On Miracles

The other day, my [old] grad-school classmate Craig Keener wrote a column for the Huffington Post about belief in miracles. I think that we do agree about some things, but it would take some ground-clearing to figure out where our agreements lie; and since it’s a topic that draws much attention, which topic generates more heat than light, I too decided, after having thought things over, to write a blog entry for you, most excellent reader.
First, I see no point whatever in trying to persuade people that miracles happen. People who repudiate the idea of miracles have excellent reasons for so doing — and citing the number of people who do (or don’t) ‘believe in miracles’ is absolutely beside the point. The number of people who believe absurd things, or disbelieve obvious things, will always depend on what you think is absurd or obvious and on the credulity of large numbers of only-partly-informed respondents, and the case of miracles represents a paradigm instance of what many people will think a priori to be absurd (or obvious). If you think miracles are absurdity, rest assured that I’m not trying to rope you into something you resist; I ain’t. You just stick with what you already know to be obvious and absurd.
Granted that a great many very sensible people think that the idea of miracles is absurd, why do I not count myself among them? Let me suggest several ways. First, I am heir to a body of wisdom that upholds the category ‘miraculous’ as a significant, if rare, constituent in our way of life. ‘Miracles’ are significant in subtle ways, admittedly (and some wiseacre will submit that those ways are so subtle as to be invisible); but I don’t understand a way that someone who professes Christian faith can simply write off the category of ‘miracle’ as useless, unimportant, regressive, banal, superstitious, or whatever. Some things about Christian faith involve (so far as I can understand) assertions that run counter to common sense — and I’m OK with that. If I self-identity as a Christian, as a servant and teacher of the church, and a brother of the great theological sages throughout the ages, I cannot simply discard what they handed on to us. Among those hand-me-downs, the saints have consistently included assertions about ‘miraculous’ things having happened.
Second, I am amply aware that I don’t know enough about most topics to submit what cannot have happened, or why. I quickly add that I’m not appealing to this as if it were a positive argument in favour of ‘miracles’ — no way that works! — but it does require me to hesitate before I say ‘I know the causes of this event well enough to rule out (or rule in) X or Y influence’. A miracle-skeptic will very rightly say, ‘I know the way of the world sufficiently well to assert that material causes (including a certain apparent randomness) suffice to explain why this improbable event happened; indeed, improbable things happen all the time, in theologically-coloured situations and otherwise, such that it’s meaningless to assert that this is miraculous whereas that is just one of those things’. They are satisfied by their knowledge of causes and effects (bless ’em); I’m not satisfied by mine.
Third, I don’t understand how one can imagine the Bible in any non-Pickwickian relation to Christian life without taking miracles as something more serious than something to be explained away. If one supposes that the Bible holds a primary place of reference for Christian life (and I acknowledge that my boss doesn’t*, in the sense I propose here), one ought to have something to say about the prominence of extraordinary events in that compendium. Moreover, since we are instructed repeatedly in Scripture to pray with specific ends in mind, and that those prayers are not merely adventitious to what ensues, my understanding of the Bible obliges me to pray even for apparently impossible developments.
So I advance my own affirmation, subject to correction, that I don’t suppose that I know the causes for all of the extraordinary occurrences in life. Some are assuredly the strictly random outworkings of contingency in material existence, even if to us subclinical pareidoliacs it seems as though there must be some obscure casual connection. But at the same time, the occurrence of apparently inexplicable events, and their occasional convergence with prayer, and even their correlation with identifiable causes (or ‘congruent circumstances’ or something like that, if one wants to be cautious about asserting causality) fit coherently within a picture of a cosmos brought into being in a particular way — and in that way of envisioning a cosmos, I am satisfied for ‘miracle’ to identify the category of remarkable developments that fits particularly aptly into the biblically-limned character of a Creator-God, a Divine Author, whose temporal fingerprints are healing, release from shackles, transformative illumination, and perhaps above all else, amazing grace.
I think Craig probably wants more mileage from the miracles in which he believes, but maybe I’m wrong. (Wouldn’t be the first time!) The reticent version of miracles I sketch here, though, tries to preserve an elasticity that may strengthen it to survive harsh winds and fierce discursive storms. At any rate, it’s my best effort (for now).


* I’m a bit perplexed by several points in Kelvin’s argument. As far as I can tell, there’s simply no evidence that Hooker held Scripture, tradition, and reason to bear equal authority; I’d be interested to see evidence supporting that point, when Book V, Ch. 8.2 (p. 34) says ‘Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.’
There are surely differences among (a) asserting that the Bible provides ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’ (which I take to indicate a sort of theological court of last appeal, always (of course) requiring reasoned interpretive work), (b) affirming sola scriptura (not I, by any means), and (c) asserting that the BIble constitutes ‘one, single infallible source of authority’. In the church’s tradition, the teaching of the creeds hangs on their being plausible authorised interpretations of what the conciliar fathers read in Scripture, so I don’t think I can own allegiance to the creeds without at the same time allowing a primary authority to Scripture (without just planting a flag at the creeds and saying, ‘Here and not elsewhere I choose to recognise ecclesiastical authority’). This, however, probably marks one of those spots on which the Cathedral’s clergy arrive at different conclusions, which is not surprising.

1 thought on “On Miracles

  1. There’s just a little wiggle room I think in what I said, between what Hooker might have said and what we (by which of course, I mean I) might have heard. And were I rewriting that post I might well want to let in a little more light into that gap than I did the first time around.

    However, I don’t think that old three legged metaphor will stand up any other way than with three equal legs, no matter who is sitting on it nor when.

    It is at least interesting that the Creeds themselves say so little about scripture. “He has spoken through the Prophets” is as much as we get. I presume that establishment of the NT canon is a factor in that but sadly know too little to make anything of it.

    Were someone seriously wanting to unpick me, they might start by asking whether I am a Christian priest or a priest of the Western Rite.

    I might well have answers, mind, but I would deeply respect anyone who thought they had spotted the difference.

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