I was having brunch with a friend recently and, it being the Christmas season and all, the subject of miracles arose. My friend, a believing Christian, expressed skepticism about the miracles. “I just don’t believe Jesus could walk on water — we know that that’s impossible,” she said. “How could Jesus feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish?” she asked. “That’s just not plausible.”
She raises a good point. “But as a believing Christian,” I asked her, “don’t you acknowledge that Jesus was (and is) God?” “Sure,” she said. “Well,” I replied, “this means you believe that the creator and sustainer of the universe, of all that is seen and unseen, the being that exists outside of time — indeed, that created time itself — the author of all that is, two thousand years ago became a man.”
Or, to be more precise, was at Christmas born a little baby.
Many of my friends are having babies, and I am the proud godfather of little Olivia and Thomas. So I know something of what I’m talking about when I say that babies are pretty helpless. Think of Jesus that first Christmas night — he couldn’t see farther than a few feet, he didn’t know that he controlled his hands, he couldn’t hold his head up, he couldn’t feed himself. And yet the Christian church boldly claims that this little baby is the eternal being who has been worshipped and pondered and mythologized for centuries — the turning point of history, the necessary condition without which the universe, and all of us, would not exist.
That is some claim.
Could it be true? Could God have become man two thousand years ago on the first Christmas night?
Is Christmas possible?
The intellectual framework of the modern world is dominated by the (so-called) Enlightenment. With its focus on knowledge through the faculty of reason and the method of empirical investigation, the Enlightenment ushered in what might be called an era of scientific imperialism — an era that holds to this day. Today many of our brothers and sisters, rooted in the Enlightenment, have an epistemology that restricts the set of knowable objects to those that can be weighed and measured or derived from first principles, while others take Enlightenment reductionism even further, suggesting that the only true knowledge — knowable or unknowable — is knowledge that is either empirical or rational.
The focus on scientific laws — on the laws that govern the natural world — thus becomes quite natural and inevitable. We know this law governs because we derived it on a chalkboard and tested it in a laboratory. Some are famous: e = mc2; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Most are not. But, in a Newtonian sense, they are binding.
Although much of modern science has cast aside Newtonian determinism in favor of a more probabilistic worldview, the Enlightenment mentality that stresses laws of nature still holds in the public mind. Hence David Hume, a key figure of the Enlightenment, is still very persuasive when he writes that a miracle — of which God becoming man on the first Christmas night surely counts — is “a violation of the laws of nature.”
Considering the possibility of a resurrection — a particularly famous claim to one is intimately connected to the Christmas story — Hume writes:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
To Hume it is simple: if you claim that the baby Jesus is the Son of God, then it is much more likely that you are either being deceived (by someone else, or by your own mind or senses) or that you are lying than it is that you are correct. Therefore, the rational man — the man relying on the principles of the Enlightenment — concludes that your miracle did not take place.
So it may be said both that Christmas is impossible, and that even if it were possible, we could never know it occurred. Why? Christmas is impossible because it violates the laws of nature — a being cannot have existed for all time and have been born at a specific point in time, for example. But even if the laws of nature were somehow violated, we could never know, because it is irrational to believe that the violation is more likely than the evangelist being wrong.
This explains, I think, the attitude of my friend. Jesus can’t feed thousands with just a few loaves and fish — the laws of nature don’t allow it. Jesus couldn’t have walked on water. Gravity doesn’t work that way.
And then there is Christmas. We celebrate it as a society, but do we really believe it happened? Many profess belief in the Christmas story, but do they really believe its claims could be true? Put simply, is Christmas possible?
What are the most important things you know? I’d guess that they include the love you share with your family and friends. But how do you know that they love you and that you love them?
Is Macbeth correct that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing? Are some things worthy of great sacrifice? If so, then what are they? You may have strong answers to these questions, but how do you know that you’re right?
Scientific imperialism would seek to test these in the same way that you would test the value of the gravitational constant. Enlightenment reductionism (in its extreme form) would boil them down to their material elements — you know that you love your wife because special neurons fire and chemicals are released when you are around her.
But there are better ways to know.
Use reason and empirics to know, sure. But embrace your full ability to know by embracing your full humanity. Learn from the movements of your heart. Take seriously the knowledge you acquire from personal experience — even from mystical experience. Don’t reduce your experiences to their constituent elements — anyone who has seen Mr. Springsteen in concert knows that what happens there is more than drums plus melody plus lyrics plus vocals plus audience; anyone who has held his wife knows that there is more in that experience than brain chemistry. Sometimes two plus two really does equal six.
Is Christmas possible? This question has no easy answer. It is so difficult that more than reason is required in its service. But then more than reason is required to answer most questions that truly matter.
— Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This was first printed in The American magazine in 2012 and is reprinted with permission.