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Science and the Supernatural

• Greg Boyd

Greg continues exploring the relationship between faith and science, making the point that the laws of science have nothing to do with the possibility of the existence of miracles (and in fact they might even *prove* that there is more to reality than what we can measure).

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We started today out by reading Isaiah 1:18…

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”

This sets the tone for how God wants us to interact with him. God invites us to reason with him, worshipping with our minds as well as our hearts. He even encourages pushback if things don’t make sense. We see this throughout the Bible that blind faith is not a biblical faith.

This is important because young people are leaving the church in droves. They think faith and science are incompatible. We are here to say not at all! We encourage people to be thinking, wrestling, and reasoning. This is why we do Q&As at our church, and why Greg wrote the book Benefit of the Doubt. We encourage intellectual wrestling with biblical concepts, because it produces people who are able to thoroughly defend their faith.

Many skeptics allege that there is an inherent conflict between science and believing in miracles, and they point to the laws of nature/physics, and think science has proven miracles don’t happen. They believe that Biblical miracles must be fabricated legends or mistaken perception.

We are here to say that it is NOT irrational to believe in miracles and that they aren’t even necessarily in conflict with science.

Greg breaks his reasons into four arguments:

1) The Map is Not the Territory
Those who insist that science disproves the existence of miracles are mistaking their map for the territory. If you hold in your hand a map of Minnesota, it will tell you where the roads and lakes are, and maybe the elevation. Maps just focus on what they are trying to describe. But you could never look at a map and feel like now you’ve been to Minnesota. That map will not tell you about the reality of the place — it won’t tell you about the texture of the sand on the shores of the St Croix river, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

Mistaking our map for the territory is a common mistake we make. It is faulty logic when we think that our understanding/perspective of something encompasses entire reality.

When it comes to miracles, the scientific method is a map, but it is not the territory. It is provides answers to certain questions about the mechanics of the physical world, helps us understand how things happen by analyzing the relationships between cause and effect, and describes how things work by deconstructing them into their smallest constituent parts. However, it can’t answer that which it was not meant to answer. It’s a map and was never meant to describe all of reality. The scientific method can’t say anything about God, or why we exist, etc. Asserting otherwise is an illegitimate conclusion to come to.

“Science achieves its success by the modesty of its ambitions. Science trolls experience with a course-grained net and many things of significance about the world in which we live slip between its wide meshes.”

– John Polkinghorne

A fishing net is a great way to think of science. Science will never catch all of reality.

To insist otherwise, is an incredibly arrogant. How can we know that our maps encompass all of reality? We don’t know what we don’t know! So we simply cannot say that science defines all reality. We have no way of knowing that. That assertion is nothing more than a statement of faith.

2) Evolutionary Theory Itself Requires Belief in “Transcendent” Realities
If a hardcore science lover accepts naturalistic evolution, this itself assumes there are realities that are beyond our current comprehension. Greg used his adorable dog Gracie as an example. There are so many things that she has no idea about. Trigonometry, economics, how many people are on the planet, the internet, politics, etc. Most of the world that Greg experiences is utterly incomprehensible to her. Her map is very small compared to the reality of the world she lives in.

This stage of our own existence also has built-in limitations. It is said that there is 95 million years of evolution between humans and dogs. All of the things we understand that dogs do not, took around 95 million years to bring us to the point of understanding. So the question is, what additional knowledge could we have 95 million years in the future? What realities and principles will we understand that we can’t even comprehend right now?

The theory of naturalistic evolution never assumes that there is an “endpoint” in the process. Everything our distant descendants will know in 95 million years already exists, we just have no comprehension of it right now! The limitations of our current stage of physical evolution make us unable to access entire realms of reality.

So if you have absolute faith in science, then by the very definitions of science you must admit that some humility is in order.

3) A Rumor of Angels
This is the title of a great book Greg read, but he likes it because expresses the “hints of transcendence” that we see all around us. Just in looking around, we can see hints of a world beyond the material world we live in. We are self-aware and make choices. This itself is something that the scientific method can’t explain. It tries to break the brain down into smallest constituent parts, but it can’t explain self consciousness. If we swear by science then we have no alternative than to conclude that consciousness, this thing we experience, is really an illusion. Science says that there is no true freedom, everything comes down to causes and effects, meaning that everything is pre-determined. Then we are not truly free. More than that, we are not even truly REAL — our life experience is just a collection of chemical reactions.

Chemical reactions have no Truth, and this demonstrates the limits of scientific method. Science cannot (and was not supposed to) answer the question “Why?” It can’t explain the astronomically improbable fine tuning of the universe “just so” to allow it to support life (in a reality where things happen by chance). It can’t answer why there is a mind-like quality to the universe. It can’t explain love. The truth is we just can’t reduce some things to just chemical reactions. We can’t reduce beauty, awe, wonder, or joy. Science also can’t answer how naturalistic evolution could have evolved beings that have longings for things that nature itself can’t provide (such as God). All of these unanswered questions point to a larger truth and reality that are not reducible by the scientific method. This is what we mean by transcendent reality.

4) People Experience Supernatural Occurrences
Those who say science rules out miracles cannot answer the unexplainable things that perfectly sane people swear they have experienced. Greg is one such person. In 1991, he was at a conference praying for a demonized young woman. Greg and a team of pastors spent the 6 hours casting demons out of her. At one point, she grabbed Greg by the collar and yanked him to her face growling. Even though he was in his thirties and working out every day, this twenty-something girl was unquestionably stronger than he was. Inches away, she stared into his eyes and continued growling. While one of her eyes stared forward, the other turned counter clockwise three times. Then she laughed and threw him against a wall. Greg cannot explain this using naturalistic laws of science. Eyes don’t do that, and petite girls don’t have the strength to throw grown men around. At some point, rational people have to concede that if there is no natural explanation, maybe we have to pursue supernatural explanations.

In the second volume of his book Miracles, author Craig Keener explores various accounts of miracles throughout history. There are stories involving multiple witnesses of people levitating and being healed.

One such story was from a woman named Edith Turner who later wrote a paper called The Reality of Spirits, in which she tells the story of an exorcism she witnessed in Africa.

“I saw with my own eyes a large gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back. Then I knew that the Africans were right, there is spirit stuff, there is spirit affliction, it isn’t a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.”

When we hear these stories, we have to admit that there are some things that science just cannot explain. We have good reasons to believe in the supernatural. Our limited 5-sensed human understanding of the world does not capture most of reality.

This raises questions which are out of the scope of this sermon such as if miracles are possible then why do they seem so random? Why heal some people but not others? For more on questions like this, you should check out Greg’s book Is God to Blame . The world is much more complicated than we can understand or explain, but the one thing we can trust is that even though the appearance of miracles may seem inconsistent, God is not arbitrary or capricious.

Our expectations shape our experiences. While some people go too far and attribute every little occurrence to miracles, doing the opposite and denying their reality entirely is also flawed. And with this, one thing is certain, if we don’t believe in possibility of miracles, we won’t be praying for them, and we most likely won’t be seeing them. The faith of the New Testament is very much a supernatural faith. The possibility of the supernatural is supposed to be a part of our experience and belief system. We have to be open to things we don’t understand.

Many of us can attest to supernatural things happening in our lives- healings, the presence of God, etc. It becomes very obvious that it was a “God thing.” Most people intuitively agree that science can’t explain everything, and that is because it simply was not meant to.

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Topics: Defense of Christian Faith

Sermon Series: A Priest and a Physicist Walk Into a Bar…

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Focus Scripture:

  • Isaiah 1:18

    “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
    though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow."

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9 thoughts on “Science and the Supernatural

  1. Daniel says:

    It’s a shame that we haven’t seen any of these “unexplainable” events on cameras, in an age where billions of people have cameras in your pocket. Witness testimony is famously flawed, both in law and otherwise.

    1. Kevin says:

      Absolutely correct! I’ve seen video of so-called miracles but they were not at all conclusive. One such video is posted on the Tribenet facebook page, if you care to watch.

  2. Kevin says:

    It is so off putting to hear the man of God basically pleading for money to run the Church. Where is the Holy Ghost? Shouldn’t He be speaking to us Church members about giving without the preacher resorting to worldly tactics to raise money? To me, it seems like the Church is either over-extending itself or else the gifts of the Spirit are not working as they should. Please consider and at the least, leave the begging till the End of the sermon?

    1. Charley Swanson says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I’m sorry Greg’s appeal was off-putting to you. It’s our belief that our leaders should encourage and exhort the members of our church community… and as Greg said, communicate needs when they exist. I think most would agree that some pastors focus too much on money and increasing offerings, and we certainly hope that never becomes the case at Woodland. But we feel it’s appropriate and scriptural to communicate these needs to our church community. It’s a reminder to seek the Spirit and his leading in our lives!

      1. Kevin says:


      2. Kevin says:

        Read your reply again Charlie and now i see that, for the most part, ‘church members’ just don’t get it; therefore, they have to be told what to do.
        After all, the flock won’t fleece itself, yeah?

  3. Gene says:

    That was brilliant. Greg has put to words profound perspectives to consider. He has given us precious words to work with. So grateful that this Brother exercises his gifts and reads and reads and contemplates – including when walking his dog. Then he shares with us. Risky business. Love you man.

  4. Tor says:

    Interesting topic, but there are a few points where I believe Greg miss the point on this one. The analogy that science is a map is a good, but with many different fields within science, we should keep in mind that there is more than just one such scientific map. A biologists, a psychiatrists and psychologists may all be studying the brain, but have quite different frameworks for explaining their acquired insights.

    Greg repeatedly describes the scientific method as breaking the world into its smallest parts; however, this is not essential in science, and all scientific disciplines I’m aware of acknowledge that there are certain assumptions used as building blocks for formulating hypothesis and explaining results. Biology, psychiatry and psychology are using quite different such building blocks – not necessarily comparable, but certainly not incompatible. The core of the scientific method, for all these fields (and more), is systematic observations, measurements and experiments to uncover cause and effects.

    Considering the development of the mentioned sciences the past hundred years, it must be fair to say that the scientific maps of the brain are now far more fine-grained than a hundred years ago – like the density of pixels on the newest smartphones keep increasing, so does the scientific maps keep improving. With these new insights, there certainly are phenomenon we can now explain, for which there was no explanation earlier. However, this does not mean that a phenomenon used to be a miracle before it was explained — since systematic observations and measurements would have been consistently inconsistent with the model at the time.

    For someone to not believe in miracles is hence not the same as claiming that all events that can happen are those that can happen in the current scientific models — rather, it is the belief that there _exists_ a collection of mutually compatible models/maps (possibly unknown to us) which can explain every event. As such, Greg is arguing with a straw man in his first and second arguments for believing in miracles.

    As for Greg’s third point, there is nothing in the scientific method that dictates that a set of rules governing the universe (or a scientific model describing this) can not take decisions made by free agents as input and respond to that.

    To believe in miracles is then to believe that there is a perfect set of rules (a model) for cause and effect governing the universe, but that God and perhaps other agents have the power to temporarily set those rules aside.

    The main issue with miracles, though, is how utterly unreproducible they are. If there was any way to consistently reproduce some miracle, even if the success rate was a very small constant (say 1 in 1000), then it would immediately cease to be a miracle, and move up to the “unexplained natural event” -category. Most people that claim to have the gift of healing, for instance, give the impression that God’s success rate through their ministry is far higher than what would be required in order to statistically measure its effect; yet the list of unclaimed prizes for evidence of the paranormal is continually growing. It is almost as though God doesn’t want to measured.

    I do not rule out that God in rare occasions does do miracles — but Greg’s arguments did not strengthen my belief in them this time 🙂

    1. Jerry Grace says:

      Tor, you have some deep thoughts:

      I too like to dwell on such things.

      First I want to Address Greg on the Edith Turner Shaman story. It appeared that Greg was approaching this as a good thing, not evil. I emailed a friend, an native Sioux and also a Lutheran minister, about the word Shaman. She wrote back very offended saying this is a white man’s word and she considers this word demonic. Puzzled, I bought a book this week “The Way of the Shaman” Michael Harner and he has a positive feeling for Shaman. Anyone who’s had a trauma, from a shamanic point of view, may have had some loss of their soul. The techniques for healing soul loss are soul-retrieval techniques, and one of the classic shamanic methods is to go searching for that lost portion of the soul and restore it.

      For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? —Jesus Christ

      So what’s up with this?

      To Greg’s (I think?), Michaels’ and now my defense I bring Walter Wink.

      The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.

      From Genesis the Hebrew has two words for soul, nefesh and ne (shama). Is (shama)nism being redeemed?

      Homo-habilis, Homo-erectus) נפש nefesh and נשמת neshama marking the soul of humankind, (Homo-sapiens)

      Now to address your thoughts.
      You have some interesting questions concerning concerning miracles and spiritual realms.
      Walter Wink and Greg Boyd share these concerns. You, I believe, would be in the Wink camp.
      He states: Like the proponents of the new physics, who have now gone beyond materialism to a world of spirit-matter, so we too can see the entire social enterprise of the human species under the dual aspects of spirit and matter. If we want to change institutions and structures, we have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.

      Too start with; two assumed basic logical premises:

      The discovery of the Higgs field, a Nobel Prize worthy discovery, posits quarks are only 2%, of the mass inside protons and neutrons. The other 98% is the kinetic and potential energy of the quarks orbiting in nucleons. So the material part of you and me and very thing in the universe is only one part quark (that makes protons and neutrons) or one part lepton (electron), note again: protons, neutrons and electrons make atoms that make everything, matter that is, in the universe, to every 10 billion photons.

      Slightly reframed see below:

      Concatenating that with Process theology thinking: God takes ALL the say-so’s of a plethora of spirits, principalities and powers, that includes us, and creates ex nihilo out of nothing the unseen, from atoms, the next now moment using the history of say-so’s from the past.

      First some compelling questions
      •Is it from mimetic theory The Satan an anthropological category or is it a theological one?
      •Is the devil about us humans, our violence, our projection, our victimizing and our idolatry?
      •Is it about some supra temporal being that God created?
      •Is it about both?
      •Did we humans create the Satan the moment the male imitated in paradise?
      •Does the Satan dwells within us creates our communities and rules our ideologies?
      •Do we, mired in the imitation of our violent culture, express corporately and individually the Satan?

      I’m not sure the scientific map metaphor is the most accurate phraseology here and that might be the problem. I’m kind of into that. See: page 66 of the link I give at the end.

      Note: This is the nuts and bolts of a course Greg Boyd and Al Larson taught (TNT Theosynergistic Neuro Transformation)

      I believe there is a compelling mesh between all the givens of Science (the numerous varied fields of), the mission of Jesus and now to add Shamanism (as explained: how they do this in correlation with what science has discovered and Jesus is compelling).

      •Rupert Sheldrake: If our minds are not just the activity of our brains, materialism, there is no need for them to be confined to the insides of our heads. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, neurons are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. When we look at something, in a sense, our mind touches it. This may help to explain the sense of being stared at (mirror neurons).
      •Rupert Sheldrake: Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organizing systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems.
      •Higgs Boson: It appears that the enter universe is a tri-unity right down to three quarks in every proton or neutron, the only matter .00001% in the universe the other 99.99999% intelligent energy.
      •Walter Wink: Everything has a spiritual aspect. Everything is answerable to God. For the angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that an institution is but also the bearer of that institution’s divine nature. Corporations and governments are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare.
      •My experience

      To be frank I consider Greg to be spot on with one exception concerning him and Walter. I think they are both right and I believe N. T. Wright would concur.

      This is just my opinion; you have to form your own.

      I have provided a link. Note to get this you need to listen to the lectures, many Nobel laureate quality.

      I would add interestingly, the Nobel prize 39% of medicine, 41% of Physics and 31% of Chemistry are to Jewish people.

      If you are interested in my opinion start at page 311

      The link: https://www.scribd.com/document/399524340/#page=317

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