What is a miracle?February 15, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
So you’re out at night, looking up at the stars, and someone asks you, “What would it take to convince you that the third star of Orion’s belt is really our sun?” You’re nonplussed. The sun is not part of any constellation, because when the sun is out, you can’t see the other stars. Yet you can’t have a “constellation” with just the sun! The terms of the question itself preclude the possibility of giving it any satisfactory and reasonable answer. But if you say, “There is no evidence you can show me that would convince me,” it sounds like you’re prejudiced and unwilling to give a fair and impartial hearing to the evidence. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!
Commenter “cl” seems to have run across this phenomenon, and alludes to it in one of his comments.
See, here’s the thing and why I think so much of this so-called dialog between believers and atheists is just to pass the time. Atheists are quite fond of saying, “Show me just one miracle and I’ll believe,” but then whenever something is offered, they simply explain it away or widen the goalpost. Doesn’t matter if the alleged miracle is an image of Jesus in a wafer, or something more complicated like this story of Bernadette. I mean what do atheists want? Like a genie that will grow back limbs whenever the correct mantra is spoken? Seriously. What is a fair definition of a miracle, and how do we eliminate the confounders of spontaneous remission and the placebo effect? I don’t see that we can, hence, and alleged miracle can be simply waved away with, “Oh, that wasn’t a miracle you stupid Christian, that was spontaneous remission.” Yet we have no explanation for spontaneous remission and we’re all back to square one. It just gets old I guess.
The problem with asking for miracles is that the term has no real-world referent, beyond “Wow, that’s amazing.” We’re only human, and not nearly omniscient, so it doesn’t take all that much to amaze us, even without supernatural intervention. Appealing to miracles, therefore, is more or less an exercise in futility, as cl notes, because it’s not possible to define “miracle” in a way that’s objectively measureable, non-superstitious, and conclusively indicative of the presence or absence of actual divine intervention. And therein lies a huge piece of evidence against the Gospel.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. According to Jesus and the Gospel, God is supposed to be a perfect, loving, merciful Heavenly Father Who is intimately involved in the lives and destinies of His children. We want to understand the truth about God in terms of forward thinking (investigation), not backward thinking (rationalization). The way to explore the question of whether the New Testament tells us the truth about God is to ask two questions: What consequences would be manifest if these things were true? and Do we see those consequences happening in real life?
So let’s just think about it, in the context of real life. What’s life like, in the real world, for a child whose father is loving and kind and intimately involved in his children’s lives? The most fundamental and obvious thing is that dad shows up to spend time, in person, in face-to-face two-way interaction with them. Ask the child of a loving, involved father how he knows the difference between his dad and a total stranger, and the kid will look at you like you asked how he knew the earth wasn’t really some other planet. It’s not that it’s hard to find the answer to “Does Jehovah exist?”, it’s just hard to find an answer that works out to be “Yes” despite the obvious evidence.
This is a day-and-night kind of difference. Here we are arguing about “miracles,” when the actual consequences of the Gospel being true would be so dramatically different that we wouldn’t even have the concept of “miracle” in the first place! It would just be “stuff we see God doing.” The children of loving, involved parents don’t have a special term for “things we see dad doing,” as opposed to the “normal” things you usually see happening. Dad’s actions are normal, ordinary, unremarkable, just as God’s works would be, in the ordinary course of events, if the New Testament were correct in its description of His alleged character, abilities, and desires.
Remember, we don’t have a list of “everything that could possibly occur naturally.” We have no a priori way to distinguish what’s natural from what’s supernatural. The only way we have for learning what’s normal and natural is to see what we observe in the real world. But a real world in which God was as actively, lovingly, and intimately involved as the Gospel says He should be, would be a real world in which God’s actions were part of our experience of what’s normal and natural. We wouldn’t have the concept of “miracle” any more than we have the concept of “daytime constellations,” because God would already be familiar to us, and would not need some gee-whiz awesome sign to convince us of His existence.
This is why it’s such a lame excuse for the priests in Zeitoun to claim that Mary has to appear as the projected image of familiar icons in order to be recognizable. Think about that for a minute: the priests are saying that the only way God can make Himself (or His servants) recognizable to us is to make sure that He/they alter their appearance to conform to what human imagination has suggested as a possible likeness. Hello, the way to be sure it’s genuine is to measure it against the standard of human imagination? How big a clue do we really need here?
Cl gets to the core question when he asks, “What do atheists want?” I’m not an atheist, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway: all we’re asking is for consistency between what men say about God, and what we can actually observe in the real world. I’m talking real consistency, mind you, not just superstition, profitable hoaxes, or rationalizations. Sure, it’s always possible to think backwards, and imagine some speculative scenario that starts from the world as it is (i.e. without God showing up), and then constructs some arbitrary, plausible-sounding excuse for why the initial assumption might be true anyway. But that’s rationalization, not explanation.
The self-consistency of the truth is a marvelous thing, and it’s amazing sometimes how easily and elegantly new truths seem to flow out of the initial discovery once you’ve got the foundational premise right. I wrestled for years with apologetics, and all the hairy, convoluted, epi-circular reasonings needed to reconcile the apparent absence of God with the fundamental assumption that the Gospel was true. Once I realized that this assumption was not necessarily a given, and started looking the evidence without trying to force it into a framework of piety, I was astonished. Everything just fell together. It was painful, because I really loved God, but the effortless self-consistency of the truth was overwhelming.
I heartily recommend this approach to everyone who is willing to commit themselves to the truth. Let Alethea be your guide, because She will never lie to you. You might misunderstand Her at some points, but She is consistent, and as long as you’re persistent, She’ll lead you to the truth sooner or later. There’s more of it than you can ever discover in a single lifetime, though—it might be your descendants that actually find the answers you’re looking for. But She’s still the best, because She’s the only God big enough and powerful enough to actually show up in real life.