Miracles: As You Wish

This is the fifth in a 5 week series exploring the relationship between miracles and science. See this Science Corner post for a prelude, this post for part 1, this post for part 2, this post for part 3, and this post for part 4.

gethsemane photo

Did the ultimate miracle of Jesus’ ministry begin here in Gethsemane? (Photo by betta design )

Four weeks ago, we started our exploration of miracles by looking at how human monarchs influence our perception of God as king. Then, we considered the metaphor of the law as it relates to our understanding of the natural world, and explored how the ideas of will and of grace might be used to frame a different understanding. Last week we looked at how those ideas related to the triumphal entry. And now we finally come to my proposal for how to think about miracles.

If anything qualifies as a miracle, surely Jesus’ resurrection warrants that name. I’m less sure that everyone would call Jesus’ death a miracle, although there is something singular and profound about God breaking the fellowship of the Trinity on our behalf. And salvation for the entire human race is nothing to treat lightly either. Still, let’s take one step further back. What if the miracle of Easter began when Jesus prayed “Yet not my will but yours be done” in Gethsemane?

What if we think of a miracle as an act that realizes God’s will on Earth? First, we have to suppose that God’s will is not always realized. This is difficult for me to imagine if the world is governed by natural laws, and God is their legislator. Either everything proceeds according to those laws, or people are somehow unique in their ability to violate those laws. The latter scenario implies that if people do nothing, God’s will prevails, leading to a fairly inert notion of righteous living. If will is the organizing principle of nature instead of law, then it is easier to imagine that God’s will is not always realized, since that possibility is baked right in.

If God’s will is not always realized on Earth, then the times when it is realized are noteworthy in some sense. Presumably all of Biblical events traditionally understood as miracles fit into this category. Many of them are initiated by God himself, and the others are the result of God’s people inviting God to act. It seems reasonable to assume that if the requested action was counter to God’s will, he would not respond in the affirmative. Thus, we are not eliminating any Biblical miracles with this new understanding.

Defining miracles in terms of God’s will also provides a significant advantage by making our definition stable. If we think of miracles as being supernatural, that makes them at least partially contingent on our understanding of how the natural world works. It invites the kind of discussion we saw, for example, around the parting of the Red Sea; once a material explanation arises, questions are raised about the status of a miracle. And if you think of our collective knowledge of the natural world as ever-increasing, it seems possible to imagine that one day there will be no more miracles left.

lightning  photo

Lightning is unlikely to strike a given spot, but lightning strikes happen constantly; how should that influence a probabilistic take on miracles? (Photo by Leszek.Leszczynski )

Likewise, understanding miracles as a realization of God’s will is more robust than a definition based around probability. Our understanding of a particular outcome’s likelihood can be changed as we learn more information. And while rare events like winning the lottery are individually unlikely, representatives of all rare events occur every day. Some miracles may seem immune to this kind of reevaluation (resurrection will probably be considered unlikely by any analysis), but as long as probability is integral to how we define miracles, at least some of them will always be candidates for reconsideration.

The idea of will also highlights the significance of a miracle as a sign. Let’s go back to the game of pool, which I brought up as a classic illustration when thinking about natural law. The object of pool is to get your balls into the pockets. The game is interesting because this doesn’t happen automatically, yet a successful shot is not a contravention of what we call the laws of motion. And while knocking balls around at random isn’t a great strategy, having a ball inadvertently wind up in a pocket is not uncommon. Thus the rules require the player to make their intentions clear in advance, so that success can be judged on whether a shot is a realization of the player’s will.

This concept of miracles also helps me make sense of John 14:12 when Jesus makes reference to his disciples performing greater deeds than his miracles. It is hard to imagine a miracle more supernatural than anything Jesus did, and it would seem as if it doesn’t get much more unlikely than returning from the dead. If a miracle is a realization of God’s will, though, then it is natural to think of a greater deed as a more widespread realization of God’s will. That might mean covering a larger geographic area, lasting longer, or involving more people; any and all are plausible relative to Jesus’ ministry and could be applied to both the subsequent actions of the disciples or the whole church.

Are we losing anything by defining miracles in this way? That probably depends on how central the idea of present-day miracles are to one’s theology. For example, I know that identifying particular events as miracles is central to the Catholic church’s definition of sainthood. My notion of a miracle is almost certainly more inclusive, which might be problematic in that application. From my perspective, one could simply add additional criteria (namely, whatever is applied currently) that would define a subset of miracles which make one eligible for sainthood, but I’ll admit there may be further nuances involved that I’m failing to appreciate.

Is my proposed idea of a miracle too broad? The usual definitions of miracles are pretty exclusive, making them special. Whereas I’d like to think that God’s will is realized on Earth frequently, in ways great and small. How do we preserve a sense of specialness? For that I look to another prayer by Jesus. “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That suggests to me that heaven is a place where God’s will is realized everywhere at all times. And thus whenever God’s will is done here and now, that’s a little glimpse of what heaven is like, which is special enough for me.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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  • mikstell@gmail.com'
    mikstelltheolog commented on April 3, 2015 Reply

    Andy – I want to thank you for this discussion on a way to re-imagine miracles in a scientific narrative which is not bound to the idea of a violation of the laws of nature. I think this is a promising idea and one which certainly seems to have great potential for further consideration. If I could, I would like to offer a couple of ideas which caused me to struggle at times in your discussion.

    First, it seemed to me that you made no differentiation between what we term “natural law” and God’s law. While natural law would seem to be a very loose term which could describe many things (although it has a more precise definition in Catholic thinking) it would seem that God’s Law has a history of understanding which I struggled to connect in your discussion of this concept. And it also seems that God’s Law – at least when we consider the Ten Commandment for instance – is traditionally connected to his Will, which seems like it would be connected to your theory that miracles should be connected to the idea of will rather than law. Any concept of a norming law which is revealed from God would seem to be connected to his will, not simply his decree. (Traditonally connected in God based on the idea of simplicity)

    Second, the concept of will seemed a little slippery in your usage. I was never quite sure whether will meant desire or intention. While it could certainly mean both, it would seem that these are not the same thing, and then we are back into the realm of either/or&both/and discussions which you stated (in a comment) that you think ultimately resolve into binary exclusions. Are God’s desire and intention ultimately the same thing? If we say that God’s desire and intention are the same in heaven (which seems right to me), it would seem that we cannot necessarily say that they are the same on earth. This intention vs. desire seems to me to be the way Lewis used the concept in Mere Christianity. To talk about desire certainly leaves room for human action, but your discussion of Grace being analogous to the movement of a flock of birds would seem like some understanding of intention would need to be involved.

    Again – thank you for this fascinating treatment! I really enjoyed reading it.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on April 4, 2015 Reply

      Mike – I’m glad you found this discussion worthwhile. I greatly appreciate your feedback, as I envisioned this series as a conversation starter, rather than my final word on the topic. And apologize for whatever portion of your struggles were caused by a lack of clarity either in my thinking or writing.

      I think perhaps it might help to address your observations in reverse order. Here’s how I would connect desire, intent, and my concept of will. I think desire is pretty straightforward; it’s just whatever we want. I would note here that desires can include the impossible — for example, I might desire to have ice cream for every meal, every day and never be overweight, but by all indications that cannot actually happen.

      What I had been thinking as a definition for will was this: My will is what I will do if I am allowed to make all the decisions. And extending that to situations where I might have influence over others, my will is what I will have others do if I am allowed to make all the decisions on their behalf. Which suggests that God’s will for his creation is what he will have it do if his creation chooses his decisions or allows him to make the decisions. (In all these definitions, ‘would do’ might be the more appropriate tense, but I’m deliberately stretching the grammar a bit to make the simple-mindedness of my definitions plain.) I would say that will is an overlay of my desires onto the actual available choices.

      The distinction I would draw between will and intention is that I think will can cover the choices of others, whereas intention only applies to my actions. As I defined it, my will can include a plan for what I would choose on someone else’s behalf, if given the opportunity. Whether anyone gives me that opportunity is ultimately beyond my control. When I go to actually act, when I translate my will into an intention to act, I can only apply that to my own actions. In these terms, I think it is consistent to say that God always realizes his intentions, but his will for others is not always realized, nor are all his desires.

      That brings me to God’s law as revealed through scripture in the form of the Ten Commandments and other instructions. In the terms above, I would say that they represent an expression of God’s will for us, corporately and individually, or at least part of God’s will. There are plenty of specific decisions they don’t precisely cover, but those laws do cover a variety of scenarios in particular and provide a flavor of what God would choose in other situations. But we do not have to choose those particular actions, and in fact one of the main thrusts of the Gospel is that none of us do choose them consistently. God may desire us to choose to follow his laws, and it may be his will to have us follow them, but since our actions are not his, he cannot have an intention that causes us to follow them. Where grace comes in is that the plans that God has, which make up his will and his intentions for his own actions, do not require us to always choose to follow God’s laws.

      I hope that helps to clarify my thoughts. I realize I may not be using desire or intention exactly the same way that Lewis or others do. Perhaps there is a more apt vocabulary for the concepts I am trying to get across, and I welcome whatever suggestions you or anyone might have in that regard.

      Thanks again for the opportunity to continue the conversation!

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