I have been sharing a number of theological papers that I have written. This is a copy of my notes for a discussion that I took part in recently on the award-winning BBC radio programme ‘All Things Considered’.
What is a miracle?
The real difficulty in considering the possibility of miracles occurring is the difficulty of defining precisely what they are. The philosopher David Hume famously defined miracles as an event that breaks the laws of nature. But more things are possible and more things occur than our present understanding of the regularities of nature allows. After all, our experience of the laws of nature are regularly being revised. Developments in quantum physics, for example, have brought this sharply to mind. Quantum physics is showing scientists a world that is more unusual, indeterminate, and organic. It has even been argued that quantum physics is revealing a world that is more spiritual than we previously realised.
So, instead of breaking the laws of nature, perhaps we could define a miracle as something remarkable or spectacular. Some liberal theologians, such as Marcus Borg, actually refuse to use the word miracles and simply talk about “the spectacular”. Borg rejects supernatural interventions by God who is “out there” and instead talks about the God at the heart of spectacular in the world. The problem with that, though, is that there are many occurrences that we wouldn’t define as miracles, but they are still remarkable and spectacular – the birth of a child, medical procedures (like radiotherapy), and the sun rising up each morning.
So, defining what is a miracle is not as simple as it may first appear, and philosophers, theologians, and biblical scholars have long recognised the complexity of that seemingly basic question.
What about the miracles in the Bible?
The biblical world was a time when accounts of the remarkable and miraculous were far more common than they are today and many things that would have been considered miracles in the past may no longer seen that way today. But we certainly can’t dismiss or explain away the numerous miracles in the Bible by asserting that fact.
A number of the Old Testament miracles hold their own particular problems and difficulties in that they call into question God’s own character. For example, in the book of Exodus the great miracle known as the parting of the Red Sea– why would God perform a miracle that meant the drowning hundreds of Egyptian people? In response to such miracles, some theologians talk about “divine consistency”, a phrase made famous by Jean Dominic Crossan. Divine consistency affirms that we can only accept miracles if it is consistent with God’s loving nature.
In the New Testament, the gospels record 37 miracles of Jesus. Of these, 28 of them are miracles of healing, with God making people whole in mind and body. These miracles flow from Jesus’s compassion and love. Many theologians, whether liberal or more traditional, have little problem accepting that Jesus performed paranormal healings. He was certainly known as a great healer and exorcist, and so his healing cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. But nine miracles involved Jesus has power over nature. So, what about walking on the water? Or silencing the storm? Or multiplying loaves and fish? Or changing water into the wine? It is not as easy to decide on the historicity of these miracles.
Some theologians would suggest that the miracle stories are metaphorical or symbolic. Even Jesus himself, of course, would have recognised that his miraculous deeds were symbolic – John’s gospel even refers to miracles as “signs”. In other words, there is deep meaning in the stories of Jesus’s miracles. So, the water into wine at the beginning of his ministry is symbolic of the new life he brings, while the calming of the storm is symbolic of God’s power over the waters of chaos and how he can calm the storms of our lives. The reality is, though, that we don’t know whether the nature miracles are literal or purely symbolic – or indeed a combination of both. What we do know, though, is that God’s power was recognised as present in Jesus in remarkable ways and God’s presence was identified in both his words and actions.
What about the miracles of St David, the Patron Saint of Wales?
St David lived in the sixth century, but most of the stories of his life or taken from Buchedd Dewi, written by Rhygafarch in the 11th century. So, that’s over 500 years after David’s death. It would be as if I was writing a history of Henry VIII with nothing but word-of-mouth and a few dusty documents found in a Cathedral archive. Many modern historians believe Rhygafarch exaggerated many of his stories, as he was trying to argue for some independence for the Welsh church.
The best known miracle of St David was when he was preaching in the middle of a crowd in the village of Llandewi Brefi. The ground beneath his feet rose up as he preached, allowing everyone to hear him, and a white dove flew down onto his shoulder. Perhaps this may have happened exactly as it was recorded, but perhaps people 1500 years ago simply had a very different way of describing things. Perhaps they were so inspired by this saintly man’s words that those present were saying things like “and it was as if the ground rose up beneath him and his words touched my soul and it was as if God settled on this man like a white dove”. Over the centuries that may have become “the ground did rise up beneath him and a white dove did land on his shoulder”. Either way, such descriptions are actually saying are that David was an inspirational and spiritual man, whether the miracle happened literally or not, and so our belief in the historicity of the miracle shouldn’t take away from what this remarkable man represents to us as Christians today or, indeed, as a nation.
Do miracles still occur?
The question of whether miracles still occur today brings us back to the question of what a miracle actually is. The theologian Keith Ward offers a useful definition of a miracle: “an extraordinary manifestation of spiritual power”. The reality is that unusual and extraordinary occurrences do happen in our world and there are sometimes no scientific explanation for those. If, as Christians, we believe in the Holy Spirit, then it follows that the Spirit can exert some influence on the world. After all, God is a personal reality to Christians and so he manifests himself in unique and distinctly personal ways.
So, Keith Ward suggests that we don’t view the universe as a machine, but rather we view it more like a body. Bodies, after all, do have reliable regularities, but we can also make decisions to do things and thus bodies are subject to personal action. Following this reasoning, the universe also has rigid definite laws, but, for reasons often unknown to us, God’s personal actions break into our world in some way or other. In other words, spectacular and extraordinary events can occur and, when they do, there are times when we may have to revise our understanding of the laws of nature. Miracles, then, could be seen as redefinitions of the laws of nature, rather than transgressions of it.
Is it possible or desirable to prove miracles?
I’ve always loved mystery. As a child I was obsessed with a book I had which detailed great unsolved mysteries such as the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda triangle, the yeti, and UFOs. When I was a child, I thought like a child, but when I grew up, I left the mystery of conspiracy theories behind. I’m now more interested in the general mystery and miracle of life. In the breath-taking world in which we live we understand some things so well, but other things completely elude us. I’m not talking about the God of the gaps, as Fredrich Nietzche put it, where God is inserted wherever we don’t understand things. I’m talking about something far more spectacular and mysterious than that – questions of existence, wonder, sacrifice, truth, beauty, and love. And, however we define miracles, it is here where the miraculous resides – the spectacular, the extraordinary, the spiritual. As such, proving miracles is less important than welcoming the great mystery of life and showing openness and gratitude for how God’s power works in the everyday and ultimately transforms lives.
How do you respond to those who doubt miracles?
From a theological point of view, Christians do not regard God as a controlling, dictatorial superbeing, who makes arbitrary decisions about when and where not to intervene in our affairs. But neither do we hold that he is detached from humankind or dispassionate about our suffering. Rather, he is involved with the world and is able to transform it powerfully.
How God transforms the world, though, is a question that theologians have discussed for many centuries. For me, God transforms the world subtly – he leads, coaxes, inspires, persuades, and cajoles. This means his miracles happen every day in all sorts of ways. It’s not always huge spectacular things – sometimes it’s simply a smile or a kind word that lifts someone’s heart and sometimes it’s that deep sense of hope and peace that breaks into our troubled lives. As Jewish theologian Harold Kushner put it: “God’s job is not to make sick people healthy – that’s the doctor’s job. God’s job is to make sick people brave”.
And so God is not some dictator or superman who imposes his will from outside the world, but God is already in the world, inhabiting every atom of the universe, interacting into mingling with the laws and patterns of nature.
What about when people pray for miracles that don’t occur?
In the film Lourdes , a wheelchair-bound young woman experiences a magnificent healing at Lourdes, a place famous for its miracles. She worships God and celebrates with joy. The problem is that all the other people with disabilities who are on the same pilgrimage question why this happened to her and not them. This starts to cause all kinds of difficulties and arguments within the group. Why did my miracle not occur? Why did her miracle occur because she’s clearly less pious and devout than I am?
At the centre of the Christian response to this is the great unknown. When we face the great unknown, then we have to really think about what we do know. Do we know God is in a healing miracle? Not for certain, but with God all things are possible, so possibly. Do we know God is in the suffering? Absolutely. After all, miracles aren’t God’s superpower. Love is God’s superpower. God’s love is far more powerful for transformation than random supernatural interventions. I’ve seen evidence of God’s love completely transforming people, events, and circumstances. That, in itself, could be seen as miraculous.
And so I have an open mind about supernatural, unexplained events, and I have an open mind about God’s involvement in those happenings. But what I do know that I have seen the miraculous happen in people’s lives through love, compassion, care, justice, peace, and hope. God is fully immersed in this world and, because we know he knows what it’s like to suffer on the cross, he’s also fully immersed in our pains and suffering. He breathes hope, life, and light into the most awful and traumatic situations. As one of my favourite sayings puts it: “sometimes God calms the storm, sometimes God calms the sailor”.