Christianity and the Miraculous

Today, Palm Sunday, and throughout the rest of Holy Week, we devote ourselves to the central mysteries of our faith as Christians: Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper, which instituted for us the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The suffering and death of Christ on the cross. His resurrection on the third day.

These miracles are the very center of our faith. As Saint Paul said, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. Or to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s use of rather more modern parlance, “If it isn’t true, to hell with it.”

This central miracle, Christ’s death and resurrection, is the miracle which gives our faith meaning and sets it radically apart from the “he was a good man killed by the authorities for standing up for the poor” substitute which some propose. For if Christ was not God, if He did not rise from the dead, if He did not offer to us eternal salvation, then “he was a good man” is no half-way-there substitute. The resurrection is a miracle so unlikely, so scandalous that we must either embrace it wholly or reject Christianity with scorn. The events of Holy Week are not something we can accept half-way, and by accepting them we accept something which goes utterly and completely beyond the natural and predictable world. A miracle.

Given how central this acceptance of the miraculous is to our faith as Christians, I am unsure why it is that people seem at times to choke at Christ’s other miracles as related in the Gospels. In recent decades, one can hardly make it through parish religious education without hearing inventive explanations of how Lazarus had in fact been in a coma but not dead, the miracle of the loaves and fishes was primarily that everyone shared what they had, Christ did not really cast out demons because of course there are no demons, etc.

Why, I find myself wondering, strain at these gnats when if we are to be Christian at all we have already swallowed the camel of Christ’s divinity, incarnation, death, and resurrection? I’m far from being one of those who tends to see the miraculous in everything. I’m intensely skeptical of visions, private revelations, and the like, and I am perhaps more likely than many Christians to chalk events up to coincidence rather than the granting of prayers. But when we’re talking about the life of Christ, another dynamic seems to come into play. If we once accept that Christ was in fact God incarnate, is it so very unlikely that he could feed five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, or that he could raise a man from the dead? It is not as if we have other differing accounts or witnesses suggesting some other interpretation.

Surely, it is not normal for people to be brought back to life or for large crowds to be miraculously fed, but then, it’s not normal for God to become man and walk among us either. On what particular authority do we accept the testimony of the gospels over the one issue and but reject it on the other? Or is there some fig leaf of rationality that people reach for in saying, “Well, of course, I think many of those stories had a perfectly natural explanation.”

In every day life, I am well aware of what the possible explanations for an event might be. It could be that Saint Anthony put a set of car keys on the dresser, or it could be that I put them there myself when unloading my pockets the night before. Asked to judge, I’ll tend to assume the less miraculous explanation. But when reading the gospels, we do not know the surrounding circumstances. Reading in some other explanation (“The apostles had never seen someone tread water before, so when they saw Jesus doing it, they thought that he was walking on water and assumed it was a miracle.”) involves making up circumstances which seem more to fit with out ideas of the normal. And this in the face of the fact that the gospels are written specifically to chronicle that which is not normal: Christ’s life on earth.

While not advocating biblical literalism by any stretch (I would imagine that my chosen cognomen illustrates my divergence from that approach on at least one topic) it seems clear that the gospels often explicitly claim to describe miraculous events performed by Christ, and if Christ is who we believe Him to be, it is hard for me to understand how the simple objection of “we know that doesn’t normally happen” is enough evidence for re-forming the narrative to one’s own taste. Indeed, if one accepts the central tenets of Christianity, to revise the gospel accounts of Christ’s actions without some additional source of evidence seems less rational rather than more so.

5 Responses to Christianity and the Miraculous

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    A very provocative post Darwin.

    So in the spirit of constructive engagement you say you loathe anything as approaching the miraculous as well as biblical literalism.

    Many Catholics, including Father Benedict Groeschel as well as myself don’t believe in coincidences, but in God’s hand in all things.

    How do you explain that Jesus fed thousands with a few loaves with your eisegesis?

    I’ll admit if I misread your posting.

  2. I think you may have misread me a bit, Tito. My argument was that while in everyday life I tend not to assume a miraculous explanation for something which could just as well be chance or coincidence (for instance, happening to find a missing set of keys moments after pausing to pray to St. Anthony) I think it’s entirely inappropriate to treat the miracles in the Gospels this way.

    Finding a set of keys is something which happens all the time without the need for miraculous help. Feeding 10,000 people, on the other hand, is not something that “just happens”. Nor is the incarnation of Christ something that “just happens”. Indeed, if we accept that Christ was God, and we accept the Gospels as what they claim to be (an account of Christ’s work on Earth) we have already accepted that the Gospels are about the most incredibly miraculous events possible.

    What I am questioning here is: Why is it that some people accept Christ’s divinity and resurrection, yet then turn around and toss out half the gospels with “oh, well, the feeding of the 10,000 probably wasn’t a real miracle, it’s just a fable for sharing” or “Lazarus probably wasn’t really dead, he was just unconscious” or “Jesus didn’t really walk on water, that’s just mythological language”. This miracles are small potatoes if we accept Christ, and if we accept Christ it seems entirely reasonable to believe the incredible and miraculous things would happen around Him.

    I don’t understand the urge to accept Christ, but then reject (seemingly at random) some of His miracles — as if it is rational to accept Christ but irrational to accept that he really rose from the dead or that he really fed large crowds or walked on water.

  3. Tito Edwards says:

    Thanks Darwin.

    Don’t use me as a barometer to how well your columns are written. I’m better at history than theology comprehension.

  4. Well, and given that I wrote it between 11pm and 1am… There’s probably blame to share.

  5. Anthony says:

    Biblical context works best for me. The Gospels are set up as books of testimony, so already I have to go in thinking: this happened, or at least that something major occurred.

    Secondy, there are places in the texts where Jesus is specifically said to be speaking in metaphor. If the author is going to go to that length then why not do us the favor and tell us that his miracles are just literary metaphors?

    While I’m open to the notion that events or ideas could possibly be attributed to Jesus in order to emphasize a theological or historical point, Im no less inclined to take the Gospels at there word.

    After all, these miracles aren’t just abnormal for us, they were abnormal in Jesus’ time; which was not lacking in supply of sceptics either.

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