What's a miracle?


In MadPriest's blog, he offers a sermon about the nature of miracles. In his sermon, he implicitly accepts both the divinity of Jesus and the verity of those fantastical Gospel stories of Jesus's acts that most would identify as miracles. But he suggests that these stories about Jesus are actually not miraculous, because for a divine character like Jesus they would simply fall into the category of the ordinary. The real miracles, he contends, take place when ordinary humans bring others into the Kingdom of God.

From my perspective, I don't actually believe that Jesus was a Divine figure, except in the sense that I believe that he was especially and unusually attuned to the God that was within him and, I think, within all of us. I also don't believe that those fantastical stories about him in the Gospels really happened. They were mythological stories, I believe, that emerged in the community of followers in the decades after his death, and were then incorporated into the Gospels, starting with the first one (Mark) that was written some thirty years after he was crucified.

In a sense, though, I agree with MadPriest. These miracle stories about Jesus can easily, especially to modern eyes, reduce the message of the Gospel to a celebration of parlor tricks, which is superficial when compared with the really important work of loving others and building a more just world. But perhaps the ancient readers of the Gospels needed to have some sort of miracle stories incorporated into their mythologies about great figures like Jesus. An absence of such miracle stories would, perhaps, have been interpreted as a kind of refutation of Jesus's divine role, so maybe it was just par for the course to claim that Jesus carried out parlor tricks like turning water into wine. But to the modern mind, I would suggest, these tricks are unnecessary, and can even distract from the real issue at hand.

What, then, is a miracle? If not a parlor trick, is it a grandiose violation of the laws of nature? Or something else?

Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God. In the tradition of other great Jewish prophets who preceded him, he was a social critic and a promoter of a vision of a Kingdom of God that contrasted with the unjust world that he lived in. The Kingdom of God, he said, was within us. We needed only to bring it to fruition by our actions. Two millenia later, however, we still live in an unjust world. This might lead many to believe that the Kingdom of God is clearly impossible to achieve. There will always be injustice, one might surmise. One could conclude that the only way we would ever see the Kingdom of God achieved is if Divine intervention made it happen. In other words, it would take a miracle to bring it about.

The craving for miracles is an expression of human impatience. We are frustrated with the state of things, we have an objective to change the status quo, and we want it changed now. That is the nature of miracles. They are sudden. Miracles don't percolate, they don't bubble over, they don't take a long time to come to fruition. Miracles are instantaneous.

But perhaps that isn't the way the universe operates. Maybe the real miracles take excruciatingly long times to complete. Maybe miracles aren't instantaneous violations of the laws of nature, but rather the results of long, tedious processes.

Consider the world of nature. The world as we know it is the product of billions of years of cosmic evolution from the time of the Big Bang. Life, a miracle if there ever was one, evolved over eons on this planet. Modern humans emerged some 100,000 years ago, and it has taken us this long to get to where we are now--from foraging for food in the African savanna to watching the Super Bowl on high definition TVs.

Building a just world will not happen in an instant. It is a long, tedious process, much as the evolution of the universe and of life on this planet has been a long, tedious process. We don't always know how what we do influences the world in the long term. We can't know this, really. All we can do is our small part. It would be nice to see the results of our actions, and to see them now. But we build the Kingdom of God, not for the instant gratification of seeing all our dreams realized in the here and now, but because to try to build the Kingdom of God is the right thing to do. Maybe just acquiring patience is the real miracle.

The Bible says that Moses never made it to the promised land. But that didn't stop him from going on the journey with his people. Jesus was executed as state criminal without ever knowing what would result from his ministry. Most of us will never see anything but the tiniest and most immediate effects of our actions. But the reward lies not in the immediate results, but in the longer term processes of which we are a part. And that, to me, is the ultimate miracle.


MadPriest said...

I tend not to ask questions about the historicity of the stories in the Bible. I believe in, and preach on, the narrative and within the narrative the miracles are to be understood as events. They may also be metaphorical, but they must always be real within the narrative. As the narrative is my reality I would honestly answer the question, "Did the miracles REALLY happen," with a simple "yes."

Ann said...

I may steal the last paragraph for my sermon, with attribution, of course. Thanks.

Mystical Seeker said...

Ann, I would be honored. :)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Well, I'm with (God help me!) MadPriest. I go with the story, get into the story, and run with the story.

Share Cropper said...

I think miracles come in various guises - the one that takes eons in the making and the instantaneous ones like veering off the highway to miss another vehicle and bringing the car back upon the pavement safely. Part good driving (a miracle a long time in the making), part good dirt on the side of the road, mostly miracle. Even the most mundane explanation of a miracle is seen differently by other eyes. But, every act of mine has some bearing on the future - good or bad, and I think that the good ones continue to outnumber the bad throughout the world.