Faith and Reason: To still the storm and walk on water: Man could not survive as a species in a world where miracles happened all the time. Canon Derek Stanesby asks what miracles are and why God should want to perform them.

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The Independent Online
ALL OF US, including believer and sceptic, use the term 'miracle' in its loosest sense to refer to events which are beyond our understanding or which command a sense of reverence, wonder and surprise. It is only when we more specifically assert that God intervenes in the ways of the world, in such a way that the generally accepted laws of nature are dramatically suspended, that problems arise. However, I want to contend that the real problem with miracles, for the believer, does not concern their plausibility but their purpose.

Let us assume that God can do as he wishes with his world. But why should God want to perform miracles? This question overrides all the objections of the scientific materialists and the philosophical sceptics. Presumably Jesus could have been given power to still the storm, walk on the water, feed a multitude on a few morsels and raise a stinking corpse from its grave, but why should he behave in such a manner? What do such alleged events, and indeed subsequent alleged miracles, tell us about God and what do they tell us about the world?

Let us start with the world and our place within it. The world is a fairly orderly affair, despite the vagaries of the weather, the recent disclosures of Chaos theory and the fitful nature of electrons and their kind at the sub-atomic level. If it were not then we would not be here to tell the tale. The history of science is that of a search for regularities in nature, the continuing attempt to discover yet more and more fundamental laws which help us to understand the workings of the world. The world revealed by natural science can surprise us but it is, by and large, a pretty reliable place.

At the biological level, the evolution and survival of all life-forms is dependent on such regularities and fulfilled expectations. This is the great insight of Charles Darwin who perceived the mechanism by which adaptation, the fit between organism and environment, took place. Species must be environment-friendly, and vice- versa, if they are to survive and flourish. Catastrophic environmental accidents or dramatic changes, say in climate, quickly eliminate species that are unable to adapt to the new conditions.

Self-conscious awareness and manipulative ability extend the limits of tolerance for human existence, so that man can survive in what were once lethal environments (ie on mountain tops and in outer space) but the need for regularities remains. Nature puts up some clear warning signs: do not fall into the fire or step off a cliff or walk into the sea, if you want to


That is why, if miracles occur, we could not survive too many of them. Miracles, almost by definition, must be occasional happenings. We cannot have too many people walking on water or spontaneously recovering from lethal cancers or stepping out of their coffins after putrefaction has set in. We cannot have it that way simply because such a world could not support a stability-dependent species. The world is not made that way.

Given that if miracles do occur, they must be fairly infrequent events, would they have religious significance? Would they be evidence for God and if so what would they tell us about him? There is a long-standing assumption that the miraculous points to the activity of a beneficent God, but is this so? What is the connection between the miraculous and the divine?

There is no necessary connection and the moral implications are dubious. The moral aspect has been well spelled out. Why the occasional cancer cure in the face of millions whose lives are slowly eaten away? Why save a few people on the Titanic when hundreds drown? Why find one religious zealot a parking space but allow millions to perish in the Holocaust? A God who behaved in such a capricious manner is not morally credible.

On what grounds do people claim that the occurrence of miracles point us to God? Presumably it is in terms of power. The sea and the storm are powerful. Cancer cures defy man but not God. We are referring here to miracles as uncaused events; that is events which defy all natural explanation. Therefore God must be the ultimate cause. The moral perversity of such an argument has been pointed out. One could extend the objection by asking what sort of God is it who forces the unbeliever into submission by such crude displays of power? Even if a man could walk across the Atlantic in a gale, it would tell us nothing about God and our relationship with him. And curiously, the fact that this is a world of much suffering tells us more about the nature of God than does the occasional spectacular relief from such misery.

It does not follow from all this that we should stop praying and asking for help and deliverance, for ourselves and for others. Prayer for help when in need is as natural as breathing. The deep feeling of dependence (on God) is one of the most common reasons for religion. But we must try to be realistic about the nature of the world in which we find ourselves and to cultivate an idea of God which helps to make sense of the world and our place within it. It is a dubious God who commends himself to us by working miracles.

What about the supreme miracle for the Christian believer, the Resurrection? Clearly, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a miraculous event like others referred to in the Gospels. It is not a temporary interruption of the natural order as were the alleged 'Virgin Birth', the raising of Lazarus, walking on water and such like. Rather, the Resurrection of Jesus is an indication, a glimpse, of a total reordering of things, of a new order that points beyond the familiar order necessary for our earthly existence. Putting it rather crudely, it is not about this world, but the next. Unlike the miracle stories of the Gospels, the Resurrection of Jesus defies description. Hence the confused and even contradictory accounts contained in the Gospels. The disciples of Jesus undoubtedly had extraordinary experiences of being confronted by Jesus after his death, and the Gospel writers do their best to convey these experiences to us, but they are unable to describe what actually happened. The Resurrection is not a miracle designed to bring us to our knees in submission to an all-powerful God. Rather, it is God's disclosure to us of his overriding purpose for his creation.

Thus the response to the Resurrection is not that of credulity (as required by the miraculous) but faith. The key to true religion is faith. But faith is not blind acceptance and the absence of doubt. Doubt is an essential ingredient of faith.

Faith (in God) derives from a way of looking at the world without fear, because the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear. St Mark tells us that the initial reaction of the disciples to the Resurrection was that of fear. This fear was the precursor of a faith that changed the world. And it is that faith that is in desperate need of renewal today.