Follow Up From the Sermon on Miracles
One of the things I try to do, is bring out conversations that keep us thinking throughout the week/s. This is one of my favorite parts of being a Pastor. Engaging with thoughts and challenging myself and others in ways that will help us be more faithful to God and better witnesses in the world around us. It seems that the sermon on miracles is ripe to continuing thinking on.
The whole sermon on "miracles" was really meant to start a conversation...and the subject of that conversation is clear now to me. Namely, the broader Church’s (think more than just Living Water) responsibility to be a little more precise when it comes to miracle discussions especially with outsiders.
There are enough options in Scripture and Tradition for us to draw from without having to always claim a miracle for divine activity. Answers to prayer, providence, divine appointment, and more all come to mind. My sermon’s purpose was to define miracle in such a way as to guard it from the arguments against miracles from the skeptic David Hume, while simultaneously challenging Christians to be a bit more cautious about just any miracle story they hear. Many Christians may not know this, but Hume’s work from a couple hundred years ago is still the chief work that skeptics build their arguments on against miracles. Hundreds of thousands of college students are made familiar with this argument (or a variant of it) each year.
Hume's point is a good at one level. That we would not expect the natural laws to fail. Therefore, even if we have supposed miracle stories, we are to suspect that there must be some other explanation than "Miracle" because a suspension of the laws of nature would be an absurd thing. We can trust those laws. And, when they are not perfect, it is because some other natural interaction, rather than supernatural.
I personally find Hume's reasoning cogent as to the natural laws, but wrong as to his definition of a miracle. I see him right on natural laws... because I see the natural laws as necessary requirements for the good world that God created. If he is going to create a world where there is love, there needs to be free will. If he is going to create a world where there is free-will, there needs to be learning (in order to make decisions), and in order to create a world where there is learning, there needs to be natural laws that offer repetitive environments to learn from. If gravity changed each time we walked out the door, we could argue that free-will is absurd. Anyway...So, I see the natural laws as what God (interestingly...by his grace) upholds for the good goals he has for this world. That being said....
Hume's definition of a Miracle was a violation of the laws of nature. This is where I think he went wrong. Christians have long upheld the idea of the goodness of the natural laws, that God himself made and upholds them. However, defining a miracle as a violation of natural laws misunderstands things. All God needs to do is create a new event. He never has to violate a law of nature to do a miracle. If God creates rain in a drought, he did not have to temporarily violate gravity till he made the rain. He can create rain and gravity will still be working all the time, both before and after the creation of new rain. We can term God as an Agent. And if he creates a new event, this is called agent causation. Hume's definition of miracle runs the risk of forgetting about agents. Namely, any intelligent agent, like ourselves. If we stop a pen from falling, have we violated the laws of nature? No. But, on Hume's definition it is questionable as to why not. It is also hard to see why we ourselves have not done a miracle by preventing the pen from dropping to the floor.
Thus, by defining miracle as God's creation of a new event, one circumvents Hume's poor definition of a miracle and begins to create space for agent causation, and hence Miracles are a possibility if there is a God.
Anyway...beyond that I am still searching for the right balance on this subject for Christian conversation and for those we have with the outside world. I was just talking with a congregant about this. We were pondering the same thing together. How do we mesh Signs, Wonders, Miracles, Gifts of the Spirit, Grace, Answers to prayer, Divine Providence, etc?
We came to the conclusion that it is good enough for us as Christians to say, "Such and such a story/event/happening was an answer to prayer." In other words, we are not usually sure if something is a direct miracle or not minus unique and direct occurrences. However, we can affirm, and even quite easily that we saw an answer to prayer when something happens when we were praying about. This may help us in conversations with those who have been alienated from the faith as well as encouraging our Christian friends to pray too. This conveys that not all answers to prayer are miracles, but some of them may be.
I also personally think that we should be cautious about saying things like, "The likelihood of such and such event happening was so minute that it had to have been a miracle." By these I mean the personal events in our lives. I can hear my skeptic friends saying, "There are plenty of odd improbabilities that happen, but that does not make it a miracle.” The point they make is that often rare things take place, that even though there is no current explanation, does not mean there will not be an explanation. Moreover, that does not compel one to believe the personal story of the testifier that a given event was so remote that it was a miracle. Perhaps it was rare, but that does not auto-tell us that it was from God. It just tells us that it was remote.
Christians are such a wide and broad bunch of people, that total uniform language or even priority on this subject varies. For some, they need to be more responsible with their language and not declare so many numerous things to be a miracle. On the other hand, so many people, even in our own church, were originally part of churches that never saw the work of God in their lives or in the language of those churches. It is refreshing for so many Christians to see God’s plan, purpose, and activity in their lives. Some Christians need to talk about His working more.
Overall, we should keep praying for Gods activity in our lives, and also keep thinking through our language as to what we are trying to convey. Believers are often more accepting and listening to stories of miracles or God’s working. How we convey God’s working to non-believers is not the easiest thing and it can get us in trouble if we over-speak.
Either way, keep the conversation going on this subject. There is fruit in it for our witness and our lives.