Friday, January 4, 2008

What Is a Miracle?

I subscribe to a weekly electronic newsletter called tothesource. Subtitled Challenging Hardcore Secularism with Principled Pluralism, it critiques the culture du jour from a conservative, ecumenical, Judeo-Christian point of view. Dinesh D'Souza is a regular contributor, and I always look forward to his articles.

Recently, D'Souza has been debating the authors of last year's spate of pro-atheism books. He has already debated Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, as well as Michael Shermer. He is still negotiating with Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins apparently doesn't want to face him. A recurring subject in these debates is the reliance of Christianity on miracles. D'Souza agrees with his opponents that Christianity is based on miracles, and therefore he needs to argue for the possibility of miracles.

In last week's tothesource article, D'Souza took on the argument against miracles that he finds strongest – that of David Hume. Essentially, he demonstrated that Hume's own principle of skepticism can be turned against one of his premises. What interested me, however, was an assumption that D'Souza granted to Hume – the definition of a miracle as "a violation of the known laws of nature." I realize this is a commonly held understanding of miracles, among Christians as well as atheists, but I think it misses the point of miracles. I sent this brief reply, which was published in this week's issue of tothesource among the responses to last week's article:

Dear Dr. D'Souza:

To define a miracle as "a violation of the known laws of nature" misses the point of miracles. The purpose of a miracle, rather, is to demonstrate the real, but otherwise unknown, laws of nature – to correct our too-limited notions of how the world works.

Let's take the resurrection of Christ, for example. If it was just a one-off event to allow Jesus to show off his uniqueness, then neither the resurrection nor Christ himself would be particularly relevant to us. But if Christ's resurrection demonstrates an otherwise hidden reality of human nature – that we are all meant for resurrection, as suggested by the line from the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body" – then we are forced to realign our whole worldview with the reality shown by this miracle.

Please, note: My understanding of miracles does not actually contradict that of D'Souza; a miracle can violate the known laws of nature (which might be known incompletely) while demonstrating unknown laws. Thus, we sidestep the question of whether it is even possible to violate the real laws of nature. (I tend to think not, though I am not committed to this position.)

I think the atheists come at the question of miracles with the assumption that if they can demonstrate a natural cause for miracles then they have ruled out any supernatural cause. I think too many Christians fall for this assumption, even though it is clearly inconsistent with the Incarnation. In a world where a person can be both fully divine and fully human, the supernatural and the natural cannot be held to be mutually exclusive.


Kevin said...

Excellent point. I have noticed this tendency, too, to overly delineate between the "natural" and "supernatural." Fr. Stephen Freeman has written about this in his blog, Glory to God, under the "one storey universe" thread.

Good thoughts.
Thomas Kevin

Nicodemus said...

I can relate to this line of thinking. A crude analogy might be comparing our sense of hearing to our sense of sight on the frequency spectrum (sometimes referred to as the Electromagnetic Spectrum or the Spectrum of Light) - hearing is much lower on the spectrum than vision - nonetheless, both are frequencies of light. With the sense of vision, our understanding and interaction with reality broadens significantly compared to someone who is blind and is only using his sense of hearing as his primary way of navigating through the world.

In the same way, a person of faith may perhaps be someone who understands and interacts with reality on yet a higher frequency on the spectrum, thus, it appears as if what he does is miraculous. Case in point: A blind man walks along the path and bumps into a rock. A sighted person walks around the rock. A person of faith says to the rock, "Be thou removed and cast into the sea" and it obeys him.