So I re-watched one of my favorite movies on Netflix the other night, Apollo 13. Early in the movie, Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) and his wife are sprawled out in lawn chairs in their backyard after hosting an Apollo 11 landing party on the evening of July 20, 1969. Lovell looks up at the full moon in the sky, and says:
It’s not a miracle. We just decided to go.
Miracles are some sort of supernatural event (outside the ordinary operation of the natural world) caused a divine agent (God, angels, or in earlier eras one of the many gods in polytheistic systems). Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com:
[A miracle is] an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
The LDS view of miracles sort of hedges on the supernatural angle. Here’s the definition found in the LDS Bible dictionary:
Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher.
Here’s another LDS definition, from LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Deseret Book, 2011) by Robert C. Millet and three other BYU religion profs.
A miracle is a manifestation of the supremacy of God’s law and will and is therefore impossible to explain on the basis of currently understood physical laws.
I’m not actually going to talk about miracles in general. Some Mormons think there are divine miracles happening all over the place, all the time. Some Mormons think they are rare events, granted only in unusual cases to a fortunate few. Some Mormons are inclined to doubt all reports of modern miracles, particularly miracles reported by any other denomination. But lots of Mormons can recount particular miracles that have occurred to them or to close family members and I don’t want to invite examples and then criticism of those accounts in the comments. If God has granted you or someone in your family a miracle, good on you mate. God be praised. Instead, I want to talk about revelation.
Revelation and miracles are really quite similar. Revelation is some sort of sign or vision or communication from God to some person or group. It has a supernatural aspect to it in the same way that a miracle has a supernatural aspect, an event or operation outside the normal set of causes and events that occur in the natural world. If Jim Lovell had been reading The Church News and reflecting on a story about this or that instead of looking up at the moon, he might have said:
It’s not a revelation. They just decided to do it.
What I’m thinking of here is the slew of administrative and policy changes that have been put in place since President Nelson took office on January 14, 2018. That was only 14 months ago. Since he took office, the term “revelation” is appearing quite frequently in LDS discourse. I think the term has become rather bloated. If the leadership decides to move to a two-hour block of meetings on Sunday instead of three, there is nothing supernatural about that. It’s not a revelation: they just decided to do it. Same for moving the youth out of Primary into the youth program a year earlier, putting out new curriculum materials, or changing the terms we are supposed to use to refer to the Church or the membership. These aren’t revelations, they just decided to do it.
Now how one views this issue is largely a function of the theological view of God’s involvement in the world. Those who take a strong view of God’s sovereignty and governance of the world are inclined to see miracles, God’s action in the world, almost everywhere. I’m sure there are folks working at the COB who think they couldn’t balance a checkbook or sing a hymn without God’s grace to assist them. There is some scriptural support for this view. Here’s Matthew 10:29-30 (Wayment translation):
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And yet one of them will now fall to earth without your Father’s notice. All of the hairs of your head are numbered.
But that scripture notwithstanding, there are those who think God takes a much more hands-off approach to events here on planet Earth. There are lots of bad things that happen to very good people. There are unspeakable tragedies that befall towns and states and nations. It’s hard to reconcile the unvarnished chronicle of daily events or the historical record with the eagerly interventionist God depicted in the prior paragraph. Hence the view that God acts only from time to time. (Deism took this view to the extreme, holding that God created the universe and set it on its course, but that natural law has guided its development and all natural events since Creation.)
So let’s talk about revelation, not miracles, in the comments. Personally, I see only two candidates for revelation in the 20th century: the Second Manifesto of 1904, when Joseph F. Smith finally closed the door on the practice of polygamy within the LDS Church, and the priesthood and temple revelation of 1978 by Spencer W. Kimball. Everything else is just good leaders doing their best to make good decisions and be good stewards of God’s church.
What do you think? Do you think revelation happens all the time? Or are you in the once-in-a-while or even the once-or-twice-in-a-century camp? I think all these views fit within the broad LDS spectrum of belief about how God acts in the world, so this isn’t a case of being right or being wrong. You can hold any view you want. You can even be a Mormon Deist if you want.