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In today’s On the Square article , physicist Stephen Barr pushes back against the idea that the practice of science must necessarily be atheistic:

For Haldane and Krauss, religion is about miracles, and miracles are about magic and the irrational, and therefore belief in God stands in opposition to the world revealed by science, a world intelligible by reason and governed by law.

For Jews and Christians, however, pitting God and the laws of nature against each other in this way is an absurd mistake; for it is the very lawfulness of nature that points to a divine Lawgiver. In the Bible, God gives laws not only to the people of Israel, but to the cosmos itself, as in Jeremiah 33:25, where he declares his fidelity to Israel in these terms: “When I have no covenant with day and night, and have given no laws to heaven and earth, then too will I reject the descendants of Jacob and of my servant David.”

Barr’s response is impressive, not only for his excellent points, but for his restraint in refusing to point out the embarrassing naïveté of Mr. Krauss’ views on religion and science.

But lest we Christians begin to feel smug in our superior grasp on reality, we should recognize that we often lead people to such peculiar conclusions because of the language we use. For example, I think much of the misunderstanding about the supposed incompatibility between science and religion is due to our use of terms like supernatural , which often lead to confusion and muddled thinking.

The connotations implicit in the term supernatural differ based on the subject in which it occurs. When used in the natural sciences the term has a deistic flavor, while in a theological context it has a polytheistic quality. Consider, for example, the way our culture—including most Christians—have come to view the angelic realm. Although scripture is clear that they angels are created by Jesus (Col.1:16), we tend to consider them beings that are not only supernatural but supercreational, existing not only outside of nature but outside of creation itself.

The fact that the denotative understanding occurs primarily on a subconscious level only adds to the confusion. By using the term supernatural to refer to such beings we are implying that they belong on the same plane or realm of existence as God.


Nature (i.e., plants, animals, minerals)

One of the reasons we make such errors is because we buy into the modernist notion that all of creation is physical and therefore natural, or a part of nature. Since angelic beings are not physical they must necessarily exist on a supernatural (i.e., nonphysical) plane that is completely separate and distinct from the material cosmos. Angels are not part of the “natural” order. This semantic move, however, tends to lead us into conceding too much to the physicalist worldview.

Those who believe that the material realm is all that exists (i.e., materialists, physicalists, some atheists) are forced to reduce or explain everything in terms of the physical. The mind, for example, is considered to be identical and reducible to the physical states of the brain. Senses, emotions, desires, and other intangibles presumably are illusory properties that emerge from the physical. All natural laws are therefore physical laws.

But Christians, not being bound by such a limiting worldview, neither have to shoehorn all of reality in the physical nor do we need to invoke a Platonic realm of forms. Our view of reality is robust enough to recognize that the natural realms consists of such aspects as the quantitative, the ethical, the aesthetic, and the economic, that are not necessarily reducible to another aspect of reality (i.e., the physical). For example I can neither reduce nor derive an ethical obligation (e.g., do not murder) from the physical aspect. Ethics, like many other areas of reality, is related but not reducible to the physical.

Unlike in Plato’s view, however, these aspects of reality are not co-equal with God (or as Plato would say, the demiurgos ). Although they are natural they are not physical (i.e., reducible to the material). This is why I would recommend dispensing with the term supernatural when referring to anything other than the Triune God. Rather than using the term natural, we should use—at least in theology and philosophy—the more biblical term of creation or creational .
To understand how this differs from other views, let’s compare it to the physicalist worldview. The materialist/physicalist distinguishes the natural from the supernatural based on what has a physical existence. Anything that really exists must be physical and because the supernatural has no physical existence it cannot exist. Ontological reality (the ability to exist) is contingent upon an entity being physical (i.e., a part of the material universe).

Christians, on the other hand, should draw the line of demarcation between the creational/natural and the supernatural based on that which exists necessarily (exists on its own) and that which relies on something else for its existence. According to the Bible, all of creation not only came into existence by God’s fiat, but remains in existence only because of his continuous action (sometimes referred to as providential action or simply providence).

Because it is possible for angels, demons, time, and the entire universe to cease to exist , its existence must be radically contingent. Even if the universe has always existed and was uncaused (i.e., the view of steady-state cosmology), its existence would still require a causal agent to keep it from ceasing to exist, to prevent its exnihilation . Since no natural cause exnihilates anything, the cause must be supernatural. A supernatural being (one that is itself uncaused) is required to prevent the universe from turning into nothingness.

The divide between the creational/natural and the supernatural would therefore look something like this:


Nature (i.e., plants, animals, minerals)

While not every part of creation is necessarily physical (i.e., time, demons, dimensionality), they are also not supernatural. They are all entities that depend on Gods providential action and are subject to his creational norms.

Of course, changing the way we use language won’t convince everyone of the correctness of our worldview. But it might go a long way toward clarifying our own thinking and understanding about the connections between science and religion.

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