The other day I was visiting a non-denominational charismatic church with my twelve year old daughter. At one point the pastor asked, “How many of you have witnessed the power of God?” A few hands went up.
Then the pastor asked, “Did you ever have a child who was sick and then got better?” Heads around the sanctuary began to nod. “Well how do you know that wasn’t really God?”
I winced at the pastor’s tacit assumption that “God” should be implicitly opposed to the natural course of healing (i.e. it could have been natural, but it also could have been God).
At this point my daughter leaned over and whispered sarcastically: “It’s called an immune system, buddy.”
Maybe she shouldn’t have wielded the sarcasm but regardless, she was right on. The pastor had set himself up. He had foolishly opposed natural and supernatural causes, treating divine action as if its a zero/sum game: either it was God or the aspirin, God or the doctor, God or the immune system.
Such naïve zero/sum games represent a very bad theology which sees everything as either God or nature. (See the discussion in “Scientism and Metaphysics-of-the-Gaps“) The chickens finally come home to roost when skeptics adopt that same framework to oppose divine and natural causes. Consider the following passage from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers:
“In the fall of 1976, the first outbreak of Ebola virus appeared at a remote hospital in Yambuku, Zaire, staffed by Belgian nuns. Within a few weeks the virus took a deadly toll, causing horrible deaths from internal hemorrhaging. The courageous nuns did what they could with their limited pharmaceuticals and scientific training, but the plague raged unabated. When the first representatives of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived in Yambuku, they found the hospital pitifully cordoned off with a strip of gauze bandage, the surviving nuns reduced to prayer.
“The scientists set to work, taking blood and tissue samples for study in the field or for shipping to Atlanta for more detailed analysis, working out transmission patterns of the disease, and looking for the animal or animals that might be reservoirs or vectors for the virus. They discovered that the virus was a new and virulent strain, spread initially by the reuse of scarce syringes at the hospital. Through a combination of quarantine and strict hygiene, the epidemic was brought under control.” (Skeptics and True Believers, 94-95)
Is it any surprise that folks raised thinking it was either God or the immune system will then find the divine presence diminishing with every new understanding of the natural world?
Note that Raymo’s picture is every bit as naïve as the pastor’s. The two are cut from the same cloth. For the pastor, if it was God then it wasn’t the immune system. For Raymo, if it was the CDC’s procedures of quarantine and hygiene then obviously it wasn’t prayer. Because obviously God doesn’t work through the immune system and prayer doesn’t work through the operations of human beings.
Funny how bad theology breeds equally bad skepticism.