Miracles as Magic Shows?

(system) #1

Much contemporary religious talk of miracles portrays them as supernatural events. I think that is the perspective of many Seventh-day Adventists and Christians of evangelical and fundamentalist strains. The miraculous has become something that by definition is an empirical intervention that, at least temporarily, breaks, disrupts, suspends, or violates the laws of nature as we understand them. All this is part of the enormous influence of David Hume’s legacy delineating modern skepticism as well as the dominance of empirical-object language in our culture. Put in other words, God – the Christian God of the Bible – is a deity with supernatural force. It is believed that God created floods and parted seas, sent fire to consume the wicked, plagues to humble the haughty, and not to mention all of Jesus’ miracles (i.e., ‘signs and wonders’). I have no intention of downplaying that biblical miracles occurred. To paraphrase philosopher Rush Rhees, if they happened they happened. What I do want to emphasize is the need for Adventists to understand that miracles are revelations of God.

The Humean tradition of rational skepticism enjoys a kind of ascendancy so that miracles are simply ruled out for many, especially in the West where there is an emphasis on secular, scientific, and technical knowledge. Miracles are problematic not in their conception as violations of nature, especially since when a deviation occurs reasons are given, or, more rarely, the law is reformulated. Philosophers of religion such as Rhees, Peter Winch, and D.Z. Phillips pointed this out. The real anomaly of miracles lies in what is asked of the person (the believer) in the acknowledgment of such an event. If miracles point to or reveal God, and are supposed to tell us something about God, inquiry into what is happening becomes a distraction because God is made merely into a supernatural causal power, a quasi-scientist in the sky behind (super-)natural causation.

It seems to me that what is sorely lacking today is an understanding of miracles as religious or spiritual possibilities, rather than in terms of a pseudo-scientific causal force. There is causality of another kind: religious or spiritual causality. If miracles are nothing unless they reveal God, then the sense of a miracle gives one a sense of the Divine. If the miracle is thought of as a super-scientific or super-natural power, then God begins to look like a scientific superhero with magical powers. No doubt this is popular among a certain stripe of believer. Others would find the thought mediocre at best and perhaps even disgusting. In any case, is this the kind of causal power we are to ascribe to the divine? God’s power is nothing if it is not a religious power, no?

Miracles are not magic shows of power. If the miraculous is merely identified with (super-)natural causality, our attention is thrown on investigating just how they might have happened and takes away from the divine revelation, away from God in whom the miracle is meant to point. To react to a miracle is to react to a revelation of God, but that is precisely what we have lost. Our awe and amazement lies in the Divine revealed, not some natural event reversed or re-directed.

Ray Paul Bitar is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/875