Do the Laws of Nature Exclude Miracles?
(are the laws of nature absolute?)
Miracles in the World Religions
Miracles are prevalent features of religions. In the Indian traditions, Krishna lifted up a mountain to protect the world against rain sent by the god Indra. Modern-day gurus like Sai Baba regularly work miracles, producing rings and even statuettes out of thin air and healing devotees of various ailments. The Buddha, according to the Jataka tales in the Pali canon, emerged from his mother's side, stood up, began to walk, and declared that he would not be born again. In the Semitic traditions, the series of ten miraculous plagues and the drying up of the Sea of Reeds to enable the Hebrews to escape from Egypt (the Exodus) are commemorated each year in Jewish Passover ceremonies. The canonical Gospels record thirty-five miracles that Jesus performed, twenty-three of them miraculous healings and nine nature miracles, like walking on water, stilling a storm, producing food out of nothing, and turning water into wine. Three times he is said to have brought the dead back to life. And, of course, the virgin birth and Jesus' own Resurrection from death are integral parts of the Christian creed.
In Islam, many miracles are recorded in the Qur'an, and the Qur'an itself is said to be the greatest of miracles, being such than no ordinary human poet could have created a text of such beauty and power—"This Qur'an is not such as can be produced by other than God" (10:37). Miracles are less important in the East Asian traditions, but even there the lives of the great religious teachers are surrounded by stories of their extraordinary powers and more-than-human wisdom.
The creation and end-of-the-world stories in ancient scriptures have been relegated to the realm of mythology—of literally false accounts with spiritual meaning—by the discoveries of modern science. Can we, or must we, do the same thing with the miracle stories that are such a prominent feature of most religions? Some, like the stories of Krishna, do seem mythological in this sense. The central story of Krishna and the milkmaids (gopis), for instance, could easily be taken as a symbol of the deep emotional love between Krishna and his devotees, rather than a genuinely historical account. And the story of the Buddha's miraculous birth, probably not written down until four hundred years after it occurred, sounds like a common mythological motif, found in many cultures throughout the world, of a miraculous birth for a great god or hero.
The story of a miraculous conception for Jesus is only related in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in rather different versions, and is in some tension with other Gospel accounts that speak of Mary's failure to understand Jesus' mission or of his cousin John the Baptist not being sure if he were the Messiah, even though a truly miraculous conception should have made that pretty clear. In Christian tradition, there later developed an added belief that Jesus' birth, too, was miraculous, leaving Mary fully a virgin, and the noncanonical Gospels record various miracles Jesus performed as a child. One, making a clay bird and then getting it to fly away, is mentioned in the Qur'an, but such stories seem frankly petty, and some of them (there is one about punishing an objectionable school teacher) are even unsavory when looked at objectively.
It seems clear that miracle stories tend to get more dramatic over time and that legends of amazing and wonderful events (that is what miracle, from the Latin miraculum, means) grow greater as the years go by. When we read of medieval accounts of miracles—St. George killing the dragon, virgins (St. Uncumber, one of my favorites) instantaneously growing beards to put off unwanted suitors, and the house in which Jesus was born flying through the clouds to Norwich and coming to rest at Walsingham, happily not too far from the bearded lady—we may well feel a twinge of skepticism.
As the centuries rolled by, the unspecified number of magi (probably the reference is to Zoroastrian priests) who visited Jesus in his house in Bethlehem some time after his birth turned into three kings, each named, who visited the manger, together with a crowd of shepherds, angels, cows, and sheep. The story gets more detailed as time goes by, and that is a good clue that human imagination is hard at work. Are all the miracle stories, then, products of human imagination, and if so, how does that affect religion?
As we examine the religions of the world, we find many undoubted instances of myths and legends and some common themes of miraculous births, superhuman deeds of valor, and visits to and returns from the world of the dead, surrounding the great heroes of faith. Nobody can think they are all true—they contradict one another about many things—and it seems a little arbitrary to say that everybody else's reported miracles are legends, whereas the miracles of our own tradition are all true. So it is reasonable to approach the subject of miracles with a skeptical mind.
Moreover, most miracle stories arose within a worldview in which angels and demons were fighting for dominance and for the souls of men and women and in which storms, earthquakes, and plagues were caused either by demonic influence or were some sort of divine punishment. Many of Jesus' miracles were, in fact, exorcisms of demons, who often recognized him as the Son of God and had to be commanded to keep quiet. He was fed in the wilderness by angels and tempted by the devil. In that world, there was not just a supreme cosmic consciousness, God. There were legions of spiritual powers—good and bad—causing things to happen in the world in accordance with their own plans and ambitions.
In that world, there were no laws of nature. Miracles, wonderful and awe-inspiring events, were to be expected, as the supernatural spirits fought and sought to demonstrate their power in the events of nature and history. Almost every event was caused by direct spiritual action, and miracles were just a particularly powerful and impressive expression of such action. Moses' miracles in Egypt were better than the miracles of the Egyptian magicians, because his God was more powerful than theirs. When God can do almost anything God wants, uninhibited by laws of nature, then it is only to be expected that the Divine Being will demonstrate his superior power when the occasion demands it. But when we have given up that general notion of the world and of God, can we still retain any meaningful concept of miracle?