Do you believe in magic?

The question of miracles has been in the news as of late because of the process of granting late Pope John Paul II sainthood.  To become a saint, the person in question has to have performed two miracles, and in the case of John Paul II, these were both posthumous. In one case, a nun praying to the late Pope was reportedly healed of Parkinson’s disease. Of course the case is not without critics, some of whom have suggested that the nun was misdiagnosed in the first place. While the particular case is interesting, I am more interested in the opportunity to reflect on miracles in general.

The term miracle is often used colloquially, but it has a specifically religious context. It denotes an event or occurrence that is not explainable by science and is consequently thought to involve divine agency. The problem with the attribution of miracles is that the first part is often hastily skipped over in favor of the second. I assume that the Vatican has a comparatively more rigorous process of verification than others when it comes to attributions of miracles, but I am doubtful that a little science will stand in the way of sainthood.

I guess I am a skeptic when it comes to science, and some of my skepticism is probably unjustified. Part of it is in reaction to what I perceive is a universalization of science over and against religion, a belief that Science has all the answers. But insofar as science represents our methods of verification for our best course of action in the world, and the methods that are grounded in what we know about the world from the world, I rely on the scientific method as much as anyone.

I heard many stories of miracles while growing up in the church, and I was told I was in the presence of miracles from time to time, but I never saw any myself. And this is not a case of deciding now that what I saw then must not have been a miracle after all. Like many Christians, I imagine, I really wanted to see a miracle for the verification of faith it would provide. I heard many stories from visiting missionaries, including one in which God told a missionary to lick the eyes of a blind woman, and it restored her sight. It was a good story, and I wanted to believe it, but I had no way to verify it.

Our church was also involved in the Toronto Vineyard “renewal” movement in the early ’90s. Several members from our church visited to see the supposed presence of God’s Spirit there, which was accompanied by many miracles, including paralytics rising from their wheelchairs and someone having their fillings turn to gold. Of course, none of those things happened at our church. The best we got were strange manifestations in which people would fall on the floor, sometimes writhe around, sometimes roar like lions, and do other strange things. I experienced being “slain in the Spirit” myself, a part of me wanting to believe, another part knowing I could easily be going with the flow.

Should we really believe in miracles? As early as the third century, a significant part of the growing church was already suggesting that miracles had been reserved for the Apostolic age and were no longer possible in the present. Many Christians still justify miracles in the Bible in the same way. God was doing something special back then that he is not now. This seems overall a disingenuous approach, although there is one thread of explanation that has some truth to it. Some argue that the reason we don’t see miracles in the present—or in the First World as opposed to the Third World—is that we don’t have enough faith. It is true that we have the benefit of advanced knowledge of how the world works, and past or comparatively primitive societies have had a much smaller body of knowledge against which to test to veracity of seemingly miraculous occurrences. However, it does little for religious traditions to suggest that we should be more willfully ignorant.

I suspect, then, that few Christians in the First World actually believe in the possibility of miracles, although few of those would admit to such. And it is possible to believe in the possibility of miracles. Science does not have an answer for all the questions in the universe, nor is it likely to for some time. Yet I would be hesitant, as a result, to ascribe a phenomenon to divine agency. And I don’t think it is harmless to do so either. Belief in miracles, especially when other potential means of assessment are available, can cause significant damage. If one takes, for example, any of the many cases of child neglect in the United States based on religious belief, we can see that a belief in the power of miracles corresponded to a lack of medical attention, attention which in many cases would have saved the life of the child in question.

The liberal Christian will protest, “Well that’s ridiculous! I would never refuse medical care to my children!” But if one believes in miracles, what exactly did those individuals do wrong? Are the rules for miracles that one must do everything humanly possible before praying for a miracle? Or is it perhaps that most do not really believe in miracles but continue to give them lip service? If so, why?

The role of miracles in the Bible is complicated to say the least. Miracles are considered proof of the divine at times, and at others they are considered a weak substitute for faith in spite of proof. I suspect that one of the primary reasons the language of miracles still survives is because we are indefatigably ego-centric. Miracles are used as easy explanation for coincidence. Lets say I’m having a terrible day. It’s cloudy and raining and I’m feeling down, doubting myself and my purpose. I pray and ask God for a sign that he loves me. At that moment, the rain stops and I hear a bird chirping in the distance. I conclude that God must be giving me a sign. When explaining this to someone else, I argue, “How else could it be that at the exact moment I was praying for a sign of God’s love, the rain stopped immediately and a bird chirped?”

I have experienced such conversations myself, and the institutional pressure to attribute such occurrences to miraculous intervention is strong, at least in the Christian context and combined with our egocentrism. Subject to scientific experimentation, however, such a scenario would certainly reveal that when people pray, much more often exactly nothing happens than something happens. Our explanation is the result of our limited ability to think of the world in other terms than revolving around our existence.

I am as willing as others to accept miracles if they fit the definition. A missing limb growing back, with documentation and verification, would seem to fit the requirements. But as the evidence and history of miracles is slim, we would do well to be skeptical. Those who cry “Ye of little faith” are not defending miracles against willful disbelief. Rather, they are defending the fragility of belief against the absence of evidence.

Your thoughts? Why/should we believe (or not) in miracles?

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