Location: First preached at First Presbyterian Church of Tequesta, Florida and The Pink Church, Pompano, Florida.
So what is a miracle actually? Well, there is something of a disagreement in culture about what defines a miracle.
A common dictionary definition of a miracle is “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.”
Some folks though, like C.S. Lewis, famously disagree saying, “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.”
So if, on one hand, most dictionaries are right - then miracles are supernatural mysteries that simply can’t be explained. But if, on the other hand, folks like Lewis are right, then ultimately, we should scientifically be able to explain all miracles. So how are we to know who is correct?
Well, I think that part of the problem with our modern way of thinking is that we like to assume that only one answer can be correct. But what if, contrary to such thinking, two seemingly opposite answers are simultaneously accurate? Is it possible that there might be a reasonable way to get to such a conclusion?
In order to think about such a possibility I think that a pivot in approach may need to occur when we consider how we engage the initial question. For example, for many years now a primary model of understanding theology has come from the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth who, in a 1963 edition of Time Magazine, recalled advising young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”
Barth’s statement is all well and good, but when we substitute news with science, does this theological position uniformly hold true? Maybe instead we should take our Bible and our Science and use them to inform each other. We use our Bible to help form good scientists and science (and technologists and tech) and we use good science to help us to better understand what actually happened in the Bible.
Additionally, I would actually go so far as to claim that, in the Scriptures, Jesus supports using science to understand the miracles that he was performing. I think that he actually gets frustrated with the disciples because they don’t use the observational science that is readily available to them.
Observational Science is a field of science where controlled observations cannot be done in order to study causes and effects. An example of this kind of science is astronomy, a science where a person cannot change the movement or any other aspect of the sun, moon, and stars, nor can he or she visit them. Scientific studies of this kind are simply done through the observation of nature taking its course and recording the findings over time.
Accordingly, in the accounts in Mark 6:30-56 & John 6:1-21 we learn that it is getting late in the day and the disciples are concerned that the people who have been listening to Jesus haven’t eaten. And so when they suggest that Jesus tell the people to leave and go eat - Jesus retorts in Mark 6:37: “You give them something to eat.”
Of course they don’t know what this means - but Jesus intends to show them - and he proceeds to do so. Jesus shows them that if they have faith in accordance to the will of God – they can change their present reality. This is an actual power available to them but they have to have belief to actualize it. The problem is they don’t understand this, and most of the time, neither do we.
In the case of the disciples – they witness Jesus’ miracle of feeding five thousand people, they see him calm a storm, they see him walk on water, then they witness him heal people and then later he feeds four thousand more people. And by now Jesus must be thinking – Surely they understand? How do they not understand what is happening?
And so later on in Mark 8:14 the disciples get in a boat together with Jesus – and when they get out into the water, and it is getting time for them to eat, they come to realize that they only brought one loaf of bread with them. And when they start to worry about this seeming problem Jesus speaks up.
“Why are you talking about having no bread?” He says. “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Now I might be wrong – but I would dare to guess that most of us, just like the disciples, still don’t understand either.
What do you mean, Jesus? Do we not yet understand what exactly? That you David Copperfield-ed, hocus-pocused, abracadabra-ed more bread and fish into existence? That you Chris Angel mind-freaked your way across the water? That you then came back for an encore to David Blaine more bread and fish into the basket? Bravo! What’s next? Are you also going to pull a rabbit out of one of those baskets? Or just randomly heal some people in the next town over? Maybe show us how to do that and we will!
And I think that if we said that to Jesus today - Jesus might say back to us – “Folks, you have science –just observe, and where your science is still lacking – just believe.”
Because here’s the thing – Jesus has already shown us what we need to know. We just, for whatever reason, often don’t want to believe it is true. You see a miracle is both a natural and a divine action. And that is because everything that we call nature is a divine creation – and thus effectively the natural world is divine technology.
Now if we knew all of the data in the Universe, and could comprehend it, then C.S. Lewis’ comment that “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature” would prove true. But since, our science is currently limited – and we don’t know all of that info - a miracle is presently understood as the dictionary definition of inexplicable divine agency. So how you view a miracle actually depends on the vantage point from which you choose to view the question. And, depending on your perspective, both definitions can technically be right.
Reality Changing Observations:
Q1. Can you think of common examples of two positions both being right?
Q2. What do you think is the value of Observational Science?
Q3. When you don’t understand something what is your default response?