Is understanding miracles beyond our grasp?
Regular Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his series on miracles by considering whether the potential for miracles was embedded in nature right from the beginning.
Last week we finished on a very interesting question, asking whether these miraculous events under discussion are woven into the universal fabric and liable to pop up at the behest of the Almighty, or whether God is active in nature in ways that go beyond physical reality. We also considered the question - if changes in the physical regime are really changes of the agencies through which God sustains a cosmos will they remain beyond us forever?
Albert Einstein once said “There are two ways to live your life; one is as though nothing is a miracle, and the other is as though everything is a miracle”
– and although he didn’t believe in a personal God, I tend to think that if nature is from God then everything ‘is’ a miracle. Given that there are only two things; God, and creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), I do not think that there is any room for a third element to be imputed at will and fooled around with promiscuously. Everything that exists is either God or the created order (which includes everything; matter, mass, energy, light, angels, demons, and ghosts.....the whole lot), thus I would say that when anyone tries to locate the supernatural in daily life, they may well be misunderstanding the real quintessence of creation; their mistake is perhaps rather like a fish scouring the ocean all its life looking for that thing called 'water'. In other words, although we may well describe out of the ordinary events as miraculous, they are only really category distinctions that we use for our own sake to help with descriptions and classification. Some may remember that in my article The Real Truth About Miracles
I used the following analogy to consider the possibility of what these miraculous events are in nature:
“Think of the whole interlocking system of nature as represented by 1000 pennies laid out side by side on a table. Mathematical studies will reveal to us all the possible configurations of sums and values we can observe with the 1000 pennies, providing there are no higher valued coins added to the collection of pennies. For when that happens there are new sums and values to observe, but they do not change our original estimations when we had only 1000 pennies. The naturalist’s perception of a lack of any miraculous events nature are equivalent to him viewing nature as 1000 pennies – failing to realise that God has put in higher valued coins to supplement nature. In this illustration the laws of arithmetic are synonymous with the laws of nature - they tell us what will happen provided there is no Divine activity supplementing nature; that is, they tell us all the possible configurations with 1000 pennies provided no more pennies of higher valued coins are added. But one thing is certain; the laws of nature do not tell us the probability of supplementation from the outside.”
We must be careful when making category distinctions between ‘miraculous’ and ‘non-miraculous’, or in this case ‘supernatural’ against the natural - there are those who claim that matter could be effectively manipulated by an external agent without any physical laws being tampered with or ignored. But the problem here is that one would be making the claim that the supernatural can be proven by finding a phenomenon for which no natural explanation exists (including human activity), and this would be a classic ‘appeal to ignorance’ argument. The answer would differ according to when one asked the question – so given that the current word is never the last word, we could never be sure if we were right or simply awaiting the true explanation. A mobile phone that produced light from its display may well convince a stone age man that the only explanation was ‘supernatural’ but the absurdity is only because of the vast time span between his ‘present day’ and ours. Imagine if we took a two-way radio transceiver back to the time when Maxwell was developing his theory of electromagnetic waves; most of the lay people may well think they were relying on some sort of supernatural ‘wavelength’ because however hard they pondered radio transceivers they would probably exhaust their list of naturalistic explanations. Maxwell, however, being on the cusp of a great discovery, and with much groundwork already in place, would likely possess the acumen to investigate whether the two devices were using electromagnetic waves between them to carry the voices.
The cardinal point here is that atheists rightly criticise arguments from ignorance, and hasty ‘God of the gaps’ postulations, so even if one could find some conflation that merges ‘science’ and the ‘miraculous’, one might justifiably contend that as time progresses the latter will continue giving way to the former, leaving us with science and further exploratory vistas that must by definition also be classified as science lest the same problem arises again.
Present strange perceptions
Not only can we not know how the science of the future will change our thinking, but we are also aware of our differing perceptions of things in nature in the present day. For example, we know that a black hole does not lose information, so if I'm observing a black hole and a cat falls into it I will see it approach the black hole's event horizon where it gets incinerated by the Hawking radiation. But if you contemporaneously fall into the black hole along with the cat you would observe the cat cross the horizon safely before encountering the singularity at the core of the black hole. Interestingly both your story and mine would be true, but depending on the perception we appear to have the cat both incinerated outside of the horizon and unincinerated inside the black hole. There would not be two simultaneous cats because the laws of physics do not allow for information to be duplicated in that way. This must be an issue for the mind in that it is under the illusion that we can describe events both inside and outside the horizon simultaneously - but in actual fact, no mind can observe both at once. This means that the physical regime can only be apprehended if descriptions are restricted to the view of one single observer. Given that not only is it likely that there are extra dimensions (as in String Theory) that we may never apprehend, and a general queerness to quantum physics that always leave one aspect of a wave/particle duality 'uncertain', it may well be true that when it comes miracles and those high value coins that we do not get close to comprehending, the universe probably contains dimensional facets that leave a residue of ambiguity when it comes to those out of the ordinary events that are a part of nature but defy conventional uniformity.
The black hole example shows the difference in perspectives; for a man entering the black hole there will be a contraction of length and an expansion of time, but while this will noticed by an outside observer it will not from his own local perspective because the standards with which he would ordinarily do the measuring would have altered too; that is, the standards of measuring contractions have contracted as well, and the standard of measuring time has expanded to make the expansion of time indecipherable, thus crossing the horizon will seem like normal time to him, unless he can register outside of his local perspective, in which case he would decipher the changes.
Although the different perspectives change with relativity as one’s perception at very fast speeds is different to ordinary perspectives, this is only really a more extreme instance of what is going on in everyday observations, it’s just that with our normal daily activities it is much easier for a man to ‘decentre’ and place himself in the perspective of another. If I am standing on the roof of a house looking down at John and John is in the garden looking up at me it is not very difficult to picture the view from each other’s perspective. In fact, we could even choose to focus on an independent object and swap perspectives, and then we would be looking at that object not just from different angles but from distances too. Our perceptions of coordinate systems and geometry and our other instinctive perceptions of shapes, sizes and depths enable us to see things from another perspective, just not both perspectives at once.
With miracles the situation is slightly different because we are not talking about events or occurrences that can be easily framed in descriptive contexts or empirical patterns (if at all), because they are so rare and analytically inscrutable. Given that miracles are beyond the immediacy of standard empiricism, the way they can be framed in descriptive contexts becomes more dependent on our seeing God not just as an ‘architectural’ God but as a ‘narrational’ God, and thus the miracles we see or experience conform to the pattern of His will, just as our prospective salvation depends on our realisation that Jesus is the Lord God. In other words, sceptics that only assess God’s likelihood by considering Him just as an engineer are likely to miss out on the significance of His will as narrator and the deeper narrative behind the miracles – for I do not think any miracle occurs blithely or arbitrarily, each miracle is enshrouded in deep meaning.
The key is not just to locate meaning in life; it is to subject our experiences to the scrutiny necessary for a coherent and consistent worldview, as there are times when one remains unsure about the exact nature of their experiences. I have talked with several people who think they may have seen a ghost but cannot be sure if it was their mind playing tricks on them. This could leave them susceptible to a delusional ascription of supernatural claims about natural events, but one must also bear in mind that one can disregard something supernatural in favour of an inaccurate naturalistic explanation. In other words, perhaps there are times when people claim something is ‘natural’ that really was God acting in their lives. One thing is sure; the truth behind many of these occurrences can be fuzzy. The problem is in our identifying just what classifies as a Divinely inspired part of the narrative in our perception of ordinary day to day activities; for even as a Christian I think it is hard to make such category distinctions, particularly if one believes that God is sustaining the universe He created.
Hallucination can be an intense part of living that gives the illusion of things happening that are not part of physical reality. I remember a night in my early twenties, several years before I became a Christian, coming home from a nightclub rather drunk and awakening in the early hours sitting up in my bed convinced that I had been locked inside the nightclub. The shapes in the dark were really objects in my bedroom, but to my worse for wear mind they gave the appearance of being reminiscent of an area of the nightclub that I knew quite well. Although having admitted that the human mind is very sensitive to these fuzzy and obscure patterns and that it can select them out from a multitude of experiential effects and impute ‘pattern’ or ‘meaning’ where none exists (’These things always happen in threes’ is a classic example), mass hallucinations ought to be rejected at all costs, as they are almost certainly inconsistent with everything we understand about nature and the mind. They just do not happen, and those that claim the sightings of Jesus after the resurrection was 500 people mass-hallucinating are making an absurd claim.
It is true that the human ability to unconsciously select what they deem significant patterns from a rather chaotic and often unpredictable background and overlook the majority of times when no such patterns or notable sightings occurred distorts the intuitive estimation of improbability (a case in point is when a couple claim to have dreamed the same dream, this appears to overlook the majority of times when they did not dream the same dream). But Jesus’ resurrection and mass testimony of His reappearance are written in the history books and these claims are either truth or falsehood. As I’ve already said, if we reject them we cannot know for sure if something is going to surprise us in the future and confound our criticisms. But if miracles are true, why is there very little indication of their occurrence? Surely a God of such supreme power and all-loving beneficence would make Himself more obvious than just a few miracles scattered about here and there, most of which are not witnessed by the majority of the world’s population. There can’t be many who haven’t thought along those lines at some point, and fostered a scepticism that left a permanent residue of indignation at God’s seemingly evasive nature.
As understandable as this is – something important seems to have been overlooked when this is contemplated, and here we must return to the point we touched on a moment ago when I said that I do not think any miracle occurs blithely or arbitrarily, and that each miracle is enshrouded in deep meaning. At no point did God ever claim to be a God who performs magic tricks at the whim of those who demand evidence of Him. Miracles not just arbitrary acts that occur as some kind of proof of His existence; the miracles in the Bible are conveying a deeper truth or demonstrating a sublime meaning relating to how the beneficiary might see things differently or have his or her eyes opened to a new and illuminating truth.
When God chooses to perform miracles, be they healings or salvation epiphanies, they are not arbitrary happenings, they are related to a whole host of background information and causal connections, most of which are only known to God. In Psalm 139 the Psalmist invites God to ‘know my heart’ and this is a rather extraordinary opening up, almost willing God to put right what is wrong with our hearts. With this in mind I would suggest that it does in fact take a lot of courage and guts and self-honesty to open oneself up to such radical changes. Even if one doesn’t believe God actually exists, to get in a state of mind where one can say ‘God, if you are really there and if your supreme love is represented in the person of Christ, then please help me make those changes in myself’ – that is a courageous anticipation and willingness to change that we scarcely adopt in our daily living – but I think its benefits would astound us should we ever take it up.
In 1 Kings 18 we see Elijah was the only one of God’s prophets left at that time, as many of the people of Israel had turned to worshiping another god, Baal, instead of the God of Israel. Elijah was able to show them that their god was imaginary and that the God of Israel was real by providing a test. He asked the prophets of Baal to prepare a bull for sacrifice, and then he went to prepare one himself. Then, the prophets of Baal would call on their god, and Elijah would call on our God – the God of Israel, with the true God responding miraculously with fire, declaring Himself to be the true God. What happened next? The prophets of Baal called on their god from noon until morning and absolutely nothing happened. Elijah even mocked them as they called out to their non-existent god:
"Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."
They did shout louder and called on their god more fervently, but nothing happened. Of course, when Elijah called on the God of Israel, God declared His presence and the sacrifice was miraculously consumed by fire, proving that the God of Israel was the one true God.
Is this a prompting for us to test God? No. Elijah was led by God to establish such a test, we are not - "The Lord told Elijah" - but this test was not so much a test of God's existence as it was a test of Baal's existence, and Baal failed. And I think it is when we are prepared to suggest (even perhaps to ourselves, hypothetically) that those significant changes be made in ourselves that we see how the other gods in our lives are bound to fail us – part of the problem is we do not put them to the test enough. This is hardly surprising and I think this underlies our reticence towards exploring the miraculous. Yet I have a strong feeling that the sceptics observing the miracles they so wish to see will not provide the panacea that they expect – after all, even after Christ had raised Lazarus from the dead, people were still requiring further proof. Christ’s disciples hardly behaved in ways that suggest they had just observed a series of the greatest miracles the world had ever seen. Moreover, when flames came down from Heaven and consumed the sacrifice, many didn't reject Baal and turn to the God who had shown Himself.
Although degrees of doubt can be helpful, and stringent examinations fruitful, one must be careful and see this in the right perspective. So you’ve never seen a miracle; but in fact there are a whole host of things that you’ve never seen which you take for granted because you are pretty sure that you could find evidence for them if you so wished. But let’s face it, the majority of what we know and believe comes from other people - reading what people tell us, whether in books, in newspapers, in journals, online, on the television, etc. If you only kept things that arrived solely on your own personal experience you would hardly know a thing. Think for a moment about the many things you are quite ‘sure’ are correct and see how much of that knowledge you have first hand experience of. Do you know any of the texts in the Magna Carta or the surveys in the Doomsday Book? Can you close your eyes and visualise any of Blake’s Great Red Dragon paintings? Have you ever been to Easter Island? Have you ever seen anyone perform a segmental resection on a tiger or an elephant? Did you know that the album cover on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon features the dispersion of light as it travels through a triangular prism? Will you ever physically prove that light being scattered by the prism would produce different visible colours, or will you trust the experts? Will you ever measure the electrostatic force between a nuclei and electrons, or will you just trust the experts that solid objects are made up largely of empty space? I'll bet you know that if a DNA molecule is to successfully circularise it must be long enough to bend into the full circle with the correct number of bases which puts the ends in the correct rotation for bonding to occur. But you've probably never observed the difference between the 'axial' stiffness and 'torsional' stiffness of the molecule.
Those are just a few random and unconnected thoughts that popped into my head – I could come up with many similar examples. All of those statements pertain to true realities in the external world, and I don’t doubt that you could find evidence to demonstrate their validity. But the point is, you don’t, because you don’t feel you need to – those verified facts are the result of years of hard work from experts in their fields (and of course their great many progenitors too). Information is passed on and ideas are propagated so the man on the street doesn’t have to make his way to a lab every time he wants to find out about the latest science endeavours. To the atheist a relationship with God is a nonentity – a figment of the Christian’s imagination. But mostly the best the atheist has is a swift dismissal based on feeling of ‘no proof’ or no experience of the miraculous. Of course there is a difference between finding God and proving any one of the above – but the point is, the vast majority of your information about God arrives by similar second hand processes as all the other bits of information. Of course one could argue that seeking revelation from God is potentially much simpler and much quicker than demonstrating some of the above, but that involves being in the right state of mind to do so.
And it is here that the atheists might perhaps have to consider the situation in rather a different way: if in fact God is to be found in Christ yet for some reason has decided that it is for our own good that He ascended to heaven and sent His Holy Spirit in His place, how can you engage with this and see the proposition in a wiser way? The sceptic if he wants to see the truth will have to think things through a little more clearly and accept that God chose to have a behind the scenes influence, and made no secret of the fact that He intended to do so. It is not as though the plans have changed and everything has suddenly been thrown off course - God always said it would be this way for very good reasons. This is not some obscure claim that interjects an anomalous confusion into the investigation – this is something that never really should have been in question, and these demands for proof are more indicative of how the world has brought so many distractions to the sceptics’ enquiry. The chances are that if you live in the western world more things are brought to your senses that will cloud your clarity than help your vision. But in Philippians 4:8 St Paul laid out a model for our consideration – a model even better than our trying for a proof that isn’t there:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Not only does this involve demarking the positive external influences from the negative ones, but it also involves keeping unadulterated the pure and praiseworthy things to which we have access and which remain powerful truths when they are not spoiled by outside influences – that is where your real powers of identifying the true and honourable and just and pure and lovely and gracious and excellence will come, and you will see that by themselves they were worthy of praise, and ought to be praised as long as they remain unsullied. I do not, of course, mean that everything else in the world has no merit and that we ought to quarantine ourselves from all other external influences that do not have the gospel in mind – far from it. Rather, sceptics should realise that when it comes to the unsullied clarity-inducing thoughts of God, most of our worldly influences coming in are contiguously muddying influences unless demarked from that which is pure and ‘worthy of praise’. A great many of the things that come into your consideration will likely cloud your vision of what Christianity is, and that is why so many great minds see things rather like a child does – each instance of their thinking is not so prejudiced by some distracting influence – they maintain the sort of focus that Jesus Himself encouraged when He said that we must become like children and be reliant on God in the same way a child relies on a parent, and that we should enquire just as children enquire about the world they live in, and be tenacious in our pursuits of things that are worthy of praise.
This ought to leave a good sense of what the practical implications are for the sceptics who claim that there is scarce evidence for God; for the question they are faced with is not whether God can be proven, or is likely to provide evidence for His existence that science can deliver on a large oval plate ready for consumption, but instead, the question is much more profound – why if God is really looking over us and sustaining us did He choose to seek a relationship with us in a way that would leave His existence unproven? Why did Jesus say that it is for our own good that He would go away and that the rest of our communion with God would be through the Holy Spirit, active in a world with so many muddying influences? Furthermore why did He choose to keep those precious things that are pure and ‘worthy of praise’ in a world where contiguous influences were likely to murk their waters?
To reach a conclusion that because His existence is not immediately obvious that must mean He does not exist is a pretty shoddy and hasty conclusion, as it puts one in denial about what is being offered and disallows much of the sceptic’s potential for engaging in the real issues. In one sense one must agree with Wittgenstein’s claim that "Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent"– this certainly seems to apply in the converse situation when in fact so much of the outside influence comes in and impairs one’s judgement on the pure and the ineffable and the numinous – we can speak so much about these things that their true quintessence is lost.
But perhaps an even more profound and important question unbelievers might like to ask themselves is the question to which we alluded a moment ago: why is it suggested several times in the Bible that the human mind would be ill-equipped to deal with the truth of Christianity even if one witnessed a miracle? Furthermore why did the people who witnessed miracles still turn away or become complacent or slip up? I think that question can only be answered lucidly if you stop and think to yourself what would happen in your life if you saw something that you concluded was miraculous. Would such a sighting change you life for the better worse? Perhaps Christ knew that the witnessing of a miracle would heap such great emotional pressures and demands on the person that they may wish they could ‘unthink’ it, rather like in our wildest dreams (although not in practical reality) we may wish we could ‘unthink’ the link between Einstein’s E=mc2 and the concomitant realisation that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of matter in the form of a thermonuclear weapon. For some the witnessing of a miracle may well be too much for them – they would probably be better off having a relationship with God that subverts the pressure, and this must also apply to revelation too – some who are likely to come to know God may have to be patient as God knows the right time to reveal Himself – He may have other work to do in you before you are ready for revelation, because once you have it your entire worldview will experience a seismic shift – it will be like seeing clearly for the first time.
So much of atheism seems to be about denial of what one actually needs to understand or look to find when contemplating God; thus, to reiterate, the big question for them is about how they can engage with the real issues at hand. Part of the problem I think is that almost everything is challengeable; virtually all of the world’s truths outside of mathematics (and many in mathematics) can be challenged and contested. That doesn’t stop them being true, but it does mean that there is a lot of information to work through and a great many contentions and contra contentions to assess. That is why a clear understanding of what is being offered is vitally important, because in this information-rich and tumultuous modern world there is more and more data in our global social search space with increasing variables and thus greater likelihood that one will demarcate what appear to be significant patterns and correlations even in randomly fluctuating situations. This has serious implications in our search for the miraculous, but also for modern day atheists who have created atheistic worldviews in rapid time by identifying the easiest and most accessible (and perhaps the largest) correlations in this huge search space, and made a case for their position by falling into this trap, instead of realising that Christianity is broader and deeper than most sceptics can imagine – and that there is a huge bridge to be built between the two worlds.
Next week I will construct my own blueprint for a bridge between the two worlds.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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