Much of Euro-American culture, and especially its educated elite, has adopted two contradictory and equally useless attitudes toward miracles. The first, starting in mid-1700s, was a full-scale assault on the notion that miracles can happen. The second is a sentimental and vapid dilution of the term to mean anything really good or life-changingly beneficial. I’m not sure when this second attitude developed, but I’d be inclined to date it to the late 1800s as a defensive, and wrong-headed, rearguard action to preserve the language of miracle while emptying it of all meaning. In other words, having conceded the idea that genuine miracles are impossible, some Western Christians domesticated the notion of the miraculous in order to retain the language without its threatening implications. I think this is the wrong approach, and this post will critique the denialist approach, and propose a different definition of “miracle” which I think is more in keeping with its etymology, and with its pre-modern Christian usage.
Many definitions of “miracle” – and especially those adopted by people who argue miracles are impossible – focus on the notion that miracles “violate the laws of nature” (for example, the first sentence of the WIkipedia article on the subject). The metaphor of nature governed by laws originally explained the regularity of nature. Early modern Europe was fascinated by the notion of laws, but everyone knew that strange things happened which they couldn’t explain. Thus, in tandem with the adoption of the concept of a natural world regulated by laws, the meaning of “miracle” was changed to mean those events which the laws could not explain. By the Enlightenment period of the late 1700s, some thinkers, such as David Hume, were convinced that natural laws had no exceptions, and thus the existence of unexplained phenomena merely indicated an incomplete grasp of natural laws. Hume had a deep faith that unexplained phenomena would eventually be explained without reference to supernatural agency, and as the physical sciences refined their theories in the past two centuries, more and more people came to agree with Hume. Many educated elites regarded a continued belief in miracles as silly and backward, inconsistent with the great progress of human knowledge in the sciences. Max Weber referred to the “disenchantment of the world,” a uniquely Western rejection of belief in magic and the supernatural, which he regarded as inevitable due to the progress of scientific knowledge. Later atheist polemicists would ridicule belief in a “God of the gaps,” the notion that God is only invoked to explain gaps in scientific knowledge, gaps which are progressively shrinking as knowledge increases.
This common story of course overlooks the ongoing widespread belief in miracles, or rejects such belief as “simple” or “uneducated,” in the language of pure snobbery. The rhetorical power of Weber’s “disenchantment” is that it cannot be reversed: anyone who says, “I wish to re-enchant the world” has already conceded that his goal is falsehood, not truth. In other words, Weber’s rhetorical position cannot be critiqued without conceding its central premise.
So let’s start farther back. The term “laws” in “natural laws” is, of course, a metaphor, but it is a metaphor long dead. It conveys a normative sense that the world ought to work in certain ways, just as human laws ought to be followed. In fact, however, humans have no privileged access to how the world ought to work. We only have observations of the way it has worked, and then only when we were paying attention. But what we have observed is that the world, by and large, works in some very regular and predictable ways. What are called “natural laws” are really statements of the regular workings of the world which we observe. Nothing more. To say that natural laws can have no exceptions would be to say that we have observed the full range of possible phenomena, we have identified all possibly relevant factors in each outcome, and we have correctly and fully accounted for all possible relationships among those relevant factors. But the extent of our observation of the world has been and will always continue to be finite. If we had attained natural laws without exceptions, there would be nothing left for scientists to do except to explain the laws to succeeding generations.
Before the metaphor of “natural laws” became endemic, and then died, there was a notion of miracles which had nothing to do with laws. The Latin word miraculum means a little something that is stared at, that elicits wonder. You see, we all know from experience that the world is very regular. “What goes up must come down,” according to the old proverb. But almost everyone knows from experience that surprising things happen, things which we don’t understand and cannot yet explain. Scientists know this best of all, as these are the experimental outcomes they pay the most attention to. (And this, incidentally, is the logical fallacy in Hume’s argument against miracles: he appeals to universal human experience that miracles don’t happen, when in in fact it is nearly universal human experience both that the world is very regular, and that occasional baffling surprises – “miracles” – also happen.) Scientists label those things anomalies, and if they’re good scientists, they seek explanations for them. Because they seem to break with the “way the world works,” people try to understand where they came from, and many are willing to entertain a broader range of explanations than they would for the humdrum world of everyday events. Indeed, precisely because such outcomes are observed but often not repeatable, people wonder about them, and are amazed.
Amazing things happen in this world, and we don’t have it entirely figured out. There is a lot that we don’t understand yet, and some that we may never understand. To say that miracles happen doesn’t require committing yourself to any particular explanation of surprising events, appealing to a particular understanding of God or a particular supernatural being. It just requires acknowledging that crazy things happen when we least expect them. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Of course miracles happen. Having acknowledged that, we can then explore why, and that is how we learn.