Recently I've been thinking a lot about miracles. We throw the term around quite a bit. When asking my husband to define miracle, he appropriately replied, "happy, happy things that happen, especially at Christmas!" Precisely, I thought. This exactly summarizes what we would like miracles to be. Two summers ago, Colorado was bursting at the seams with the miraculous: "It's a miracle that the Colorado Rockies made it to the World Series!" Also miraculous, our ability to come up with such a catchy term marking the month of their success on such a short amount of time, "Rocktober." Although the Rockies' success was yes, far-fetched and incredibly unlikely, miracle is still a bit too hyperbolic to use in this instance. Wikipedia (well reputed source on miracles) tells us that a miracle "is a sensibly perceptible interruption of the laws of nature, such that can only be explained by divine intervention, and is sometimes associated with a miracle-worker" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle). While some continue to attribute the Rockies' success to divine intervention, it in no way contradicted the laws of nature. The idea I'd like to focus on here, what really distinguishes a miracle from other merely amazing moments, revolves around our ever changing understanding of the "laws of nature."
Put everything that has ever happened into a line of observation. Of this line, the spectrum which we perceive is extremely limited, due to our presence in time and space, as well as our historical and cultural biases. One might categorize these events with the distinguishing mark of explain-ability. Events either fall under the laws of nature as we know them or do not (yet.) Whether or not we attribute these supernatural moments to divine intervention or merely chaos, random or "unknown," we recognize a distinction between them. We also observe that over time, and with the increase of our technology and understanding, the spectrum of scientifically explicable events has begun to overtake some events formerly chaotic or inexplicable. We are gaining ground on the inexplicable. Some of the projects my brother-in-law works on at the University of Washington physics' department lead me to wonder if eventually all things inexplicable, random, and/or chaotic will become natural and explainable. He theorizes about what we, the general populace, deem impossibilities. These things cannot be! But they are... and are becoming more and more common all the time. Perhaps, in time and with more knowledge, the supernatural will be explainable natural phenomenon. At any rate, the laws of nature seem to increasingly encompass more of our surrounding world. Even in a brief fifty years, science has swept further down the spectrum of chaos; and miracles, by definition, have either become more difficult to find or obsolete.
Historically, miracles have served to reinforce the existence of the divine, the supernatural. The God of the Israelites lead his people out of Egypt with ten plagues very much at odds with the natural order. Jesus the Christ went from town to town, healing people, performing miracles, in essence, proving his divinity by his ability to interrupt and control the known laws of nature. Miracles, as we observe them in the Holy Scriptures, provide an essential element by which we have understood and characterized faith. Miracle and God have been easily spoken in the same breath.
Dostoevsky gives us keen insight into men and miracles in his Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor (narrating,) attempts to admonish Jesus for his exaltation of a free faith, a faith not bound by expectations, security, or serenity. He desires to show the mass' need of miracle when contemplating the divine:
"But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft, though he might be a hundred times over a rebel, heretic and infidel. Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, 'Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.' Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle" (The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, Garnett, The Grand Inquisitor).
Historically, as we see in Dostovesky's time as well as other periods in history, people have searched for miracle, have demanded miracle to showcase the divine.
I remember a debate I attended in college about God's existence. Although it began well, it ended very personally, rather than conclusively. The debater arguing against the existence of a god surmised that he would never believe in God's existence until God spelled his name in the stars. As this is a common argument, it goes to show what seems to be a characteristic of a certain paradigm of thinking. As in Dostoevsky's day, as well as my university campus, people want miracles to prove God's existence, not just general miracles, but specific and personal. Recently, however, I feel that this paradigm has begun to shift.
In the last few years, people have replaced their desire for or need of miracles, with desire for and need of explanation. Rather than desiring more of the inexplicable, more miracle, an increasing majority are starting to demand explanation for those things random and chaotic. Science is the new and improved miracle. And science fills a void of faith. People can now assume a physical, natural explanation for every phenomena, rather than searching for a supernatural answer to fill the void of unknown. Our demand for personalized miracles, (God, show yourself!) seems to have shifted to a thirst for natural explanation (Tell me how it happens.) I dare not take on God's case for existence in the midst of this shift, but merely to show that, yes, this seems to be the proverbial word on the street these days. People want scientific explanation, not the mysticism of years past. To what can we attribute this increasingly popular paradigm transition?
Intellectualism has taken a more prominent role in our thinking, due primarily to the educational system constantly fluxing to keep up with the philosophies of the time. It almost feels like a revival of the type of thinking prevalent during the Enlightenment of (loosely) 1650-1800. Reason rules the roost! Science and the many advances made in practical explanations, as well as the increasing accessibility to this type of thinking, have made science our first response in moments of uncertainty. "There must be an explanation!" This is the mantra of the generation nurtured on the internet, fed by schools separated from theological thinking, Myth Buster fanatics, and entrepreneurs of modern marvels. A far cry from the mystics of old, even the mystics of just a few years ago, miracle has taken on a softer, more emotional tone in the classroom: "It's a miracle I passed that exam!"
Also, we begin to see the ramifications of our postmodern culture in our thinking and categorization of the miraculous. As early as the 1930's, subjective reasoning began to usurp objective thought.
"Largely influenced by the Western European 'disillusionment' induced by World War II, postmodernism tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality, in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmoderism.)
The scientific model emergent throughout the Enlightenment provided a framework for thinking and organizing philosophical and artistic ideas, as well as those scientific and mathematic. Postmodernism brought with it a distrust of this strategy. Although the scientific characterization of miracles has not changed through this postmodern deconstructionism, our appreciation of, even our language describing the miraculous, as perceived in literature and art, has. What may be miraculous to one, fails to amaze another. The subjective experience of "miracle" displaced the objective categorization. Miracles are left under the scrutiny of the individual, thus relative to the observer.
Science has remained, but how we philosophize about science has changed. Our language of the scientific, in vernacular circles, still struggles through its own deconstruction. Ironically, though, we cling more heartily than ever to this source of tangible explanations, however varied communicating these explanations may be. Miracle cannot satisfy us. Unknown for the sake of unknown, no longer pacifies, amazes, even allures us. Give us clarity! Give us reason! This new mantra shows us that inadvertently gazing up to see our names spelled in the stars above us would not push us toward faith, but toward demand of a scientific explanation. Miracle, at least for the time being, is nothing more than a potential space for rationale, leaving mystics like me very much in the cold. Yet, let today's generation relish in their new and improved miracle. My fellow mystics and I have other generations to which to cling. Our paradigm will come again.
"My goodness, what are they teaching children in schools these days? It's all in Plato, I tell you." - Professor Kirke.