The Miracles Divide, Part 1

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Church, we have a problem. The folks sitting in our pews believe in miracles—some even see them everywhere all the time. These same folks are afraid of any science that they feel threatens their belief in God’s ability to perform miracles.

For many of the folks outside our churches, and even some of the science-y types in our churches, miracles are an honest hindrance to faith. They are seen to be violations of the demonstrated rules that guide all natural processes.

What are we to do?

Miracles Everywhere all the Time

My first church internship included weekly visits to Myrtle. In her early 90s, she was slowly dying of cancer—a less aggressive version of the cancer that was quickly killing her last remaining child. Despite the pain and suffering she endured, Myrtle was one of those people for whom the cup was eternally half full. Everywhere around her she saw miracles—even my scheduled visits—and she was always grateful for what she saw God doing for her and everyone else around.

She embodied the spirit of the great German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who famously said in his tome, Christian Faith: “Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be dominant. To me all is miracle.”

For many of our churches, this is a goal of Christian formation—to see God’s activity and goodness present in every moment and action. We can do a lot worse than help the faithful to see all of God’s amazing works as miracle. We all achieve this goal at varying levels. For some of us, like Myrtle, it is quite easy. For others, it can be quite hard or nearly impossible.

Miracles Nowhere Ever

Most of us have probably had a conversation with someone who left the faith (or never had any to begin with) and heard them echo the words of Richard Dawkins: “Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.”

Even for agnostics, some of whom have spiritual experiences and respect religious believers, miracles are tricky. Most are so confident in the ability of science to ultimately explain things, they want to avoid any explanation that even considers an unnatural cause.

This includes folks in our churches, science types that have seen the remarkable regularity of the laws of nature. They see God active in that regularity. Yet too much talk of miracles can make them uncomfortable, and we don’t want to push them away.

  • Social scientists tell us that religious audiences generally accept science; they feel conflict when it challenges the sacredness of humankind or God’s ability to act.
  • Moreover, 60 percent of evangelicals want scientists to “be open to considering miracles in their theories.”

Bridging the Miracles Divide

We want our churches to be places that engage believers and non-believers alike.  We want to encourage the faithful to see how God is present and active, but we also want to be a place that engages wider audiences that are unsure about the idea of God or Jesus.

How do we bridge this divide? We begin by being clear about what we mean when we use the word miracle. Myrtle and others who live out Schleiermacher’s miracle mantra are only rarely using the term in a manner that would upset an ardent scientific materialist (one who deeply values science and rejects anything supernatural). Labeling something as miracle, attributing it to God’s action, is not much of a problem for the materialist if the event can be explained by the laws of science.

Perhaps the most common example is the birth of a child. It was a miracle when each of my daughters came into this world and took their first breath. It was also entirely natural. The same is true of many, if not most, of those experiences Schleiermacher wants to call miraculous. We might call these small “m” miracles.

Where miracles become a problem for science-minded types is when events happen that are entirely unexpected and unexplainable by the laws of nature. Physicist and author Alan Lightman adds the following caveat: miracles are events that violate “either the laws that we know now or the laws that we will discover in the future.” Let’s call these big “M” miracles as they include things like resurrection that defy any ordinary scientific explanation.

Lightman is fascinating because he identifies as a spiritual materialist. He expresses, very thoughtfully, what I think are the views of many agnostic and even atheist scientists. He is not anti-religion or dogmatic in his unbelief. He details very eloquently his spiritual experiences. Like many believers, he finds meaning in his science, in the stars, and in his creative work as a scientist and novelist. That is to say, he sees meaning in the kinds of things we might call small “m” miracles. However, because he is committed to materialism, he is unable to believe in a God that exists outside of time and space.

Likewise, he sees no reason to believe in big “M” miracles.

I suspect Lightman would bristle at the idea that “all is miracle.” In his mind, any talk of miracles implies big “M” miracles, which are precisely the thing he cannot accept.

This is why it is important to be clear about what we mean when using the world miracle. Lightman and others like him would understand how we might want to attribute significance through the lens of our Christian faith to small “m” miracles. They, too, find profound significance in many things we can explain scientifically.

In fact, for Lightman and his kind, it would not be too far of a stretch to understand belief in a God who is active through natural causes. Yet, I’m not sure this is how most of our churches speak of God’s activity. We emphasize divine intervention rather than illuminating the simple acts God is doing everywhere all the time, using the very people and processes God created to achieve God’s purposes. In doing so, I fear we miss seeing most of what God is doing in and around us and we make the hurdle for non-believers higher than it needs to be.

Next week, I will offer further consideration of big “M” miracles.



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