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The nature of miracles

nr. 8, 2010

Christianity in Evolution
Catholic sexual abuse in Denmark
The Nature of Miracles
Theology of evolution
Investigation of sexual abuse

In a time when traditional scientific rationality is frequently attacked, allegations of supernatural phenomena and interventions from God are readily accepted as true. Weeping madonnas and Medjugorje apparitions are promoted as core Catholic values and more relevant for a rebirth of true faith in the secular West than scientific exploration of God's creation. There is a widespread suspicion that meaning cannot be derived from objective reality and that miracles are needed for the natural world to reveal God's creative will.

Miracles are of course only a possibility if one believes in an almighty God. In looking for miracles one must first look for apparent anomalies in the web of known cause-effect relations. Second, it is necessary to demonstrate that a given phenomenon is not an element of established creation. A miracle thus requires a voluntary intervention by God into the existing flow of natural processes whereby effecting a change in the network of causes and effects. Do any phenomena fulfil these criteria and thus constitute miracles?

One big miracle immediately springs into mind: the event of creation. The unexplained beginning of time, space and matter is in a way the first miracle. Even more clearly a miracle, however, is the establishment of order, of distinct physical laws. There is no inherent reason why everything is not a chaotic soup or why the laws of nature are not entirely different from what they are. The very first moment of initial boundary conditions - from which all subsequent natural phenomena are derived - is therefore the most fundamental miracle. The question is whether this basic miracle of creation has been followed by other miracles.

A good candidate for a miracle is the emergence of man. Shaped by an evolution lasting billions of years one is astounded by the apparent jump in quality. Man's intellectual, spiritual and emotional capacities are so completely different from what evolution has otherwise produced through natural selection. What selection pressure has produced the ability to think up a theory of special relativity, or the ability to compose an orchestral symphony?

However, while these and lots of similar phenomena are clearly wonders and signs of God they may not necessarily be miracles in the sense that they required a special intervention from God in addition to his primary creative act. In fact it would be rather peculiar if an almighty God had to patch up his work even before free-willed man entered the stage and started messing things up.

What it does indicate is that we do not (yet) have full insight into the natural mechanisms possible within the existing creation. We must not, however, forget that we do know more and more about these mechanisms. This knowledge both empowers us to shape the course of natural events and it also tells us more about the basic miracle of creation. In this way many wonders are signs because they reveal a facet of the basic miracle of creation, its indication of God's will and possibly also of the destiny of redeemed creation.

In a way creation is not completed. It is a process that is still running. The starting conditions are still evolving into new phenomena, some of which we have discovered and some of which we have still to discover or fit in with the rest of our knowledge. Therefore unexplained phenomena or even phenomena that seem to conflict with existing knowledge are not per se indicative of a new miraculous intervention by God. They are new ways for his creative will to manifest itself, and thus in a sense one may say that the basic miracle of creation is happening continuously. This is revealed to everybody on a daily basis when one experiences God's creation in the wonders of science, nature, art or fellow man.

These considerations seem to exclude the possibility of establishing 'de novo' miracles as fact since almost any conceivable phenomenon might be yet another manifestation of the initial miracle of creation. Such manifestations could wait around for certain long-term and contingent conditions to arise before being realised.

The healing phenomena characteristic of the life of Jesus Christ could well be such manifestations of God's initial creative purpose waiting for a special condition, e.g. Jesus Christ, to be realised. Even the resurrection of Christ could be such a manifestation, showing the intent of God and the destiny of man in his uncorrupted or redeemed nature. The laws of nature may accommodate, and for completeness could even require, a phenomenon of transition like that of the resurrected Christ.

Perhaps the only phenomenon where miraculous intervention may have been necessary is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It is uncertain because the possibility cannot be excluded that the incarnation may be an integrated part of God's intent when he initiated his miracle of creation. Certainly the incarnation is not an anomaly but a perfect fit with every other clue to his nature of which solidarity and mercy seem to be essential aspects. The incarnation is not, however, contingent on any other natural process or phenomenon, - at least as far as we can tell, and while this would make the incarnation a miracle in the true sense, the limited extent of our insight makes it impossible to exclude the possibility that the incarnation is contingent to a previous decision of God, i.e. his primary creative miracle (Col 1, 14-20).  

There is presently an unfortunate revival of an ancient tendency to regard the natural world, creation as such, with suspicion if not fear and without godly significance per se. Although nature is recognized as created by God it is also perceived to require miracles for God to become visible. This, however, is completely contrary to my own belief. I think that creation as such is in every detail full of signs, and that every little bit is a reflection of God's initial and perpetual creative miracle.

The importance of this issue thus becomes clear. Belief in miraculous intervention as a requirement or even a main utility for God to be revealed detracts from the signifying power of his creative act. This significance is not revealed by any apparent anomalies but rather by the purposeful cohesiveness of nature and the perfection attained with Jesus Christ. Weeping madonnas and Medjugorje apparitions may seem to stimulate faith in the short run, but in a longer perspective such phenomena will undermine perception of the natural world as an objective reality pointing its significance at our creator.


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