A while back I was talking with my young theological friend Steven about Christianity. I had remarked that its essence lies in the Incarnation. Without disagreeing with me, he offered the bodily resurrection of Christ as the essential pivot on which Christian belief and practice turns. This raises a number of questions. One is this: Can, or rather may, a scientifically-trained mind accept the literal truth of Christ's bodily resurrection? I don't think that there is an insurmountable problem here. But there may be an insurmountable problem when it comes to accepting the literal truth of the Incarnation. This entry, then, falls into two parts.
A. The Rational Acceptability of Christ's Resurrection
Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, writes:
We really believe in the bodily resurrection of the first century Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. My Christian colleagues at MIT – and millions of other scientists worldwide – somehow think that a literal miracle like the resurrection of Jesus is possible. And we are following a long tradition. The founders of the scientific revolution and many of the greatest scientists of the intervening centuries were serious Christian believers. For Robert Boyle (of the ideal gas law, co-founder in 1660 of the Royal Society) the resurrection was a fact. For James Clerk Maxwell (whose Maxwell equations of 1862 govern electromagnetism) a deep philosophical analysis undergirded his belief in the resurrection. And for William Phillips (Nobel prize-winner in 1997 for methods to trap atoms with laser light) the resurrection is not discredited by science.
To explain how a scientist can be a Christian is actually quite simple. Science cannot and does not disprove the resurrection. Natural science describes the normal reproducible working of the world of nature. Indeed, the key meaning of “nature”, as Boyle emphasized, is “the normal course of events.” Miracles like the resurrection are inherently abnormal. It does not take modern science to tell us that humans don’t rise from the dead. People knew that perfectly well in the first century; just as they knew that the blind from birth don’t as adults regain their sight, or water doesn’t instantly turn into wine.
Maybe science has made the world seem more comprehensible – although in some respects it seems more wonderful and mysterious. Maybe superstition was more widespread in the first century than it is today – although the dreams of today’s sports fans and the widespread interest in the astrology pages sometimes make me wonder. Maybe people were more open then to the possibility of miracles than we are today. Still, the fact that the resurrection was impossible in the normal course of events was as obvious in the first century as it is for us. Indeed that is why it was seen as a great demonstration of God’s power.
To be sure, while science can’t logically rule miracles in or out of consideration, it can be a helpful tool for investigating contemporary miraculous claims. It may be able to reveal self-deception, trickery, or misperception. If someone has been seen levitating on a supposed flying carpet in their living room, then the discovery of powerful electromagnets in their basement might well render such claims implausible. But if science fails to find defeating evidence then it is unable to say one way or the other whether some reported inexplicable event happened, or to prove that it is miraculous. Science functions by reproducible experiments and observations. Miracles are, by definition, abnormal and non-reproducible, so they cannot be proved by science’s methods.
Today’s widespread materialist view that events contrary to the laws of science just can’t happen is a metaphysical doctrine, not a scientific fact. What’s more, the doctrine that the laws of nature are “inviolable” is not necessary for science to function. Science offers natural explanations of natural events. It has no power or need to assert that only natural events happen.
So if science is not able to adjudicate whether Jesus’ resurrection happened or not, are we completely unable to assess the plausibility of the claim? No. Contrary to increasingly popular opinion, science is not our only means for accessing truth. In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, we must consider the historical evidence, and the historical evidence for the resurrection is as good as for almost any event of ancient history. The extraordinary character of the event, and its significance, provide a unique context, and ancient history is necessarily hard to establish. But a bare presumption that science has shown the resurrection to be impossible is an intellectual cop-out. Science shows no such thing.
I agree with Hutchinson.
B. The Rational Acceptability of the Incarnation?
Please note that if a man was raised from the dead by the power of God, it does not follow that the man so raised was God. So if Jesus was raised bodily by the power of God it does not follow that Jesus was or is God. The orthodox Christian narrative, however, requires the doctrine of the Incarnation codified at Chalcedon according to which God, or rather the Second Person of the Trinity, became fully human, body and soul, in Jesus of Nazareth while remaining fully divine. Given the identity of the Second Person and the man Jesus, if a man was raised bodily from the dead by the power of God, and this man is God, then God raises himself.
This doctrine violates our ordinary canons of reasoning. It is, to put it bluntly, absurd in the logical sense of the term: logically contradictory. (Tertullian, Kierkegaard, and Shestov would agree.) Or so it seems to me and Dale Tuggy and many others. But others, equally sharp and serious and committed to the truth, think that if one makes the right distinctions the Incarnation doctrine can be shown not to be in violation of the ordinary canons. I think their fancy footwork avails nothing. Tuggy thinks the same.
Well, suppose Tuggy and I are right. Then it seems there are two ways to go, the Tuggy way and the way of mystery. Tuggy, if I undertand him, rejects the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Standing firm within what I call the Discursive Framework he argues cogently that the doctrines in question are logically impossible.
But there is this 'possibility.' There are true propositions that appear to our intellects as either logically self-contradictory or as issuing by valid inferences in logical contradictions. They are not contradictory in themselves, but they must appear contradictory to our fallen intellects here below. It is not just that these propositions are true, but we cannot understand how they could be true; it is that they seem to us as evidently not true. And yet they are true, and contradiction-free in themselves.
A similar sort of 'possibility' is invoked by materialist mysterians. If a non-eliminativist materialist tells me that a sensory quale is real but identical to a brain state I will say that that is logically impossible since the two items differ property-wise. (These items are in the same logical boat with the man Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity: they cannot be numerically identical since they differ property-wise.) The materialist might just insist: quale and brain state are identical -- it is just that we don't know enough about matter to understand how the identity could hold despite the discernibility. It's a mystery!
Are mysterian moves kosher ploys for showing rational acceptability?
I don't know. But I do know it is Saturday Night, time for a drink, and my oldies show.