Let’s Talk Miracles – What Are They?

Last year around this time I wrote about miracles. More specifically, the 18th century Scottish philosopher’s David Hume’s views on them. It is that season again when my thoughts, at least sometimes, turn to the topic of miracles. Perhaps especially this year. Wouldn’t the world really need a few good miracles now! It turns out, however, we might not recognize them even if they happened. Why? Well, first and foremost, because we need to agree on a definition of what do we call a miracle. That isn’t as easy as it seems, and people have been trying for many, many years (several thousands, at least). After all, how can we all notice and appreciate a miracle, if we all hold different views on what is a miracle!

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Among various definitions of miracles, Hume’s definition is the one still actively engaged with in the analytical philosophy tradition. It is pretty straightforward and it goes like this: “Miracles are violations of the laws of nature”. He goes on to add what I read as a qualifying condition – these violations must come about “by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” In other words, Hume’s idea of a miracle is that it is something that violates the observed uniformity of nature and must be brought about by an external force (a force outside of nature itself). This view is to a large extent informed by the long-standing tradition that nurtured Hume and many others for millennia – Christianity. As we nowadays understand and accept, this is not and has not been a universal worldview for all humanity.

To illustrate the importance of the broader worldview that underlies and informs our definitions of various concepts, it is useful to look at an enduring tradition that relies on a significantly distinct position. In Buddhism, the world is not fixed by a deity or by unalterable laws of nature. Rather, as David L. Weddle notes in his 2010 book ‘Miracles. Wonder and Meaning in World Religions‘, it is seen as “the impermanent construal of illusion”, a reality to which the mind can awaken by comprehending “the emptiness at the heart of being”. In this tradition, therefore, it is in the mind’s power to construct and reconstruct a transient world of sensations. This essential emptiness that characterizes the nature of being “is the condition for the occurrence of miracles: the mutability of natural order.” The direct opposite of Hume’s idea of unalterable laws of nature.

In such a world, it is not only reasonable to believe in miracles, but for “a fully realized mind” they can be expected. Based on this worldview, “miracles represent merely the temporary re-ordering of transient elements that have no enduring significance.” Therefore, the important question about miracle stories for many Buddhists is not “Did that really happen?” but “What does that mean?” That is, the story presents moral or spiritual instruction, not scientific or historical information.”

Personally, I find it fascinating to contemplate the order of nature, miracles and mind’s power from this perspective. It reminds me of the importance of the bigger picture and of the multitude of worldviews that exist simultaneously and silently inform all our thoughts.

We could now object that Buddhism is so conceptually different from the Christian tradition that we shouldn’t even compare them. After all, they even developed in regions geographically far removed from each other. Yet, if we go back both in place and in time to that area where early Christianity was born, we also find a variety of different worldviews. Consequently – no uniform agreement on the definition of a miracle.

The polytheistic belief system of the ancient Graeco-Roman world had a strong idea of reciprocity between humans and deities built into it and, therefore, not every supernormal phenomenon (presumably caused by the divine act) would fall under the characteristic of miraculous. R. Garland (2011) writes: “This is true of the majority of instances of divine intervention, in that they represented one side of a semi-contractual agreement between the deity on the one hand and the human recipient of her or his goodwill on the other.”

Further, opposite to the reductionist approach in thinking about the causes of events, there was a tendency toward overdetermination in these traditions. When a phenomenon could be explained and understood in an ordinary way, that did not preclude connecting it with divine intervention as well. Therefore, “when a god breathes menos or strength into a hero, thereby empowering him with an extra burst of energy, it is not that a miracle has occurred but that the hero in question, at a timely moment, has experienced an adrenalin rush.” (Garland, 2011)  

Therefore, a lot of what Hume, based on his definition of a miracle, would have considered a witness testimony of a miraculous event could have been interpreted differently, and quite possibly not as a miracle at all, by the contemporaries of the ancient Graeco-Roman traditions. From a modern-day perspective, it is difficult to reliably and clearly delineate where miracles end and wonders, magic or even medicine begins in these cultures. In addition, as Garland notes, miracle workers were “to some degree perceived as entertainers.”  

At critical times though, miracles were treated as proofs of special treatment of one city or region over another or of superiority in disputes over authority between the cults of various deities. In these traditions, miracles – when perceived as such – served sociopolitical purposes. It is in this broader context that early Christianity developed and was competing for followers. Therefore, it had reason to make use of miracles as a weapon turned against its competitors. After listing several Roman miracle examples, St Augustine “declared that pagan miracles were inferior both in power and scale … to Christian miracles, which proved that ‘our miracles are incomparably superior’ ([City of God]10.16).” (Garland, 2011) 

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, scepticism and harsh criticism of miracles and miracle workers were present already during the days of the early Christ-followers. Lucian, in the 2nd century CE, is said to have “despised ‘the poor wretches [meaning the followers of Christ] who have convinced themselves that they will become immortal and live forever’.” (Garland, 2011)

Where does this brief historical overview of miracle concepts leave us? What first comes to my mind is that we have no reason to assume that there is or should be a single, objective, and universal definition of what we understand by a miracle. Rather, it seems to me, miracles are our interpreted experiences. And all our interpretations are influenced by the broader worldview in which we partake. If so, then no discussion of miracles and our reasons to believe in them (or not) can omit the subjective experience of the individual interpreting that experience as miraculous. On the contrary, this subjective human factor becomes central to our understanding of our broader worldviews and, by extention, of ourselves.  

I wish you all a truly happy, kind and calm time, and of course – keep exploring!

 

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