Sunday, April 16, 2006

Miracles

The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles? ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 20 June 1815
 
There were some reports lately about a scientist that had come up with a theory that Jesus was able to walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee because – wait for it – it was frozen. Riiiiiight.

I read his explanation, and, while I might concede that one might expect the possibility of a skim-coat of ice under rather extreme conditions (which would almost be miraculous in themselves), getting enough ice for someone to walk on is asking a little too much.

This same scientist once explained the parting of the Red Sea in terms of meteorological phenomena, apparently being unaware that the “Red Sea” is, in fact, a mistranslation of “Reed Sea”, a decidedly shallow body of water. It is eminently possible for the Reed Sea to be dry due to shifts in wind and tide. The guy wasted a perfectly good theory.

Trying to find explanations for miracles has been a long-time area of interest to skeptics, realists, and even the mostly devout who just like to think God plays by the rules He set up. I like an interesting, well developed theory of how, say, the Plagues of Egypt might have occurred. But some miracles, like walking on water, have to be taken in the context of teaching a lesson. As many theologians point out, whether the miracle happened or not is unimportant. What is important is what the actions around the miracle teach us.

It doesn't help that we have been beset over the years with bogus miracles, hoaxes intended to either foster a point of view, or enrich someone. Lately, it's been popular to find holy images in toast, on sewer walls, in Rice Krispies, or wherever. E-bay is littered with this stuff, and a certain casino has enough of them, along with other such memorabilia like William Shatner's kidney stone, to be considering a traveling exhibit.

We have two problems here. First, there are people who seem to need to explain miraculous or supernatural events, even when such events are quite possibly allegorical or at least not very well reported. Whether it's the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is not really necessary to explain the methods in which a miracle may have occurred in obedience to natural laws. It is be interesting to speculate on, say, Noah's Flood being a remembrance of the collapse of an ice-age ice dam at the opening of the Black Sea. If there is proof of such an occurrence (and there seems to be pretty good evidence for it), then, perhaps it did inspire the stories of worldwide floods. It is not necessary, though, to insist that theological thinking be revised to take it into account.

Secondly, there are people who, perhaps because of the aforementioned people, refuse to brook any scientific investigation of a miraculous or supernatural happening. This group has closed its collective mind to the idea that any event from scripture or other religious, mystical, or legendary writing could have a natural explanation. This is no big deal when we are talking about Jesus walking on water. But, it is not appropriate to say that scientific theories, based on accumulations of fact, should be ignored because there is some mystical, scriptural, or legendary explanation.

Personally, I find some explanations of miracles to be interesting, while others, like skating of the Sea of Galilee strike me as silly. Either way, I am not put out by the possibility that a miracle had a natural cause. Ultimately, it is not even important to me whether the miracle happened (a feeling held by many theologians), because the recounting of the story carries a lesson to be learned. Whether there was a historical event that matches up is unimportant compared to the message being delivered.

The only reason I even bring any of this up is that the subject of miracles has become yet one more divisive issue between the “faithful” and the “blasphemers”, er, excuse me, the “skeptics.” On the one hand, it seems that some of the “faithful” have a fearful lack of faith, because they are unable to stand any explanation or interpretation of scripture beyond their own.

On the other side, we have those who take far too much pleasure in trying to break down the faith of others. For the most part, this group does not include those who actually look for natural causes of the events. I'm talking about those who gleefully quote these theories as if they somehow invalidate the whole concept of faith.

Some scientists believe in God. Some don't. The ones that do find no contradiction in understanding the physical laws of the universe and worship. They seem to figure that God gave them a brain and the free will to use it.

The only “blasphemy” would be to not use to the fullest the resources we have been given to discover the wonder of the universe around us.

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