Miracles and Modernity
Signs. Wonders. Inbreakings of the divine into the mundane. Transcendence foisting itself upon the natural order of things. Is this what Christians are talking about when we describe miracles?
People often think of miracles and magic as synonymous. From this standpoint, miracles rupture the fabric of reality—poking holes in a static backdrop of predictable causes and effects.
But reality is not as static or predictable as we assume. In his book Historical Consciousness, John Lukacs points out that—while our understanding of space, time, and causality has taken quantum leaps over the past century—most people still live as if the universe were basically Newtonian.
Because of quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we cannot determine the interaction of particles in a straightforward way.1 Because of the observer effect, we now know that empiricism does not provide an “objective” account of reality.2 In short: “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.”3
And yet the great modern illusion of certainty still hangs on. We snub our noses, in a default stance of skepticism, toward “superstitious” stories about religious miracles. We relegate narratives like Francis’ stigmata and the Virgin’s appearance at Guadalupe to an “unscientific” past.
Perhaps we are deceiving ourselves.
Perhaps denying the unknowability of the cosmos (see footnote 1, below) is more difficult—and more intellectually dishonest—than acknowledging the existence of miracles.4
But what do I mean by miracle? In its most basic sense, a miracle is (1) an event that defies explanation and (2) is attributed, by the Church, to God’s agency. The purpose of (2) is to reveal something about the way God acts in history—not to scientifically parse the unexplainable (1).
Miracles are mysteries, but they always occur within the web of human relationships and in response to the cry of prayer. Too often, we think of the “end result” of a miracle only, rather than of the process. For example, a woman claimed to have been cured of a brain aneurysm by the intercession of John Paul II. Confirming that no scientific explanation could be found was only one part of the Church’s affirmation of the miracle. The other, more important, part involved assessing the fruits of the miraculous event—examining its effect upon the Body of Christ as God acts in history through the communion of saints.
When we focus only on the extraordinary event, we miss its larger impact upon the person and the community. What actions led up to the miracle? Was it not the care and concern of doctors, friends, and relatives—alongside the heartfelt prayers of those afflicted—that made the “end result” possible? As such, the miraculous intercession of Saint John Paul II encouraged the faithful to pray (lex orandi, lex credendi), and not to lose hope in the God who works through “things not seen” (Jn 20:29; 2 Cor 5:7).
In this light, it becomes clear that miracles augment and enrich faith. They do not “stand in” for faith, or force anyone to acknowledge the work of God in history. As Jesus himself warned:
An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. Matt 12:39-40.
Yes, the resurrection is a miracle (as defined above)—but it is more than that. As Paul states: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). The resurrection reveals God’s plan for the recreation and renewal of all things. In a way, it makes all of reality miraculous. If you’ll allow me to wax theological, Christian faith centers on the proclamation of God’s agency revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension hold all of reality together. He is the bridge between God and creation. He solidifies the bond between time and eternity, material and immaterial. Christ’s salvific action—witnessed to by the Apostles and Scriptures—is what makes miracles possible.Show Sources
1 Relationships matter more than “essence” in the quantum world. As Lukacs states: “We know the forces in the atomic nucleus that are responsible for the emission for the alpha particle. But this knowledge contains the uncertainty [that] is brought about by the interaction between the nucleus and the rest of the world. If we wanted to know why the alpha particle was emitted at that particular time, we would have to know the microscopic structure of the whole world, including ourselves, and that is impossible” (Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 283, n. 10).
2 As an example, there is no way to account for “what happens” between two successive points of observation.
3 Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 286. Even further: “The natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them” (ibid., 280).
4 There is a dire need, in the West, for the recovery of apophatic theology—or reflections on “The Unknown God.” A good place to start is Denys Turner’s text, The Darkness of God.