Review: Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?

Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? Ian Hutchinson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Veritas Books, 2018.

Summary: A collection of responses to questions about God and science asked by students at Veritas Forums on university campuses throughout the country.

There is a popular conception that science and religion are at war and that anyone who is engaged in scientific research rejects the idea of a God. If that is the case, Ian Hutchinson apparently didn’t get the memo. That’s all the more extraordinary because Hutchison is a plasma physicist doing research and teaching at MIT. He has published over two hundred peer-reviewed articles and at least two books in his field. And he didn’t grow up Christian, as he shares in this book. He came to faith in college after a careful search.

Hutchinson has been willing to go public with his faith, speaking at a number of university campuses through the Veritas Forum. One of the features of these speaking engagements are audience questions from students in attendance. Over the years, he has collected these questions, many of which concern how scientists can possibly embrace the Christian faith. In this work, after sharing his own journey to faith and subsequent life, he organizes these into thirteen chapters. In this case, listing the table of contents may be the best way to summarize the issues he covers:

1. A Spiritual Journey
2. Are There Realities Science Cannot Explain?
3. What Is Faith?
4. Do Scientists Have Faith?
5. Does Reason Support Christian Belief?
6. What Is Scientism?
7. Is There Really Spiritual Knowledge?
8. Creation and Cosmology
9. Do Miracles Happen?
10. The Bible and Science
11. Of All the World’s Religions, Why Christianity?
12. Why Does God Seem Hidden?
13. Is There Good and Evil?
14. Personal Consequences: So What?

As you can see, the title of the work is just one of these chapters. How he approaches this is a good reflection of the approach of the whole book. He starts with a definition of a miracle: a miracle is an extraordinary act of God. He observes that because of its extraordinary character, the existence of miracles cannot be proven or disproven because science requires reproducibility. This is actually modest because he admits that miracles involve interpretation. All science can do is speak to the likelihood of such an event. He also argues that the inviolability of nature’s laws is not a doctrine of science. Natural explanations of events needn’t be the only explanations. Quantum reality actually suggests a universe that is not a closed system of natural laws. He discounts many miracle legends and focuses on the miracles of the incarnation and resurrection as central to Christianity. Along the way, he addresses natural explanations as well as the possibility of miracles in other religions, arguing that these are most worth considering when consistent with the whole worldview of that religion.

Several things are striking: there is respect for the questions, the responses both explore the logic, as well as possible misconceptions, of the question and then offers reasoned responses with significant documentation. Throughout, there is high regard for the work of scientists and the results of science and the conviction that there is nothing in science that calls into question the existence of God or the truth of the central claims of Christianity. Actually, the question that is the most challenging for Hutchinson is not a scientific one but rather the existence of evil and the questions it raises of the goodness of God. He does offer thoughtful responses to this as well, and observes that evil is also a problem for the atheist.

Because of the question-based format, this does feel a bit like a question and answer session. That may be useful as a reference for someone who has similar questions or friends who do. It also reflects the tone I’ve witnessed when I’ve heard Hutchinson speak: articulate, forthright but not arrogant, gracious and yet well-reasoned. One interlocutor told me that he had checked out Hutchinson ahead of time and agreed to engage with him, convinced that they would have a real conversation, not a set up. And that’s what one finds here.

Review: The Universe Next Door, Sixth Edition

The Universe Next Door, Sixth Edition, James W. Sire (Foreword by Jim Hoover). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A new edition of this foundational work on comparative worldviews, exploring the contours of various worldviews, including a new chapter on Islam, through the use of eight questions.

This book, in its six editions, has framed my adult working life. I first heard about the idea of worldview in lectures drawn from the author’s work while I was still a student. The first edition of The Universe Next Door was published during my first year working with InterVarsity/USA on their field staff. Now, forty-four years later, I still work with InterVarsity in a national role, and was delighted to receive a copy of the sixth edition of this work. During the intervening years, I came to know the author well enough when we collaborated on some student training and when I hosted him for several lecture opportunities. I learned he was working on the sixth edition the month before his passing. I am so glad to see its completion, with the able help of former InterVarsity Press editor Jim Hoover (who also happens to be a fellow Youngstown native!).

While the basic framework of the book hasn’t changed from forty four years ago, there have been a number of changes that reflect both growth in the author’s concept of worldview, as well as newly emerging trends in thought. For one thing, Sire’s understanding of worldview changed from one of ideas to the recognition of how we live and orient our affections and commitments in light of them. To his seven worldview questions around which each chapter was organized, he added an eighth: What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

Sire was one of the first to recognize the coalescing ideas of new age thought as early as his first edition when he wrote of the “new consciousness.” Later he changed the name of this chapter to “the New Age” and recognized the rise of those who were “spiritual but not religious.” More recently, he added a chapter on post-modernism. With this edition, given the rise of Islam not only in the Middle East, but in Western countries, Winfried Corduan was invited to add a chapter on the Middle East.

I didn’t read editions two through five. What I can say is that in addition to the changes I’ve already noted each chapter shows signs of updating. For example, the chapter on deism includes a section on “moral therapeutic deism,” first described by sociologist Christian Smith. The new age material has been supplemented by discussions of the work of Ken Wilber and Deepak Chopra. In addition, sidebars added posthumously by Jim Hoover further elucidate the work. In addition, discussion questions have been added to each chapter and a chart is included at the end using the eight world view questions offering a brief side-by-side comparison of each of the worldviews.

The idea of worldview has come in for criticism. One critique is the overly intellectualized approach to worldview. Sire has recognized this, as noted above and newer editions recognize the affective and volitional aspects of worldview. Worldview has also been criticized for its polemical use in arguing for “the Christian worldview,” sometimes very narrowly defined. Sire’s Christian theism has a breadth to it lacking in some treatments, but there is no avoiding the fact that this text argues for the Christian faith over other worldviews. Jim Sire spent a good part of his life lecturing as a Christian apologist, and unapologetically so. He did not think contradictory things could all be true and elsewhere argued that one should only believe what one is convinced is true (Why Believe Anything at All?). What one finds here though is someone who loves ideas, even those he would disagree with, tries to understand others on their own terms, and represent them as they would themselves.

This is a work that respects its readers, candid not only about its intentions but its shortcomings. Sire admits his framework doesn’t easily fit Eastern thought. Worldviews are a means of understanding others, not pigeonholing them and dismissing them with a facile apologetic argument. He acknowledges recent challenges and the things he is still grappling with as well as the things of which he is convinced. This is a book that continued to grow through succeeding editions, reflecting an author who also was always learning, always growing. His last email to me was about questions related to new content in this book.

Would that all of us could be like him in this regard! I’m glad InterVarsity Press and Jim Hoover completed and published this work. It is not only a model of engagement but also a tribute to a gifted writer and apologist who did so much to develop the idea of worldview and gave so much encouragement to people who wondered if it was possible to think as well as live Christianly.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: True Paradox

True ParadoxSummary: David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith. This book is helpful both for the person considering whether it makes sense to become a Christian as well as for Christians looking for ways to articulate how Christian faith makes sense of life’s deepest questions.

Many people consider that Christians are “simple minded” and that anything that is complex or poses intellectual challenges is problematic to the Christian believer. David Skeel takes an approach that is different from the very logical appeals of many apologists who appeal to cosmological arguments and arguments from design to demonstrate the case for Christian faith. Skeel argues that Christianity’s explanatory power to deal with the intangibles and paradoxes of the world as we actually experience it is greater than the materialist explanations that are the major alternative on offer

Following his introduction where he lays out this basic premise, he discusses five aspects of life for which this is so:

  1. Ideas and our Idea Making Capacity. Our idea of a cosmos ordered by God is far more than evolutionary survival alone warrants. He observes the interesting phenomenon of the unreasonable usefulness of mathematics, where equations end up mapping the physical world. There is also in this the challenging question for a true religion of articulating ideals of universal applicability and transformative power that transcends the world of particulars and difference. Skeel argues that the testimony of Christians from every culture is powerful argument for its capacity to handle this kind of complexity.
  2. Beauty and the Arts. Skeel contends that the appreciation of beauty and art as an accidental consequence of evolution is profoundly dissatisfying. Beauty points beyond the world, which often also has a certain ugliness, a sense of the world not being as it should. Christianity deals with the complexity of world not as its supposed to be and our longing for and sense of beauty.
  3. Suffering and Sensation. No where do we have a greater sense of a world not as it ought to be than in our experience of pain and suffering. Yet materialist explanations simply say that suffering is. Here, Skeel writes touchingly of his friend Bill Stuntz, with whom he planned to write this book, and Bill’s struggle with terminal colon cancer. He concludes the chapter with Stuntz’s words of God’s longing for the sufferer: “God is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. . . .So I have found in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer” (p. 107).
  4. The Justice Paradox. David Skeel is a lawyer and here he observes that every society creates a justice system to bring about a more just social order–and all fail in varying degrees. Marxists thought they would eliminate greed when the working class gained control. After Civil Wars, Constitutional Amendments and Civil Rights legislation, racism remains a reality in America. Christian faith understands the limits of law to deal with human imperfection, that law serves best with a “light touch” and that reconciliation in Christ may accomplish what law cannot in the fabric of human relationships.
  5. Life and Afterlife. Here Skeel explores both our longing and disdain for heaven. True Christian hope brings earth and heaven together in a renewed creation where the beauties we have created and the justice we have pursued carry over with us and are perfected with us in this new creation.

He concludes with a word for the person willing to explore Christianity further, commending further reading, participating in Christian community, seeking the counsel of a thoughtful Christian about one’s questions, and finally, reading the Bible itself.

What I most appreciated about this book is Skeel’s approach of lifting the “case for Christianity” out of the realm of philosophical argument and evidence-based discussion. These have their place but what Skeel does is explore the large and complex canvas of life and his contention that Christianity in fact has the greatest capacity to cope with the complexity of that canvas.

An interesting back story to this book is that it was discussed and edited with the help of an atheist post-doctoral student, Patrick Arsenault, who is mentioned in the Acknowledgments. The story of this dialogue was covered in a recent New York Times article. My only critique is the thought that it would have been interesting to see the dialogue between the two more directly reflected in this book, which is only in Skeel’s voice. Otherwise, I found this an account that by turn was thought-provoking, eloquent, and tenderly human in its exploration of life’s big complexities and the life of faith.