Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Miraculous as Proof

In Western cultural spheres we associate the miraculous with God. The word itself has much less explicit roots. In Latin it comes from “wonder,” or “to wonder at” (mirari). Translators of the Bible from the Greek used “miracle” for three Greek words that occur in scripture: “sign” (semeion), “wonder” (teras), and “power” (dynamis). Translated into Latin, in turn, these are signum, prodigium, and virtus. (My source is the ever-helpful Online Etymology Dictionary here).

I find this fascinating. The Latin-rooted “miracle” principally points to our reaction or emotion to something astonishing, thus to our wonder. But in Biblical reference that same word also points at sign, omen, or portent (all contained in the meaning of a prodigy). That meaning suggests a higher source beyond the visible without specifically naming it. Miracle is also used to translate power, but presumably a power unusual enough to be wondered at. To sum this up, a miracle suggests a message as well as an unusual power—and one or both elicit our wonder.

That this communication comes from God is an assumption—or a projection that we make. Nothing wrong there if “God” is used as a word to signify “the greater unexplained.” In our theologies, however, we have vastly expanded on that phrase and given this word many and dense meanings in addition. The mere presence of a miracle, however, does not identify the source of the sign or of the power in any explicit way. The traditional habit within Christendom, however, has been to assign this fact to God, and to define God from other sources as being such-and-such a Being. But I’d insist that our assignment of a phenomenon to a source is not a proof of the source.

C.S. Lewis provides a good example of a Christian apologist who uses Jesus’ miracles in efforts to prove that Jesus was God. What Christian traditions tell us is that Jesus performed miracles or that such occurred in his vicinity (the woman healed by touching his robe, for instance). Anything beyond that is a projection. In the Christian tradition miracles performed by saints or taking place in their vicinity are not used to assert that the saints themselves were God. Here, therefore, we have two very different ways of explaining the miraculous. In one case the person was divine. In all other cases, God was still at work, but the person was just an ordinary if a holy human being. The New Age would call the saint a “channel.”

We do not, of course, view miraculous events as natural events. They’re unexpected, unexplained, and extraordinary. Does that mean that God cancels the laws of nature he has himself ordained? That view introduces an arbitrary element into reality (at least as I see things). An alternative explanation of the miraculous may work equally well. It is that miraculous events represents manifestations of an order of nature not usually visible in our dimension but nonetheless still a natural power that is perfectly at home in this realm too—and that its source is a power (dynamis) not usually seen. The power develops in individuals whose actions (or mere presence) give expression to it. Here I would emphasize the plural. Many people have manifested such powers over time. Meanwhile the three definitions of the miraculous remain intact. The presence of this power is indeed a sign—of other realms of possibility. And our wonder is, of course, simply a reaction to the unusual.

The presence of this power has effects that seem to transcend nature—but miracles are signs, not conceptually framed messages. The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, cannot be derived in any way from the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What miracle makers do does not seamlessly support what miracle makers say. If a hard link existed between the doing and the saying, conceptually contradictory doctrines arising in different traditions would all have to be true, and Aristotle wouldn’t like that. Thus, for instance a trinitarian doctrine of Christianity and a unitarian doctrine in Islam would both be true in the same way and in the same respects. Miracles are associated with both traditions—indeed are reported in every religious tradition of humanity, some of which have yet other and awkward conceptual formulations of reality.

What miracles prove, as best as I can make it out, is that our concepts of the limits of nature are too narrowly drawn, that powers exist beyond what we consider normal, that their manifestations are associated with faculties that emerge in a few human beings, and that what these people say has merit, but not absolute divine sanction. That the miraculous is Good, and that by implication it also teaches The Good, is also clear to me. But the conceptual formulation of that good is a human construct always and ever strongly influenced by then prevailing knowledge and circumstances.

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