This year at Catholic University, I am taking a class called “Christology,” the systematic theology course devoted entirely to the person of Jesus the Christ. Among the many questions that we are being asked to investigate (Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was Jesus God? What is his relationship to the Father? Why did God become flesh? Did Jesus have to die? Did Jesus know he was God? What do we make of the Resurrection?) there is one that has taken hold of my attention this week because, well, it perplexes me: what is a miracle?
Given the amount this word is used and its centrality to the Gospel narratives, this may come at a surprise. What kind of vowed religious doesn’t know what a miracle is? Everyone knows what a miracle is! Fair enough. It is certainly a largely understood concept in common language. But is our common definition(s) based on a) what we believe about God or b) are they largely influenced by popular religion and “Hallmark” notions? This is why I find a need for more investigation, and why I will say at the onset, that I plan to share more questions than answers in this post.
So let’s start with a common definition. What is a miracle? “A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered the work of divine agency.” So says my dictionary. Basically, there are things that God does in our world that are extraordinary and absolutely unexplainable because God has entered into our world and made something amazing happen, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea.
But is this really the definition we want to settle on? Known as the “God of the gaps” explanation, this definition relegates God to those areas that scientific study have yet to understand. But these “gaps” as it were, the filling in of what we cannot otherwise figure out, are narrowing; scientific inquiry yields much more information today than it did 2000 years ago. Also, given the fact that we don’t know everything about nature but are continuing to learn, we have to recognize that there is a huge difference between “things we can’t explain right now” and “absolutely unexplainable.” Putting things in the latter and claiming them to be miracles is first of all arrogant, but worse, it inevitably undermines the claim of miracle when in fact science is capable of explaining its cause years later.
The other problem I see is with the whole notion of God interjecting the world with something not-of-the-world. Do we believe that God is outside of our world, looking in from a far, periodically jumping in to mess with the nature that he created? Surely, the God who created the world and its natural laws is a God that continues to create and govern the world. Even if we want to posit that God is capable of transcending his own laws (He is God after all), it would seem illogical to think that this is the only way that God interacts with the world. Just because we can scientifically explain the chain of events that caused something to happen, isn’t it possible that God is ultimately the primary cause causing everything else to happen? In other words, we may be able to scientifically explain why a person was cured of a deadly disease, but God could still have been working through the doctor to come to the correct diagnosis, the pharmaceutical company to accurately produce the drug, and the nurse to administer it properly.
Understanding miracles in this way shifts the attention away from the undeniable, provable explanation of the “God of the gaps” onto the faith of the beholder. If God is ultimately the primary cause of all secondary causes, well then, it is up to the person of faith to have the eyes to see God’s work all around him/her. The beholder begins to see the world as Francis of Assisi did, not as innate objects following predictable laws, but as creation, the work of an ever-loving God that animates it into being. With these eyes, everything is a miraculous work that can overwhelm… if we have the faith to see it.
This end of the extreme also has some problems, unfortunately. With this “everything is a miracle” perspective, one has to wonder about the initiative of God. If everything fits within the laws of nature, either God is a) a micromanager that makes everything happen without any freedom allowed to creation, or b) the God of Deism, the watchmaker, who set the world in motion according to laws and then remained at a distance watching. In either case, “everything is a miracle” makes nothing a miracle: things only seem extraordinary because of our perspective, not because God has acted in a different way. God may still be its cause, but every act would be just as important as the one previous. This is not a “miracle” as we are investigating.
So what does that leave us with? A miracle could be something “unexplainable,” but we can never know that it is actually unexplainable. It could also be something entirely explainable and ordinary, but unless it catches our attention, one runs the risk of pure subjectivism not knowing which cases are “miracles” and which are ordinary natural laws (see Pat Robertson claiming that Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath for a sinful lifestyle in New Orleans). God must clearly be the cause of all things, at least in the primary sense, but then what differentiates “miracles” from regular acts of God’s initiative?
At this point, I think it’s important to look to the experts for some guidance. Cardinal Kasper, a renowned theologian in the field of Christology proposes a theological theory of miracles in his book Jesus the Christ:
- Miracles can be extraordinary, unusual, and amazing, leaving them up to interpretation. Drawing on the Second Vatican Council, he says that it is up to the faith community to determine the unity between act and word so that an act of faith measures up with all that has already been received by faith in word (Tradition, Scripture, Teaching).
- “A miracle is the result of a personal initiative of God.” A miracle is God attempting to reveal Godself to creation, doing so in symbolic physical form.
- “A divine intervention in the sense of a directly visible action of God is theological nonsense.” Something that is so clear that it cannot be disputed removes the element of faith, compelling one to know not believe. God does not want to force us to know or love him. The more powerful the miracle, the more powerful our independence to reject it.
- All miracles have multiple interpretations. Like the previous point, miracles do not compel knowledge, but “can only be seen as the act of God by faith.” One’s faith and personhood largely influence how one will understand the initiative of God, and that is okay, for it is the purpose of miracles to “turn people’s eyes upwards, towards God.”
If after reading this post you find yourself more perplexed than you were to start, welcome to theological study! The fact is, much of our faith is a mystery, an aspect of faith that surpasses our ability to know perfectly. But that does not mean that we cannot know anything at all. With careful attention and prayer we can enter into it and be changed by it. If you can live your life in this mystery, seeking God with all your heart so to be given the eyes to see God’s work in you and in the world, there’s only one thing to say: That’s a miracle!