Sunday, February 26, 2012

David Jenkins at Anglican Samizdat, a great blog name by the way, wrote briefly about the recent discussion between Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams (see the whole discussion on video here) saying  that “Rowan says he doesn’t believe God “intervened” when humans came to be or, by implication, in miracles.” The relevant portion of the dialogue is at 40:26 to about 41:20. We are also directed in one of David's comments to a short discussion between Dawkins and Williams which took place earlier and in which Williams speaks about God acting in history and miracles. David excerpts this portion of Rowan Williams’ earlier discussion, which is available in whole from a link in one of his comments:


“If you think of miracle as God watching something going on down there and occasionally thinking, Oh I’d better fiddle around with that a bit or I’d better intervene there, that has the same sort of problems.If you think of miracle as those sets of circumstances in which somehow the underlying action of God breaks through, breaks through the surface to create something new. I think that’s consistent with an underlying stability of divine action.”

Jenkins believes that Archbishop Rowan Williams does not, at least by implication, believe in miracles (see the comments under the post as well), whereas I think that is an unfair characterization or interpretation of Williams’ comments (see my comments under the post as well). I believe that Williams does present a reasonable Christian understanding and definition of miracles which is supported by other Christian thinkers. I wanted to expand on my comments a bit.

This is not a defense of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ views of miracles – he can certainly do that himself, far more ably than I could – but an attempt to understand what he said about miracles in his discussion with Richard Dawkins, which was slight at any rate, and to interpret his understanding in the context of general Christian understanding of miracles. I think his understanding of miracles fits in the mainstream of Christian theological thinking and that one of his comments, beginning at 40:26, which is related to human evolution, should not be understood as bearing on a view of miracles specifically, but the nature of how God acts in creation and through creation generally.

I have written on this blog about miracles before, which I believe in and which are a specific part of the way in which God acts in history. If we are to define everything that God has done in creation, such as the very act of creation, as a miracle, then by definition I suppose we could say that everything is a miracle, all that exists, all that has life, the birth of a child, is a miracle. This is not, however, the normal definition of miracle. It is too broad and when everything is described as a miracle the word becomes meaningless, even though we sense or feel the wonder of life at times which would not otherwise be seen as "miraculous" just "natural".

When Archbishop Williams was asked about human evolution, he was asked if human beings had “non-human ancestors.” He agreed that they did. He was then asked if in the transition from non-human or “proto-human” ancestors there was “divine intervention.” Now, clearly, Williams believes that God is responsible for the origins of all living things, but he did not believe that in this transition in evolutionary status God directly intervened. What did he mean? He says that at some point in the evolutionary process the “proto-humans” become aware of a call from God, enter into a relationship with God, which might, he says elsewhere in the discussion, be called a “soul.” What he rejects is that God “bend(s) down and tinkers with the machinery.”

This understanding does not deny the reality of  miracles; this is said specifically about how the process of human evolution takes place and it is a reasonable position in Christian theology. It also does not deny God’s place in evolution. Terry Nichols, a Catholic theologian who writes on science, evolution and miracles, writes,
Evolution does not have to be understood naturalistically, that is, as a purely natural and unguided process. Instead, I maintain that evolution has a direction, and is ultimately guided by God. But God does not determine every detail of evolution. (The Sacred Cosmos, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 89).

Nichols goes on to say,

Modern thought, however, tends to think of nature as an autonomous system, and God as outside of or extrinsic to nature. So if God were to act in nature, he would have to “intervene” from the outside, like a mechanic fixing a clock. (The Sacred Cosmos,  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 122).

I believe that Archbishop Williams affirms the first citation quite clearly, but denies the separation of God from nature as modernity tries to do, as described by Nichols in the second quotation. In that sense, Williams is asking for us to see God as immanent and always present and always active in the processes of nature and being and not intervening from “the outside,” a trap into which I think David Jenkins falls.


This is where the quotation of Williams directly related to miracles comes into play, which I will cite again:

“If you think of miracle as God watching something going on down there and occasionally thinking, Oh I’d better fiddle around with that a bit or I’d better intervene there, that has the same sort of problems.
If you think of miracle as those sets of circumstances in which somehow the underlying action of God breaks through, breaks through the surface to create something new. I think that’s consistent with an underlying stability of divine action.”

Williams is consistent with his previous denial of God’s “tinkering” or “intervention” in human life, but not with God’s activity or providence. Again, I will return to Terry Nichols:

The Deist attitude toward miracles was carried forward into the eighteenth century by Enlightenment thinkers. The most famous of these was David Hume, who defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.” This definition seems calculated (as in fact it was) to turn people against the very possibility of miracles. For what many persons (especially scientists) find so beautiful about nature is precisely its lawful complexity (The Sacred Cosmos,  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 183-84).

It is exactly this Humean notion of God as “tinkerer” or “one who reaches down and intervenes” to violate nature and its laws which Williams, to my mind, wants to reject. But how then does he view miracles, at least on the basis of these discussions? Williams’ view that miracles are “those sets of circumstances in which somehow the underlying action of God breaks through, breaks through the surface to create something new” fits with what Nichols writes elsewhere:

Miracles are better understood as signs of divine action that, like grace, do not violate nature but work through it, perfect it, and reveal its divine ground, for nature is not a closed system but an open system within a larger, divine context (The Sacred Cosmos, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 186).

And:

Theologically, a miracle, even an exalted miracle such as the resurrection, is always God working through or in cooperation with nature, and not against it (The Sacred Cosmos,  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 191).

Finally, Nichols speaks of what a miracle “is” and “is not” and it is the one definition, I think, which Williams wants to support and the other which he wishes to avoid:

My contention is that nature is a system open to the action of divine grace and the miraculous, as I have described it above. The degree to which this occurs depends largely on our openness to God in faith.  It is not the case that God decides arbitrarily to intervene here and not there, now and not then…This means that nature exists with a transcendent order and is capable of being transfigured or elevated by that order, both in the act of grace and the act of the miraculous (The Sacred Cosmos,  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 195-6).

Williams is at pains to reject the view of the arbitrarily acting, capricious God. When Williams says, “If you think of miracle as those sets of circumstances in which somehow the underlying action of God breaks through, breaks through the surface to create something new. I think that’s consistent with an underlying stability of divine action,” it sounds much like Nichols stating that “in a miracle, nature becomes transparent to its divine ground, like a window opening onto a higher state of being. Another way of putting this is that miracles are like sacraments: they are visible events in which the divine presence shines forth” (The Sacred Cosmos, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003, 197-8).


I do not think that Archbishop Rowan Williams denies the reality of miracles, I think he sees them as inherent in God’s good creation not something added to it when the creator decides to tinker or intervene by breaking, willy-nilly, into his creation.

John W. Martens

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