Sunday, March 26, 2017

As for the Annunciation--The artificiality of "salvation history"

(This post should have gone up yesterday, but I thought of it only late last night.)

Imagine the Virgin Mary, sitting in her home in Nazareth, engaged in her work, or perhaps praying. It is an ordinary day. Nothing has warned her that this day is to be the day that lies at the center of all history.

Suddenly, an angel appears and salutes her and tells her that the Holy Ghost will come upon her and that she will give birth to the Messiah.

Mary realizes that it is an angel. The text leaves us with no doubts on that point. It is not as though she is confused into thinking that some merely natural being has visited her.

I often use the Annunciation as an example of the artificiality of the distinction between "ordinary history" and "salvation history" or "religious narrative." This pseudo-distinction will be used by those who want to confine miracles to only some places and times. It's especially popular among naturalists, semi-naturalists, and methodological naturalists who are opposed to a) the use of miracles as evidences for Christianity or theism and b) God's use of detectable miraculous means in the creation of the world or of species within the world. Die-hard theistic evolutionists are especially fond of it, because it allows them to appear to have some theologically principled reason for rejecting divine miraculous activity in biology. "Oh, that wouldn't have been salvation history, so God wouldn't have done that. We must hold out for some naturalistic explanation and accept one when it is offered." When one points out that, as Christians, we are bound to believe that God sometimes does perform miracles, that God does not leave the natural order completely undisturbed, they will piously intone, "Yes, but that's different. That's within salvation history, within a religious narrative, and can be interpreted within that context. Outside of that we should look for natural means." Here is an example thereof.

What this fails to recognize is that salvation history is seen as such only in retrospect. The people within the actual stories have to recognize the miracle as a miracle without some special "tag" that tells them, "Note: You are now in salvation history, so you're permitted to set aside methodological naturalism and interpret what is about to happen as a miracle."

To return to Mary: Many other virgins in Israel did not conceive and bear the Son of God. Many other days in the life of Mary herself, prior to this day, did not include angelic appearances. Mary had to be willing to recognize that an angel was standing there and giving her a message, and she had to believe that message, without thinking of herself as "living in a story." It is we, looking back on what happened, who place it within a "religious narrative" of "salvation history." To Mary, it was just the day on which Gabriel showed up and told her she was to conceive by the Holy Ghost. And she had to be willing to admit the possibility of a miracle in the midst of her own day-to-day life, or else she would never acknowledge a miracle in the first place.

In fact, any attempt to apply the "religious narrative" criterion consistently would result in a vicious regress, and no "religious narrative" would ever get off the ground. The witnesses of the miracle would have to know already that they were living through a moment of "salvation history." But how would they know that? Presumably only by receiving a message from God, attested in some way that they could recognize as supernatural. But they could not recognize that message as supernatural unless they already knew that they were living through a moment of salvation history, which would require a yet earlier message or sign...And so on. Meaning that there could be no "salvation history" or "religious narrative" that was recognized as such.

The same was true of Moses and the burning bush. No sign flashed across the sky before he saw the burning bush that said, "Now entering salvation history," just as an angel didn't precede Gabriel, marching across Mary's chamber with a banner that read, "You are now entering salvation history." Moses had to recognize that he was actually talking with God, that the bush was burning without being consumed, or else mankind could not have received God's message at all.

The angel's appearance to Mary and the Voice from the burning bush are the very constituents of God's dealings with mankind. They need no annunciation, for they are the Annunciation.

If this was true for the first witnesses of the miracles themselves, it is true for us as well. We should recognize these to be miracles because it appears that they really happened, that they were miraculous, and that God sent them to us for a reason, not because they occupy some above-the-skies Zone that we call "salvation history." For we could not know that they occupied any such Zone, or even that there were such a Zone, without knowing that they happened, and we could not know that they happened if those who witnessed them had insisted on methodological naturalism...unless pre-empted by the previous knowledge that one is living in the Special Zone where miracles are allowed to happen.

Oh, and one other thing: "Religious narratives" are confirmed by miracles. It gets the order precisely backward to say that miracles are verified by being embedded in "religious narratives." For why believe this religious narrative rather than that one? It is not philosophical reflection from your armchair that will tell you that Jesus was God the Son while Mohammad was a false prophet.

So I suggest that we give up on methodological naturalism altogether. Just drop it in the dustbin of history. No, that doesn't mean that God performs miracles randomly. It does, however, mean that Aslan is not a tame lion. He doesn't safely confine his miracles to those places that you think you can accept in a purely "philosophical" way, as part of a "religious narrative," without tarnishing your image as a Man of Science. There is certainly no reason to think that he keeps his hands out of biology. Indeed, Scripture suggests otherwise from the very beginning.

That people should be more open to miracles in the realm of biology, or in any other realm, and that we should be robust evidentialists, may seem like odd lessons to garner from the Feast of the Annunciation, but I give you the thought for the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, that's different. That's salvation history."


Vishal Mehra said...

I am not understanding your gripe regarding methodological naturalism.

It is not another word for naturalism but underlies the concept of sciences as the study of secondary causation. When it rains, the methodological naturalism enjoins us to look for natural causes that are leading to the rain. What is the problem here?

Lydia McGrew said...

This is a common mis-characterization of methodological naturalism, which is rather funny given the *actual* application of methodological naturalism.

Notice that the example you give is rain--a common feature of our universe which we are (usually) completely justified in assuming is part of the natural order. We are justified in assuming that *by empirical experience of rain*, not because of any meta-position such as "methodological naturalism."

In contrast, methodological naturalism is used in arguments in contexts where evidence is being brought that, the person bringing the evidence asserts, does *not* appear to be well-explained by the natural order and is *better* explained by a non-natural cause.

This might be mere human forensics: E.g. If a rock is discovered in the desert that appears to be carved by a tool rather than by the wind, the person bringing the evidence says that this doesn't appear to be the result of the chance action of secondary causes but rather the intentional action of a person making a sculpture.

Methodological naturalists are sometimes comfortable with that kind of forensic argument because they believe that humans are fully natural beings.

But when a similar design argument is made about, say, the blood-clotting cascade, the visual cascade, or the DNA in the cell, they freak out and say that inferring design is contrary to "methodological naturalism" and that we must hold out for some non-design explanation no matter what.

This, to put it mildly, is not *remotely* like holding that ordinary rain is a result of secondary causes. It is, instead, a form of closed-minded dogmatism about the kinds of causes we will consider.

It would be more akin to holding that we must continue indefinitely holding out for a natural cause for a particular rainstorm in which the raindrops formed themselves in the sky into the sentence, "If you do not return to God, you will all die in your sins" or something of that kind, and this was recorded on video by multiple people, including skeptics. That isn't just any old rain.

Gyan said...

You characterize methodological naturalism as a never-ending search for secondary causation.
Isn't naturalism also the same? How do you actually distinguish between the two?
In other words, what is the word "methodological" doing?

Lydia McGrew said...

Gyan, I think that question is directed at the commentator above. He doesn't, in fact, state that methodological naturalism is a never-ending search. He characterizes it only by the single reasonable example of the rain. Of course, if it were merely a search for secondary causes in cases where it seems like there are probably secondary causal explanations, no one would bother to coin a term for it!

My own experience has been that the word "methodological" is meant as a signal for something like the following: The methodological naturalist is still graciously permitted to believe in God, souls, or the afterlife, but only as a matter of faith as opposed to evidence. Hence he doesn't have to be an absolute naturalist if he doesn't want to be. But he isn't permitted to ground his belief in any of these things on events in this world taken as evidence of the non-natural entities. That would be a violation of *methodological* naturalism, because, absent some "faith commitment," we aren't supposed to use a *methodology* of interpreting events in this world that would allow us to *conclude* that they were the result of non-natural causes.

Halvorsen, in the article I link in the main post, does talk about how it might be rational to believe a "religious narrative" and then rational to believe miracles that are seen as permissibly occurring within that "religious narrative." But even though he uses the word "rational," he characterizes this as a "philosophical" question. In other words, not an empirical one in any way, shape, or form. How, precisely, a purely "philosophical" defense of Christianity would go he doesn't have space in the short article to say. But I would contend that in suggesting such a thing he is failing to recognize that Christianity, unlike bare theism, involves specific historical commitments, such as that Jesus of Nazareth is God and rose from the dead. These commitments can't be defended on a purely "philosophical" basis but only on the basis of things like inference to the best explanation from the signs given by Jesus himself. This is a process that would be incompatible with "methodological naturalism," since one would be establishing the "religious narrative" on the basis of the events rather than believing in the miraculous events because one already accepted the "religious narrative."

It does not seem to me that methodological naturalists who claim to be Christians (or for that matter, Orthodox Jews) have any answer to this argument.