Miracles: a matter of perspective

Today begins a five-part series on miracles.

 

While reporting from the front lines of the 1967 six-day war between Israel and the Arab states, an experienced war correspondent witnessed a wounded Israeli soldier rush into his observation post. The soldier’s guts were torn apart and hanging out, and the journalist had seen enough wounds to ascertain the young man did not have long to live. So he decided to make the soldier as comfortable as possible. Suddenly, the soldier cried out to God for healing; the last ditch effort of many mortally wounded, as the journalist knew, and why he stood awestruck as he watched the soldier get instantly healed, jump up, and leave (Battlefield Miracles). Yet for all who read the above account, and were not there, are we to believe it was a miracle, myth, or mirage? Sure, it sounds fantastic, and it is something we all wish could be true, but isn’t it more likely to be a fatigue and stressed induced delusion in a chaotic time of war? After all, that’s what many will claim.

The controversy over the existence of miracles has raged for thousands of years. Do we then have the right to condemn their belief? And why should it matter?  Obviously, it should matter because the subject of miracles is too important to leave alone. The issue needs to be resolved in the minds of us all in order to validate our personal beliefs. In fact, the subject of miracles is strongly influenced by personal beliefs and individual perspective. Consequently, when a person’s perspective is based on experience their personal beliefs are usually altered to include the supernatural source that they believe can manipulate natural laws. In other words, people who have witnessed or experienced a miracle are more likely to believe in God, gods, or some other form of the supernatural than people who have not.

The concept of miracles appears to have changed since the days of Noah’s flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, or the walls of Jericho tumbling down, but many in society still choose to believe in them. In a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll in 2008, 36,000 adults were interviewed about their beliefs. Approximately 80-percent claimed to believe in miracles (Salmon), which closely mirrored various other polls on the subject. A 2000 Newsweek poll showed 84-percent claimed to believe in miracles (Americans Believe). With an average of four out of every five individuals confessing a belief in miracles, it is a wonder that the controversy continues to rage. Undoubtedly, no war would continue to rage without the participation of opposing factions. Yet, there are three primary contending factions within the miracle controversy: atheists, theists, and agnostics. Atheists reject any notion of a divine being or beings, thus refuse to believe in any form of divine intervention. Theists accept the concept of either a solitary divine creator (monotheism), or multiple divine beings or gods (polytheism). And agnostics believe that the existence of the creation origin or original cause, whether God, gods, or the essential nature of things, are unknown, unknowable, and will remain so.

Likewise, each of the aforementioned contending factions has distinct groups within their ranks. Most of these distinct groups equally argue amongst themselves, adding fuel to the proverbial fire. For instance, some base their beliefs on natural laws and the hard sciences, while others claim to believe based on philosophy, psychology, theology, and various other reasons. And this variance can be observed among all the groups. For example, atheists, many of whom reject anything that contradicts natural laws, still have a contingent amongst them who view miracles as something extraterrestrials might institute during their interaction with the human race. Similarly, other atheists, while resisting any godly belief, entertain a pseudo-scientific leaning toward the paranormal, and believe what society calls miracles may arise from these paranormal forces. And then there are the theists, with thousands of different denominations, equally differing in their accepted beliefs and interpretations of miracles. There are theistic factions who doubt a divine creator would stoop to intervene in the trivial affairs of humans. After all, as science student Jeff Johnson contends, “Why would the potter talk to his pots?” (Johnson). Yet other theists believe the Creator designated a time for miracles to establish specific points, but that designated time, the age of miracles, is now over (Jackson). However, the majority of theists, in fact the majority of people, as the polls continually show, believe miracles are still part of our everyday existence. And rounding off the contrary factions, agnostics, who feel miracles can never be proven one way or the other, still come to the topic with differing beliefs. These differing beliefs range from “it’s possible” (Beno), to “not a chance,” and “who cares, we’ll never know anyway” (Johnson). Consequently, all the contentions make it tougher to refute or validate miracles to everyone’s satisfaction. And in today’s society it is even time consuming to wade through all the definitions of miracle.

Defining miracle in a society that overuses and abuses the word for the sake of marketing is an ever-increasing challenge. We have all grown skeptical at marketing and media claims promoting the newest, latest, and greatest. The newest miracle bra defies gravity. The latest miracle cream grows hair where you want it, and removes it from where you don’t. And let’s not forget the greatest miracle of medical mastery, an instant cure-all to whatever ails you, and all within a tiny pill. Unless, of course, you want the elixir: but that costs extra. All of which does little for the definition of miracle. So I asked a friend if he had ever seen a miracle, and he said, “No.” So I asked what his definition of a miracle would be, and he said, “Getting along with my wife.” Obviously, he has a worthwhile desire, but a rather weak standard to base any hypothesis on. However, there is always the simplistic standby, the dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition:

Miracle, n. A marvelous event not ascribable to human power or the operation of any natural force and therefore attributed to supernatural, esp. divine, agency; esp. an act (e.g. of healing) demonstrating control over nature and serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or divinely favored.

 

Most non-theistic definitions are similar to the above definition. The majority of theistic interpretations place a greater emphasis on God in the definition. Herbert Lockyer, in his book All the Miracles of the Bible, claims a miracle is “some extraordinary work of deity transcending the ordinary powers of nature and wrought in connection with the ends of revelation” (qtd. in Wade). And Professor Rick Wade, theologist and philosopher, clarifies three key elements, “miracles are supernatural, or the work of deity; they transcend or override natural law; and they are part of God’s means of revealing His nature and purpose to us” (Wade). In other words, on any given day our definition on what should or should not be considered a miracle is filtered through our beliefs, interpretation of the alleged facts, and our perspective.

Individual perspectives of miracles are predominantly the easiest to comprehend. For instance, three World War II airmen, Lt. I.M. Chisov, Sgt. Alan Magee, and Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, a Russian, an American, and a Brit, all survived freefalls of 18,000 feet or above without parachutes (Hamilton). Yet skydiving experts and doctors concur that any freefall over a hundred feet is a guaranteed death-drop. So were all three airmen recipients of miracles? Well, skeptics like to point out that Chisov was seriously injured, Magee sustained a bad arm injury, and even Alkemade, though it was minor, twisted a knee. The obvious implication being that if they were miracles why were the men injured at all? However, from both a medical and natural law perspective, each airman survived a guaranteed death-drop. And yet, skeptics will then contend that, since it has occurred before, it falls into the realm of probability. And if it is in the realm of probability it cannot be considered a miracle. Similarly, such a contention presupposes that even a miraculous event like the parting of the Red Sea would not qualify as a miracle, because there are similar events in the Bible where water is parted. However, the claim falls short since it is a mistaken attempt at logic that utilizes no pertinent evidence to back it up.

Other skeptics attempt to discard freefall survivals through physics, using aerodynamic jargon, such as “surface area molecules hitting a bunch of atmospheric molecules” (Carkeet), and creating a reduced rate of acceleration. Although, they conveniently forget to mention it reduces the fall rate from approximately 150-mph to 120-mph, which is still considered “terminal velocity,” when atmospheric drag resists gravity’s acceleration” (Carkeet). In other words, it is still a guaranteed death-drop. Thus, it brings up a curious question, how would each of the skeptics feel about it if it had been them falling thousands of feet without a chute? When you consider the adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” it could easily be applied to chute-less freefalls over 18,000 feet as well. After all, it is highly unlikely that such a personal perspective would still find the skeptics, as they are plummeting to Earth, considering the probabilities.

[*In part 2 I will begin with the probabilities of battlefield miracles like the previously mentioned mortally wounded soldier that was miraculously healed.]

 

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