Faith and reason: More than a patch on everyday life: The second article in a series on the implications of belief in miracles, and whether they prove anything, is by Margaret Atkins, a student of theology at Exeter College, Oxford.

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The Independent Online
THE BEGINNING of wisdom was wonder, thought Aristotle. Remember that, the next time you stop to stare at a snowdrop, or a sparrow, or the scruffy kid at the bus stop: the beginning of wisdom was wonder. You never stop to stare at scruffy kids? You ought to. Otherwise you will never make sense of miracles.

Miracles, nowadays, strike us as incredible. But perhaps that is because we have forgotten just how astonishing is ordinary, everyday life. We cannot swallow the Virgin Birth. Yet we take for granted the 'normal' births that happen all around us, every second of the day.

But what is ordinary life? Isn't it simply the continuation of the miraculous event of our, of their, births? 'Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary . . . The sense of the miracle of humanity should always be more vivid to us than the marvels of power, intellect, art or civilisation.' It was his attention to each small concrete detail that gave GK Chesterton's vision its vigour - and its joy: 'Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.'

The most astonishing thing is not that there are miracles, disturbing the normal order of creation, but that the normal order of creation exists at all. The marvel is not that the sun should stop, but that it should continue to move; less that a few are cured spectacularly than that most of us most of the time are healthy. The basic miracle is life.

Am I just being sentimental? After all, scientists can explain to us so much of life. We know about genetics, about the functioning of cells, about physiology. Why be astonished at human, or any other, life? Once we can explain it, we can just take it for granted.

The trouble is that the more I listen to scientists, the more astonished I become. A fly-orchid strikes me as astoundingly beautiful before I know anything about it. But once I learn that the flower 'imitates' an insect in order to 'persuade' it to attempt to mate with it, as part of a complex process of pollination - then my wonder simply increases.

Does our appreciation of Mendelssohn's Octet crumble once we learn the rules of harmony? Do we cease to marvel at Giotto as soon as we understand perspective and colour? Why then should the insights of physics and chemistry and biology reduce, rather than increase, our admiration for creation?

In one sense, of course, I am being 'sentimental'. I am advocating a certain sentiment, a certain attitude, towards the fact of creation. But it is no more sentimental to appreciate creation than to treat it with cold indifference. Both are attitudes. Which attitude we adopt depends not on mere fancy, but on a set of beliefs about the world; and for those we can offer reasons.

The point is this: one's attitude to miracles depends on one's understanding of God. Special miracles make sense if you already believe that the whole universe is sustained in its quiet, steady, everyday existence by its Creator.

When St Paul cured a cripple at Lystra, the locals wanted to worship him as a god. Paul's response is instructive. 'We bring you good news that you should turn from those vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and all that is in them.'

Paul is not very interested in his own 'miracle'. He is much more concerned to teach the Lystrans that the Living God is the Creator. For the implications of that truth are staggering.

The world is there not by necessity or by chance. It was and is willed by God. And therefore it could have been otherwise. Nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing need have been there. Everything is gift. And our proper response to gift is indeed a sentiment: the sentiment of gratitude. Chesterton once more: 'Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when be put into my stocking the gift of two miraculous legs?'

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there are no special miracles: that Jesus didn't bother to turn water into wine. Nor do I mean that there is nothing at all wrong with the world: there is plenty that is dark and terrible. There is a problem of evil.

Christians, however, have quite a different answer to the problem of evil. They do not see miracles as a sort of sticking-plaster, attempting to patch up the battered patient. Redemption promises a cure more fundamental than that.

If, then, there are miracles, but they are not the solution to our problems, what are they for? Perhaps, at this point, it would be better to drop the word 'miracles' altogether. After all, the New Testament prefers to talk of 'signs'.

If God seems sometimes to interrupt the normal flow of events the proper question is not, 'How can he?', but rather 'Why does he want to?' 'What is he doing with this?' Take Jesus' signs, for instance. They were important not because they were 'supernatural', but because they revealed who he was. When the Messiah came - the people knew - the blind would see and the lame would leap for joy. When Jesus cured the blind and the crippled, they recognised not that he was a wonder-worker, but that he was the Christ.

The test of a good miracle is not whether it is possible - who can say what is possible for the maker of millions of galaxies? The test of a good miracle is whether God might plausibly be using it for some purpose. The test of a good miracle is what it might mean.

That is the criterion; but the context, once again, is creation. For the believer, such specific 'miracles', such signs, are simply one element within the myriad gift of existence itself. Next time you pause to marvel at the scruffy kid at the bus stop, remember that Aristotle was half-right: the end, as well as the beginning, of wisdom is wonder.

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