Dec 24 - How Can This Be?


Mary: How can this be, since I am a virgin?
Angel: Nothing will be impossible with God.
Mary: Be it done to me according to your word.
— Excerpted from Luke 1: 34-38


2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38


I lost some sleep writing about this conversation. I think God’s action in the universe is limited by his refusal to violate the the free will of humans and the laws of nature, both of which are present in this passage and are live issues today.

Mary chose to cooperate with God’s clearly announced intention. Had she refused, there would have been a different story.  How many times has the story of my own little part of the universe depended on my receptivity to a thought or impression from God?

Furthermore, when Mary asks “How can this be?” I am right there with her. She knows virgins don’t give birth. Modern scientific discoveries have not somehow made the virgin birth less possible than it was in her day.  She believes the natural world obeys unchanging patterns; we now call them laws of nature.  When God does a virgin birth, healings, and resurrections, does he violate laws he established, or is there some other way?  I have been plagued by this question for decades because, as a biochemist,  50 years’ experience has impressed on me the power, dependability, and inviolability of natural laws.  Christian writers have helped—most recently philosopher/theologian Dallas Willard.  Sometimes I’ve been driven to seek a deeper understanding of matter itself by reading what modern physicists write for lay audiences.  As they explore everything from cosmology to subatomic particles, they find new laws plus some features that appear “lawless”, involving involving chance, indeterminacy, and unpredictability.  Stephen Hawkins famously asks “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

I recently had a thought that may mean nothing to you but that has given me some new-found peace. Perhaps the universe has built-in variability that doesn’t violate natural laws.  Analogies would be a tightly structured contract with escape clauses, a spreadsheet with both fixed equations and spaces for entering new data, or a complex computer program with a “back door” installed by the programmer.  Perhaps natural law operates throughout the universe and on the results produced by  “lawless” regions that could include inanimate matter as well as human personality and will.  This is only a hunch and I certainly don’t pretend to have details, but for me it would leave the door open for God to work in nature alongside humans, following his natural laws to accomplish his overarching purposes.  In such a universe, anything would be possible.


God grant me the serenity to live with what I cannot understand, the courage to act on what I do understand, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.


Ken Morton is a retired CN professor, husband of Patty, and father of Luke and David. During this advent season I am most looking forward to the re-arrival of the boys.