The modern sceptic typically assumes that everything we experience can be explained by the sciences without any supernatural agency, any God, any miracles? Here are twelve common forms this objection takes in our day along with twelve brilliant responses by Peter Kreeft.
In the Summa, Saint Thomas could find only two objections to belief in God. One of them is the problem of evil. The other is, essentially, the problem of the miraculous, the supernatural. (God and miracles go together as supernatural actor and supernatural acts.) Can't everything we experience be explained by the sciences without any supernatural agency, any God, any miracles? Here are twelve common forms this objection takes in our day.
- "Science has disproved miracles. Belief in miracles was possible in prescientific eras, but not today, in the era of science."
Which science has disproved miracles? How? By what proof? What discovery? Who proved it? When? No one can answer these specific questions. Instead, the objector appeals to a vague, dreamy abstraction called Science with a capital S. That is not science; that is religion — bad religion.
- "People used to believe in miracles only because they didn't know the scientific explanations for events. For instance, they thought an angry god, Zeus, hurled thunderbolts down from heaven only because they didn't know about electrical energy. Once they knew that, Zeus disappeared."
Yes, modern science has explained away some of the things some of the ancients thought miraculous, like thunderbolts. But it has not explained away any of the miracles in the New Testament. Science has not made the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the feeding of the five thousand one bit less miraculous.
- "But the science of the future will do just that. Just as modern science has explained away some of what the ancients thought miraculous, future science will explain away all of what we think miraculous."
This objection is a religious faith, not science. What science will do tomorrow, no one knows today, and we cannot argue scientifically from what is not known.
- "The true meaning of a miracle is anything that excites wonder and joy and love. Human love is the real miracle, in the only important sense of the word."
Nature and human acts are miracles only in the same sense that everyone is a Christian — an empty and meaningless sense. You can empty any word of meaning by stretching it so thin that it covers everything. Sunsets and babies and acts of love are wonderful and beautiful, but they are not miracles. Miracle means supernatural wonder, not natural wonder.
- "The world has its own laws and stands on its own. Once we stopped seeing t he world as a mere stage set moved about at will by arbitrary gods, we stopped believing in miracles."
Exactly the opposite is true! Only if you believe in a world that stands on its own, a world with natural laws inherent in it, can you believe in miracles. The two presuppositions of miracles are a transcendent God and a distinct world of nature with inherent laws. If there are no natural laws, there are no supernatural exceptions to them. Atheists, pagans, and pantheists cannot believe in miracles: atheists because they have no supernatural God to perform them; pagans because their gods are part of nature; pantheists because their God is the whole of nature. Atheists and pagans have no God outside nature; pantheists have no nature outside God.
- "Belief in miracles contradicts the laws of science, which tell us that things like virgin births simply do not happen."
Science does not tell us what always happens. It certainly does not tell us what can or cannot happen. Science's laws are only generalizations from our observations of how nature usually works. They do not forbid exceptions.
Miracles do not contradict the laws of science any more than a gift of extra money contradicts a bank balance. It is an addition, not a subtraction. Dropping food into a goldfish bowl does not contradict the ecology of the fishbowl. A presidential pardon does not contradict the usual laws of the courts. Supernatural events do not contradict natural events. Science tells us what agencies operate in nature, not what agencies, if any, operate outside it.
- "Belief in miracles demeans nature and the integrity and identity of nature."
Miracles no more demean nature than a husband demeans a wife, A miracle is like Father God impregnating Mother Nature. It fulfills, not demeans, her. In fact, only supernaturalists can appreciate nature for the same reason that only those who know a foreign language can appreciate their own, and only those who face death can appreciate life: you appreciate a thing only by contrast. If nature means simply everything — well, everything is not a topic about which we can feel very passionate. Everything has no character, only every thing does. Only if nature is a thing does she have character — and she is a thing only to a supernaturalist.
- "The issue of miracles is not really important; the essence of religion is not at stake here."
That depends on which religion you mean. No other religion but Christianity absolutely demands belief in miracles. Disbelieve in miracles and you have not lost anything essential to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or modern Judaism (as distinct from Biblical Judaism); but disbelieve in miracles and you are, quite simply, not a Christian. Christianity is essentially the good news of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection, not an abstract set of timeless ethical truths.
- "The miracle stories were added to the Bible later."
There is absolutely no textual or historical evidence whatever for this common assumption, only guesswork or prejudice. However, miracles stories were added later to many other religions, and even contradict the original idea. For instance, the story of Mohammed flying to the moon on his horse contradicts Mohammed's insistence that the Koran be his only miracle, And Buddha taught that anyone who performed a miracle was not teaching his dharma (doctrine) because a miracle would encourage belief in the illusion of the separate, objective material world.
- "Ah, but we must interpret the Bible in light of our own sincerely held, honest beliefs. If we do not believe in miracles, the most charitable interpretation of the Bible's miracle stories is to accept them as myth and symbol, not to reject them as lies."
Perhaps that is charitable, but it is not clearheaded or even honest — and therefore it is not charitable either. We must not interpret the Bible (or any other book) in light of our own beliefs but in light of the author's beliefs. The objector is confusing interpretation with belief. You may believe in capitalism, but please do not interpret Marx' Das Kapital as procapitalist. That would be imposing your views on the author, assuming that he must believe the same things you do. That is not charitable; that is arrogant. Yet it is amazing how common this arrogant mistake is when "scholars" interpret the Bible.
- "Jesus' Resurrection is the central miracle claimed by traditional Christians. But isn't it crass, crude, vulgar, and materialistic to insist on the literal, physical meaning of the Resurrection, on the biological reunification of Jesus' molecules? Isn't it the resurrection of Easter faith in the disciples' (and our) hearts that really matters?"
Easter faith in what if Easter did not really happen? Faith in faith? That is a hall of mirrors. If there is no Resurrection, there is no faith, for there is no object for faith to believe in. "If Christ is not raised from the dead, your faith is vain", insists Saint Paul.
Death is a crass, crude, vulgar, and materialistic problem. It needs a crass, crude, vulgar, and materialistic solution, like the resurrection of the body. What set the ancient world on fire was not faith in faith, a psychology, a philosophy, or an ethic, but the astonishing news that God became man, died, and rose from death to save us from sin and death.
- "A non-miraculous explanation of the Resurrection (and of any other miracle) is more likely, more reasonable."
Which explanation? None of the alternatives suggested works. If Jesus did not really rise from the dead, three questions are unanswerable: Who moved the stone? Who got the body? and Who started the Resurrection myth and why? What profit did the liars get out of their lie?
I will tell you what they got out of it. They got mocked, hated, sneered and jeered at, exiled, deprived of property and reputation and rights, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, clubbed to a pulp, beheaded, crucified, boiled in oil, sawed in pieces, fed to lions, and cut to ribbons by gladiators. If the miracle of the Resurrection did not really happen, then an even more incredible miracle happened: twelve Jewish fishermen invented the world's biggest lie for no reason at all and died for it with joy, as did millions of others. This myth, this lie, this elaborate practical joke transformed lives, gave despairing souls a reason to live and selfish souls a reason to die, gave cynics joy and libertines conscience, put martyrs in the hymns and hymns in the martyrs — all for no reason. A fantastic con job, a myth, a joke.
A myth indeed. That idea is the myth. The miracle is the sober fact.
Peter Kreeft. "Miracles." Chapter 9 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 64-68.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 1988 Peter Kreeft
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