A good question: Do miracles happen?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Do miracles happen?
‘Life is a theatre of daily manifestation of miracles’
Answering this question depends on your understanding of miracles, which is shaped by location (social, cultural, religious etc) and experience. Unlike the popular perception of miracles as transgressing the laws of nature, I understand miracles as extraordinary while at the same time being an opening of new possibilities integral to (not separate from) what is often termed as “the laws of nature”.
I am at home with the Reformed insight that the Divine is known and present in the world we inhabit. Hence, the whole of life is a large theatre of daily manifestation of miracles. No wonder CS Lewis could have declared: “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” It may be this very insight someone once tried to share with me about Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine when she said: “Jesus only fast-forwarded a miraculous process of water and the elements of weather and care giving us grapes from which we make wine!”
Over the years, I have picked up at least four responses to the question “Do miracles happen?”: “Yes”, “no”, “I don’t know” and silence. Personally, the evidence around and before me will not allow me to say categorically “no”. I agree with Einstein, who said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Or, as my grandmother would say: “A miracle is when one plus one turns out to be 111,” and then explained how she just experienced it.
In the cultural context of my Caribbean world, the miraculous has to do with the whole of life. No doubt, the same can be said of the African, Asian and Indigenous worlds. For instance, ask any Haitian about the existence of miracles and s/he would most likely respond in the affirmative or remain silent. The fact that Haitians are able to survive in conditions of extreme penury, risking their lives to reach the shores of any neighbouring promised land on anything that floats, and can still declare with confidence “Bon Dieu”, is nothing short of a miracle! Haitians have stopped waiting for a miracle and have opted to participate in one instead.
My own preference, in response to the question, is contemplative silence. For, as I have learnt from my parents and grandparents, the real miracle, whatever form it takes, does not rest on some physical performance but on something much deeper – with more meaning than one can comprehend. It is a heart matter, where conversion and spiritual grace take place. Pay closer attention – in places and moments where/when gratitude and forgiveness become orienting habits, we already experience the birthing of the extraordinary.
The Revd Dr Michael Jagessar is secretary of the United Reformed Church racial justice and intercultural ministry department
‘Problems arise if we use the word “miracle” to claim that God disrupts natural laws’
A miracle, in the vernacular, is simply something wonderful but inexplicable. But two problems arise if we use the word to claim that God disrupts the laws of natural science to intervene directly in human affairs.
Firstly, it reinforces a false dichotomy, consistently rehearsed in current public debate, that science is incompatible with theology: The language of “miracles and wonders” belonged to a medieval, magical view of the world that has been displaced by modern science, and, while it still makes for good poetic language, it does not help us articulate a worldview that embraces science as consistent with religious belief, rather than a threat to it.
Instead of describing unexplained events as miracles, then, it makes more sense to say that God is the author of creation, and its wonders are gradually unfolded to us through the pursuit of science. We understand many miracles of the past – we know why the Northern Lights appear, and that diseases are cured because of biology, not magic – and today’s miracles are tomorrow’s science. Their explanation makes them no less wonderful, nor God less present.
The second problem is that of theodicy. To attribute unexplained, beneficial events to divine intervention begs the question why God would concurrently allow terrible things to happen. Why would God heal someone’s headache, yet fail to produce a miracle to prevent this car accident, or that earthquake?
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” reflected on a tragedy that brought this dichotomy into sharp focus. In 1875, five nuns, unable to practice their chosen religion in their home country, had (seemingly miraculously) found the opportunity to sail to America for a new life in religious freedom. But the SS Deutschland ran aground, and among the many that drowned were the five nuns. Why, wondered Hopkins, would God offer the small miracle of a passage to a better life, and then allow it to be cancelled out by such an immense and inexplicable tragedy?
Hopkins concluded that God neither watches from a distance, nor controls the world like a puppet-master. To insist that God is the performer of miracles is also to make him the worker of monstrosities. God’s goodness and presence is best understood if we release ourselves from the need to attribute every event, good and bad, to divine intervention, and instead allow that the chaos and wonder of the natural order has its own power under the authorship of God.
Maggi Dawn is associate professor of theology and literature, and dean of Marquand Chapel at the University of Yale. She is the author of five books, including The Accidental Pilgrim (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010) and Like the Wideness of the Sea (Darton Longman & Todd, 2013)
‘The greatest miracle ever is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ’
I am a sceptical person by nature – a lawyer by training – and I believe in miracles. Yes, you read that sentence correctly! I find that most objections to the existence of miracles are based on questionable philosophical presuppositions rather than an open-minded assessment of the evidence.
The most common objection to belief in miracles is that they are impossible – a miracle would violate the principle of the uniformity of nature. This argument sounds persuasive until you realise that it’s not an argument at all. Rather, it’s the linguistic equivalent of saying: “Miracles never happen because they violate the principle that miracles never happen.” In other words, it’s a reflection of an ideological pre-commitment to a naturalist worldview (the view that the entirety of existence can be explained as a closed, self-contained system of natural causes).
Christians believe that we live in a system of uniform natural causes, but one that is open to intervention by God – the creator of the system. Indeed, the concept of a miracle actually presupposes, rather than sets aside, the idea that nature is a self-contained system of natural causes, otherwise there would be nothing striking or surprising about miracles when they do occur.
From the Christian perspective, the greatest miracle ever to occur in human history, in terms of its significance for humanity, is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The evidential case for the historicity of the Resurrection is extremely strong. Even sceptical scholars such as Géza Vermes admit that, apart from the Resurrection, no plausible alternative explanations have been offered in 2,000 years of historical inquiry that can satisfactorily account for the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ life. All serious historians agree that: (1) Jesus died by crucifixion; (2) that his disciples genuinely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them on a number of occasions; and (3) that the early Church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus’ death. In other words, the best historical explanation for the agreed facts of history is that Jesus of Nazareth really did rise from the dead, which is why Richard Swinburne, an Oxford University professor of philosophy, has argued that it is 97% probable, based on the evidence, that the Resurrection really happened.
While there may not be evidence for most miracles as compelling as the historical evidence for the Resurrection, like Richard Swinburne, I believe that we do have enough evidence supporting miracle claims to show that probably some of them are genuine miracles. There are many reports of miracles, ancient and modern; some of them are well documented, such as those discussed in medical doctor Rex Gardiner’s book, Healing Miracles (Darton Longman and Todd, 1986).
In my view, a healthy amount of scepticism concerning miracle claims is a positive human trait. However, it is a problem when that scepticism becomes universal, and even well documented miracles (such as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ) no longer get their hearing.
Simon Edwards is a graduate of law, economics, education and theology. He works for RZIM as an itinerant speaker and as a assistant chaplain for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
‘Do miracles happen? Well, sort of’
Some days I find myself caught between two impossibilities: That God should exist, or that there should be something rather than nothing. Both thoughts are too big for me. I’ve come to see that the miraculous is our bedrock. What we call miracles are the outcrops that catch our attention.
Twelve years ago I spent three months in New Zealand, where the landscape of jagged islands looked like mountain ranges with the tips sticking out above sea level. Of course, this is what any land mass is – just the visible bits. My eye had grown accustomed to a smoothed-over landscape, a landlocked life in the West Midlands, far from the sea. I’d forgotten how the earth beneath my feet had come about – through fire and ice; that I stand on the impossible.
This is a novelist’s meandering answer to the question of whether miracles happen; a resounding: “Well, sort of.” I used to know the answer. As a teenager caught up in the 70s charismatic revival, I was completely attuned to those little rocky outcrops of the miraculous: Words of prophecy, the lame walking, the blind seeing. I never actually witnessed a healing miracle directly, but that didn’t stop me believing in them any more than I questioned those stories of people speaking in tongues who turned out, unwittingly, to be praising God in ancient Phoenician (and were then overheard in an airport by an astounded atheist professor of ancient Phoenician, or something).
I remember being in a huge prayer meeting once. We prayed for a man with flat feet. He stood with his shoes and socks off. “We command these arches to form!” ordered someone. We waited. The man flexed his toes. “I think they may be a bit less flat,” he said tactfully. All around me there were shouts and hallelujahs as miracles happened just out of sight.
I still pray for miracles. I prayed for my friend Denise when she was diagnosed with cancer. I have her funeral order of service in front of me now. At the back, there’s a photograph of her standing in the river Jordan with her husband John, a few weeks before she died – her hair cropped by chemo; frail, but radiant; hand flung high. This was not the miracle I prayed for, but I know she was standing on that bedrock, wading the miraculous, lit up already by resurrection light.
Catherine Fox is a novelist and lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her most recent novel, Acts and Omissions, was published by SPCK in July
This article was published in the September 2014 edition of Reform.