Definitions

lawlike

Miracle

[mir-uh-kuhl]
A miracle is an event believed to be caused by interposition of divine intervention by a supernatural being in the universe by which the ordinary operation of Nature is overruled, suspended, or modified. The term is derived from Latin word miraculum meaning "something wonderful".

Many folktales, religious texts, and people claim various events they refer to as "miraculous". There are no scientifically confirmed occurrences of miracles. Miracles are not subject to controlled experimentation and the mechanism of occurrence not recognized by the scientific community. One aspect of some miracles which makes them almost impossible to verify is the fact that they are often manifested only to small groups of individuals, and sometimes centuries ago.

People in different cultures have substantially different definitions of the word "miracle". Even within a specific religion there is often more than one of the term.

Sometimes the term "miracle" may refer to the action of a supernatural being that is not a god. Thus, the term "divine intervention", by contrast, would refer specifically to the direct involvement of a deity.

In casual usage, "miracle" may also refer to any statistically unlikely but beneficial event, (such as the survival of a natural disaster) or even which regarded as "wonderful" regardless of its likelihood, such as birth. Other miracles might be: survival of a fatal illness, escaping a life threatening situation or 'beating the odds'.

Miracles as supernatural acts

In this view, a miracle is a violation of normal laws of nature by some supernatural entity. Some scientist-theologians like Polkinghorne suggest that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature but "exploration of a new regime of physical experience".

The logic behind an event being deemed a miracle varies significantly. Often a religious text, such as the Bible or Quran, states that a miracle occurred, and believers accept this as a fact. However, C.S. Lewis noted that one cannot believe a miracle occurred if one had already drawn a conclusion in one's mind that miracles are not possible at all. He cites the example of a woman he knew who had seen a ghost, who had discounted her experience; claiming it to be some sort of hallucination (because she did not believe in ghosts).

Many conservative religious believers hold that in the absence of a plausible, parsimonious scientific theory, the best explanation for these events is that they were performed by a supernatural being, and cite this as evidence for the existence of a god or gods. However, Richard Dawkins criticises this kind of thinking as a subversion of Occam's Razor. Some adherents of monotheistic religions assert that miracles, if established, are evidence for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god.

Miracles in religious texts

In the Hebrew Bible

The descriptions of most miracles (in Hebrew - Neis, נס''') in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are often the same as the common definition of the word: God intervenes in the laws of nature.

A literal reading of the Tanakh shows a number of ways miracles are said to occur: God may suspend or speed up the laws of nature to produce a supernatural occurrence; God can create matter out of nothing; God can breathe life into inanimate matter. The Tanakh does not explain details of how these miracles happen.

The Tanakh attributes many natural occurrences to God, such as the sun rising and setting, and rain falling.

Today many Orthodox Jews, most Christians, and most Muslims adhere to this view of miracles. For example, Christians say that when the Virgin Mary became pregnant, it was something her fiance Joseph understood to be remarkably unusual, because Joseph knew that it was impossible for a woman to become pregnant without having sex with a man. The Christians say that Joseph would have cancelled his wedding if an angel had not informed him about the miracle that had happened to Mary. This view is generally rejected by non-Orthodox Jews, liberal Christians and Unitarian-Universalists. Biblical stories are interpreted by some as allegory or using figures of speech: In this view the "miracle" in the story may not have been intended to be taken literally. For example, they say that the pregnancy of Mary was probably a reference to something like her "being pregnant with happiness" because of the upcoming wedding.

Many events commonly understood to be miraculous may not actually be instances of the impossible,as commonly believed. For instance, consider the parting of the Sea of Reeds (in Hebrew Yâm-Sûph; often mistranslated as the "Red Sea"). This incident occurred when Moses and the Israelites fled from bondage in Egypt, to begin their exodus to the promised land. The book of Exodus does not state that the Reed Sea split in a dramatic fashion. Rather, according to the text God caused a strong wind to slowly drive the shallow waters to land, overnight. There is no claim that God pushed apart the sea as shown in many films; rather, the miracle would be that Israel crossed this precise place, at exactly the right time, when Moses lifted his staff, and that the pursuing Egyptian army then drowned when the wind stopped and the piled waters rushed back in. Though this view is highly contended by more fundamental Christians who find it hard to believe that a "shallow" sea could drown an Egyptian Army with horses and chariots, contesting that it was a mighty miracle and an act of God on both sides of the crossing.

Most events later described as miracles are not labeled as such by the Bible; rather the text simply describes what happened. Often these narratives will attribute the cause of these events to God.

In the New Testament

The descriptions of most miracles in the Christian New Testament are often the same as the commonplace definition of the word: God intervenes in the laws of nature. In St John's Gospel the miracles are referred to as "signs" and the emphasis is on God demonstrating his underlying normal activity in remarkable ways.

Jesus is recorded as having turned water into wine; creating matter out of nothing, and thus turning a loaf of bread into many loaves of bread; and raising the dead. Jesus is also described as rising from the dead himself, God his father having raised him. Jesus explains in the New Testament that miracles are performed by faith in God. "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “move from here to there” and it will move." (Gospel of Matthew 17:20). After Jesus returned to heaven, the book of Acts records the disciples of Jesus praying to God to grant that miracles be done in his name, for the purpose of convincing onlookers that he is alive. (Acts 4:29-31). Other passages mention performing miracles as an identifying feature of a False prophet(Matthew 24:24, 2 Thes 2:9, Revelation 13:13)

In the Qur'an

Miracle in the Qur'an can be defined as a supernatural intervention in the life of human beings. According to this definition, Miracles are present "in a threefold sense: in sacred history, in connection with Muhammad himself and in relation to revelation." The Qur'an does not use the technical Arabic word for miracle (Muʿd̲j̲iza) literally meaning "that by means of which [the Prophet] confounds, overwhelms, his opponents". It rather uses the term 'Ayah'(literally meaning sign). The term Ayah is used in the Qur'an in the above mentioned threefold sense: it refers to the "verses" of the Qur'an (believed to be the divine speech in human language; presented by Muhammad as his chief Miracle); as well as to miracles of it and the signs(particularly those of creation).

In order to defend the possibility of miracles and God's omnipotence against the encroachment of the independent secondary causes, medieval Muslim theologians rejected the idea of cause and effect in essence, but accepted it as something that facilitates humankind's investigation and comprehension of natural processes. They argued that the nature was composed of uniform atoms that were "re-created" at every instant by God. Thus if the soil was to fall, God would have to create and re-create the accident of heaviness for as long as the soil was to fall. For Muslim theologians, the laws of nature were only the customary sequence of apparent causes: customs of God.

Miracles as events pre-planned by God

In rabbinic Judaism, many rabbis mentioned in the Talmud held that the laws of nature were inviolable. The idea of miracles that contravened the laws of nature were hard to accept; however, at the same time they affirmed the truth of the accounts in the Tanakh. Therefore some explained that miracles were in fact natural events that had been set up by God at the beginning of time.

In this view, when the walls of Jericho fell, it was not because God directly brought them down. Rather, God planned that there would be an earthquake at that place and time, so that the city would fall to the Israelites. Instances where rabbinic writings say that God made miracles a part of creation include Midrash Genesis Rabbah 5:45; Midrash Exodus Rabbah 21:6; and Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 5:6.

Philosophers' views of miracles

Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian views of miracles

Aristotle rejected the idea that God could or would intervene in the order of the natural world. Jewish neo-Aristotelian philosophers, who are still influential today, include Maimonides, Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, and Gersonides. Directly or indirectly, their views are still prevalent in much of the religious Jewish community.

Baruch Spinoza's view of miracles

In his Theologico-Political Treatise Spinoza claims that miracles are merely lawlike events whose causes we are ignorant of. We should not treat them as having no cause or of having a cause immediately available. Rather the miracle is for combating the ignorance it entails, like a political project. See Epistemic theory of miracles.

David Hume's views of miracles

According to the philosopher David Hume, a miracle is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.". See Of miracles.

Søren Kierkegaard's views of miracles

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, following Hume and Johann Georg Hamann, a Humean scholar, agrees with Hume's definition of a miracle as a trangression of a law of nature, but Kierkegaard, writing as his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, regulates any historical reports to be less than certain, including historical reports of such miracle transgressions, as all historical knowledge is always doubtful and open to approximation.

Nonliteral interpretations of the text

These views are held by both classical and modern thinkers.

In Numbers 22 is the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. Many hold that for miracles such as this, one must either assert the literal truth of this biblical story, or one must then reject the story as false. However, some Jewish commentators (e.g. Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides) hold that stories such as these were never meant to be taken literally in the first place. Rather, these stories should be understood as accounts of a prophetic experience, which are dreams or visions. (Of course, such dreams and visions could themselves be considered miracles.)

Joseph H. Hertz, a 20th century Jewish biblical commentator, writes that these verses "depict the continuance on the subconscious plane of the mental and moral conflict in Balaam's soul; and the dream apparition and the speaking donkey is but a further warning to Balaam against being misled through avarice to violate God's command."

As products of creative art and social acceptance

In this view, miracles do not really occur. Rather, they are the product of creative story tellers. They use them to embellish a hero or incident with a theological flavor. Using miracles in a story allows characters and situations to become bigger than life, and to stir the emotions of the listener more than the mundane and ordinary.

As misunderstood commonplace events

Littlewood's law states that individuals can expect miracles to happen to them, at the rate of about one per month. By its definition, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace. In other words, miracles do not exist, but are rather examples of low probability events that are bound to happen by chance from time to time.

Claims of Miracles

C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and other Christian apologists have argued that miracles are reasonable and plausible. For example, C.S. Lewis says that a miracle is something that comes totally out of the blue. If for thousands of years a woman can become pregnant only by sexual intercourse with a man, then if she were to become pregnant without a man, it would be a miracle.

Religious groups

Catholic Church claims

The Catholic Church recognizes miracles as being works of God, either directly or through the prayers and intercession of a specific Saint or Saints. There is usually a specific purpose connected to a miracle, i.e. the conversion of a person or persons to the Catholic faith or the construction of a church desired by God. The Church tries to be very cautious to approve the validity of putative miracles. It requires a certain number of miracles to occur before granting sainthood, with particularly stringent requirements in validating the miracle's authenticity. The process is overseen by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Catholic Church claims to have confirmed the validity of a number of miracles, some of them occurring in modern times and having withstood the test of modern scientific scrutiny. Among the more notable miracles approved by the Church are several Eucharistic miracles wherein the Sacred Host is transformed visibly into Christ's living Flesh and Blood, bleeds, hovers in the air, flies around, radiates light, and/or displays the image of Christ. The first example of the Host being visibly changed into human flesh and blood occurred at Lanciano, Italy around 700 A.D. Unlike some miracles of a more transient nature, the Flesh and Blood remain in Lanciano to this day, having been scientifically examined as recently as 1971.

Another miracle claimed valid by the Church is the Miracle of the Sun, which occurred near Fátima, Portugal on October 13, 1917. Anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 people, who were gathered at a cove near Fátima, witnessed the sun dim, change colors, spin, dance about in the sky, and appear to plummet to earth, radiating great heat in the process. After the ten-minute event, the ground and the people's clothing, which had been drenched by a previous rainstorm, were both dry. There are numerous first-hand reports of the details from both religious and secular sources.

In addition to these, the Catholic Church attributes miraculous causes to many otherwise inexplicable phenomena on a case-by-case basis. Only after all other possible explanations have proven inadequate may the Church assume Divine intervention and declare the miracle worthy of veneration by the faithful (the Church does not, however, enjoin belief in any extra-Scriptural miracle as an article of faith or as necessary to salvation).

Protestant Claims

There have been numerous claims of miracles in Christendom. Mainline protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians accept spiritual gifts, including healing and the working of miracles. Some of the types of miracles that are claimed to occur in modern times are healings, casting out demons, multiplying food, etc.

Hindu claims

The Hindu milk miracle was a phenomenon considered by many Hindus as a miracle which occurred on September 21, 1995.

Individuals

Buddha

Buddha is said to have performed miracles such as walking on water. (see Miracles of Gautama Buddha)

Muhammad

Vespasian

The emperor Vespasian was credited with having performed several miracles. According to stories recorded by the Greek historians Dio Cassius and Tacitus, Vespasian worked several healing miracles, while visiting the shrine of Sarapis in Egypt. Among these miracles, Vespasian is credited with healing a blind man and restoring another man's crippled hand (Tacitus Histories 4.81).

Apollonius of Tyana

According to his later biographer, Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana possessed extraordinary gifts, including innate knowledge of all languages, the ability to foretell the future, and the ability to see across great distances. Apollonius's possession of divine wisdom also endowed him with the ability to heal the sick and demon-possessed, and Philostratus narrates the miraculous quality of a number of these cures and exorcisms.

Miracles in Other Religions

Followers of the Indian gurus Sathya Sai Baba and Swami Premananda claim that they routinely perform miracles. The dominant view among skeptics is that these are predominantly sleight of hand or elaborate magic tricks.

Some modern religious groups claim ongoing occurrence of miraculous events. While some miracles have been proven to be fraudulent (see Peter Popoff for an example) others (such as the Paschal Fire in Jerusalem) have not proven susceptible to analysis. Some groups are far more cautious about proclaiming apparent miracles genuine than others, although official sanction, or the lack thereof, rarely has much effect on popular belief.

See also

Notes and references

  • Colin Brown. Miracles and the Critical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984. (Good survey).
  • Colin J. Humphreys, Miracles of Exodus. Harper, San Francisco, 2003.
  • Krista Bontrager, It’s a Miracle! Or, is it?
  • Eisen, Robert (1995). Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People. State University of New York Press.
  • Goodman, Lenn E. (1985). Rambam: Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides. Gee Bee Tee.
  • Kellner, Menachem (1986). Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought. Oxford University Press.
  • C. S. Lewis. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York, Macmillan Co., 1947.
  • C. F. D. Moule (ed.). Miracles: Cambridge Studies in their Philosophy and History. London, A.R. Mowbray 1966, ©1965 (Good survey of Biblical miracles as well).
  • Graham Twelftree. Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study. IVP, 1999. (Best in its field).
  • Woodward, Kenneth L. (2000). The Book of Miracles. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-82393-4.
  • M. Kamp, MD. Bruno Gröning. The miracles continue to happen. 1998, (Chapters 1 - 4)

Bibliography

  • Houdini, Harry Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Expose Prometheus Books; Reprint edition (March 1993) originally published in 1920 ISBN 0-87975-817-1.
  • Andrew Dickson White (1896 first edition. A classic work constantly reprinted) A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, See chapter 13, part 2, Growth of Legends of Healing: the life of Saint Francis Xavier as a typical example.

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