Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Miracle—by the Numbers

Last summer Dr. Ali Binazir wrote a blog post in which he posed the question, “What are your chances of coming into being?”

He considered such questions as (1) the odds of your parents meeting, which he estimates at 1 in 20,000, (2) the odds of that meeting leading to a relationship that produces a child, which he estimates to be 1 in 2000, (3) the odds of the right sperm from your father joining with the right egg from your mother to form you, which he puts at 1 in 400 quadrillion, and (4) the odds of every one of your ancestors living to the age at which they could reproduce, which Binazir estimates at 1 in 10 to the 45,000th power [“That number,” Binazir observed, “is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe."].

When you put all of that together, Binazir said, the probability that you could exist is 1 in 10 to the 2,685,000th power. Here’s how Binazir described the enormity of that number:

As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 10 to the 27th power. The number of atoms making up the earth is about 10 to the 50th power. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 10 to the 80th power.

So what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.

Therefore, according to Binazir’s calculations, the chances that you could exist are so infinitesimal as to amount to zero; there is virtually no probability that you could exist.

National Public Radio blogger Robert Krulwich, in his intriguingly titled post Are You Totally Improbable or Totally Inevitable?, summarized Binazir’s article and then observed, “On the other hand…there are poets who argue exactly the opposite: that each of us is fated to exist, that there is a plan, and that all of us are expected.”

The poets of the Bible, I think, would come down mainly on the “there is a plan” side; we at least have strong intimations of such. For example, the Lord said to the young Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). For another example, the Psalmist sang, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:16b).

Had the biblical writers been confronted with the speculations of modern thinkers, would they have admitted to the presence of randomness and chance in our world and in our lives? Some certainly would. Have you read Qoheleth lately?

For the most part, though, I suspect that they would have looked at Binazir’s conclusion—“A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are”—said “Amen,” and done a little praising, a little thinking, and a little writing about how God works God’s purposes out even through random selection, chaotic human behavior, chance, coincidence, and happenstance.

I suspect that, as usual, the philosopher Forrest Gump was on track when he said, “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both (are) happening at the same time.”

Jesus Christ, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, was, the Bible says, the Church teaches, and the Creeds affirm, both divine and human, fully God and fully man. Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed One of God who came to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, to take away the sin of the world, and to conquer death.

Given the divine nature of the Son of God and the teachings of the Bible regarding him, such as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) and “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…” (Colossians 1:15-16a), we can use our imaginations to at least move toward saying something about the mystery of the eternal Son of God who came into the world in the Incarnation.

But given the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth—he was fully human, remember—should we think in terms of his birth as being at least partly the result of the same kind of process—randomness, chaos and chance somehow worked with by God to accomplish God’s purposes—as are the births of the rest of us?

A thousand years before Jesus was born, God told King David of Israel that God would give David a dynasty and God promised David that David’s kingdom would never end (2 Samuel 7:11-16). The historical dynasty of David in fact came to an end with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in the early Sixth Century BCE. But the ongoing partnership between God’s Spirit and the Hebrew theologians led to the expectation that God’s promise to David would be fulfilled in the coming of an ideal Ruler, the Messiah.

Think back to Binazir’s numbers, though, and try to imagine the seemingly insurmountable probability of all the generations of people in David's lineage who had to meet, who had to marry and who had to reproduce in order for Jesus the son of Mary to be Jesus the son of Mary actually meeting, marrying, and reproducing.

The mystery of how Mary came to be with child of the Holy Spirit is almost matched by the mystery of how Jesus of Nazareth—or any other human being, for that matter—could be born at all.

Thanks be to God!

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