Saturday, December 01, 2012

Hiding in plain sight

A stock objection which unbelievers routinely raise to Biblical miracles is the allegation that the world you and I live in doesn’t resemble the world of the Bible. Biblical narratives are studded with miracles, but we don’t experience that in the modern world. Rather, we experience the uniformity of nature.

The contrast between the world of the Bible and the world you and I actually experience strongly suggests the world of the Bible isn’t the real world, but a mythical, fictitious representation.

There are different ways of responding to this argument. One way is to challenge the operating premise. For instance, Jason Engwer and I have cited a lot of material documenting widely-attested and well-attested cases of the miraculous or the paranormal. In that event, the alleged disconnect between the Biblical world and the modern world or the “real” world is bogus. These are, in fact, continuous.

There is, however, another way to challenge the operating premise. On the one hand, the atheistic objection exaggerates the presence of miracles in Bible history in contrast to the (alleged) absence of miracles in modern history.

On the other hand, we can also reverse the equation. It’s not as if miracles are standard operating procedure in the Bible, with a wholesale shift to ordinary providence thereafter. For miracles and providence coexist in Scripture. Both modes of operation are already in place in Bible history.

Before proceeding further, let’s consider some common definitions a miracle: 

A common approach is to define a miracle as an interruption of the order or course of nature. (Sherlock 1843: 57) Some stable background is, in fact, presupposed by the use of the term, as William Adams (1767: 15) notes:

    An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature, before there can be any thing extraordinary. A river must flow, before its stream can be interrupted.

David Hume (Hume 1748/2000; cf. Voltaire 1764/1901: 272) famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”

Thus, Samuel Clarke (1719: 311–12) writes that

    the true Definition of a Miracle, in the Theological Sense of the Word, is this; that it is a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superiour to Man…

I cite the first two definitions, not because I think they are good definitions, but because these are popular atheistic definitions, and I’m responding to an atheistic objection. Therefore, there’s some value in casting the issue of miracles in atheistic terms, for the sake of argument.

The third definition is more religious. However, I think that definition is somewhat defective as well. More on that later.

Let’s now turn to a paradigm-case of Biblical providence:

However, the overtly secular atmosphere in which the story of Esther seems to unfold need not be held against it. On the contrary, we may find Esther’s contemporary relevance for ourselves considerably enhanced by this feature, if we interpret it correctly. It may help us with the very difficult question of discerning the purpose and activity of God in political affairs.

A comparison of the story of Esther with the story of the Exodus will help to make the point. Both are stories of the deliverance of Israel from Gentile power…But there is also a significant difference between these two stories. In the story of the Exodus the purpose and activity of God are evident…But in the story of Esther there are no such declarations of the divine purpose…There is no one to point authoritatively to the hand of God and no supernatural signs of it. In other words, the writer of Esther depicts the ordinary world of political action, which was the world as he experienced it and the world as we too experience it most of the time, a world without explicit indications of divine purpose.

The point is not that God is not at work in the story of Esther. The writer takes God’s providential care for his people Israel entirely for granted, but he refrains from referring explicitly to it because he wishes the reader to discern it, as the characters in such a story are obliged to discern it, without any interpretation provided from outside the story. The question is how God is at work and how his activity becomes evident. There is one feature of the story which, for the believer, points clearly to the activity of divine providence: the series of remarkable coincidences. The story hinges on a combination of quite unpredictable occurrences, which the human actors in the story could never have deliberately produced, but without which Israel would have perished. Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against Xerxes’ life (2:22), the vacancy for a queen and Esther’s ability to fill it (2:1-18), the king’s insomnia on that particular night (6:1), Haman’s early arrival at the palace that particular morning (6:4): the combination of these chance events determines the plot…The author has deliberately told a story in which coincidence takes the place of miracle as a signal of divine activity.

In this sense, as David Clines puts it, “God, as a character in the story, becomes more conspicuous the more he is absent.” However, we need to note that this is true only retrospectively. In advance, we know of God’s promise to keep his people safe. But how he fulfils it, his providential activity in actual events, emerges only in the course of the story.

R. Bauckham, The Bible in Politics (WJK, 2nd ed., 2011), 123-24.

i) Now this providential mode of divine operation exists side-by-side the miraculous mode of operation in Bible history. It’s not as if miracles are the default setting in Scripture, while providence abruptly replaces the miraculous in modern history.

ii) There’s a term for what Bauckham describes in Esther: a coincidence miracle. This type of miracle doesn’t fit the conventional atheistic definition. The providential prearrangement of events in Esther doesn’t “interrupt the ordinary regular course,” much less “violate the laws of nature.” There’s no disruption in the “uniformity” of nature.

Moreover, this is not “effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular method of providence.” Rather, God is working through normal second causes. So it’s outwardly “natural.”

Yet the series of events is teleological. The events are linked to achieve a goal. The historical process is internal to the world, but it’s guided by a powerful, superior intelligence that’s external to the process. Events are coordinated beyond the ken or competence of the human participants. The human players are agents who unwittingly implement a plan not of their own making. The plan reflects divine foresight, but they themselves don’t foresee the outcome.

iii) Although this is not how atheists typically define a miracle, it’s no less a case of divine agency and purpose than a “miracle.” 

iv) Now, an atheist might concede all that, but counter by saying we don’t observe that kind of providence in the modern world. Yet that raises a question. How often, or widely, would coincidence miracles be discernable?

In the case of Esther, the reader is able to perceive a series of coincidence miracles because the omniscient narrator is cognizant of compartmentalized information to which no one individual would be privy–information he shares with the reader. In addition, the narrator selects a few apparently random, isolated incidents, out of the vast totality of events, and draws our attention to how those specific incidents line up to produce a particular effect. An outcome which reflects premeditated intent on the part of a powerful, superior intelligence. 

But suppose we didn’t have that privileged perspective. That God’s-eye view of the proceedings. Suppose we didn’t have that continuous red thread connecting some incidents to other incidents?

Suppose we just had the vast plethora of indiscriminate daily, weekly, monthly, yearly events. Chains of events, some parallel, others interlocking. Suppose, moreover, our individual knowledge would be extremely fragmented. I saw something you didn’t. You heard something I didn’t. Usually, you’d be in no position to piece it together or perceive a subtle pattern. Any pattern would be lost in the sheer volume of events.

It’s like looking at a subway map. The map shows tunnels fanning out in all different directions. Some directly connected. Others indirectly connected. Tunnels connecting to other tunnels through other tunnels. The map itself doesn’t pick out any particular route or destination. The map itself is omnidirectional. A huge number of alternative combinations. The map doesn’t point anywhere in particular because it points everywhere in general. It has no starting-point or end-point. That’s up to the rider.

v) This doesn’t mean coincidence miracles are inherently indetectible. Rather, it means God must put you in a position to recognize a coincidence miracle. You may need access to compartmentalized information. Know what someone else knows. And you have to be able to see how the outcome is a wholly unexpected, yet tailor-made solution to the problem. Things like that.

By the same token, a coincidence miracle wouldn’t be widely perceived. That’s not necessarily because God is concealing himself from outsiders. Just that the miracle is not for their benefit. Hence, their inability to discern the miracle is simply a side effect of the target audience. Outsiders aren’t party to that transaction. It’s not to them, for them, or about them.

There is, of course, the Biblical theme of a God who hides himself from the lost. Not all the lost, but some of the lost, as a preliminary judgment for their sin.

There are stories in which a friend or bother sneaks into a place where his friend or brother works. Or perhaps he’s captured.

They instantly recognize each other. But the friend or brother who works there feigns ignorance. Protects his friend or brother rather than ratting him out. By contrast, the coworkers have no idea who he is. They don’t know how he’s related to their colleague. Everyone sees the same thing, but everyone doesn’t perceive the same thing. The friend or brother has inside information.


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  2. Exactly one year after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 2001, one of the New York lotteries picked the numbers 9, 1, 1 as the winning numbers.
    See HERE for a video

    Many consider the coincidence not that extraordinary. See this ABC News article:
    The 9-11 Lottery Coincidence

    Snopes' article on the topic and its statistical insignificance: HERE

    For myself, I'm not convinced that it should be dismissed as a mere coincidence based on the following questions I have.

    Why was the exact order of the numbers picked 9-1-1 instead of 1-9-1 or 1-1-9?

    Why would the 911 pop up in the New York lottery instead of one of the other 49 states on that anniversary?

    Why exactly the date of the anniversary? Why not some other day within the 365 days of that first year or past 365 but within the second year mark?

    Why not in some future anniversary like the 2nd year or 3rd year, or 4th year or 10th year? Why THAT VERY FIRST anniversary?

    Why should the lottery game that has only three numbers to be picked be the one that this coincidence shows up in and not one of the other lotteries that play on that same day. For example, of 6 picked numbers, three of them correspond to 9,1,1, or two of them correspond to 9,11?
    Like 5, 9, 11, 27, 33, 45.
    In the video above, there was a second lottery that took place immediately afterward which required 4 numbers to be picked. Why didn't the coincidence happen in that one? I don't know if there was a morning and evening drawing on that day.

    Both articles above do their own math to argue for its statistical insignificance.

    From a Calvinist perspective, everything God allows by His providence is positively ordained by Him. Even of fixed lotteries.

    This lottery coincidence seems so outstanding to me that I can't help but think there almost HAS to be human fixing of the results involved. Either that or an especial Divine providence (rather than ordinary Divine providence).

    1. I hadn't read both articles in a while, but browsing the Snopes article, it does say there was a midday drawing. It also says, "Lottery officials said that 5,631 people had selected the symbolic numbers, and each winner took home $500." This reminds me of the scene in Bruce Almighty where so many people won the lottery that they only got something like $16 instead of millions. LOL!