The Nature of Belief
"Miracles," said my friend. "Oh, come. Science has knocked the bottom out of all that. We know now that Nature is governed by fixed laws."
"Didn't people always know that?" I said.
"Good Lord, no," he said. "For instance, take a story like the Virgin Birth. We know now that such a thing couldn't happen."
"But look here," I said. "St Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary; if you'll read the story in the Bible you'll find that when he saw his fiancée was going to have a baby he decided to cry off the marriage. Why did he do that?"
"Wouldn't most men?"
"Any man would," I said, "provided he knew the laws of Nature—provided he knew that a girl doesn't ordinarily have a baby unless she's been sleeping with a man. St Joseph knew that law just as well as you do."(1)
It's not difficult to find any number of people who have trouble with the nativity scene at the heart of the Christmas story. According to the Barna Research group even Christians are struggling with the virgin birth at the center of their own faith tradition. More than fifteen percent of Christians in the United States admit not believing in the virgin birth, a statistic which is readily increasing.
Across continents, atheist campaigns each year ask the world to admit over its primitive nativity scenes that we know it is only a myth or to celebrate reason instead this season. The battle these voices propose between science and faith describes something like two opposing swordsmen sworn to fight to the death. Though it is an image supported at times by both sides of the fight, it is at best a blind spot in the minds of many and, at worst, a wishful delusion.
In his 1945 essay "Religion and Science," which begins with the above conversation, C.S. Lewis exposed one of the most common false assumptions at the heart of the science/faith divide, particularly as it pertains to the nativity of Jesus. The assumption is that this "primitive" nativity was likewise filled with primitive thinkers devoid of any sort of knowledge of biology or natural reasoning. Here and elsewhere, Lewis saw that we hold our scientific advancements as something like demerits for prior generations, perpetuating the mentality that the only accurate thought is current thought, the only mind worth trusting is an 'enlightened' one—of which we, of course, are conveniently members.
Yet, Joseph knew enough about the laws of nature to at first conclude the infidelity of his fiancée. He knew that babies and pregnancies did not appear on their own and thus intended to divorce Mary quietly, until something changed his mind. The disciples, too, knew enough about the laws of physics to be completely terrified by the man walking on the water toward their boat. The crowd of mourners knew enough about death to laugh at Jesus when he insisted that the dead girl was only sleeping, and to walk away astonished when she came back to life. There were also the magi, astrologers who followed their scientific calculations to the child; Philip and Andrew who knew that the mathematics of two fish and a starving crowd were not going to divide well; Mary and Martha who knew that their brother's death was the last word; and Thomas who knew the same after he watched Jesus crucified.
In each of these objections, I thankfully hear my own. So much so, that it would appear fairly clearly that faith is not a turning of one's back on the fixed laws of nature or physics or mathematics, but rather, a recognition in the very face of these laws which we know and trust that something from outside the law must have reached into the picture. I find each of these scenes both remarkable and reasonable precisely because of the reactions of men and women with a grasp of natural law and the same objections that any of us would have offered had we been present. It would be blind faith indeed if we were receiving a story that wanted us at the onset to fully reject the laws of natural reasoning in replacement of something else. What we receive instead is a story filled with undeniable indications—indications which suggest that something, or Someone, has startlingly stepped into the picture.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, "Religion and Science," Undeceptions (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971), 48.