Some thoughts on miracles

My friend Paul’s recent post, plus my own sermon last week on Mary and the virgin birth, got me thinking about miracles. In my own journey of faith, I have become somewhat more credulous and less skeptical of miracles over time. Before I started seminary at the Candler School of Theology (not exactly Dallas Theological, after all), I feared that whatever belief I had in the miraculous—especially the historicity of the resurrection—would be assaulted and possibly overwhelmed. I feared that I would learn to view miracles in scripture as merely symbols of an unseen spiritual reality, versus actual physical events.

That didn’t happen. In fact, I was encouraged and inspired on my very first day of Systematic Theology class. My professor argued that we Christian leaders need to be able defend the faith, including the historicity of the resurrection and the primacy of God’s revelation in Christ, and frame our arguments in ways that an increasingly secular world can understand. In other words, saying, “the Bible tells me so,” may carry weight in the pews (we’re mostly already convinced, after all), but not in the world outside.

For most Christians, however, having faith is more like falling in love than reading a textbook. It’s not mostly about intellectually convincing ourselves of the truth of this or that proposition. Moreover, I believe it ought to be more like falling in love. Maybe I’m being too Wesleyan here, but I’m all about our personal experience of faith. Our experience of the love of God in Christ, I believe, is more important than anything else.

That’s why I said in last week’s sermon that if you are struggling to believe a doctrine or miracle in scripture (e.g., the virgin birth), don’t sweat it. We can’t make ourselves believe something. If we could, we would turn faith itself into a kind of meritorious work, a strenuous mental effort on our part that draws us closer to God. No, let’s be good Protestants: We’re saved by grace, not good works, and faith is a gift, too. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.)

Besides, St. Paul writes, “[I]f I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Fundamentalist Christians—who insist that we need to assent to six or seven hard-to-believe things—forget the point of it all. The point of faith in the first place is to enable and inspire Christ-like love of God and neighbor. The people shouting at us on the sidewalk with bullhorns, or handing out tracts on the street corner, seem so proud of themselves for believing in this way. I don’t understand how this is compatible with Christ-like love.

Jesus teaches us that we don’t need much faith. He implies that our faith is much smaller than the smallest seed. Our challenge is to use what little faith we have in love and service to the world. So if you struggle to believe this or that aspect of the Christian faith, hold fast to what you do believe. That’s enough for God to do amazing things.

As you do hold fast, however, also be skeptical of your skepticism.

Why do we sometimes struggle to believe in miracles? I think we often perform some mental calculation: “It’s hard enough to believe in one thing I can’t see or explain, namely God”—not that God is a thing, but you know what I mean—”How much more difficult it is to believe in all these other things that we can’t see or explain!” The fewer such “things” that we have to worry about believing in, the easier time we’ll have with faith.

Here’s the problem with that: There’s no getting around faith! As I said in last week’s sermon, if we believe in God at all, how much more difficult is it to believe that the creator of the universe created within a virgin a human life without the need of a human father? Believing in God in the first place—for which we have good arguments if you need them—seems like a much larger hurdle, right?

Someone might say, “Yes, but why did miracles seem to end after the Bible was written. I mean, real miracles—not the trivial miracles of weeping statues and TV faith healers.”

My first response is that miracles happen every day, all the time, at every moment. That’s how God works. We ought to reject the Deistic idea (which both atheists and many Creationists seem to accept) that God—if there is one—wound up the universe like a clock and set it in motion to operate on its own. Science doesn’t assert that (regardless whether some scientists do). The God of Christianity not only set the world in motion but also sustains it at every moment. In other words, I’m enjoying this breath and this heartbeat because God is giving it to me as a gift right now. If God had nothing to do with me, I would cease to exist. (If you need some proof-texts, see Acts 17:28 or 1 Corinthians 8:6.)

The point is, if we define a miracle as God’s intervention in the world, our ongoing life is a miracle. Nothing happens apart from God’s enabling it (not necessarily willing it, mind you). Even modern medicine, which Gregory House of House, M.D. believes makes God redundant at best, cannot perform its healing work without God’s cooperation (who gives us these amazing bodies in the first place). At best modern medicine enables the body—sustained as it is by God—to heal itself.

When it comes to healing, it’s not either medicine or God; it’s both/and. It is right and fitting to thank God for every healing, whether or not something conventionally “miraculous” occurs. Likewise, for many other events, it’s not either the laws of physics or God. God constantly works within the realm of the physical universe without at the same time contradicting those universal laws that God put in place.

What about those other, more conspicuous kinds of miracles, some of which we find in scripture? Those miracles for which we may have no scientific explanation?

Here’s my partial answer, which will have to do for now. (I’m still thinking about it, plus I have other work to do!) We modern people have to accept the indisputable fact that pre-modern people (even people living in pre-modern cultures today) experienced what some social scientists call alternate states of consciousness. These experiences were routine and widely shared. It’s too glib to say, “Oh, well that’s just because they don’t understand modern physics,” etc. It goes deeper than that.

We moderns live in this disenchanted universe in which nothing unexplainable happens. But in a sense, we’ve created this reality through 400 years of Enlightenment propaganda and thinking. If we don’t believe anything unexplainable happens, we don’t see anything unexplainable happen.

Malina and Rohrbaugh, et al., have a fascinating discussion about alternate states of consciousness in their Social Science Commentaries on the New Testament, which I buy into to some extent. They argue that we modern people possess a built-in filter in our minds that our pre-modern ancestors did not possess. Our experience of reality is far more “mediated” than pre-modern people. In other words, we unconsciously filter out that which doesn’t fit into our understanding of reality. It’s like like a bouncer at a club, keeping unwanted or unexplainable events from crossing the threshold of our conscious minds.

According to this reasoning, we are incapable of experiencing reality the same way our ancestors did. This viewpoint, even if true, doesn’t explain everything. Even these alternate states of consciousness could have a naturalistic explanation, too. But as I argue above, with “explainable” miracles, it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Regardless, I strongly believe that our world is filled with mystery and always will be. Within that mystery, I’m happily willing to leave room for miracles.

[See the next post for more on miracles.]

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