Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

Miracles (Continued)

I think it's fair to say that the clash between science and myth is still alive and well, if not in all its former glory. However, the dispute has been modified in important ways over the last forty or so years.

  1. Newtonian science has been superceded by a more flexible model of what "science" is. 

    First, we now know that at the most basic levels, the physical universe is not mechanical. Rather, mechanical cause and effect is moderated and guided by what is often loosely called "chance" or "chaos". This is not strictly speaking a randomness but is actually more like statistical probability out of which regular events arise [5]

    Second, our understanding of scientific cognition and method has begun to change at a basic level
    [6]. It has been pointed out that science itself rests upon the assertion that no truth reached by means of the scientific method is ever final. That is, all scientific truth is provisional. A scientist can only ever say "I know this" in a provisional sense.

    One implication of such developments has been eagerly seized upon by some traditional Christians. If the way the universe works isn't after all as determined as the Newtonians thought it was, might it not be possible that what we call miracles could happen? There might be more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than we could ever dream of.

    Even the most extreme miracles such as people coming to life again after having been dead (most famously Jesus and Lazarus in the Gospels) might, it is suggested, be statistically possible. A once-only event, even if monumentally improbable, might emerge against all the odds. So Jesus might have been the one person in (say) 20 billion dead people over the ages whose cellular structure revived after what is an irreversible event in every other case.

    But we should note that this supposed window of opportunity for traditional theology does not answer the central difficulty of how God intervenes in the universe. If God does modify the chain of cause and effect which (as far as we can tell) has operated since the Big Bang, we must attribute everything to God's actions unless we know how to tell the difference between normal events and those deriving from divine action. I have found nobody to tell me by what criteria one makes this distinction.

    We should also note that Christianity rests upon the existence of at least a significant degree of freewill in human beings. If we can't choose between right and wrong, we can't sin. And if we can't sin, then there's no point to Jesus. Who is to know when God is miraculously manipulating our minds and behaviour and when we are choosing freely? 

    Recent developments in the study of the New Testament have focused increasingly on the culture of which Jesus and his early disciples were part. A number of important conclusions are, I think, gradually becoming more acceptable.

    First, not much of the Gospels is good history. The Gospels are much more the expression of early theology than we have thought until now. The degree of first-hand human testimony is much slighter than most people suppose [7].

    Second, we are gradually realising that the nature of Jesus and his contemporaries was more determined by the culture of which they were part than traditional teachings have allowed [8]. We don't know enough about that culture to be sure about its details. And even if we did, so different is our modern culture that we are able to understand first-century Palestine only with difficulty - and then not in sufficient depth to be completely sure of all our conclusions.

    Third, it has recently been shown that we are all subject to certain errors of thought which willy-nilly lead us astray. The science of cognition has since the early 1970s shown that one of the most powerful of cognitive illusions is our strong tendency to reach conclusions without using all available information. 

    So, for instance, we often fail to recognise that the Gospels are only a small part of the information we should use to judge whether or not miracles are possible. That many don't use all available information isn't necessarily their fault for two reasons:

    [1] They believe that the Bible is a special class of information imbued with greater verity than any other. This is because the Church almost universally still sells the Bible as God's revelation to humankind [9]. If this is a credible conclusion then we are correct in thinking that the Bible is better as a source of information than, say, the collective system of knowledge about how the universe works which we call "science".

    [2] When we attempt to make important estimates of probability like that about miracles our neglect of information plainly available to us (technically known as a "base rate" type) isn't deliberate but automatic. Only when it is pointed out to us what we're doing, and when we accept other information as valid, does this built-in, genetically determined thought-fault disappear.

    It turns out that unless the New Testament is regarded as the literal, inerrant work of God, the evidence for the miracles it reports is slight and unconvincing. But such is the way the human mind works, that very few of us escape the illusion of the "base rates" effect [10].

    The human testimony to which David Hume referred above is flawed to so great a degree that we can't rely on it. We don't know what really happened in the life of Jesus and his followers. As H S Reimarus and G E Lessing said [10], if any testimony from so far in the past contradicts our present experience (including the type of experience we call "scientific knowledge") then it should be given little weight, if any.

    I for one can only conclude that the scriptural evidence presented as miraculous "evidence" for the divinity of Jesus is too weak for the purpose. An event like the resurrection of Jesus from death is so astronomically improbable that to be convincing [a] the historical evidence would have to be far more solidly and widely attested to be convincing, and [b] our knowledge of physical processes would somehow have to allow it.

  2. A tenet of traditional Christianity is that there exist certain unchangeable truths revealed to us by God and that the existence of miracles is one of them. If these truths appear to change over the centuries, it is only because we tend to interpret them differently from time to time. 

    Until recently, many scientists have thought of their knowledge in similar terms. Many would say that once we have discovered, for example, that matter comprises discrete units or particles, the behaviour of which is broadly predictable, we can rest assured that this sort of knowledge is absolutely stable.

    Both claims to absolute certainty have turned out to be false.

    Thomas Kuhn [6] has shown, I think conclusively, that no scientific formulation is sacrosanct. Each is merely one way of regarding the physical world. We evolve paradigms or models of reality as we go along, changing them - sometimes rapidly - from time to time.

    One classic example is the revolutionary change in the way we think of the universe as a result of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The Newtonian universe consisted of four dimensions each of which could be precisely measured. Einstein showed, not that Newton's conclusions were wrong, but that they were incomplete. Space and time are not "separate" dimensions but a single space/time dimension which we break into four parts merely for our own convenience.

    The Christian Church similarly maintains that there are unchangeable truths which have been once and for always delivered to humankind by God via the process of revelation. These truths may be variously understood in differing contexts, cultures and ages. But it is claimed that there are some authorities, of whom the Catholic Bishop of Rome is one, able to understand and preserve the basic Christian truths regardless of time and circumstance.

    In the same way, many so-called Protestant Christians would claim that the Bible is a repository for absolute, and therefore unchangeable, truths. God, they would say, has spoken to humankind through its pages. While these revealed truths can and should be debated for the sake of clarity, they exist in the same way that scientific truth exists. But because they are revealed direct from God, biblical truths have precedence over scientific truths.

    I think it has been conclusively shown that both types of claim are false. Historical studies have shown regular and sometimes dramatic changes in Christian teachings and understanding of the world [12]. Biblical studies have fatally undermined the absolutist biblical stance.
One of the ways in which the traditional Christian stance about miracles has been defended is to move the goalposts. I think it's clear what most people mean (if they think about it at all, that is) when they talk of a miracle. But if a miracle can be satisfactorily redefined, the sting of the rationalist arguments may be relieved.

There have been many such revisions. One recent reformulation is that of the Roman Catholic scholar, John R Meier. His three-volume commentary is an excellent presentation of contemporary biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus.

Meier asks, "What is a miracle?" [13]. He answers:

A miracle is (1) an unusual, startling or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by any interested and fair-minded observer, (2) an event which finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in other known forces that operate in our world of time and space, and (3) an event that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do.

Meier's side-step implies, first, that uninterested and biased observers will not perceive a miracle. Second, a miracle is a mystery by definition beyond the grasp of human reason. Third, human beings can't perform miracles. Fourth, God is the agent of a miracle, not nature - one point at which he agrees with the majority view.

A thinking person might ask why God should act so that only a certain class of humans can perceive, understand and appreciate a miracle. (Some think that God performs miracles in order to convert sceptics to become Christian.) Again, there are many startling and mysterious events in the universe. Are they to be classed as miraculous because they have the qualities of mystery and surprise?

And last, how is one to differentiate between a class of non-miraculous but startling and mysterious events beyond human power to perform, and another class of events with exactly the same attributes but which are special divine acts? What characteristics allow us to recognise such a special act? I have not found a satisfactory answer to this question.

It seems to me that Meier seeks, but does not find, refuge in a proposal that miracles are in the eye of the beholder. This argument is essentially the same as that of Karl Barth - that truth resides initially in rationality but finally only in faith (which he equates with belief) [14].

Another viewpoint hinting at the centrality of "faith" states that "... divine disclosure invites the response of faith, it does not demand the response of acceptance ..." as does the empirical nature of science. When the "supernatural agency is methodologically excluded as an explanation of such [scientific] data" [15], then acceptance isn't a matter of choice as it should be.

A similar approach to miracles as the action of God against the background of "faith" is that of John Polkinghorne [16]. He tries to show that "... modern science does not draw those bounds [of scientific consistency] so tightly that there is no scope for the particular action of a personal God".

I find Polkinghorne's chain of argument tortuous and difficult to understand as a whole. As far as I can tell he takes a positive view of the possibility that God acts in creation - that is, within that overall system of cause and effect we call the universe. The physical processes of the universe are more open and flexible than we think, he claims. In a more open and contingent universe miracles are not as fantastic as some suppose.

Objections by sceptics like David Hume are, thinks Polkinghorne, those of one who is "... an absolutist in the matter, an intransigent sceptic who would never accept any evidence contradicting his prior expectation". We should think of the universe as a more fluid reality than does Hume, and allow things to happen within a loose framework which, though startling and mysterious, don't violate the natural order set in place by God.

This is, I think, a clear instance of redefining the notion of miracle. According to Polkinghorne a miracle becomes an event which, though inexplicable, does not violate human rationality or the natural order in the way that traditional Christian teaching says miracles do. In this case, it ceases to be miraculous in the minds of most.

To sum up:

  • Whether or not one concludes that miracles happen depends upon how one defines a miracle.
  • Biblical writers definitely did not think of miracles as we do today. They had little or no concept of the physical universe revealed by the scientific method. The idea of equating a miracle with violation of the natural order would not have occurred to them. They thought of signs, wonders and powerful acts enabled by God manipulating a natural order which extends seamlessly beyond the physical realm into a supernatural one.
  • The New Testament witnesses to signs, wonders and powerful acts - not to miracles. Most translations are inaccurate in this respect.
  • Many modern proponents of miracles achieve positive closure by redefining them as God's action within and through the existing mechanism of the physical world. That is, miracles are due to God's action but don't violate the natural order. This begs the question of how we are to know which is a natural and which a miraculous event.
  • The overwhelming weight of evidence and argument is against this conclusion that miracles as a violation of the natural order do happen.

[5]   Order Out of Chaos, I Prigogine, Bantam, 1984
[6]   The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S Kuhn
, 1962
[7]   See Is Jesus History? 
[8]   Excavating Jesus, Crossan & Reed, 2001 and 
        TheUse and Abuse of the Bible
, D Nineham, 1978
[9]   See Revelation
[10] Inevitable Illusions, M Piatelli-Palmarini, 1994
[10] See H S Reimarus and G E Lessing
[12] A History of God, K Armstrong, 1999 and 
       The Idea of Doctrinal Development
, O Chadwick, 1957 
[13] A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, 1994
[14] See Karl Barth; Faith; and Belief
[15] God, Humanity and the Cosmos, C Southgate et al, 1999 
[16] Science and Providence, 1993

[Home] [Back]