call them “the sun” or “the moon” because those were also the names of pagan deities)—natural phenomena that follow the nomothetic patterns of nature. All of which, of course, came from the mouth of God. Both elements, therefore—the natural, the supernatural—exist together, because the biblical worldview encompasses both.
“Is there an afterlife,” wrote poet Steve Gehrke, “it is in the imagination of others/ And resurrection? In the stories that they tell.” That’s about all the naturalistic universe offers us, a future that exists only in the stories of those who one day won’t exist to tell stories. How narrow compared to the reality revealed in the Word, a reality that takes us where many man-made superstitions can’t.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.