Myth, Magic and Miracles

A friend of mine told me a miracle story last evening. He was driving along the road in the right lane. Two cars were beside him in the left lane. The road was in a suburban area. Ahead on the right he spotted a mother walking a dog coming in the direction facing him. Beside her was a young child jumping and playing. As he approached them, with the two cars still in the left lane beside him, the child suddenly jumped from the sidewalk directly into his path. He swerved left to avoid the child, knowing that he would collide with both cars to his left. He realized instantly that he would probably be injured or killed. He successfully avoided the child, but there were no cars to his left. They had disappeared. He swerved back into his lane and a few hundred yards further stopped at a traffic light. The two cars that had been at his side, were at his side again and pulled up and stopped just as he did.

My friend is by no means a credulous person who is prone to see the face of Mother Teresa in a bagel or have visions of St Etheldreda in the night. He is level headed and while a believer, is prone to dismiss such things as flights of fancy. He was non plussed and spent most of the evening searching for a rational explanation. He failed.

So what happened? A conventionally religious person would say, “The guardian angels prevented this accident from happening! Praise the Lord!” I’m good with that. A New Age prognosticator might say something like, “In any one place the good vibrations of people who live well generate positive dynamic synergies which work together to sometimes produce extraordinary suspensions of the usual laws of physics, and this is what we call a miracle.” Whatever.

What interests me more is the possibility of miracles, and how we understand them in the modern world. The materialist would simply dismiss my friend’s story saying such things are impossible. This is David Hume’s not so clever argument: “Miracles are impossible therefore miracles do not happen.” This is based on a closed understanding of the laws of nature. For the materialists the laws of nature are set in stone. Things happen certain ways and they can never be changed. The trains of the natural order always stay on their rails and they always run on time.

Human experience tells us otherwise. Inexplicable things happen. We don’t have all the explanations. Scientists have made amazing discoveries, but rather than getting all the answers, their research usually also unlocks how much more there is to discover, and one of the things they are discovering is that the natural order is not quite so firm and unchangeable as we first thought. There is a dynamic and unpredictable element to the natural world. Reality is rubbery. There is an open ended quality to our experience.

This is where myth and magic come in. First we should get our terms straight. When I say “magic” I am not concerned with conjuring tricks and slight of hand and making cards disappear. I’m talking about those who take magic seriously and wish to manipulate reality through the use of supernatural powers. People who are into the occult, witchcraft, shamanism, voodoo, spiritual healing, spiritism, fortune telling etc. This enterprise is what I call “magic” and magic is different from miracles. A miracle is a suspension of the laws of nature by some un-defined power and in some unspecified manner which we experience, but do not ourselves produce. Magic is the attempt by the magician to control these powers or take on these powers for his own ends.

Therefore, you might say that a Christian minister who lays hands on someone and prays for healing is doing magic. You might say that a Catholic priest who extends his hands and prays that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ is doing magic. Not quite. In both cases the action is God’s. The minister is simply co-operating with God’s power and allowing God to do as he wills. Instead of claiming power for himself he is yielding his will and power to God.

I realize that for the unbeliever all of this is the stuff of myths, fantasy and fairy tales–and that it is simply untrue, and by “untrue” he means not scientific. Again, we should clarify our terms. The word “myth” is often used to mean “an untrue story” or “a story with magical elements”. In fact “myth” has a deeper meaning. Myth connects us with archetypes of character and action which resonate within the greater consciousness of the whole race. A myth proper is a kind of universal human story which functions on a powerful symbolic level. It does not propose to be a historical story. A myth is therefore un-historical, but it is not un-true.

What shall we make then, of the stories of the Bible–especially the Old Testament? What do we make of the miraculous elements like Jonah being swallowed by the whale, Elijah being caught up to heaven in the fiery whirlwind, the manna in the wilderness etc? In the Old Testament we actually see something fairly unique in the development of religion: stories with a miraculous and mythic dimension which are also presented as historical.

The Old Testament is rooted in history. The stories are presented as really happening. We can allow that they may have been expanded and exaggerated over the years, but like legends (which are extravagant stories based in real events) they are rooted in historical reality. How can this be?

I’m back now to the rubbery nature of reality. We’re presented in the Christian scriptures with some stories of extraordinary events–events that cut across our usual expectations of how the natural order works. We’re confronted with miracles. They make us gasp and wonder–with a natural mixture of disbelief and confusion. That’s okay. Miracles were supposed to upset our smug little close minded ideas of how the universe works.

The materialist will dismiss them and say, “Miracles are impossible. Therefore miracles don’t happen.” This is an expression of scientism–the belief that the only valid knowledge is scientifically proven knowledge. But science itself is revealing that the natural order is more mysterious and open ended than we might like. The materialist must ignore the experience of the vast majority of human beings of all races and in every place and every time for people everywhere have understood that there is such a thing as the miraculous, that strange things do happen, and that our materialist explanations do not explain everything. The vast majority of human experience–of human culture and human awareness is imbued in some way or other with the sense that there is more to life than our simple senses can perceive or explain. Are we to write off the vast majority of the human experience down the ages as “silly superstition”? This is not only arrogant. Even worse: it is dull.

At the end of this week we will face once again the most stupendous miracle of all–that Christ Jesus rose from the dead. Materialists–who often pride themselves on being open minded–rarely stop to consider the evidence. If they would, their world would be turned upside down.

But maybe that’s why they won’t.

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  • shadowlands

    you forgot to mention faith Father. Faith produces miracles. And a lack of faith restricts miracles. Jesus said so. (Matt 13:58)

  • Alice C. Linsley

    A similar thing happened to a women from my church. Only her event involved ladders flying off a contractor’s truck. She never spoke about it because she was afraid people would think she was crazy. She is a very grounded and mature individual. Her faith is commendable, and she felt certain of God’s hand in the preservation of life.

  • limapie

    Miracles aren’t always wildly weird like rising from the dead.
    Miracles are everyday and everywhere. The wild miracles
    are just extensions of the everyday and everywhere ones.

    A sleeping bud on a crab tree. The color of the sky and the anatomy
    of an eye to see it. The sun. The moon. Gravity.
    I can’t list the countless miracles God has given.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I don’t think there’s any reason a miracle, understood as a suspension or discontinuity of the ordinary laws which govern the universe, cannot happen. I think the problem with miracles lies in saying of any particular event, “this was a miracle.” Completely overlooking the difficulties of establishing an “objective” account of what happened (for example, isn’t it possible that the driver in the story simply didn’t realize that he had passed the car to his left? Or that there was just enough room for him? Or that the other cars reacted as well?), the statement “x is a miracle” requires you to: 1) know perfectly all the relevant physical forces and laws that would ordinarily act in that situation, 2) know exactly what did happen, and 3) show that 2) and 1) are not identical. Because our knowledge both of physical laws and our incomplete memories of events, I would say that calling something miraculous is often quite unjustified, and that this is the reason so many people are quite skeptical of miracles.

  • Howard

    I think a more precise statement is that faith predisposes one to benefit from a miracle. Miracles are not simply odd events that surprise us, or even odd events that shake up our understanding of how the world works. Miracles are intentional signs that are meant to point to something else — either God or to something important in God’s plan. Without faith, or at least the capacity for faith, the connection cannot be made, and so the sign would be wasted.

    (For a counter-example, the discovery of radioactivity came when someone used rocks to hold down some photographic plates. He was surprised to see spots on the plates which he eventually was able to show were due to the presence of the rocks nearby. This discovery of radioactivity did indeed shake up our understanding of how the world works, but it was certainly not miraculous.)

  • Josh Henderson

    My wife and in-laws introduced me to the miraculous side of the Christian Faith. Looking back on my life before I understood this, it was dull and uneventful, and I could explain little of Jesus’ miracles. Now, things are easier to understand in life, like the testimony of other’s experience of miracles.

  • Howard

    I mostly agree with Scotty Ellis, except for the bit about our limited knowledge of physical laws. Well, I guess most people don’t know very much physics, but certain basics, like the fact that cars don’t just disappear, they know pretty well. Like him, though, I would tend to think that the other cars just reacted as well to avoid both the child and him, but he was too preoccupied to notice until the crisis was passed and he was calm again. It would be interesting to know what the mother saw and to interview the drivers of the other cars, but this will not be possible now.

    I think, though, that many (though not all) miracles are intended to have a limited “audience”. They would not convince someone else, but then the message was not to someone else. I’ve had a few odd experiences myself, but absolutely nothing I could prove was a miracle to anyone else. I’m not even 100% sure they were truly miracles myself, only they *did* seem to have a point, and it was a point I was trying hard to ignore at the time but knew to be true. In the end, whether they were miraculous is not the important question; the real question is, did I get the message and respond appropriately?

  • Scotty Ellis

    “Well, I guess most people don’t know very much physics, but certain basics, like the fact that cars don’t just disappear, they know pretty well.”

    That’s not what I was referring to. I was referring to the fact that our physical laws are ultimately just mental concepts, models that we have constructed based upon observation. It would be foolish – a form of conceptual idolatry – to confuse our model of reality with reality and to forget that our models are subject to change and revision as we continue to observe the universe (the previous century alone introduced a laundry list of observations and discoveries that rendered previous physical models obsolete).

  • Howard

    Yeah, I know about that. Actually, I’m a physics professor at Marshall University. But the “change and revision” doesn’t change the basics of how people perceive the world. They may affect some important aspects of how galaxies formed, how atoms heavier than helium were formed in stars, etc., but (a) only a few people really look into those kinds of questions, and (b) those kinds of questions may involve some unknowns, but no real miracles. At least none I’ve ever heard even the faintest rumor of.

    No, when it comes to a well-known miracle, for example the feeding of the 5000, say it’s indeed a miracle, or that it was a lie, or maybe some sort of delusion. Don’t say that it could maybe be explained away by some physics we don’t yet understand. That’s the kind of weak cop-out that convinces no one (except for the writers over at SyFy).

  • Jim from Utah

    Some miracles comes to mind:

    As teenager my thumb being caught between cordwood and a wedge in a hydraulic wood-splitter. I still have my thumb unscathed. Neither was there pain.

    Being a young-butcher, I have some other stories of my hands being inexplicibly protected from serious harm, such as razor sharp knives (from the guy across from me skinning the animal) being accidently dragged across my hands with no harm.

    Deo Gratias.

  • Deb

    Two years ago my sister and I were in the back seat of my father’s car. My parents were in the front and my (aging) father was driving. We came to a split on the interstate. We were in the middle of five lanes, two curved to the right and three curved to the left. We needed to go right. When I noticed my father was going to the left, even though it was now to late to get over, I told him he was going the wrong way. He immediately turned the wheel to the right which was driving us directly into a cement barrier. My sister was praying and my thought was, well, we are going to die. In a flash, we were not only on the correct road, we were up the road in the far right lane. It was impossible. There was no way to bypass the cement barrier at the speed we were going and get into the correct lane. It was a miracle, plain and simple. It was a complete change of time and space. My sister and I were both aware that something miraculous had just happened. I drove us home after that though. :) God can do anything. He can move a vehicle and set it down someplace else without any hesitation in our time. I have witnessed many miracles in my life and I have no problem believing this man’s experience. God is supernatural. It only makes sense that his contact with us will also be supernatural. Whether or not someone believes us when we talk about miracles is irrelevant. It is enough for us to know God is watching over us.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I had in mind more the medical miracles, spontaneous remission, and so forth. The body is still full of unknowns, which makes ascribing miracles very problematic. But I agree with you about the feeding of the five thousand. I was making a much more general point about miracles – that is, that the flip-side of saying that something is a miracle is to say we know how it works normally, which can be problematic in itself. I was intending it to be a possible interpretation for this or that account of a miracle.

  • Scotty Ellis

    *not intending it to be a possible interpretation for this or that account of a miracle.

  • Howard

    We seem to be presented here with three different kinds of “miracles”.

    1. Events that seem impossible to explain conventionally but which teach someone an important truth about God. In the Bible these are often explicitly called signs. Notice that the person to whom the message was addressed is not necessarily the person most affected by the miracle. When Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding feast, the newlyweds and their families were spared embarrassment, but they do not seem to have known that it was a miracle — at first, anyhow. (Also, notice that they did not ask for this blessing. The Blessed Virgin intervened on her own initiative. Does anybody doubt that she is still doing that?)

    2. Events that seem impossible to explain conventionally and which do not appear to give anyone an important message, but which do some other noteworthy good. It’s practically impossible to distinguish these from the first kind, since it may just be that we are not among those to whom the message is clear. The story involving Fr. Longenecker’s friend, if it is indeed inexplicable by conventional means, seems to belong to this category. Nothing in the story indicated that this reinforced the friend’s faith, changed his behavior, or in any other way had a “spiritual” benefit — but it may have saved his earthly life. Then again, perhaps the life saved was in one of those other cars, and the miracle reawakened a dormant faith or prompted an agnostic to dig deeper.

    3. “Half at least of the stories one hears have no point — no reason,” as Fr. Brent said in A Mirror of Shalott. They are like Msgr. Maxwell’s parable of the orange peel from the prologue of that same book. Such events may well be due to “the rubbery nature of reality”, but they should probably not be called miracles.