Do You Believe in Miracles? (Read This, Before Answering)

Have you ever witnessed a miracle?

By sofia.reshetnikova [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By sofia.reshetnikova [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

To even answer that question, we’d have to come to some common agreement as to what we mean by miracle.

People routinely claim to have experienced or observed miracles.

The Catholic Church even has a Vatican-appointed team of miracle-claim-researchers, called the  “Miracle Commission” That’s a team I’d like to be on. Except I’m not Catholic.

But I do believe in miracles.

I don’t, however, accept the common understanding of a miracle as an divine interruption of the natural law. This common definition hearkens back to the early Enlightenment period and is attributed to the English skeptic philosopher David Hume.

In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume defines miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some visible agent.”

If you know anything about Hume, you know that–Enlightenment skeptic that he was–he didn’t accept the possibility of miracles. As Keith Ward points out, in The Big Questions of Science and Religion, Hume’s definition of miracles put divine action on the defensive, pointing out their absurdity. As Ward puts it,

Why should God make a set of beautiful and elegant laws, only to break them when the Divine Being felt like it? Does this not make God some sort of mathematical criminal? (87)

This view of the world as defined by unbreakable law and impenetrability by a divine being led to an increasingly deistic view of history (by an increasing number of intellectual elites) and to the relegation of special divine providence to a bygone era.

It struck a big blow (a blow which continues with perhaps ever greater intensity) to orthodox Christianity, replete with a view of divine creation of the universe, a virginal conception, numerous “miracle accounts” in the Bible and especially those accorded to Jesus in the gospels, and a centrality of some kind of resurrection hope and afterlife.

I would add that the definition of miracle as “transgression of natural law” also gave, on the other ideological side of things, fodder for those who accepted supernatural providence to pit religious belief against science. We need only look to the six-day creationists as contemporary examples of this pitting of revealed religion (and miracles/divine providence) against science.

But Ward offers another definition of miracle, one which I prefer:

Miracles as “extraordinary manifestations of spiritual power”

This definition does not require a divine “transgression” of laws of nature (“laws” which the Creator is ultimately responsible for, anyway). It simply indicates that extraordinary, even unusual, things can happen from time to time in our universe and within our history.

If there is such a thing as Spirit, then it’s reasonable to assume that Spirit exerts some causal influence in the world–even within the world in which the material may be the only “things” that are directly observable by us. Ward, again:

If nature is as a whole the manifestation of Spirit, then the laws of its operations will be manifestations of the nature of Spirit. To put this in theistic terms, the predictable regularities of nature will manifest the faithfulness and reliability of God, who wills that we should be able to understand and use these regularities. But if God is a supreme personal reality, it is to be expected that there will also be unique and more distinctly personal forms of manifestation, by which God is truly known in many forms of beauty, moral insight, and historical guidance. The universe will, in short, not be a machine. It will be more like (though not exactly like) a body, expressing both reliable regularities and specific personal action. (91)

When events are affected by God, or Spirit, or whatever you prefer to call it, then extraordinary events may occur, or new things may come to be that weren’t before. Unusual and surprising turns may be taken. But this may only mean that we need to revise our understanding of what is excluded or included in the “laws” of nature.

One doesn’t get the sense from Ward that revising the definition in this way opens up the field to any and every miracle claim. He’s aware of the temptation and danger to invent “invisible and untestable spiritual laws to justify ridiculous opinions” (90).

But Quantum physics is pointing us into a world that is much more organic, much more indeterminate and open, and–some would say–much more spiritual than the world (or worldview, rather) inhabited and understood by David Hume.

In my view, the miracle of resurrection (should that prove to be a reality) would be just a way of saying that the world God created is one that does not end with death. That wouldn’t be a transgression of a natural law, but its redefinition.

In other words, a miracle as “extraordinary manifestation of spiritual power.”

 

 

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About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Associate Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, supported by the Schilling Endowment, at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: 2014-10-14 10.26.51Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and a book about the virgin birth (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)