Sunday, April 08, 2007

When miracles are gone, everything is holy

What is a miracle?

A man survives a horrendous automobile crash. We say: "It's a miracle that he's still alive." And indeed it may be a thing of wonder, but it's not a miracle, not if it's possible to imagine some combination of natural circumstances that made his survival possible.

A child's leukemia goes into remission. "A miracle!" we say. But no. The disease is sufficiently complex as to admit a natural explanation. We may not know the explanation, but we can reasonably imagine that one exists.

Rare events are not miracles. To qualify as a miracle an event must manifestly exclude every possibility of natural explanation.

For a person to levitate would be a miracle. For an amputated human limb to regrow would be a miracle. Changing water into wine would be a miracle. Multiplying loaves and fishes ditto.

Rising from the dead and ascending bodily into heaven would be a very big miracle. There is no testimony or affirmative evidence for that particular miracle that would pass muster in a court of law.

But bear with me for a moment, for I too celebrate this holy day.

Accepting the physical resurrection of the historical Jesus means setting aside one's rational faculties and making a leap of faith. That so many people are willing to do so says more about where we have been as a species than where we are going.

There was a time when every event was a miracle. That is to say, every event was thought to be directed by supernatural gods or spirits. Sun. Moon. Brook. Tree. Each was animate. Willful. Alive. The return of the Sun to northern skies, for example, with the consequent renewal of plants and fertility of animals, required petitions to the gods and celebrations. What if the prayers were not said, the sacrifices not made? Everything had a dangerous chanciness about it.

Comets. Eclipses. Disease. Storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes. All the work of an intervening deity. "A fine soft day, thanks be to God," they say in Ireland, and the phrase had a literal origin.

It was when people stopped assuming the interventions of willful gods or spirits, and started attending instead to things characterized by orderly repetition that science was born. A miracle by definition cannot be predicted, except by those who claim to know the minds of gods. But anyone armed with Newton's laws of gravity and motion can predict the return of a comet.

Germs or genes cause disease. Slip on fractures causes earthquakes. Pressure systems in the North Atlantic cause fine soft days in Ireland, and any halfway good scientific weatherperson can tell you what sort of day to expect tomorrow.

This is the most important conclusion of the scientific way of knowing: Miracles don't happen. Behind every event there are patterns of regularity that are at least potentially knowable. Picking and choosing one's miracle is a fool's game: Christian miracles, yes; Hindu miracles, no. Jesus rising into heaven, yes; the Maharishi floating six feet off the ground, no. What all supernaturalists have in common is this: Our miracles are miraculous; your miracles are superstition.

Saint Paul said, "If Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain." And fair enough; he was writing at a time when virtually everyone on the planet looked for supernatural meaning in exceptional events. Meanwhile, a small group of men and women, centered primarily in Alexandria, had decided that something was to be said for attending to the unexceptional, and in doing so created the scientific way of knowing.

Of course, science cannot prove that miracles don't happen. But the assumption that miracles don't happen has proved to be a fabulously successful way of making sense of the world.

And when miracles have been swept away, what is left?

What is left is modern medicine. What is left is being able to live out most of one's life without a toothache. What is left is technology -- iPods, Boeing Dreamliners, MRI machines, laptop computers. What is left is knowledge of the galaxies and the DNA. What is left is the chance to live our lives free of the controlling influence of those who claim to know the mind of God. What is left is a recognition that it is not the exceptional event that gives meaning to life, but the unexceptional. What is left is an Easter story of the death and resurrection of Jesus that need not be taken literally to touch us with its pathos, tragedy and triumph.

The word miracle is derived from the Latin miraculum, "something wonderful." We should reclaim the word for the commonplace, for a natural world that is wonderful beyond our knowing.

On this holy Easter morning let us praise the yellow star that sustains us, now having eased its way back into a more bestowing verticality. Let us praise the extraordinary ordinary egg. Let us praise the utterly miraculous gamboling lamb. The crocus and the daffodil, arrayed more splendidly than Solomon in all his glory. The child's bright eyes when she spies the basket of candy. Let us praise an ordinary world that is more generous than capricious, that speaks to us of the sacred in every pebble and drop of rain.

And, yes, let us praise too the son of the carpenter of Nazareth, who -- in the finest telling of his story, stripped of the supernaturalism of his time -- rose from his pallet day by ordinary day and taught us in ordinary words to love one another, who drove money changers from the temple, celebrated weddings, fed the poor, preached to the humble, and who, at a brave young age, gave his one precious ordinary life that his people might be free both in spirit and in fact.

Further Reading

The Easter morning illustration here is from one of the most beautiful books in my possession, the little Missel de Frere Yves, published in French in the 1950s, a missal for young people, given to me way back then by my sister Anne. I wish I could tell you more about it. Perhaps one of you can tell me something about the text and illustrations.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.