Supernatural Toasters

Kevin Sharpe

Science & Spirit 8(2) Summer 1997

How does the Divine interact with the universe?

When I see and smell smoke coming from my toaster, I look into it for burning crumbs or bread. If I fail to see any, I look for a smoldering electrical component. If smoke continued to issue from the toaster but no crumbs sat in it, no pieces of bread stuck to its elements, and its plug was out of the wall socket, I'd send it to the X-Files.

How does the Divine interact with the universe?

Perhaps the Divine intervenes toaster-like in nature and the human mind in a miraculous way that conflicts with the explanations of science. A falling tree suddenly reverses its path to stand upright again and avoid crushing the forester. This doesn't happen. Neither can the unplugged toaster smoke.

A scientist will not, in principle, notice divine actions as interruptions or exceptions to the natural world. No natural event falls outside the potential purview of science. We accept this because our cosmology is now scientific and not biblical, because the modern, scientifically-informed world captures our minds and existence.

Or we could offer a spiritual reason. Paul Tillich, the great German-American theologian, for instance, labels as demonic any suggestion of a supernatural interference in the regular order of nature. Science, current or future, cannot notice any irregularities.

How does the Divine interact with the universe without breaking natural laws?

The book Chance and Providence by William Pollard, physicist and Episcopal priest, suggests a solution. Pollard believes in the statistical nature of all situations. Each event resembles a lottery. Scientific laws for all levels of reality, from the quantum realm of atoms and electrons, through genetics and biology, through the social sciences, through to history, all rely on statistics. For any situation, Pollard continues, the course of events can move in a variety of ways each with a chance of happening. What way a situation does proceed depends on how the Divine guides it; the Divine picks a way from among the possibilities that nature or history or a person's psyche presents.

Science recognizes two types of chance. The throwing of dice or a meteor hitting your car typify the classical sense. While such an event has causes, we either don't know them or prefer to ignore them. Our equations for such chance phenomena represent, as theologian and physicist Robert Russell phrases it, a convenient "shorthand for treacherously detailed calculations."

In contrast, causes don't explain the other type of chance situation. "At some level," Russell continues, "things just happen." Most physicists believe this natural chance occurs at the atomic and subatomic levels where we employ quantum physics. "A specific uranium atom may or may not decay in the next second. If it does, it does. We can calculate the likelihood of the event but we cannot entirely explain why it occurred when it did and not at some other time."

Pollard rests his case on the natural chance of all processes. He doesn't recognize that chance sometimes arises from the imperfection of knowledge. His theory fails as a result.

Russell's understanding of how the Divine acts in the universe resembles Pollard's, except Russell sees natural chance only in the quantum realm. A quantum event emerges from an array of possibilities, each of which might occur but none of which definitely will occur. Nature provides a hat full of possibilities. The Divine picks one and declares it real. In this way, Russell adds divine action to quantum theory to provide enough causes to explain a quantum event. Nature provides the possible outcomes for a quantum happening and the Divine's action actualizes one of them.

Quantum physics continues with its weirdness. Nothing exists without someone noticing it. The coming into existence of one of the states possible for a quantum situation only occurs when someone observes it. Clutching the hat full of possibilities to pick from, the Divine waits for someone to peek. Only when someone looks does the Divine pull one out and provide it with existence. Apparently reality doesn't exist in between observations--an unreasonable dependency of the Divine on humans.

Yet Russell's belief that the Divine provides existence makes sense. The problem lies in where the Divine does this: the quantum world seems only part of the focus.

I offer a more general approach. The universe arises from the Divine's creative power. The pot owes its existence to the ability of the potter to construct from raw materials. The Hebrew name for the creator is "YHWH" (Yahweh, Jehovah), the one who "brings into existence whatever exists."

This applies to the creation of the universe. And from then on too; everything continues to depend for its existence on the Divine's sustaining power. Unlike the pot that exists once made, the universe doesn't continue to exist once created. It needs the Divine continually to give reality to each item, relationship, feeling, and so on, moment by moment.

And the Divine does this consistently and logically. Many spiritual traditions say the universe reflects basic characteristics of the Divine directly and intimately because it derives from the Divine. As the features of a pot reflect the mind of its potter, the basic laws of the universe arise from the Divine and reflect the Divine's own reasoning. This activity by the Divine is what science tries to describe.

Scientists ignore the action of the Divine in their theories. They fail to realize that their theories describe only actions of the Divine.

Copyright 1997 by Kevin Sharpe.