Jesus turned water into wine; He cured the sick and raised the dead; and He fed the five thousand. Muhammad, peace be upon him, split the moon; he multiplied the waters; and he went on a night journey to Jerusalem then ascended into heaven. Hinduism and other world religions all have their own tales of miracles performed by prophets. We know our holy men and women by the miracles they perform.
And what, after all, is a miracle anyway? Are you observing a miracle when you experience a sense of awe standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon watching the spectacular display of nature as the sun comes up? Or when you sit in the delivery room holding the hand of a beloved as a baby is born and squeezes out its first cry?
I believe that it is too easy on the one hand to take miracles at face value without exploring what they really represent, and on the other to dismiss them by applying objective and scientific thinking. I believe that by really looking into miracles, by digging into what we really mean and understand from them, we can considerably help our quest for love, understanding and happiness. In this piece we will look into the idea of miracle and come up with some suggestions that you can use to apply to your pursuit of happiness.
What is a Miracle
Miracles are events that come from – or occur – beyond our normal realm of understanding
The primary definition of a miracle in the Oxford English Dictionary is, “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.”
Secondary and tertiary definitions in the same text are, “A remarkable event or development that brings very welcome consequences,” (as in, “it was a miracle that more people hadn’t been killed” and “industries at the heart of the economic miracle”); and “An exceptional product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something”, (as in, “a machine which was a miracle of design” or “a miracle drug”).
It is perhaps tempting to accept these lesser definitions of miracle, but to do so loses a distinction which, for our purposes, is important. It is the distinction that marks a boundary between that which causes awe and that which cannot be understood. Something can be magnificent, spectacular, and utterly breathtaking, but if we can see our way into understanding it within the laws of science, then in an important sense it does not have the same power as a miracle which comes from beyond those rules. For a miracle to serve as a spiritual guide, it must exist in the realm that we cannot ever really understand.
Exploring Natural and Scientific Laws
The tools of science and how they train us to approach the world in which we live
Science comes from a Latin root which means simply, “to know”. In this primitive sense science is akin to the craft of the London Cabbie who, as a prerequisite for receiving their license to operate, must demonstrate, “the Knowledge”: this “Knowledge” comes from an extensive course of study and equips the driver to navigate the streets of London during perfect conditions as well as during rush hour, during a Royal Wedding, and at times of road works and street closures.
In the Enlightenment Age of late Seventeenth Century Europe science took on a subtly new meaning, and this shift has continued into today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as, “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
In this modern sense, science is a vast and rapidly growing body of knowledge that draws from a disciplined and practical observation of the physical world. Implicit in this approach to knowledge is the desire to develop explanatory and predictive rules or laws – the “natural and scientific” laws mentioned in our definition of miracles – to fully explain how the world in which we live and everything we encounter within it behaves. The laws are explanatory in that they describe behavior observed in the natural world, and predictive in that once they have been written, scientists design experiments to test and validate them. Ultimately our body of scientific knowledge, enshrined in scientific laws, is constantly tested and retested through experimentation.
The Grand Pursuit of Science
…or (more properly) :the grand pursuit of trying to explain what we see”
In previous posts (for example Too Much Bad Science) I have challenged us to look closely at the way that science is practiced in the world today, but in no way does this criticize the core or the intent of science: rather the intent of these pieces is to direct us back to the core of science, ” the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Science would observe a sunrise over the grand canyon and seek to explain it in purely mechanistic terms of the refractive attributes of the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the rocks, and the curvature of the earth. It would see in the birth of a baby the unfolding of the encoded messages within the baby’s DNA, the biochemistry and physiology of the placenta and the mother, and the result of millions of years of evolution. Science would go further and explain our emotional response of awe to these occurrences in mechanistic terms of the optical cortex, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry.
It is here that our exploration of the nature of miracles and of faith takes an interesting turn. It is here that voices diverge and we are often incapable of hearing each other. Rationalists and scientists have, since shortly after the birth of modern science, been chasing after faith, on the one hand denying the existence of the divine and seeing It/Him as an emotional creation of mankind that is not required by and has no place in the modern world; and on the other reducing miracles to rational explanations which, in their extreme (ie where they can’t be explained with our current science) includes simply denying them as make-believe. In 1843 Karl Marx decried religion as the “opiate of the people” and more recently a particular anti-religious breed of scientist has been vocal in articulating their arguments against divine creation and other attributes of religion. Richard Dawkins has been at the vanguard, perhaps most famously with his 2006 publication of “The God Delusion”, whose international sales comfortably exceed 3 million copies.
Finding the Real Miracle
There is a realm not accessible to science in which miracles can and do happen every moment, if we but have eyes to see.
Reducing the world to mechanistic natural and scientific laws, behavioral rules that govern how particles, space, time, waves – how everything we imagine – behaves is important for practical purposes: it has given us the microwave, the space rocket and the telephone. But stopping there is not sufficient. In the first instance it is not sufficient, because (as I wrote last week), no matter how far we push back the laws of science, we still seem unable to see, let alone to reach the bottom of the well. But there is a deeper level of inadequacy. To reduce science to a set of laws in this manner is to miss the mystery and miracle that the universe behaves in this predictable, logical, mechanistic manner; it is to miss the miracle that you and I exist to observe the universe. And beyond even that, it is to miss the miracle that we can consciously experience any of this.
It is at this level that we find the real miracle. Where does this conscious experience – your experience, my experience – really come from? Even if science can explain the mechanic of something that appears to be in a different realm, would such an explanation ever really satisfy? In language that a modern mystic would recognize, consciousness may be a fantasy, a dream, an illusion, but oh! What a wonderful illusion it is! We might be able to explain in scientific terms how the sunset over the Pacific, how being present at a Broadway performance of Les Miserables, how hearing the unexpected voice of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent could reduce us to tears, but how would this scientific explanation relate to the wonder of the experience? Is it not the experience itself that is the miracle?
We may all have different views about the miraculous powers of saints, saviors and prophets, but we have in common the power of human experience, the possibility of experience every moment of our lives and looking at the mystery and miracle of our existence. It is in our ability to have this intimate, individual experience that the true miracle exists, the miracle that can really change our lives if we cultivate the habit of slowing down to look.
There is a subtle shift from the objective to the subjective, from explaining to seeing. In his novel, “The Subtle Knife”, Steven Pullman’s character could cut through the fabric of time and space not by looking directly at it, but by observing out of the corner of his eye. We can learn to do this too, and when we do, we can come into direct contact with the miracle of existence. Einstein suggested there are two ways of living, that of seeing nothing as a miracle and that of seeing everything as a miracle. The path to the latter is the path to joy, and it can be found by cultivating the sense of awareness of experience itself, by cultivating a mindfulness not of the details of what fingers and toes and tongues are doing, but a mindfulness that that they are doing anything, and that we are conscious of this fact.