Thursday, March 7, 2013

What is Miraculous?

What do we mean when we say that something is "miraculous"? You may not realize it, but the way we commonly use this word annoys many religious believers. They hate to hear this or that new technological toy described as a "miracle"; miracles, they think, are things authored by God, in contravention of the world's normal rules.

Reading one case of this complaint the other day, I started to wonder about the word and what it points toward. I do understand the philosophical implications of miracles: if things we regard as impossible, scientifically, regularly happen in response to prayers, that would be a powerful argument for religion. But are the things that happen in miracle stories really so amazing? It seems to me that our technology has gone far beyond what we used to regard as magical, or divine. Jesus walked on water, but Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Jesus revived a dead man; that happens in our hospitals hundreds of times a day. Jesus turned water into wine; how does that compare to the Internet as a wonder?

Most of the miracles in medieval miracle collections are cures of diseases; by that standard a big pharmaceutical factory easily outdoes all the saints put together. Some of St. Columba's miracles involved his instantly knowing about events hundreds of miles away; today we can watch those events unfold on television as they happen.

The more we learn about the universe, and the more our machines can do, the smaller the aspirations of ancient saints and mages seem to us. This, it seems to me, is a prime reason why the world is becoming more secular. What religion offers no longer seems miraculous to people in an age of technological wizardry. Even eternal life now seems more plausible to many people through downloading than through salvation.

There are things that I find miraculous, by which I mean both astonishing and unexplained: the existence and scale of the universe, the appearance of life, the evolution of intelligence, the beauty of our world. It is in contemplating these fundamental things that I come closest to religion. Yet I approach them, not through revelation, but through science and its machines. It is telescopes and microscopes that reveal the vast scale and age of the universe, paleontology and genetics that explain how we came to be here, history and anthropology that tell the story of our own species. Those are my miracles; there is my church.

No comments: