Here is a weird question that I have often asked: Is Methodological Naturalism a valid method of inquiry for Christians?
I know . . . cardinal sin. I have started with a hard word. Just hang with me. I promise this goes somewhere special.
Methodological Naturalism Defined
First, let me define exactly what I mean. Methodological naturalism, for those of you who don’t know, is an approach to scientific inquiry that seeks to understand the natural world through natural causes and explanations, without invoking supernatural or divine causes. Please understand, this is distinct from Philosophical Naturalism which assumes that God does not exist and this reality provides a basis for Methodological Naturalism. Methodological Naturalism has no opinion about God at all. In other words, it assumes that natural causes can explain all natural phenomena. For example, a person whose car won’t start would look for natural explanations such as gas, battery, starter, spark plugs, and the like rather than supernatural causes such as demonic intervention. Similarly, a physician treating a patient would rely on medical science and natural remedies to diagnose and treat the illness, rather than prayer or spiritual healing. Methodological naturalism has been widely accepted in modern science as it has been highly effective in understanding and explaining natural phenomena. With it, for better or worse, humanity has excelled in areas such as mechanics, electronics, space exploration, and medical advancements.
Now, back to my original question (changed just a bit): Isn’t methodological naturalism the responsible way for Christians to approach inquiry into all our understandings and experiences? Shouldn’t we assume no outside (miraculous, paranormal, divine) direct influence in situations we observe and investigate?
For example, if we hear a banging in our house in the middle of the night, we assume that there is a natural explanation for this banging. Maybe it is another family member, a pet, the wind, gravity, or even a burglar? It is only if and when all naturalistic phenomena have been exhausted that we resort to a less likely unnatural spiritual or supernatural explanation.
Of course, I have a graphic for this (you know how married my mind is to graphics!):
Methodological Naturalism Applied
Your car won’t start:
What did it mean: No gas
How does it apply to you: You have to find a way to get gas, walk, or not go anywhere.
It’s pretty simple. Isn’t this the way we all engage the world? Is it wrong for Christians?
I read this about Methodological Naturalism recently:
“Methodological naturalism is not inherently Christian or non-Christian. It is a philosophical approach to scientific investigation that focuses on natural causes and explanations for phenomena, and it does not necessarily conflict with Christian beliefs. Many Christians accept methodological naturalism as a useful tool for scientific inquiry and discovery, while also recognizing that it has limitations and does not provide a complete picture of the world.”
Sounds good, right?
Problems with Methodological Naturalism
Not so fast. I used to believe this, but I have been rethinking this. Methodological Naturalism can be problematic if it is applied as a strict philosophical dogma in inquiry. As a system, it excludes any consideration of supernatural or divine not just in intervention, but in providential involvement as well. As Christians, we believe that God is the creator of the natural world and through his creative process, he has created it in such a way that it follows natural processes. But we also believe that He is actively involved in it. Limiting understanding and investigation to naturalistic explanations misses important aspects of the world that God has created and your life he is always involved in.
The Homiletical Process
Let’s look at this issue from the perspective of biblical interpretation:
As you can see, our process of interpreting the Bible has many similarities to Methodological Naturalism. We call our method “Authorial Intent Hermeneutics” (hermeneutics is simply a fancy word for “method of interpretation”) or the “Homiletical Process” (homiletical, as well, is a fancy word for “sermon or message delivery”). We believe the first step in this process is to understand what the author meant to his original audience in the original situation.
My point is that when studying the Scriptures, we always start the same way someone who follows Methodological Naturalism would start. We do diligence to understand the Bible in its original context. However, before we move to the question “how does it apply to us?” we take a trip into the eternal and providential. We ask “what does it mean?” not simply because we believe God is the ultimate author of Scripture, but because we believe God is an active God, involved in all things. We believe that the Scriptures can apply to us because we believe in eternal principles. The Scriptures have a special place only in that they are part of a special message that God gave through his intercession. Therefore, we ask What does this mean for all people, of all times, everywhere? Sometimes the eternal principle is evident, obvious, and specific, but many times it is general and relative to the broader contexts. Sometimes the Scripture will prescribe something that man should do, and sometimes it just describes what some individual did. In both, we see God’s providence. For example, when we are told by the book of John that “the one who Jesus loved” outran Peter to the tomb, we may not have an eternal principle saying that we should learn how to run faster for God, but we do know that God, in his providence, wanted us to know this part of the story. It’s incidental, yet providential at the same time.
Providential Naturalism Defined
Let me try to define providence since it is a central idea for which I am trying to make an argument. Providence refers to the idea that God is actively involved in the world, directing all events, big and small, and working out His plan. It is the belief that God is not distant or detached from the affairs of the world but is rather intimately involved in every aspect of life, guiding and sustaining all things according to His will. Providence can be seen as the way in which God exercises His sovereignty over creation, bringing about His purposes and fulfilling His promises. It encompasses the idea that God is always working for the good of those who love Him, in the midst of circumstances that bring us great pain and pleasure, and when one’s car breaks down. Ultimately, the concept of providence affirms God’s love, wisdom, power, and goodness, and gives believers confidence that we can trust in Him to guide and care for them in all aspects of life. So far so good?
Now, Christians who believe and follow the Methodological Naturalistic process argue that we should only turn to supernatural options of direct intervention when we have exhausted the natural options and found them wanting. Of course, we can and should always see God’s providential movements as the ultimate cause or beginning as we reflect on the moral reasoning behind all events, but Methodological Naturalism is their umbrella philosophy that dictates their first steps in everything. For the Methodological Natralist Christian, most of the events that happen to us on a daily basis are mundane and meaningless. We do not need to think of any transcendent reason for these events.
While I appreciate and sympathize with this method as it does not leave God completely out, I don’t believe that this is the best process for Christians. Now, maybe it is my Calvinism or maybe it is just my strong view of God’s immanence (i.e. God is present in all the happenings of our life), but I believe that we should actively see God in everything, even the mundane. Why? Because he is there. The hermeneutical process that we use to interpret the Bible should be the process that we use to interpret all things. I think we can call our method of inquiry Providential Naturalism, thereby recognizing God’s presence even in the natural and most mundane things in our life.
Providential Naturalism Applied
For example, if we hear a banging in our house in the middle of the night, we assume that there is a natural explanation for this banging. Maybe it is another family member, a pet, the wind, gravity, or even a burglar? It is only if and when all naturalistic phenomena have been exhausted that we resort to a less likely spiritual or supernatural explanation for the noise. So far, this looks just the same as Methodological Naturalism. But what I am proposing is that we start with the assumption “God done it,” but that we see God’s will unfolding even when we find out that the noise was a cat.
So we take it through this process just the same:
I believe it is important that we see God In everything, for better or worse, knowing that he is not a distant God who cheerleads as we function in the world he has created, but one who is intimately involved in everything. He is a Psalm 119 God.
Just read this:
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
Does that sound like God is on the outside looking in or on the inside carrying us? I think the second.