What counts as a miracle?

The days are over when one could ask the question. Do you think miracles really happen or not? Discussions which centre on the claims and counter claims of philosophers are over…think
Thomas Aquinas defined a miracle as “That which has a divine cause.”
David Hume who thought that if miracles happened at all, which he didn’t believe they did, they would be defined as “A violation of the laws of nature.”

What counts as a miracle 1 secular man
Now we must start by enquiring what a person classifies as a miracle, allowing for the fact that one person’s understanding may be different from, but no less valid that another’s.

The word miracle itself has both become secularised and has been taken on-board by secular man.
Eg 1. It will be a miracle if my old car gets me home tonight.
Eg 2. It will be a miracle if England qualify for the next round.

Eg 3. I know what the doctor’s say, but I think it is a miracle she is able to walk again.
Eg 4. Miracle baby leaves hospital.paper

In examples 1 and 2 we see the word miracle is used with the same meaning as the word “amazing.” There is clearly no miraculous element in either situation, but these two sentences show that the term has taken on a totally secular meaning and as such it is intelligible. People know what it means.

Examples 3 and 4 point to situations where a reasonable scientific explanation of a phenomenon is may be disregarded in favour of an emotive view hailing it as a miracle. The person adopts an anti-realist approach to the situation.

What counts as a miracle 2 The Bible
You need to read at this point my article “Approaching the topic of miracles”. The Bible contains many different types of stories, which may be classified as miracles and I think you need to be familiar with these in some detail.
However the point remains – miracles are found in the Bible and many Christians would endorse the point of view that miracles are in some way signs of God’s activity in the world.

What counts as miracle 3 nothing  –  David Hume, Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins
David Hume did not really believe that there were such things as miracles.
humeA)   He felt that the whole idea of miracles was improbable, illogical and irrational. He also thought that there were fixed laws of nature and these counted against the idea of miracle.
B)   He also believed that the reporting of miracles was flawed. There was a lack of convincing evidence from unreliable, uneducated people.
Text books are usually quite good on this sort of thing. They point out that we no longer view laws of nature as fixed entities and they quibble about whether uneducated people can or cannot produce reliable information.
Hume’s point about the way in which different religions all have miracles which tie in with their beliefs is quite a telling argument and one which spills over into the question of religious experience. Christians claim healings from God at Christian shrines and Hindus claim miracles from Hindu Gods at Hindu shrines.
There is a sense in which Hume seems rather scornful in this matter. He is of course and empiricist and with evidence from believers could be on dangerous ground. He has to appeal to counter evidence from science and discredit all claims of the people who said they had seen Jesus’ miracles.

Peter Atkins – has some very dismissive observations about miracles
Richard Dawkins – attempts to ground in science, especially biology and psychology events which may be regarded as miraculous. Both of these scholars refer particularly to modern examples of miracles.
Richard Dawkins visited Lourdes with a television crew and in addition to the scientific solutions he put forward, he noted that relatively few “miracles” have been verified by the authorities at Lourdes, when compared with the millions of visitors they receive.

What counts as a miracle 3  – Defending miracles Richard Swinburne  John Polkinghorne
Swinburne adopts a more supportive view for those who report miraculous events.
swinburneHe feels that if the evidence is good, the people reliable and if that the evidence is not self-contradictory then one could accept the accounts of those who claim to have seen the happening. He also points out that laws of nature are not fixed and that while a miracle might challenge what we would normally expect to see, to say that a single miracle, if it were true, would break a law of nature, is something of an over-reaction.
Swinburne is very tied in to defeating Hume’s arguments. Sadly in concentrating on this he rather leaves himself open to renewed criticism from contemporary science.
John Polkinghorne is both a fist class scientist and a thoughtful theologian. He believes that science and religion are not in conflict. They work side by side, often adopting the same methodology, exploring different aspects of the same problem. He argues for a more holistic approach to both theology and science.

What counts as a miracle 4 – The contingency view of miracles Paul Tillich, R F Holland and the recipient.
Paul Tillich concentrates much of his writing on the miracles of Jesus. Miracles, he believes are signs which point the believer to God. The events themselves display astonishing characteristics but they do not violate laws of nature. Their importance is that they reveal something about the nature of God and produce an astonishing experience for the recipient.
R F Holland produces a wonderful story about the child who is saved from traindeath as he plays on the railway track. (And you need to read that story). The mother firmly believes that her son has been delivered by a miracle, despite the fact that there seems to be a perfectly rational explanation as to why the train managed to stop before hitting the youngster.
Holland’s story opens up a whole new area of miracle claims.

  1. The non-religious person may find here a term, miracle, which explains nothing more than an extraordinary phenomenon.
  2. A person who has experienced a wonderful event – such as an unexpected healing at a healing centre. Many who visit Lourdes may speak in such terms. Here the sense of miracle is very personal but in many cases unverifiable.
  3. Those who in using the term are making a faith claim. Miracles are not just observable events, transgressions of the laws of nature, but are different in as much as they are aspects of the life of faith. The idea of miracle is accepted not so much as a proof of God, but as an aspect of God’s work in the world.

What counts as a miracle 5  Are miracles moral?     Maurice Wiles
Wiles comes down firmly against the common idea of miracles inasmuch as he believes that miracles for individuals might be seen as God acting in an immoral manner. He argues that if God tinkered with the world through miracle in response to people’s prayers, God could be accused of acting in an arbitrary fashion or as having favourites.lourdes

Two people have the same medical condition; prayers are said for both, but one recovers and the other doesn’t, what does this say about the justice of God? Does God pick and choose, when he will respond and when he will not?
Wiles also returns to that old argument about the nature of evil. If God has the power and will to act through miracle, why does he not prevent large scale evil happenings such as the Holocaust and genocide?
These are serious criticisms and quite a factor in the discussion about miracles.
You must decide for yourself how well the critics answer Wiles’ points
But to say that

  1. Christianity depicts God as acting in the world in a direct way.
  2. The Christian church sees intercession as a valid and useful form of prayer
  3. Many scientists believe that God does act in a direct manner
  4. Human rationality cannot be applied to God

rather misses the point that Wiles is making. Certainly points 1-4 above are valid observations but do they address the issue Wiles attempts to tackle.

Books – or at least chapters of books you could read
John Polkinghorne Belief in God in an age of Science  Yale University Press
Maurice Wiles Reason to Believe SCM Chapter 4 and Interlude IV
Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach & Basinger  Philosophy of Religion – Selected readings Oxford Press Part 8.

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