Last week I suggested one way to solve what I am calling the miracles divide is to be careful in our language. Let’s distinguish between what I called small “m” miracles that have natural, scientific explanations (the birth of a child) and those big “M” miracles that do not (the resurrection of Christ).
But that doesn’t fully resolve the divide.
We still have believers, on one hand, who feel threatened by scientists they see as challenging God’s ability to act in the world, and scientists, on the other, who are threatened by those same religious believers who claim a God who transcends nature but is also everywhere and always active in it.
The problem remains, right? Careful attention to language only gets us so far.
I want to suggest the insights of an 18th-century Jewish philosopher might be helpful. As a product of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn tried to understand his Judaism as modern science was taking hold all around him in Europe. To make sense of it, he is said to have quipped, “God commits as few miracles as possible.”
Scientists and Miracles
My takeaway from hundreds of conversations with thoughtful Christians in the sciences—some direct and others enjoyed secondhand through lectures, podcasts, articles and the like—is that they want to hold the following tension, delicately. They want to trust the regularity of natural processes without limiting God’s ability to act. They insist that God mostly acts through natural occurrences, according to the laws of nature, including what I have dubbed small “m” miracles. They will seek first scientific explanations and celebrate the ways God works through the laws science reveals to us.
However, they do not want to exclude the possibility of big “M” miracles (events that cannot be described by scientific means). They see the glory of God revealed throughout creation and share a humility that any being that can devise the laws of nature and craft our magnificent universe need not be limited by those same laws. In other words, they adhere to something like Mendelssohn’s saying, “God commits as few miracles as possible.”
- Research has shown that religious audiences generally accept science but they feel conflict where the sacredness of humankind or God’s ability to act are challenged.
- Moreover, 60 percent of evangelicals want scientists to “be open to considering miracles in their theories.”
- Physicist Alan Lightman is a brilliant writer from his novels to his scientific works as well as his reflections on science and spirituality.
- A classic resource to help us think about miracles is C.S. Lewis’s book by that very title.
- We have several resources on divine action and miracles.
- I’m particularly fond of scientist-turned-theologian David Wilkinson’s book, When I Pray What Does God Do?
- Theologian Andy Root has written extensively about Charles Taylor’s ideas on secularism, translating them for the church (note the titles with the phrase Secular Age in them).
Our Experience of the Miraculous
This also aligns with my personal experience. While I see small “m” miracles with some regularity, I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed firsthand a big “M” miracle. I’ve read, even heard, accounts of them, but often, I think to myself that there is probably a natural explanation for what occurred. That does not rule out that it was indeed an action of God, but it puts into question the claim that it was a big “M” miracle.
Again, I’m setting a high bar for what counts here as a big “M” miracle. Returning to Alan Lightman, he defines a miracle as “an event that cannot be explained even in principle by the laws of science, either the laws we know now or the laws that we will discover in the future.”
A Disenchanted Church
As thinkers like philosopher Charles Taylor have noted, our ability to recognize miracles has faded with the rise of secularism. This “disenchantment” favors scientific explanations over religious ones and, at times, leads us to entirely miss the ways God is working in our midst, including what once were understood to be miracles.
We may wish to return to pre-disenchantment days, when unexpected healings or a change in the weather were first given supernatural explanations, but for many Westerners, those days are long past. Moreover, if we truly desire to reach individuals outside of our churches (and to slow the numbers leaving our churches), we must assume folks feel some type of disenchantment, which includes a skepticism of miracles.
Ministry and Miracles
Practically, the miracles divide is tricky. A key aspect of forming disciples is building awareness individually and collectively among our congregations to the manifold ways God is active in our midst. The small “m” miracles are everywhere if we can attune our attention to see them.
At the same time, we must be aware that too much talk of miracles might offend the science types who are among us and will likely keep others away entirely.
Ultimately, the task is to create a robust understanding of God’s action. The primary way God acts today is not through miracles but through natural processes. Most healing is mediated by the body’s ability to heal, supplemented by various medical treatments. Most spiritual experiences are mediated by those fearfully and wonderfully made brains that allow us to relate to God, to nature, and to one another. Our big brains mediate our experience of God.
Moreover, big “M” miracles are not the only way that God answers prayer. Rather, God is active everywhere all the time as the very ground of our being, which is made possible by the laws God devised and the material God created. Specifically, a lot of God’s activity, including the ways God often responds to prayer, is mediated through the actions of humans. That is a material cause any scientist will recognize.
As to those big “M” miracles, Mendelssohn’s approach may be the most practical one, whether or not you believe it to be true. Among us disenchanted, secular Westerners, it is probably most effective to save talk of big “M” miracles for those events that really matter (e.g. the resurrection of Christ) while helping folks to see how Christian faith provides a framework to see the extraordinary goodness of God that is manifest in the most natural of occurrences.
C. S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” We want those in our churches and those outside of them to see the glory of God at work in the “everything else.” Or, returning to Schleiermacher, this is how “every event, even the most natural and usual, become a miracle.” These are the eyes of faith that are desperately needed to reenchant our divided culture that has lost sight of the ways God is at work on both sides of every divide.