Saturday, February 2, 2008

Miracles and history

Brian Holtz makes this point:

Why such ambiguous and picayune miracles? Why not raise a new mountain in the desert, or install a new star in the heavens?

One of the typical assumptions of atheism is that the nature of "miracle" is clear and easily stated, and that it is easy to propose indubitable miracles. I wonder if getting a grip on miracles is so easy.

Let's consider Holtz's request (demand?) that God raise a new mountain in the desert. Suppose God were to perform such a feat. As soon as the mountain is raised, it becomes just another feature of the landscape and its origin a matter of history. That is, how the mountain got there is a matter of the reconstruction of the past from present facts. A point that Kierkegaard hammers home is that the category of history is probability. There is no reconstruction of the past that is absolutely certain, only reconstructions that are more or less probable. Therefore as soon as a miracle becomes history - i.e. as soon as it is over - Humean arguments against its occurrence immediately become available. It is always possible to ask: Is it more likely that an honest-to-God miracle occurred, or that some natural explanation is behind it? Maybe the raising of the mountain was a freak natural occurrence. Maybe the mountain was there all the time and we simply couldn't see it because of some bizarre natural circumstance. The longer time goes on, and the more the miracle recedes into the past, the easier it becomes to argue that the mountain was really there all the time, and its absence a mere concoction of Christian apologists.

The Old Testament records the story of the voice of God speaking to Moses from a bush that burned yet was not consumed. An impressive physical miracle. Yet who is to say what really happened once the burning ceased? Presumably, once the burning ceased, the bush looked like any other bush untouched by flames. At that point, it is easy to suppose that Moses imagined the whole thing. And once Holtz's mountain is raised it will look like any other mountain. Who is to say how it originally got there? And even if we admit that its origin was sudden and spectacular, how can we claim with certainty that God was the cause? Maybe intelligent aliens with far superior technology are playing tricks on us. Not probable, for sure, but less probable than the occurrence of an authentic miracle?

The only way for a miracle to overcome the necessarily uncertain and probabilistic nature of history is for it be, in some manner, an eternal miracle; a miracle that does merely happen at a brief moment in time but that happens continually across time; a miracle that is ever-present. What would such a miracle look like?

One such miracle would be the ongoing life of something that should, by all reasonable expectation, have already died many times. I have pointed to the Jews, an ancient Middle Eastern tribe that still worships the same God it did three thousand years ago, as one such miracle. The Roman Catholic Church is another living miracle, a Roman Empire-era institution that continues to survive and proclaim the same message it did two thousand years ago. The Church is sometimes criticized for not being "relevant", but it has proven itself relevant in a far deeper sense than the many secular institutions that have come and gone in its long history. It is not merely relevant at some point in time, according to passing taste, but in a way that transcends time. This is not just apologist rhetoric but a matter of historical fact.

The miracles of the Jews and the Church are easy to overlook because they are mundane. We see Jews and Catholics every day; we assume that what we see every day has an every day explanation. We therefore filter out the mundane in our perception of miracles. But our thirst for the bizarre reflects our prejudices concerning the nature of miracles, not a reasonable theory about what they must look like. I suppose if we saw every day people walking around wearing ancient Egyptian headdress, worshiping Isis, and building pyramids and sphinxes, we would not find it remarkable. We might not pause to wonder how amazing it is that a three thousand year old civilization and its cult have persisted to this day. But someone who was not jaded by Egyptians would be startled by them; he would demand an answer to the question of just what these people are still doing here... What is the secret to their survival?

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