An Embarrassment of Miracles

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created an abridged version of the New Testament, literally with a razor and glue, which he titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth."  In essence, he stripped the New Testament of supernatural events and reduced it to a moral philosophy.

Ever since the Enlightenment, miracles have become more and more of a burden to the lukewarm Christian – something that embarrasses him in front of his more secular friends.  This reflects a complete misunderstanding of who we are – and who God is.

To be a Christian worthy of the name, surely one must accept the Bible at face value at least as far as its very first verse, Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Here, in the plainest possible language, we have a bold assertion – that God didn't just happen upon the universe already formed by parties unknown or by some dead process of nature, but actually created it.  That is a miracle.  Beyond the creation itself, any further miracles must pale by comparison.  It makes no sense to believe that God could bring the universe into being but could not have had the power to save Jonah from the heart of the sea by the means of a great fish, nor have had the power to raise the dead.  If one is going to deny the existence of relatively minor miracles on the grounds that they are odd and inexplicable, one should have the rational consistency to deny the greatest, most astounding miracle at all.

Let's consider Jonah's fishy miracle in a bit more detail.  It makes an enlightening example.  Suppose that a modern, technologically capable group of people wanted, for whatever reason, to keep a human being alive inside a whale or a large shark for three days.  Would it be possible?  Although we have never done such a thing to my knowledge, it is by no means unimaginable.  We know what the physiological requirements of human beings are and can make a reasonable guess at whether or not a particular aquatic animal might tolerate an enclosed life support system large enough to accomplish the task.  Surely we could make a capsule that would keep a man alive for 72 hours and yet be sufficiently small to fit within the body of a whale or even the largest of the sharks.  But people scoff at the Jonah story as so much nonsense.  Why?

People have absorbed the popular notion that everything around us has a humanly knowable scientific explanation, so they become uncomfortable with the idea that God hasn't limited His means to those processes that we ourselves can understand.  We think we know most of what there is to know about whales and large sharks, so we pride ourselves on understanding that an ordinary animal, upon swallowing a man, would immediately start to digest him.  In biblical references involving things we know, we tend to expect God to play by the rules we observe in nature.  However, when it comes to grander miracles like the creation itself, that science either can't explain at all or can explain only poorly, we are more likely to accept the divine explanation.

Miracles are, by definition, supernatural.  This to say that they are "beyond nature" – or, in a word, "unknowable."  However, they are unknowable only to us.  From God's perspective, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural cannot exist, the whole of the universe being not only knowable to Him, but fully and completely known.  As I said earlier, to reject miracles out of hand is to understand neither who we are nor who God is.

The rejection of miracles is widespread among people who still consider themselves Christians.  I recall watching a popular documentary purporting to explain the twelve plagues of Egypt in entirely natural terms.  There is a whole series of programs of this sort.  Real Christians should beware.  Such explanations are not benign attempts to reveal God's means, but instead attempts to render God unnecessary.  Our faith isn't compatible with believing that the Bible's human authors were merely remarkable predictors or chroniclers of unplanned natural phenomena.  Rather, the Christian knows from the inside out that the universe around us is itself miraculous – the physical expression of the mind of God.

I do not want to be seen as advocating an absolute and rigid fundamentalism.  To say something is possible is not the same as saying it is known.  Something can be true in a meaningful sense without being a historical narrative.  Christ's parables are true, but plainly, they are not the record of historical events.  The prodigal son was a metaphor, not a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Likewise, we do not know with absolute certainty whether Christ was speaking metaphorically or not when he referred to the Book of Jonah in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Nor do we know with absolute certainty whether or not the Book of Jonah was itself an extended metaphor.  To assume that it was a metaphor is to grant ourselves knowledge we do not actually have.  To assume that it was not a metaphor is, however, just as arrogant.  The safest course is not to make assumptions of either kind.

Neither the higher critical method nor our own lamentable vanity qualifies us to parse through Holy Scripture with Thomas Jefferson's razor – nor to impart to it a childish factuality that undermines God's message.  The point of Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare is rather lost if you fixate on the novelty of tortoises and hares organizing interspecies sporting events.  While much of the Bible is undoubtedly historically accurate, it is not the primary purpose of the Bible to chronicle the literal history of the ancient world.  Whether or not Jonah lived three days and nights inside the belly of a whale is not, I believe, the heart of the lesson God intended to give us.  That Jonah's attempts to avoid God's call were futile is a more important matter than the problem of the story's historicity.  That God is sovereign over everything, using us as he chooses, appears to be the point.  However, the literal interpretation of the Jonah story would not have been beyond God's means.  Let no one scoff.

We human beings don't like acknowledging our own limitations.  Aristotle said: "All men by nature desire knowledge."  While I've met a few who seemed content to wallow in their own ignorance, I don't think Aristotle was completely off the mark.  We are prideful creatures, after all.  We would like to think we can chose our own destinies and bend the world according to our explanations.  In fact, we can do neither.  Like Jonah, we are shepherded by forces greater than ourselves.  We reject the idea of miracles not because we are wise, but because we would like the world to be comfortably predictable.  The unexpected and unknowable frighten us – and we rebel.

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created an abridged version of the New Testament, literally with a razor and glue, which he titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth."  In essence, he stripped the New Testament of supernatural events and reduced it to a moral philosophy.

Ever since the Enlightenment, miracles have become more and more of a burden to the lukewarm Christian – something that embarrasses him in front of his more secular friends.  This reflects a complete misunderstanding of who we are – and who God is.

To be a Christian worthy of the name, surely one must accept the Bible at face value at least as far as its very first verse, Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Here, in the plainest possible language, we have a bold assertion – that God didn't just happen upon the universe already formed by parties unknown or by some dead process of nature, but actually created it.  That is a miracle.  Beyond the creation itself, any further miracles must pale by comparison.  It makes no sense to believe that God could bring the universe into being but could not have had the power to save Jonah from the heart of the sea by the means of a great fish, nor have had the power to raise the dead.  If one is going to deny the existence of relatively minor miracles on the grounds that they are odd and inexplicable, one should have the rational consistency to deny the greatest, most astounding miracle at all.

Let's consider Jonah's fishy miracle in a bit more detail.  It makes an enlightening example.  Suppose that a modern, technologically capable group of people wanted, for whatever reason, to keep a human being alive inside a whale or a large shark for three days.  Would it be possible?  Although we have never done such a thing to my knowledge, it is by no means unimaginable.  We know what the physiological requirements of human beings are and can make a reasonable guess at whether or not a particular aquatic animal might tolerate an enclosed life support system large enough to accomplish the task.  Surely we could make a capsule that would keep a man alive for 72 hours and yet be sufficiently small to fit within the body of a whale or even the largest of the sharks.  But people scoff at the Jonah story as so much nonsense.  Why?

People have absorbed the popular notion that everything around us has a humanly knowable scientific explanation, so they become uncomfortable with the idea that God hasn't limited His means to those processes that we ourselves can understand.  We think we know most of what there is to know about whales and large sharks, so we pride ourselves on understanding that an ordinary animal, upon swallowing a man, would immediately start to digest him.  In biblical references involving things we know, we tend to expect God to play by the rules we observe in nature.  However, when it comes to grander miracles like the creation itself, that science either can't explain at all or can explain only poorly, we are more likely to accept the divine explanation.

Miracles are, by definition, supernatural.  This to say that they are "beyond nature" – or, in a word, "unknowable."  However, they are unknowable only to us.  From God's perspective, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural cannot exist, the whole of the universe being not only knowable to Him, but fully and completely known.  As I said earlier, to reject miracles out of hand is to understand neither who we are nor who God is.

The rejection of miracles is widespread among people who still consider themselves Christians.  I recall watching a popular documentary purporting to explain the twelve plagues of Egypt in entirely natural terms.  There is a whole series of programs of this sort.  Real Christians should beware.  Such explanations are not benign attempts to reveal God's means, but instead attempts to render God unnecessary.  Our faith isn't compatible with believing that the Bible's human authors were merely remarkable predictors or chroniclers of unplanned natural phenomena.  Rather, the Christian knows from the inside out that the universe around us is itself miraculous – the physical expression of the mind of God.

I do not want to be seen as advocating an absolute and rigid fundamentalism.  To say something is possible is not the same as saying it is known.  Something can be true in a meaningful sense without being a historical narrative.  Christ's parables are true, but plainly, they are not the record of historical events.  The prodigal son was a metaphor, not a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Likewise, we do not know with absolute certainty whether Christ was speaking metaphorically or not when he referred to the Book of Jonah in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Nor do we know with absolute certainty whether or not the Book of Jonah was itself an extended metaphor.  To assume that it was a metaphor is to grant ourselves knowledge we do not actually have.  To assume that it was not a metaphor is, however, just as arrogant.  The safest course is not to make assumptions of either kind.

Neither the higher critical method nor our own lamentable vanity qualifies us to parse through Holy Scripture with Thomas Jefferson's razor – nor to impart to it a childish factuality that undermines God's message.  The point of Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare is rather lost if you fixate on the novelty of tortoises and hares organizing interspecies sporting events.  While much of the Bible is undoubtedly historically accurate, it is not the primary purpose of the Bible to chronicle the literal history of the ancient world.  Whether or not Jonah lived three days and nights inside the belly of a whale is not, I believe, the heart of the lesson God intended to give us.  That Jonah's attempts to avoid God's call were futile is a more important matter than the problem of the story's historicity.  That God is sovereign over everything, using us as he chooses, appears to be the point.  However, the literal interpretation of the Jonah story would not have been beyond God's means.  Let no one scoff.

We human beings don't like acknowledging our own limitations.  Aristotle said: "All men by nature desire knowledge."  While I've met a few who seemed content to wallow in their own ignorance, I don't think Aristotle was completely off the mark.  We are prideful creatures, after all.  We would like to think we can chose our own destinies and bend the world according to our explanations.  In fact, we can do neither.  Like Jonah, we are shepherded by forces greater than ourselves.  We reject the idea of miracles not because we are wise, but because we would like the world to be comfortably predictable.  The unexpected and unknowable frighten us – and we rebel.