A few days ago, Adam Omelianchuk on the BHT posted a query he’d read about how miracles can be distinguished from natural phenomena we are not yet able to explain. As the person Adam quoted put it:
The problem with miracles is that you can’t ever really conclude that they are “supernatural”. All you can conclude from them is that “we don’t understand how that happened – yet.”
It is notoriously difficult to come up with a definition of what a “miracle” is. An intervention by God into the workings of nature? Yes, but God is at work in “natural” phenomena as much as “supernatural” ones. Often, our understanding of miracles (and the language we use to describe them, of “interventions” or “interference”) betray a semi-Deistic perspective in which God has, by and large, left the universe to get on with its existence, but intervenes occasionally to nudge the universe in the direction he has in mind for it.
In contrast to this, I find Ken Miller’s distinction between a “complete” and “incomplete” universe helpful. As Miller writes (in an excerpt from his book Finding Darwin’s God):
As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete. Their God fashioned a material world in which truly free and independent beings could evolve. He got it right the very first time.
By contrast, Miller argues:
[C]reationists need a science that shows nature to be incomplete; they need a history of life whose events can only be explained as the result of supernatural processes. Put bluntly, the creationists are committed to finding permanent, intractable mystery in nature. To such minds, even the most perfect being we can imagine would not have been perfect enough to fashion a creation in which life would originate and evolve on its own. Nature must be flawed, static, and forever inadequate.
Now, even if you disagree with Miller’s characterisation of creationism and his conclusions regarding evolution, I do think his emphasis on God having made a creation that is complete is a helpful one.
We have good, biblical grounds for expecting the universe to be complete, and so it should come as no surprise to us that modern science and its “methodological naturalism” should have proven so successful in describing creation’s workings with ever-increasing accuracy and detail. Nor should we have any reason to insist that there must, in the end, be significant gaps in our scientific knowledge for which we are forced to invoke “miraculous” explanations. On the contrary: as our scientific knowledge increases, it only underlines and confirms our confidence in the completeness of creation and the competence of its Creator.
However, just because the universe is complete (thus vindicating “methodological naturalism” as a basis for science), doesn’t mean we should lurch to the opposite error, the error of “philosophical naturalism”, and insist that the universe must also be closed. Science may describe the usual way in which God orders things, but that does not restrict God’s freedom to act in other ways.