'Miracles do not happen today': an enquiry from a reader, and a reply
by AfP


Miracles do not happen today. Do you agree? It would be interesting to read your views on this subject. We are looking at this as part of GCSE Religious Studies - Leanne.
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Dear Leanne, Thank you for your e-mail. Hopefully some of the following will be useful to you.
All religions seem to have traditions of incidents and events in the material world which breach the laws of nature as these are normally understood. Perhaps the most common type of incident is the physical healing of sick people. Religious believers interpret these happenings either as an intervention by God himself or as the use of spiritual power on the part of holy men and women.
The books of the Bible were written long before the rise of modern science and before the sceptical mentality that goes along with it. The authors of the Bible were by no means naïve about human relationships but they were far more apt than we are now to interpret events in the physical world as possible signs and communications from God, e.g. the dreams interpreted by Joseph (Gen: 40 and 41); the manna in the desert (Exod: 16.)
In re-telling the events of their past history, the people of the ancient world were often inclined to add legendary aspects to enhance significant aspects of the story – e.g. many bible scholars think that the plagues brought down on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea during the Hebrew people’s escape from Pharaoh were real events with a root of historical truth, but were exaggerated later to emphasise Moses’ importance as the divinely-guided liberator of the Jewish people, the origins of the Passover feast etc.
In the gospels, Jesus is described as performing different types of miracles: various healings, exorcisms, miraculous feedings, “nature” miracles like calming the storm on the lake. The gospel writers took for granted that Jesus was able to perform such miracles, and often did. Although it would be a mistake to read all the miracle stories as having taken place exactly as they are described by the authors, it is hardly possible to believe that all the recorded miracles in the gospels were invented later with the deliberate intention of deceiving people.
The real historical nature of Jesus' miracles is suggested by the fact that frequently the significance of the event isn’t the “wonder-working” element but the meaning which Jesus or the gospel writer gave to it. For instance in healing the man with the withered hand, the important thing is the challenge Jesus makes, by performing the miracle, to the Pharisees’ laws about observing the Sabbath, not his ability to perform healings (Mark 3:1-6). And when the Pharisees accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of the devil, they were questioning the source of his power of exorcism, not his ability, which they plainly acknowledged. (Luke 11:14-22).
Similarly, there is no reason to fundamentally doubt the possibility of miraculous happenings involving the first Christian communities (see for example Acts 3:1-7), or the stories of saints in Christian history who seemed to have had special abilities to heal people, to be present in two places at once (e.g. St. Pio), to levitate while praying (often while in a meditative trance), to read minds, predict the future or discern aspects of a person’s character without previous acquaintance (St. John Vianney) and so on. Of course there is doubtless an overlap here with what has become known as telepathic or psychic abilities, unrelated to devotion to God, and the other religions also record instances of individuals who possessed similar abilities.
A totally sceptical mentality will read all these stories and any accounts of miraculous happenings today as either deliberate lies or as incidents with a purely natural, “scientific” explanation which simply hasn’t been discovered yet, or which is somehow being overlooked.
But from a religious and especially a Christian viewpoint, we would see miraculous powers as connected in some way to the person’s faith in God, their disposition of obedience, devotion and love of God, often fostered through prayer and contemplation, which in rare instances produces abilities to transcend the ordinary rules of nature – to discern character, heal illnesses, alter physical reality in some way.
The best example is obviously Christ himself, and from a Christian standpoint, all instances of modern miracles or supposed miracles should be related back to Christ’s miracles or measured against them.
What is often emphasised in the gospels is the effortlessness of Jesus’ miracles: healings, exorcisms, the ability to walk on the surface of the lake or to multiply a small amount of food so as to feed a huge crowd, etc. Jesus did not use magic formulas or rituals in conducting his miracles: he assumed divine authority and simply spoke words of command. We must suppose therefore that his identity as the incarnate Word of God, his complete identification and close alliance with God, gave him a unique spiritual power over the physical or material environment.
If we believe that the material world is not the only one; that behind the physical world there is a spiritual realm, the realm of God, with which we make contact through faith, prayer, reflection on spiritual reality, the effort to eradicate selfish motives and cultivate a way of life based on self-sacrificing love, then it isn’t far-fetched to see Jesus, who uniquely embodied these divine qualities, as someone whose unique communion with God enabled him to exercise God’s power over the world he has made and keeps in being.
By the same token something similar is true in a lesser way of holy men and women throughout history, in all the religious traditions. Miraculous power drawn from God will always have a salvific or a redeeming aspect to it, meaning that it will always reveal some aspect of God’s healing, liberating power. It will always be directed by motives of love and care, and aim at bringing about healing and wholeness and liberation from slavery to sin. We can contrast this with the way that the use of occult powers - real or imagined - always has a selfish, manipulative motive, and always aims to diminish or corrupt others or cause them harm.
What about places associated with miraculous healings or instances where people have prayed for healing and then been suddenly cured in a way that mystifies their doctors?
Again, sceptics will not be convinced that these examples are anything other than cases of auto-suggestion, “mind over matter” or even some kind of spontaneous remission by which the person’s body manages to repair itself with its own resources.
Such phrases do not explain how a healing has taken place or how the symptoms of illness mysteriously become reversed, with no change of medical treatment. Christ himself made a connection between faith in him and the prospect of healing (Luke 17:19) and on other occasions he linked the people's lack of faith to an inability to perform miracles (Mark 6:4-6).
Bearing that in mind we certainly have to acknowledge that faith in God and intercessory prayer will play a part in some cases where an otherwise inexplicable cure has taken place. But we would be misinterpreting Jesus' words if we believed that where healings do not take place the person has been lacking in real faith. Many sick people do not pray for healing but that God’s will be done - for reconciliation with him and for an attitude of acceptance and peace, whatever happens.
It is interesting to note that although the people of Christ’s day were less sceptical about miraculous occurrences than many are today, they resembled some modern religious people in that they thought of the past as a period when divinely-inspired events took place more frequently. Thus they were amazed by Jesus’ miracles and the ease with which he performed them. This is worth bearing in mind because it implies that there should be no more difficulty believing in the possibility of miracles today than at any other period of history.
What is distinctive about the modern “western” outlook is its secular and materialist character. This disposes people to an unbelieving stance towards miracles because at a more general level it denies the existence of any other spiritual realm beyond the confines of the physical world, and starts out from the conviction that there is no God who involves himself in human affairs in any way. All this means is that, as in the case of Jesus’ miracles, faith is necessary in order to see an event as a miracle in the first place: “the effect on man of any revelatory act of God is constitutive for the revelation itself”.[1]
Finally it must be said that from a Christian point of view miraculous occurrences should be seen as only an incidental part of the life of Christian believers. What is primary is faith, discipleship, imitation of Christ, openness to God’s grace and love of God and neighbour. In lives lived according to these goals, miraculous happenings might figure prominently. But of course they might just as well not.
With prayers and best wishes, AfP


Notes and References
[1] Michael Schmaus, Dogma, Vol. 3 God and his Christ, Sheed and Ward, 1971, p.110.