This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him. - John 2:11
Perhaps no parts of Scripture evoke such a wide range of reactions as the accounts of miracles. To the literalist, they are absolutely true and absoluttely essential. To believe in them is one of the clear and necessary marks of faith; to doubt them is a disastrous step toward perdition. To the materialist, they are equally clear evidences that the Bible cannot be taken seriously. Water simply does not turn into wine. The laws of chemistry do not permit it.
In between these extremes, there are countless shadings of belief and doubt. Sometimes there is an effort to find a natural explanation--and sometimes the Bible itself cooperates in this effort. At the crossing of the Red Sea, we are told in one breath that the waters stood up like walls on either side when Moses stretched out his rod, and in another breath we are told that the Lord sent a strong east wind through the whole night and dried up the sea. We may be able to combine these two descriptions into one, but it is still clear that one sounds much more ¡°miraculous¡± than the other.
In fact, there is no way of gathering evidence to prove, by contemporary standard of proof, exactly what happened. What we decide to believe will say more about us than it says about history. Particularly, it will say a good deal about our own ideas of God. Do we believe in a God who breaks the rules? Do we believe in a God who bends the rules? Do we believe in a God who knows some rules that we have never discovered? Do we believe in a God who always follows the rules as we understand them?
In other words, disbelief in miracles cannot legitimately be taken as proof of belief in God. It may simply be an indication of disbelief in a paraticular kind of God, of disbelief that God would act in these specific ways.
But that is by no means the end of the story. If we take our theology at all seriously, we need to recognize that what we believe is given its quality by why we believe it and by what we do with it. If we are skeptical about miracles because we think we know all the rules perfectly, then we are in trouble. We have in fact decided to rule out in advance anything that our own minds cannot comprehend. I am reminded of an engineer who had a terrible time believing that one of his acquaintances had actually succeeded in walking on hot coals. This engineer knew that if you subjected human flesh to that kind of temperature, this kind of damage would result. The point-blank assertion of someone whose honesty he trusted presented him with a dilemma of major proportions, and you could almost see his mind going back and forth between two impossibilities--of disbeliving the rules or of disbelieving his acquaintance.
I would suggest that it is a mistake to assume that our understanding is so complete that we can deny anything that contradicts it. We cannot afford to rule out whole categories of experience because they upset our notions, no matter how hard we have worked to come up with the best notions we can. Only when we accept the idea that our understanding of our world is limited do we start to be open to see what is going on around us.
There is a striking instance of this which I have read about but have not been able to verify. Even if it is only a parable, though, it still makes its point. The account reads as follows:
. . . when Magellan¡¯s big-winged ship appeared off Tierra del Fuego, the islanders could not see it at all, even with the sailors ashore and walking among them. They couldn¡¯t see it because it was impossible: such a thing did not exist. In their sight the horizon appeared unbroken. It took their shaman to persuade them that the strangers had actually arrived in something which could be seen. His mind did not reject what his eyes registered and transmitted to the brain.
This is an extreme example, but it is an example of what happens to us more often than we might like to admit. We see what we expect to see, and it can take a real effort for us to break out of our preconceptions. We have decided that this person does not like us, and it may take an inordinate amount of evidence to prove to us that we have been wrong. Pastoral counselors and therapists of all kinds have stories about the things people can manage to deny, things every bit as obvious to everyone else as Magellan¡¯s big-winged ship.
What does this have to do with miracles? Well, our theology tells us that this visible, physical world is the world of effects, and that the invisible, spiritual world is the world of causes. When we try to understand what is happening in our visible world, we look for chains of cause and effect on our own level. If you put human flesh on hot coals, the heat causes at least blisters and probably much more severe damage. If you take care of yourself, watching your diet and getting an appropriate amount of exercise, you will be healthy.
However, once we begin to suspect that there are more rules than the ones we can see on our level, we begin to notice that there are exceptions. Some people do walk on hot coals without pain or harm. Some people who take excellent care of themselves do get sick, and some people who are careless in the regard enjoy splendid health.
Sometimes the ¡°unseen¡± cause seems fairly obvious--this person is constantly tense and driven, and this attitude of mind has physical effects. This person is generally relaxed and at peace with the world, and this attitude has physical effects. Still, these inner causes seem both subtler and less predictable than the visible ones. Usually, it takes a long time before their outward effects are clearly manifest.
In one sense, then, a miracle might be simply a making visible of what is going on all the time, a kind of speeding up of the process. We know that flowers open gradually, but we probably never see it happen. It takes too long. We do not have the time, or the patience, to watch the whole process from beginning to end, and even it we did, it would happen at a pace which our senses cannot register--to slow for us to see. But the camera can record images at a different pace and then play them back for us so that we can see the event for the first time.
Can this be at least one dimension of Biblical miracles? Perhaps the story of Naaman is telling us that a life of simple obedience will lead to healing. Usually it takes so long for the results to be clear that we exhaust our patience or lose the sense of connection. But by a kind of time-lapse narration, the Lord shows us what the connection is, how the spiritual acts into the physical.
Goethe came up with the statement that the soul is form, and makes the body, and there are ways in which biology has trouble avoiding this conclusion. When we look closely, we find that we are indefinable as purely physical beings. We are not some particular assemblage of atoms or molecules or even cells. There is matter constantly entering and leaving us. The pancreas replaces over ninety percent of its cells every twenty-four hours, and the lining of the stomach does the same every three days. Something in all this flux is holding us together, and that something does not seem to be physical. When that something leaves, in fact, our bodies stop renewing themselves and start to decay.
It does not seem all that difficult to believe that from time to time, this process that is going on at every moment should manifest itself in ways that we can see. The question would still remain, though, why this should happen at some times and not at others. Sometimes prayer seems to lead to healing, sometimes not. I recall a particularly difficult episode with an elderly woman who was dying of cancer. She was a Biblical literalist who believed that if she was a wholly faithful Christian, her prayers for healing would be answered, and yet they were not. Her dilemma was inescapable--either she was wrong about prayer, or she was not a wholly faithful Christian. neither of these alternatives was admissible.
Our theology is quite emphatic in its insistence that a faith based on miracles is radically insecure. This leads to the general principle that miracles may be precluded if we are looking to them for proof. If the woman in question could simply have said, ¡°Lord, I know you do not will pain or illness: help me see what I need to do in order to allow you to do your will more perfectly,¡± there would certainly have been far less spiritual pain, almost certainly less physical pain, and possibly even some measure of healing.
No, if miracles are basically disclosures of laws that are constantly operative, then we may look at them as pointers rather than as proofs. They can have the effect of focusing our attention on some particular aspect of the relationship between spirit and matter. Healing leprosy is not the same as changing water into wine, or as restoring sight to the blind, or as parting the waters of a sea. A miracle may be the Lord¡¯s way of telling us, ¡°Of all the spiritual-natural laws involved in your life, this is the one you need to be attending to right now.¡±
This makes miracles a kind of diagnostic resource. When your car engine is not behaving well, a good mechanic can track down the problem to some specific cause or set of causes. It is a matter of knowing how to read the signs. At the time of the miracle at Cana, the Lord was just beginning to try to shift the focus of people¡¯s hopes from an earthly to a heavenly kingdom, from military power to the strength of inner righteousness. This involved necessarily a shift from a literal understanding of the prophetic promises to a grasp of their spiritual content. So the moment we recognize that water corresponds to literal truth and wine to spiritual truth, we see the miracle as pointing precisely to the process the Lord was furthering. If we could see the whole situation from a spiritual vantage point, we might see the miracle not as astonishing but as inevitable, as we saw the change gathering strength on the spiritual level, and looking for a way to break forth, and like the disciples, find new belief.