A note: This is the first in our series of science-informed Christmas reflections.
“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:20-21, NRSV)
Fascinated By Science
I’m fascinated by the connections between science and Christian faith. In fact, I believe science-informed faith is vital in our scientifically and technologically saturated world. But some conclude that they can’t believe in the Virgin Birth (or as I was taught, the “virginal conception” of Jesus) because of science.
Why? Because it violates the Laws of Nature, which were unknown to Joseph and Mary (and those around them) since they were “primitive” and “naïve” and thus couldn’t grasp modern science. Today, we are less credulous than the people we read about in the Bible because that’s what science teaches us to be.
It is true that, for many today, the idea of the Virgin Birth really is hard to believe. Though most Americans celebrate Christmas, according to the Pew Research Center, about half have doubts about the historicity of these elements of the story: (1) a virgin gave birth to a baby (2) in a feeding trough (or manger), and (3) this birth received an angelic announcement and (4) a visitation by “wise men” or magi who traveled hundreds of miles, guided by a heavenly light.
What’s weird about the assertion (that Joseph and others were gullible because they weren’t scientific) is it ignores what we read in the Bible: Joseph was shocked by Mary’s pregnancy because he knew babies are created by sex and Mary was a virgin.
Put simply, Joseph actually mirrors our contemporary world. He’s stunned by the situation. It’s not, “No biggie,” but, “What is going on here?”
“When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point–that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, ‘The thing is scientifically impossible,’ he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature.”
- Here’s my interview about miracles with philosopher of science John Lennox, both in video and in the newsletter.
- Pew asked whether Americans believe the virgin birth is historical as well as three other aspects of the Christmas story in “Five facts about Christmas in America.”
- There are very unusual cases of parthenogenesis (literally means “virgin birth”) in the animal kingdom—like this shark and these California condors—but none, to our knowledge, among Homo sapiens.
- For more from C.S. Lewis and the Virgin Birth, read “Science and Christmas.”
- Here’s my related, but different, take on “The Science of Christmas Future.”
The Money and the Drawer
Does modern science invalidate miracles like the Virgin Birth?
A few months ago, I interviewed the famous Oxford mathematician John Lennox about miracles (among other things). I’ll let his insights do some heavy lifting:
“If I’m staying in a hotel, and tonight I put $100 in the drawer by my bed, and I do the same tomorrow night. That’s $200. But I wake up on the next morning and find only $50. Do I conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken or that the laws of California have been broken? No, I conclude that the laws of California have been broken because I know that the laws of arithmetic have not been broken.”
“The confusion arises as to what we mean by the word ‘law.’ On the sidewalk in many American cities, you’ll see ‘Violators Will be Towed’ and that is not the idea when it comes to Laws of Nature. What are they? They are descriptions of what normally happens. Newton’s Law of Gravity says that a dropped apple will fall towards the center of the Earth, but that doesn’t prevent you from catching it in midair and stopping it from hitting the ground.”
Lennox clarified, claiming that “God the Creator built the regularities into the universe that we described by the Laws of Nature in the first place. He can feed an event into the system, and there’s nothing in science that can prevent that.” And then he hit on a theme that’s critical for grasping the situation Joseph found himself in:
“The real problem behind this is the common view that this universe is a closed system of cause and effect. That was my false belief and connection with my hotel bedroom and the drawer. I thought it was a closed system, but it wasn’t. A thief was able to get in and take $150, and that analogy can help us to understand that you cannot argue against miracles in principle. Science doesn’t stop miracles from happening.”
Christmas and the Gospel
With this analogy in mind, my message isn’t just about the Virgin Birth. It’s about the heart of the gospel, about the God who is always involved in the world, who is so involved that this God became incarnate in Jesus. That is the Christmas story.
Joseph ultimately saw this, realizing that God was at work. Put simply, Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24, NRSV).
For some (as noted in the Pew survey), science seems to get in the way. But I think their skepticism misses the point, which brings me back to C.S. Lewis: “The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is, beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature with Him.”
I titled this “No Ordinary Joe.” But maybe we all can still learn from Joseph, who understood that the God we worship this season brings us shocking news. In fact, it’s also the good news of the Gospels. It changed Joseph’s life. If we take it in, it can also change ours.