Monday, June 22, 2015

miracle blindness

so, four and a half years later, the conversation resumes...
in fact, it never concluded- i just stopped writing about it.

but in town for a visit, i slot some time to sit down with a dear friend to enjoy the kind of conversation that i don't seem to get into much anymore. the fact that this kind of dialogue is missing from my usual comings and goings is a problem, but that's probably the subject of a whole nother whole nother blogpost.

anyway, today we get going on miracles...
what are they?
how do we recognize them?
can we explain them?
if we can explain them, do they stop being miraculous?

it really starts there- with the 'stop being miraculous' part. my friend pushes the word miracle forward like it is a stone carving or some such artifact from a simpler, more naive time...

"miracle of childbirth? how is it miraculous? it happens everyday- lots! every seventh grader knows the basic biology and can roughly describe where everything goes and what happens when everything goes there. a real miracle would be if i were to wake up in the morning and find my artificial hip on the bed beside me, replaced by a brand new human hip inside. if God did that, i'd pay attention..."

(note: a more logically direct example might be a foray into what a miraculous birth might be- perhaps one where everything didn't go where its biologically supposed to go and yet a child is born. however we both know better than to sit down and try to arm-wrestle over the virgin birth. this dramatic healing example is probably a tidier one! ha ha) 

sure. it's typical to hold that a miracle is 'an event not explicable by nature or scientific laws. such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (God or gods), a miracle worker, saint or religious leader...' and if pressed, we might word our own definition differently than the good people at wikipedia have. however, it would probably still include something about an unexplainable happening being attributed to an omnipotent being or the spokesperson for one.

but why, exactly, does something need to be unexplainable or supernatural in order to be considered miraculous? perhaps if we understood the scope of the miraculous differently we'd see more of it.

it's already in some of the language we use anyway. as my friend points out, we speak of the 'miracle of childbirth' and the 'miracle of spring'. we speak of complete healing or quick recovery as miraculous. we even claim that random events occurring simultaneously are beyond coincidence- that they are traceable to blessings or curses or superstitious notions like fortune or luck.

and yet, as rational people, our default position is that once an understandable explanation can be offered for an event, the wonder of that event is somehow cracked open and all the miracle fizz leaks out. this default may be distilling for us an increasingly flat cosmos, effectively closing us to wonder rather than opening us to it.

i get it. it's hard to patiently read the sacred texts of any faith without a common question emerging: "why are the gods so ready to intervene then and so resistant to doing it now?"

a rational response comes fairly quickly from my friend: "because people observed natural phenomena then and had no education or experience that fit, nor language that described these observations, so they attributed these things to the supernatural."

and, as the unexplainable shrank, so did the realm of God.

but what if we have just become increasingly blind to miracles? i mean, what if miracles are happening all the time and we're missing them because we either don't know what to look for or we have stopped looking altogether? what if our understanding of miracles is too limiting? what if, in addition to the things that just happen and for which there seems to be no reasonable explanation, the miraculous also consists of the very things that we no longer attribute to God because we have, with all of our development, come to understandings that satisfy our drive for answers? what if wonder need not simply be a response to the impossible or the incredibly unlikely, but might have more in common with awe- with the taking stock of what is and acknowledging its greatness or its majesty or its detail or its resolution? does this challenge what we currently identify as miraculous? maybe a little.

perhaps a large part of the miracle blindness problem is not with our observation, study and description of the world around us, but with the use of the word miracle itself.

to turn to the Bible here is to invite all sorts of pushback with labels like confirmational bias and whatnot. however, being that much of our western thought on the jurisdiction of the miraculous originates there, tracing the thought even just one step back past the usage of the word miracles in today's english translations of the Bible to the original hebrew or greek words used to imply this might further our understanding, perhaps even correct it a bit.

in the Old Testament, the hebrew word for miracle- mowpheth [mO-fAth]- shows up many times, but most often describing the 'signs and wonders' in Israel's defining story: the exodus from egypt- in particular, the plagues that are intentional, systematic, epic demonstrations of the power of israel's God, intended to convince egyptians and hebrews alike that this YHWH person is sovereign, worthy of worship, able to save and willing to intervene in the squabbles of people.  the phrase 'that [they/you] would know that I am God...' appears again and again in conjunction with these wondrous happenings.

that people would recognize that God is God.
miracles of the mowpheth kind and the wonder that accompany them seem to be a call to worship.

in the New Testament, two words show up in the original greek text which are translated as 'miracle': dynamis [dU-na-mis], which means 'demonstration of strength', and the more interesting semeion [sA-mY-on] meaning 'sign' or 'attention getter.' The latter gets used more in keeping with the kinds of things we usually call miraculous: changing water into wine, feeding the multitudes, healing the crippled etc. however, whether it is a sign of strength or a demonstration of the Holy Spirit's power through Christ and, (particularly in Acts), his followers, the New Testament words for miracle don't connote the supernatural ('beyond or outside the natural') or the impossible so much as they serve a purpose: to indicate that God is sovereign, worthy of worship, able to save and willing to intervene through Jesus Christ.

again, that people would recognize that God is God.
and, in this testament, that God is present/ incarnate in Christ.

so in the Bible- the place where our cultural understanding of this whole notion of miracles finds some significant foundation, if that which is miraculous is meant to indicate that Jesus/God is God and is worthy or worship, then why exactly do miracles have to be these impossible things that contravene the laws that hold all of the physical universe together? do not the arguments for intelligent design pursue a similar goal using scientifically observed natural glories like the 'specified information content in DNA [or] the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe', that people would recognize an 'intelligent cause' as opposed to ascribing the formation of the physical realm to an undirected natural process?

with this broader, more specifically biblical understanding of what it means for something to be miraculous, unexplainable phenomena continue to inspire awe. however, so also do common glories like childbirth and rainbows, for the wonder need not be lost simply because we have some understanding of how the mechanism works. appreciation derived from this understanding might simply be a different kind of awe.

and this understanding-based awe can lead us back to a God of ongoing revelation, one who is not threatened by our development but delights in it, letting us peak behind the curtain from time to time, knowing that to behold him is to ascribe to him all power, glory, and detail with wonder and thanksgiving...

as the scales fall from our eyes.

(Disclaimer: my awesome friend's thoughts and arguments inspired this little rant, sure. i love that about the dialogue we continue to engage in. his journey is forged by asking good questions and it's not my intention to misrepresent his perspective in my framing of our little story. the point here is to get into writing what i've been doing with our conversation since it went down.)