Thursday, April 06, 2006

Scientific Debunking of Biblical Truth: It's All About Eve

Courtesy of Amy Pawlak's blog, I read this story about scientists questioning the miracle of Jesus walking on water. It wasn't miraculous, just "a brief blast of frigid air" that freakishly "descended over the lake" and created a miniature ice floe for our Lord to walk upon.

First, there's the odd mental route by which scientific speculation on freak weather conditions instantly and logically leads to challenging the concept of divine intervention in human events. I have no quarrel with scientists studying "spring ice," as I have no quarrel with them studying ways to make Exxon another billion dollars. But is there a reason why the study of this natural phenomenon must suddenly, in what one must call a rather whimsical fashion, focus on the more sensational question of whether Jesus actually walked on water?

There are reasons, but I'm not sure they flow from the pure springs of scientific probity. If I were a scientist at a state university, I'd prefer the general (and tax-paying) public to think of my work in terms of startling blows against superstition rather than Nietzsche's proverbial scholar, who spends his entire life studying the brain structure of a leech. It's easy to understand why Dr. Nof wants to get his work next to Scripture. Like Eve Harrington and Margot Channing, proximity to a famous subject gets one a lot closer to the center of attention.

Sure enough, "this isn't the first time the FSU researcher has offered scientific explanations of watery miracles. As a recognized expert in the field of oceanography and limnology -- the study of freshwater, saline and brackish environments -- Nof made waves worldwide in 1992 with his oceanographic perspective on the parting of the Red Sea." Science loves patterns, and this is beginning to seem very scientific indeed. Would you like another martini, Miss Channing?

But showing off is a motive unworthy of scientists, whose stock in trade is the image of disinterested objectivity, not "ring and run" silliness. And so Dr. Nof finds himself dug into the last refuge of the academic, the notion of ideas without consequences:
"As natural scientists, we simply explain that unique freezing processes probably happened in that region only a handful of times during the last 12,000 years," Nof said. "We leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains the biblical account."
Let's not mention that the biblical account has Jesus walking on water "tossed with waves." (Matthew 14:24). That's got to be pretty thick ice, to form on a storm-tossed lake. But if Scripture is just a bunch of fairy tales, the detail need not delay us from fetching Miss Channing a cigarette.

"As scientists, we simply explain the unlikelihood of a child with blond hair being born into a family with dark hair. We leave to the child's father the question of whether his son is a bastard." Only people with a profound lack of respect for the subject of an opinion would consider such a trite explanation worthwhile. That this attitude would prevail on such an immense and varied phenomenon like Christianity suggests some unexamined and unworthy bias.

"As historians, we simply explain the evidence suggesting that what people call "the Holocaust" might have been an exaggerated outbreak of cholera. We leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains Anne Frank's Diary." Some subjects are simply beyond this type of flippancy.

When I wasn't a Christian, I knew lots of people who relegated Christianity to a light and flimsy place in human thought. Eventually it struck me that they behaved like people who live with a terrifying secret. They were ready, even eager, to accept any explanation so long as it kept them from opening that dreaded door. I found that "anti-witness" very intriguing.

In the large spectrum of American life, I noticed, one could be anything, anything at all, so long as one didn't subscribe to Christianity. If one did that, one was simultaneously cast as unethical and a mindless prude, a gullible nitwit and the instrument of malevolent genius, an oblivious fantasist and a scheming opportunist. There was no pejorative opinion that couldn't be applied to Christianity, and the fact that Christianity could get hippies and Nazis on the same side of an argument suggested more about their absurdity than the alleged foolishness of the Cross.

I also noticed the odd power of debunking exposes to persuade me in the opposite direction. "So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid." John 6:19 (KJV). Dr. Nof posits something that happened "only a handful of times in the last 12,000 years" at the exact time Jesus decided to go out on the lake and meet the disciples. Not only that, but the freak ice managed to form in the exact spot lying between the shore where Jesus embarked and the point to which the disciples eventually rowed their boat. Further, the disciples had no idea where this ice floe ended -- they rowed to the spot before they saw Jesus. "Hey, guys, it's really stormy -- why don't we row toward the ice floe?"

Even the FSU publicist is forced to admit, "Such a perfect combination of conditions . . . might well seem miraculous." Until, that is, the press release tells us that Dr. Nof's research indicates our Lord was something of a one-man ice age:
In the last 120 centuries, Nof calculates the odds [of freak ice happening] as roughly once in 1,000 years. However, during the life of Jesus the prevailing climate may have favored the more frequent formation of springs ice -- about once in 30 to 160 years."
Those odds may qualify as boring to FSU researches, but they strike me as every bit as amazing as the longer figure.

Besides, why are we doing this in years? Dr. Nof doesn't say it takes years for freak ice to form. In fact, given his description of the event, I think it's safe to assume a six-hour window. Thirty years is 10,950 days. 10,950 days is 43,800 six-hour slots. A chance of one in 43,800? Throw in the timing of the ice to match the human choices involved (the disciples choosing to row, Jesus choosing to go out on the water) and the odds become considerably more than even the "long shot" figure of once per millennium.

Perhaps I didn't (and still don't) have enough theology to appreciate the concern, but arguments like that never persuaded me to think that Christianity was in danger of contradiction. If anything, they persuaded me in the opposite direction. When I encountered this kind of "debunking," I thought it would be tremendous if Someone was actually managing all that, and doing it rather effortlessly to boot: The records available to us don't mention anything about a "History Do-Over" button (although in fairness it should be noted that FSU's history department has yet to be heard from). If naturalistic speculations like these are true, the events they describe seem like an amazingly intricate, incredibly elegant dance of God, man, and creation, one set within a larger dance of human continuity that makes the event meaningful and significant today.

What are the odds of that "freak occurrence"? Before I believed, it seemed people who accepted the "completely random" perspective on the universe, as against the "intelligent design" perspective, eventually swallowed such an incredible number of "chances," and employed such a vast fund of "just-so stories" to shore it all up, as to make believing in the Virgin Birth seem like a humble exercise in common sense.

Some "naturalistic" explanations of Biblical miracles are just plain ridiculous. Others aren't. Assuming this is the latter kind, I don't mind if the world wants to go "hee hee" and give Dr. Nof the Sarah Siddons Award for Tweaking Christian Noses. You can't believe in God without thinking hard about things, and Dr. Nof's research is as good a place to start as any.