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The God Squad: Do you believe in miracles?

Q: I’m Catholic, and when I think about all of the miracles that are recorded in the New Testament, I wonder how you view them. Do you feel that, as a great prophet, Jesus was also a miracle worker? – F.

A: Miracles are the special effects department of religion. I love special effects in movies, but not so much in my faith, and here is why: There are just too many problems with miracles. Not the least of them is that for certain miracles to happen, all the natural laws of the universe, like gravity to begin with, must be suspended. If they can be suspended, they are not laws. So if miracles are true, then science is false.

The miracles that move me most, both in the Bible and in my life, are the miracles that do not violate natural law, but are joyous, fortuitous, and unexpected events in our life that change everything for the better. You could just call them serendipitous coincidences. There is no definitive proof that these coincidental miracles are from God or that they are even miracles at all.

However, I choose to believe that the nodal moments when we are presented with a calling or a coincidence are precisely the ways that God nudges our lives toward the best that we can be, and nudges the world into a new age.

In the Bible, (Genesis 37:15-17) Joseph is sent by his father, Jacob, to find his brothers in Shechem but they were actually in Dothan, but Joseph meets a stranger who points him, and all subsequent history, in the right direction. In my faith, that man was an angel, and that meeting was a miracle. I have no opinion about Jesus’ walking on water, or multiplying the loaves and the fishes, or healing the blind, but I do believe that his Sermon on the Mount was so pure and loving in its appeal to our better natures that it was a miracle of inspirational teaching. So as to the problem of whether miracles are real, I would say that the best ones are much less dramatic than the miracles requiring the total suspension of rational thought.

The next problem with miracles is that they seduce people into believing more in miracles than in the creator of miracles. The Exodus is a good example (Exodus 7:8-8:14). When God asks Moses to go back to Egypt and bring out the Jewish people, God just tells Moses to go back and just tell the pharaoh to let his people go. Moses demands that God give him some supernatural ammunition to convince the pharaoh. Then, as if to show that God is not a fan of miracles, God allows the Egyptian magicians to replicate the first three miracles that Moses performs to convince the pharaoh. They turn wooden staffs into snakes, they turn water into blood, and they bring forth frogs. However, when Moses makes lice, the magicians cannot make lice. I think that this is meant to be a screaming joke, but most theologians do not share my view that the Bible can be very funny (Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22:28 is my favorite).

There is also the problem of being unable to prove that the miracles establishing the claims of your favorite prophet were not superseded by miracles performed by succeeding prophets. It is contradictory to use miracles to prove your faith but then simply disallow the miracles of the next faith to come along.

There is one big difference about miracles that ultimately divides Christianity from all other faiths. All religions can share a general theory of miracles that treats some miracles as metaphors and others as divinely inspired coincidences. But only Christianity places its entire faith claim on one event – the Resurrection – that reason can neither confirm nor comprehend. For Christians, the Resurrection is faith in its most challenging and inspirational form.