I enjoyed talking with students in my historical Jesus class about miracles. I think there is a lot that distracts from having meaningful engagement on the subject – ideas about “natural laws” and what rational people can or cannot believe. More often than not, even the very effort to define what is meant by a miracle helps to bring about more substantive and deeper conversation. Does it require divine action? Does it have to be unusual? Does it have to involve matter behaving in ways that it would not have if it were simply following along the course of natural processes and physical forces? Does it have to be beneficial to humans? Does it have to be rare? Does it have to be several of the above in order to count?
The fact that the student who presented that day didn’t only discuss David Hume and Mike Licona, but also showed the Friends clip in which Rosita gets healed, made it a particularly great way to start the class.
Let me share some words from Christian Chiakulas that I think are particularly helpful and thought-provoking. They follow a discussion of what the options are when it comes to miracles, and so I recommend reading the whole post. But for those who’ve already considered what the options are, feel free to read on:
Is this truly the foundation of our faith? That once upon a time, (literally) incredible things happened?
I see your water-into-wine and raise you a story. A man was born into one of the most violent and unjust periods in human history. He was born into a world where slavery and oppression were omnipresent, where violence was the primary means of conflict resolution, where most people lived lives of utter misery.
This man fought the systems of oppression, injustice, and violence with a quixotic and short-lived ministry based on a radical set of principles: equality for all, including women; an equitable distribution of God’s earth; an alternative to violence. This mission would end predictably: with the brutal suppression of the movement by means of the public and macabre execution of its founder.But somehow, against all logic, the movement endured. Spurred by the memory of the man they followed, Jesus’s supporters continued to fight for his vision throughout the Roman empire. The vision persists even today, buried under layers of doctrine and dogma, for anyone with ears to hear or eyes to see. Two thousand years later, the mission of Jesus is still being fought for around the world.
Paul wrote “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” It is time for us all to do as Paul did and put away the childish belief in magical miracles for the much more powerful and enduring miracle of Jesus Christ.
No fairy tales man’s imagination can create will ever come close to the very real miracle that a man born into the most inhumane of worlds presented to us a vision of humanity at its very peak.
I’ve spoken with plenty of atheists who think there could be ghosts or ESP, among other things. What’s your view, and why do you hold it? In my experience, the view that someone holds about miracles (in whatever sense) is ultimately about philosophy and worldview, influenced in turn by experience and the evidence presented by it.
But whatever your view of “miracles” and the “supernatural,” I wonder whether it might not be possible to agree (as Jesus himself seems to have emphasized on occasion) that focusing on signs and wonders actually distracts from the most significant aspects of what was going on in his life and his interactions with other people.