Miracles Reappraised

I feel as though my prior, cursory treatment of spiritual experiences and the miraculous was inadequate, especially since it only addressed healing. In this post, I will seek to define a miracle, lay out modernist/philosophical objections, and conclude with a postmodernist/perspective-based model of miracles with God in the panentheistic sense being assumed.

The courage of being even in despair.

The courage of being even in despair.

What is a miracle? Assuming a theistic deity, a miracle today involves a God who intervenes from “out there” (outside of the universe?) in order to alter apparent laws of nature. The interventions occur randomly, often appearing to have little rhyme or reason; but more on this in a moment. Thus a miracle today consists of outdated perceptions of deity, in which accruing God’s favor through supplication is the primary vehicle for effecting a miraculous occurrence.

The modern era has yielded scientific and philosophical objections to this concept of a miracle. Scientific objections include a Newtonian-based reality in which the universe operates mathematically and is therefore closed to intervention. That is the primary reason for the emergence of deism in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a God of science. Although the Newtonian worldview has been challenged, the idea that there are scientific laws in the universe still retains a level of legitimacy. Beyond laws of nature, the problem of the potentially infinite vastness of the universe poses another problem to traditional ideas about miracles. From where does God intervene? As I alluded to earlier, is it outside the universe? How distant is God? Such is the problem with the theistic emphasis on divine objectification and transcendence, rather than a balance between immanence and transcendence. Finally, and perhaps most critical, is the philosophical problem of evil. Why does God let people suffer continually? How can God help some while letting others suffer? Though it has been stated before, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen without preventing millions of deaths? What about the genocide in Darfur today? Perhaps the words of the Epicurean Paradox will summarize best the conundrum of the theistic deity:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Perhaps then, the miraculous needs to be reappraised and understood differently. In this sense, phenomena deemed inexplicable due to the boundaries of science and the modern worldview are instead seen as “marvels” (see Crossan, “Birth of Christianity”). The postmodern understanding which I propose sees the miraculous in light of both the modern worldview and the power of perspective. In illustrating the power of perspective, the late author DF Wallace recounted a story of an atheist and a believer:

“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was, was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

In sum, the miraculous is in the eye of the beholder. However, I believe this dichotomy can be transcended. For one thing, God as both immanent and transcendent addresses the problem of where God is located. To illustrate this concept of the divine, I use this analogy (I think Marcus Borg has used it as well):

All that is (ie all that is part of being) is represented by a circle. God is represented by a larger circle which surrounds the first one.

This also addresses the issue of the Newtonian worldview. Marvels occur within the creative structure of being. In other words, the Newtonian world is merely the product of being itself. As I discussed in a prior post, they come about in moments of grace in which a person experiences the power of the divine through courage (which I use synonymously with faith).

The problem of evil also becomes irrelevant, as instead of the onus being placed on God to act as we endeavor to manipulate through prayer and other methods of gaining favor, the onus is on us to courageously move beyond all anxiety and experience the divine within; or, in a different sense, we experience the full potential of our humanity. With the theistic understanding, God interfered with free-will. However, with a panentheistic understanding, our free-will both enables us to experience (and exude) the divine, and, unfortunately, make us responsible as agents of suffering and tragedy. One who choses the latter option has surrendered to the despair of existence and only serves to spread it on to others. Natural tragedies as well are the unfortunate products of the structure of being. Suffering is a part of existence. Yet an immanent God is always within and around us when we suffer. We have the ability both within and without of ourselves to overcome 1) the negativity of anxiety and 2) estrangement from the divine throughout. That is the meaning of a participatory Kingdom of God, in which we transcend the perceived limits of ourselves to overcome the evils which appear to dominate.

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One comment on “Miracles Reappraised

  1. mark gibson says:

    The (paraphrased) answer to why bad things happen to good people, given by an LDS General authority following the 2004 Christmas tsunami.

    If the righteous had been spared, then millions would be flocking into churches; not because of belief or conviction, but compulsion, which was Lucifer’s plan of salvation for mankind. Religion would be regarded as insurance; no one likes it but we better have it.

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