Did the statue drink the milk? When is a wonder a miracle?

A miracle must be both inexplicable and meaningful, says Andrew Brown
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THE 20th century has seen more scientific progress, more technological advances, and more genocide than any other. All these are inimical to a belief in miracles; all suggest that the Universe is largely rule-bound; that God either cannot or does not interfere with human matters, even if he exists. Despite all this, a lively faith in miracles keeps bursting up in the most unexpected places.

The Hindus whom I saw at the Vishwa temple in Southall offering milk to a statue of a cow were not "frenzied" or even excited. Many seemed curious more than anything. Nor were they overcome with reverence. I heard one saying, "Jesus Christ!" as he came into the room: it was not an expression of either piety or blasphemy, but the common English exclamation.

Yet they were perfectly happy to believe that there was something significant and inexplicable to modern science going on. This combination of qualities - inexplicability and significance - is what defines a miracle: it must be both a sign and a wonder. In the case of the slurping statues there seems to be no agreed significance except that the gods are taking an interest in life.

It is not enough that a potential miracle should be a wonder. Something which is both inexplicable and likely to remain so - like the bowl of petunias which turns into a whale three miles above the surface of a hostile planet in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - does not constitute a miracle, but something to be forgotten as soon as possible.

Nor is something a miracle which is astonishing, but which we think we might in principle understand. Most people would find it hard to explain how a radio or television works. Yet whatever the degree of superstitious awe with which people regard broadcasting, it is not miraculous. Real miracles say something interesting about the world. If a miracle says something, it must be heard, otherwise the miracle is not complete, and remains merely magical or inexplicable. Yet some people will not hear. They will see the wonder, but not the sign. So it is necessary to the modern Christian understanding of a miracle that it should be capable of being explained away. This turns a modern miracle into almost the opposite of what an atheist expects and attacks.

Attempts to point out this ambiguity got the last Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, into terrible trouble. When he said that the resurrection was "not just a conjuring trick with bones" he was speaking no more than the literal and necessary truth. No wonder then that he was misheard, so that a million news reports since then will tell you that he said it was "a conjuring trick with bones". But his point was that the Resurrection was interesting because of its meaning, which was not that it was possible for personality to survive the death of the body, but that love is more powerful than death.

Put like that, the Bishop's interpretation of the Resurrection seems to reduce it to a pious assertion, which is why evangelicals hated him so much. If a miracle could be all sign and no wonder, all meaning and none of it inexplicable, the collected speeches of John Major would be miraculous.

Miracles that balance on this tightrope and satisfy both conditions have not been as rare as one might imagine this century. To take the largest scale first: to the eye of faith, whether Christian or orthodox Jewish, the reappearance of the State of Israel after nearly 2,000 years of dispersal and misery suggests the hand of God in history. The calm weather at Dunkirk, which allowed the evacuation of the remains of the British Expeditionary Force, seemed to some patriots at the time miraculous. Neither of these violated the laws of physics in any way. They were just extremely improbable, in a way that seemed significant.

Then there have been the appearances of the Virgin Mary: at least 70 claimed this century, most notably to some Portuguese peasant girls in Fatima in 1915; and to four Bosnians in Medjugorje, every week since 1981. Church authorities have been cautious about these, though Fatima seems to have been accepted as genuine.

The Roman Catholic church reserves to itself the right to interpret these things and to decide whether they are genuine, and has in modern centuries kept a tight discipline. At Lourdes no miracle has been officially registered for 20 years, and very few ever have been. The proportion of claimed miracles to visits at Lourdes is extraordinarily low, something of the order of one in every million and a half.

That rate of inexplicable cure is not going to strike the sceptical scientist as proving anything except that inexplicable cures happen; just as the fact that 80,000 pilgrims to Fatima once saw the sun zoom uncontrollably around the sky proves only that 80,000 eyewitnesses can be wrong. The standard of evidence required for canonisation, however, is much lower.

Evangelical Christians can be much readier to admit miracles. One has to be careful of generalisation, because there are feuds going on all the time aboutmanifestations such as the Toronto Blessing, which has caused bishops to crawl around the floor barking, something some people feel requires a supernatural explanation. But thousands of churches around the country have accepted that the Toronto Blessing is genuine.

The disgraced Nine O' Clock Service in Sheffield was given great impetus by "healing meetings" conducted in Sheffield in 1986 by the American evangelist John Wimber, a former drummer in the Righteous Brothers, whose slogan then was "Signs and Wonders". Again, the faithful saw great evidence of healing, while sceptical doctors, apparently no less Christian, found nothing that could not be naturally explained.

A wonderful sign that miracles are part of the language comes from research carried out by the Alister Hardy Institute in Oxford. This found a very large proportion of the British population had had apparently supernatural experiences, but how these were interpreted varied as a factor of education. The fewer years of schooling you had had, the more likely you were to have seen a ghost; if better educated, you would have a religious experience instead. Miracles will be with us for a long time yet, but they will never prove anything.