Science in Christian Perspective




Penetrating the Word Maze

Richard H. Bube

Stanford University

Stanford, California 94305

From: PSCF 41 (June 1989): 109-110.

This column is a regular feature of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and is written by Richard H. Bube, Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, Stanford, California.

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are: "supernatural/natural."

The Dictionary definitions: supernatural: "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; departing from what is usual or normal, esp. so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature." natural: "being in accordance with or determined by nature; occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature; not marvelous or supernatural." [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1979)].

People get into more misunderstandings because they think they know what "supernatural" and "natural" mean, but really don't. If the words are taken as being mutually exclusive, and "supernatural" means an act of God, then what does "natural" mean? The common conclusion is that "natural" means an event that is not an act of God. No wonder we get into trouble!

If our evidence for the existence and activity of God in the world is identified with specifically "supernatural" events, then every increase in our understanding that suggests a "natural" description of an event that previously had no such "natural" description appears to be a threat to our faith.

The dictionary is not very helpful to us. It tells us that the "natural" is "determined by nature," but as a matter of fact nature" does not "determine" anything. It tells us that the "natural" occurs "in conformity with the ordinary course of nature," but what we mean by "the ordinary course of nature" depends at least as much on our current opinion of what that "ordinary course" is, as it does on what phenomena actually occur. It removes the "natural" from the domain deserving of awe or reverence by saying that the "natural" is not "marvelous."

The dictionary definitions for "supernatural" are reasonably consistent with its definitions for "natural." They make the "supernatural" and the "natural" refer to two quite separate realms. If an event is "usual or normal," then it is "natural;" if it "appears to transcend the laws of nature," then it is "supernatural."

The common approach to "supernatural" and "natural" supposes that they represent mutually exclusive concepts. If an event is "natural," then it has no "supernatural" component; similarly, if an event is "supernatural," it defies "natural" description.

If we are going to unravel this dilemma, we must start with the recognition that every event must be simultaneously considered in two ways, one expressed from a natural perspective and one from a supernatural perspective.

One way is to ask: What is the description of this event in terms of natural cause and effect categories? This is equivalent to asking: What is the scientific description? To say that an event is "natural" is to affirm that it is susceptible to scientific investigation. To say that an event is susceptible to scientific investigation does not imply that a scientific description provides all of the information of value about the event, only that the event is such that some information can be obtained about it from a scientific investigation. To say that an event is intrinsically "supernatural," is to claim that no relevant scientific description can be given of it.

Another way is to ask: What is the meaning of this event? What is its purpose? How does this event relate to God, to His purposes, to the flow of history, and to ultimate reality? To consider such questions is to focus on a supernatural description for the event. It is a description that does not arise out of the event itself or its scientific description, but from a total context beyond it within which the event must be viewed.

It is essential, therefore, for us to realize two distinguishable ways of treating these two terms, "natural" and "supernatural." In one way, they express whether or not a particular event is appropriate for description through scientific investigation. This is a categorization of the kind of event. The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, a sunset seen from a mountaintop, and the disappearance of electrical resistance of some superconductors when the temperature is lowered sufficiently are all natural events. That they are marvelous, few would debate. They are seen as members of that set of events that can be meaningfully described by scientific investigation. The Resurrection of Jesus, and the many miracles He and His disciples performed to heal disease and demonstrate power over forces in the world, are examples of supernatural events. As far as we know, it is not meaningful to seek to express scientific mechanisms for their occurrence.

But at the same time we must remember that whenever we speak of any event in this world, we are speaking of a manifestation of the power and activity of God. Thus, a natural event is never one that occurs without the activity of God, but rather is one that represents our perception of God's normal or regular activity. Every natural event must be interpreted within a supernatural context as well as a natural one. The coming of rain can be described in terms of air pressure and temperature, but it can also be described in terms of answer to prayer. A cow may be seen as an example of bovine biology, but how we treat the cow will depend on whether we see it as a creature made by God for specific purposes or not.

In addition, we recognize the possibility and historical occurrence of the special activity of God that does not follow His normal pattern: acts that we recognize by the name "miracle."

All events that take place in the created universe are manifestations of the free activity of God. A natural event is one that is susceptible to scientific description, but also to interpretation within the context of a larger supernatural perspective. An intrinsically supernatural event is one that is not susceptible to scientific description, but brings out of its own context a particular revelation of God and His purpose.

Do you agree that it may be natural to wonder at the supernatural, but it is no less supernatural to wonder at the natural?