Why I Don't Believe in Miracles

A prominent theologian with a love for science explores the contradictions of faith in divine intervention.

Newsweek, May 1, 2000
By Philip Hefner

My own ruminations on miracles go back tomy boyhood, when I found I couldn't pray for God to heal my sick friends, because if God was really God, he knew what needed to be done before I did. He would certainly work things out in whatever way seemed best to him. So it seemed almost presumptuous to ask.

Since then, my 40-year dialogue with scientists, as part of my study of religion and science, has not made miracles any easier to accept. I pray for my friends and loved ones regularly, because it is my way of expressing that I care for them; I rejoice when a blessing goes to them, but I have no confidence that my prayers change the course of nature.

The question, though, is not whether I believe in miracles, but what a miracle is in the first place. If a miracle is a blessing that comes in the midst of life, often in darkest times, I give thanks for it. If a miracle involves God's contravening the laws of nature to redirect the ordinary course of events, I begin to have some problems.

A good deal of talk about miracles is repugnant to me, and seems almost blasphemous. I remember some years ago watching certain TV evangelists who recounted this story: at a motel reception desk one night an intruder gunned down three clerks. It seems that one "Christian" woman didn't show up for work that night because her mother had had a vision that she should stay at home. The evangelists said that the vision was the miraculous intervention of God. I wondered why a loving God did not warn the three who were killed. That's where the blasphemy comes in—suggesting that God had the power to save all four but chose only one.

My interest in science has deepened my appreciation of the difficulties of miracle-talk. The idea that God intervenes in the laws of nature, and then redirects their course, is problematic because it raises the specter of chaos and unpredictability. If we can't rely on the regularity of nature, most of life becomes impossible, including everything that depends on technology. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to locate the so-called causal joint, a technical term for the precise empirical sites of God's intervention. In the evangelists' story, the causal joint would be the brain processes that caused the mother's dream.

Some have said that science makes room for such a joint because of the indeterminacy of events at the quantum level. Or that the landscape has changed because of new theories about chaos and complexity, the emergence of life and the appearance of new species. Each of these describes conditions in which something new and surprising can occur, with the implication that nature provides "wiggle room," in which God can tweak ordinary events without upsetting them.

As an explanation of miracles, none of these ideas has met with a consensus among either scientists or theologians. Why is God tweaking only certain outcomes and not all? If God is active in all natural events, why don't they turn out better? The tweaking theory turns out to be selective divine determinism. That makes both nature and God unreliable.

Of course, scientists will be the first to admit that it is next to impossible to predict any single, isolated occurrence—the movement of a single particle, the development of a cancer cell, the decision that any individual will make at a given moment. Any single natural event can prove to be a "freak" in this sense. This is small comfort to religious believers and surely does not qualify as miracle, because we hold that events take place in the hands of a loving God, not in some cosmic game of Russian roulette.

I'm not certain religious folk even need to talk about miracles. I would rather talk about blessings. We receive blessings, often quite unexpectedly, and we want to praise God for them. We know we cannot claim the credit for these blessings. Even though we cannot predict their arrival, nor understand why so much of human life involves sorrow and evil, we can be grateful and render praise.

Does this make miracles a matter of subjective perception? When someone recovers from cancer, that is objectively clear, not a figment of anyone's imagination. Whether it is to be attributed to God depends on whether you have faith in that kind of God, and that is the subjective element. But it is clearly something to be thankful for, and God is to be praised (as are the doctors and nurses and medical researchers).

I really cannot believe in miracles in any conventional sense, but I do believe in blessings. They happen every day.

Hefner is professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science.

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