Miracles

Miracle

  • The term 'miracle' is used to describe many different types of event in the world, and has many different meanings.
  • There are two broad ways of looking at miracles: realist and anti-realist.
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Realist

  • Realist understandings of miracles see them as real events in the world, brought about by God, e.g. an explosion destroyed a chapel in Nebraska in 1950, but all 14 choir members were uncharacteristically late for different reasons.  This was seen as 'God at work'.
  • However, thousands of explosions take place throughout the world, sometimes with people being killed or severely injured - why does God not save them?
  • Miracles are also brought about by a spirtual power, working through the people, e.g. Jesus heals the paralysed man in the book of Matthew.
  • Miracles are transgressions of the laws of nature, and are an intentional act of the Deity or some other invisible agent.
  • Science does not accept this concept of violation because natural laws are descriptive, i.e. based on empiricial evidence - if something goes against a natural law, the law expands to include the exception.
  • If God does intervene miraculously, why is there still suffering?
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Anti-realist

  • Anti-realist understandings reject realist descriptions of mircales.
  • Tillich views miracles as subjective experiences, which centre on the individual's interpretation of an event.  Others may well observe the same thing but not see it as a miracle.
  • Hick describes miracles as natural events that happen to have religious significance, e.g. the Plagues of Egypt.  If an event seems to breach a law of nature, it is not because of supernatural intervention - it is simply that our understanding of that law is not sufficiently wide.
  • Holland describes a miracle as 'a remarkable and beneficial concidence that is interpreted in a religious fashion', e.g. a child runs after his toy car, which happens to get stuck on a railway track at the exact moment a train is coming.  The driver faints activating the 'dead man's handle', but the mother views this as a miracle despite there being a logical explanation.
  • Negative interpretations of miracles are as likely to be right as positives interpretations - there is no proving either way.
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Hume

  • Hume's critique of miracles is based on empiricism: all knowledge comes from sense experience, and his argument is inductive in approach.
  • Hume defines a miracle as a violation of a law of nature by God.
  • Our experience of the consistency of these laws shows that a violation of them is the least likely of all events, it is more likely that witnesses are lying or mistaken.  He offers four points to illustrate this view:- 
    • There has never been a miracle supported by witnesses possessing the attributes required for taking these claims seriously;
    • People are taken in by claims of miracles because humans are credulous by nature;
    • Miracle stories are the product of primitive superstitions - they come from 'ignorant and barbarous peoples';
    • Religions all lay claim to miracles.
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Evaluation of Hume

  • It is an inductive argument, so can neither definitively prove nor disprove the existence of miracles.
  • It is possible to construct a theistic argument along the lines of Hume's and conclude that miracles probably do happen.
  • Hume's four points are not particularly strong and can all be challenged with supporting evidence.
  • However, Hume's statement that Christianity is founded on faith and not reason makes an important point: the pre-scientific nature of the Bible as well as of early and medieval writing needs to be taken into account.
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Wiles

  • God does not act in the world through miracles - language about miracles is symbolic, not literal.
  • God's creation was good, so there is no need for further intervention.
  • God put the laws of nature into place, which meant miraculous events would have to be rare, otherwise humans cannot rely on these laws.
  • The interventionist understanding of God is unacceptable, e.g. it implies a selective God who chooses to help some and not others.
  • So many reported miracles are trivial (e.g. the transformation of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana), yet there were no miracles at the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
  • If God was selective, he would be an immoral God - one not worthy of worship.
  • Biblical accounts of miracles are to be taken as myths to point to the nature of God and the importance of obedience.  Jesus' refusal to do miracles for Satan shows that God does not intervene to perform miracles.
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Evaluation of Wiles

  • Wiles' views make the challenges of Hume irrelevant.
  • In his writings, he gives a more holistic view of God's activity as opposed to a view that limits him to occasional intervention - this view is closer to Aquinas, who saw miracles as part of God's continual work in nature.
  • Willis' claim that the act of creation was the sole miracle has led to claims that he was a deist rather than a theist.
  • Against this, Wiles claimed that God is at work in the world, actively sustaining it (though not through miraculous interventions).
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Realist views for religion

  • According to realists, miracles such as Jesus healing the paralysed man are true.
  • The miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels support and strengthen the faith of Christians by reinforcing the belief of God as omnipotent.
  • Miracles are presented as signs of the Kingdom of God, so reassure Christians that God is sovereign over the universe.
  • They also point to the central event of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, which itself was a miracle.  This is a source of hope for Christians.
  • Many Christians see miracles as a demonstration of God's power and love
  • Aquinas viewed them in this light, referring to them as being effected by God 'beyond the order commonly observed in nature'.
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Anti-realist views for religion

  • For anti-realists, the importance of miracles is subjective, not objectively true.
  • Such views address the problems raised for theologians by their apparent contradiction with what is known of science, which preserves their intellectual and moral integrity.
  • For Holland, miracles are natural happenings, that are beneficial in nature and significant for the person involved - they reinforce the faith of Christians in God's goodness and love.
  • For Wiles, Jesus' miracles were not about him breaching natural laws, but were stories pointing to God's purposes for the world that were intended to encourage Christians to play their part in the world to overcome evil and suffering.
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