Miracles aren’t always “miraculous”

Gail O’Day, in her commentary on John’s Gospel in the New Interpreter’s Bible, reflects on the difficulty modern people sometimes have with miracles in the gospels. She summarizes the experiences of us believers as follows:

[F]or many people, the experiences of their lives have led them to accept that there is a genuine mystery in the world, that the world is full of evidence that the supernatural does overlap with the natural, that the line between the two is permeable. For religious people, this mystery, the overlap between the natural and the supernatural, is seen as evidence of God’s transcendence of the categories by which God’s creatures understand the world to be ordered and of God’s intervention in the workings of creation. It is thus a question of faith whether one can acknowledge the possibility and, indeed, reality of God’s miraculous intervention in creation.

That sounds about right to me. But I would add a few more thoughts. First, we who have been brought up in the shadow of the Enlightenment, trained to see the world through a modern lens, “wouldn’t know a burning bush if it blew up in our face” (to quote an old John Hiatt song). We literally can’t see supernatural events because our mind is taught to filter them out before we consciously experience them.

(Malina and Rohrbaugh, in their Social-Science Commentary series talk about this in more detail. They argue that our ancient ancestors, who were far less self-conscious than we modern people, didn’t have this internal censor; they could experience reality in a more direct and unmediated way.)

Second, if we understand, as Paul does in Acts 17, that we “live and move and have our being” in God—that God’s Spirit sustains our lives into existence at every moment—then there is a sense in which every moment of life is a miracle. We don’t have life apart from God giving it to us as a gift at every moment. If God were not closer to us than we can imagine, we would cease to exist.

If the above paragraph is true, then miracles are not simply those things that have a supernatural cause. God can and does work in a providential way through the natural world in ways that scientists can explain (without resorting to “and then God worked a miracle”).

But shouldn’t this perfectly explainable providential work also be considered miraculous?

Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 693.

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