By Ron Benson with Dr. Jeffrey Koperski
My friend has widgets.
He’s like a door-to-door traveling medicine show, offering his wares from a vagabond wagon, showing them off from the inside of his silk-lined overcoat using hushed tones and a wink of his eye.
I am hesitant to admit that I have sneaked a peek at his widgets and find them appealing and provocative.
Why so mysterious? Because his little gadgets claim to answer Big Questions and solve Big Troubles. These are not your normal everyday widgets.
Why so surreptitious? Because around these parts—inside the evangelical strongholds—the kind of gadgets he’s peddling are not always met with resounding “Amens!” These pretty items are a little edgy, and they force people to think beyond easy answers and pat conclusions.
I am a pastor, going on thirty-five years. I get stuck in that rut of easy answers. But if I think hard about some things—some of the puzzles of God and faith and miracles—those answers don’t fit as well as I’d like. Sometimes the answers I give to people are set on a shaky confidence, and I wonder if even I should believe what I’m so cocky about.
My friend is a Philosopher of Science. He tackles questions and wrestles with problems that are way outside my ability to grasp. But that’s why his offerings are tempting. His widgets make sense, and they help clear the fog. They bridge the gap between theology and science, bringing the two to a place where they can get along and see things differently. They help to bring some clarity to divine intervention in miracles and answers to prayer.
That’s where Jeff, my friend, comes in. He’s got the widgets and he knows how to use them. If I spend enough time with him, and open my God-given brain just a little, I can begin to see how his widgets—the tools of the Philosophy of Science—can be applied to faith. When he pulls them out, and explains their functions, they can open up new ways to think about things. Here’s a sample of his wares:
This is the idea that truth, in most cases, is understood along a continuum. Approximate truth allows for relative degrees of closeness to reality. We cannot, for instance, say that a thing is completely, 100% true unless we have tested for every possible combination of nuance and circumstance and understanding. And that is not possible.
So in the case of divine intervention, approximate truth gives us wiggle room to explain a miracle while not dismissing the possible conflicts involved. A Pentecostal says that our prayers have moved the hand of God, bringing about a miracle that would not have happened otherwise. His Lutheran friend says it’s the providence of God decided before the beginning of time. From a God’s-eye point of view, it’s not either/or. Both might be approximately true.
Similar conflicts, like whether God can violate his own laws, or whether he changes his mind, are skirmishes that we typically avoid with some glib evangelical-speak like “Well, he’s God; he can do what he wants!” With this widget, we have the ability to say that God was the initiator and source—the causal force—behind the answer to prayers or a miracle, while at the same time acknowledging that any more precise description is at best approximately true, based on our ability to test and analyze and understand.
“A model is a representation of some object, behavior, or system that is usually not considered fully realistic” (Koperski, p.278). A scale model of a VW bus might look just like the real thing in many ways, but we all know it’s not a real automobile. Models are not designed to function as the real thing, but are intended to help test the laws governing the subject. A physical model placed in a wind tunnel, for instance, helps to determine drag and friction.So-called simplifying models, such as frictionless planes and perfect elasticity, are designed to make the mathematics easier to handle. They are “useful fictions” that help scientists in the testing and application of theories, analysis, and predictions.
What if the concept of models could be a tool applied to theology? In this case, disputes about divine intervention could be understood “as a conflict of models, rather than one of absolute doctrines” (Koperski, p.279).
Both the Pentecostal and the Lutheran in the example above are using models of divine intervention. Both are making assumptions about the mechanics of miracles. While partisans on social media see this as a fundamental conflict of theology, the disagreement lies at a different level. A conflict between models need not involve a conflict between theories (science) or theologies (religion).
Anomalies are phenomena that conflict with our expectations. In science, anomalies are results that aren’t supposed to happen if our theory is right. For example, distant galaxies aren’t moving the way they’re supposed to according to our theory of gravity. The idea of “dark matter” was invented to fix the problem.
Theology and science both have anomalies. That doesn’t mean that a given doctrine is bad or that our theory is false. It does mean that we don’t have all of the information. Adjustments might have to be made, even if we don’t know what they are yet.
But what about anomalies that persist? What about the “hard” issues about which no satisfying resolutions can be made? In this case, the concept of mystery—a precise theological term—can be applied. Not a lazy trump card, mystery refers to the logical boundaries of understanding and knowledge. Our epistemic resources eventually run dry, whether we’re talking about science or theology.
In the case of miracles, after all possible explanations and theories are tested and tried and applied, there may remain that last bit of unexplained truth—a little portion of squirrely, nagging question—that still hangs in the air. “How can a loving God let this bad thing happen?” It’s an anomaly, but that doesn’t mean we give up on God’s love any more than astrophysicists reject gravity.
Each of these sample widgets present challenges for those who prefer to use a more locked-down, tidied-up system of handling Big Questions. But if you see those kinds of answers as being a little too constraining, there might be a widget for you.
Widgets are not the end-all for solving the riddles at the intersection of science and theology. But used properly, they can help us untie some of the philosophical knots.
(Quotations taken from The Physics of Theism by Dr. Jeffrey Koperski. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).
Dr. Jeffrey Koperski is a Professor of Philosophy at Saginaw Valley State University in Saginaw, Michigan, with specialties in Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Religion. His book on the subject, The Physics of Theism was published by Wiley-Blackwell earlier this year. Dr. Koperski has been published in many other articles, journals, and collaborative projects.