I’m serious. Miracles are a serious topic of religious discussion. But first, as Voltaire insisted, we must define our terms. There is a common-sense meaning of the term “miracle” which refers to a highly unlikely positive event that nevertheless comes to pass. Spontaneous remission in a cancer patient. A check that arrives out of the blue, unexpected, so you can pay the rent and buy food for the family. A bunch of college hockey players brought together as a team and beating a powerhouse national hockey team full of seasoned, disciplined veterans. There is no necessary supernatural element to this type of “miracle.” Even if some people prayed for the US hockey team to beat the Soviet team in 1980, that doesn’t make it a miracle in the sense that it wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t happen without some sort of supernatural intervention. Sometimes underdogs win games. Sometimes an unexpected check arrives in the mail. These events do not violate any law of nature (Merriam Webster: “a generalized statement of natural processes”) or constitute an example where the impossible happens. Everyone believes this sort of miracle happens from time to time. Flip a nickel. The Internet tells me empirical studies show there is a 1 in 6000 chance it comes up neither heads nor tails but comes to rest on its edge. Very improbable events just happen every once in a while, all on their own.
Then there are supernatural miracles. Here’s from Wikipedia entry “Miracle“:
A miracle is a supernatural event that seems inexplicable by natural or scientific laws. In various religions, a phenomenon that is characterized as miraculous is often attributed to the actions of a supernatural being, (especially) a deity, a magician, a miracle worker, a saint, or a religious leader.
Furthermore, I think we can split “supernatural miracles” into two categories. One is when a natural, even unremarkable, event happens at a particularly opportune moment. Your daughter falls off a chair or spills a hot drink on herself and you throw her in the car to take her to the ER … but where are your car keys? If you say a silent prayer and God or a local angel puts into your mind the thought “check the freezer,” and you sprint to the freezer and find your keys next to the ice cream you put there an hour ago, you can call that a supernatural miracle of the common sort. Maybe God put His hand on the scales or maybe it was just a lucky coincidence that you happened to think of the freezer. But say you are up in a hot air balloon with the same kid a week later and she leans over too far and plummets to earth from a thousand feet … then when you touch down five minutes later, frantic and panicked, your daughter runs up to you and she says, “I’m fine, Mom. I bent my knees when I hit the ground, just like you taught me.” That’s more a supernatural miracle of the impossible sort. I’m sure you could come up with other examples, some contrived and some based on actual occurrences. The kind of thing that doesn’t happen without divine intervention in the natural order of things.
I’ll bet just about every reader can share a few personal life events that are maybe candidates for supernatural miracles that seem to go beyond the common sort (finding the car keys, a much needed but unexpected check) to maybe come close to a supernatural miracle of the impossible sort. I can think of a couple in my own life. I don’t think we have to put those personal events under a microscope, at least in this post. If you just got lucky, well some people do just get lucky. If God did put His thumb on the scales on your behalf or in favor of a family member (even though He declines to do so in many other cases) be thankful and acknowledge that great are the mysteries of God.
Sometimes such personal events (those that approach a supernatural miracle of the impossible sort) become anchors to one’s LDS testimony. I suspect priesthood blessings followed by an unexpected speedy recovery have this testimony-building effect, although priesthood blessings followed by a swift decline, even death, don’t generally have the opposite effect. But I am rather confident that if an LDS person finds their testimony of the standard LDS truth claims compromised or completely gone for some other reason (you know the standard list), that an earlier miracle of the impossible sort, if there was one, that anchor to a testimony, gets recast as a miracle of the common sort. I guess I just got lucky. Raise that anchor. Move along.
More interesting are what might be called institutional or official miracles. For the LDS Church, events of this sort might include the Miracle of the Seagulls as memorialized in the monument that stands on Temple Square, shown in the image at the top of this post (with its own Wikipedia page) and Joseph Smith’s healing of Elsa Johnson’s arm, one of the first recorded healings in the LDS Church. These particular examples are more like supernatural miracles of the common sort, since seagulls regularly eat crickets, especially when there are huge swarms of them, and injured arms often heal themselves over time. The translation of the Book of Mormon, which is never simply described as Joseph translating characters on the plates but always as translating by the gift and power of God, is held out more as an official miracle of the impossible sort. Even LDS apologists don’t claim that Joseph had any natural understanding of any ancient languages at that point in time, certainly not sufficient to translate using the natural process we generally associate with the term “translation.” Whether through the (mysterious) operation of his Nephite interpreters that came with the plates, the (mysterious) operation of (somehow divine) seer stones that glowed in his hat, or just through words coming into his mind through the operation of the Spirit, the whole translation episode is described in LDS materials as a supernatural miracle of the impossible sort, something that simply could not have happened without divine intervention.
These LDS examples of institutional or official miracles have a place in the official histories and curriculum materials of the Church. I’m sure you can quote others. They serve as evidence of God’s endorsement and support of the LDS Chruch as an institution, in the same way that personal miracles often serve as an anchor to one’s personal LDS testimony. But every church and religious tradition has its miracle stories, deployed to strengthen the standard narrative of that tradition in the same way that LDS institutional miracles are.
What About Catholic Miracles?
Here’s where it gets interesting. Skeptics might reject on principle any possibility of supernatural miracles of the impossible sort. But believers who acknowledge and even insist on them can either believe only such miracle accounts within their own religion or denomination (which makes God seem rather partisan and petty, as if God would heal sick folks in denomination X but not in denomination Y) or they can believe reputable miracle accounts from all religions and denominations (which undercuts the claim that the official miracles in one’s own denomination are evidence of God’s endorsement of your particular denomination). It’s not like just Mormon seagulls eat crickets. Seagulls, all of them, even Catholic seagulls, will eat crickets when they are around in abundance. Catholics tell other miracles stories, of course, not seagull stories. But either way you believe in miracle stories, whether just your own church’s stories or everyone else’s miracle stories as well, raises tricky questions.
Human nature enters the picture here with great force, as well. It’s easy to believe miracle accounts in one’s own tradition, but just as easy to disbelieve and completely dismiss miracle accounts in someone else’s tradition. Easier still, simply avoid any account or discussion of someone else’s miracles so you don’t even need to the disbelieve and dismiss them, you just ignore them. Similarly, believers are very good at compartmentalizing. Most people know better than to shell out $99.95 for a gadget that screws into their engine and supposedly increases miles per gallon by 30%. But somehow that sort of pragmatic skepticism is regarded as inappropriate for miracle accounts, at least those in one’s own tradition. There are different rules for assessing the plausibility and probability of a miracle story. Those in your own tradition are often rather politely taken at face value, at least in group discussions.
Apart from these problems with firmly asserting supernatural miracles — coherence (first paragraph) and the distorting effect of human nature and psychology (second paragraph) — there are philosophical objections, most cogently expressed by David Hume in a chapter in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. One argument is that for any account of a supernatural miracle, it is always (almost always?) more likely that the reporter is mistaken or the report as it comes down to the reader is garbled or even simply made up than that the event actually happened as reported. Another argument is that the degree of evidence necessary to reasonably establish any claimed event is proportional to the unlikelihood of the claimed event. If I tell you I went to the store this morning, you are likely to accept that at face value, and if you doubt me a receipt with time and date is fairly conclusive. If I tell you I went to the store this morning and on the way I encountered an alien spacecraft, plus had a conversation with a friendly alien, you’re going to want a lot more than a receipt before accepting the story. A video isn’t enough (people can do anything with video or pictures these days). A paper with alien characters on it isn’t enough (who’s to say whether those strange characters have anything to do with aliens). And so forth. If a police officer half a block away observed the exchange and filed a contemporaneous report, and a government satellite tracked a fast-moving object with its sensors and tracked it descending to that spot where I supposedly saw it, then fly away, that’s better, but cops are known to get the facts wrong and electronic systems have glitches. If a USAF jet shot down the alien craft and the wreckage is now strewn across the salt flats, with pictures in the New York Times and scientific analyses of the wreckage claiming alloys unknown to planet Earth are found in the wreckage — well now we’re approaching credibility. It takes a lot of credible evidence to reasonably establish a highly improbable event. Very few highly improbable events can muster that amount of evidence.
What About Ancient Miracles?
It’s much easier to dismiss ancient miracles, whether Christian or otherwise. But they serve the same functions (propping up religious claims and bolstering the legitimacy of religious and political rulers) and, in the context of their time, have about the same degree of believability/incredulity as more modern miracle stories. Here’s one about an early Pope from the pages of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (HarperCollins, 2021) by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry.
[W]hen Bishop Pelagious II fell to the plague in 589, the city turned to a man named Gregory (later known as Gregory I the Great, 590-604). … The people all agreed that the plague was God’s punishment on the sinfulness of the Romans and so, just after ascending to his new position, Gregory led a penitential procession through the streets. Lit by torches, the crowd prayed vigorously even as some of them — allegedly — fell down dead along the route. Finally, according to a much later version of the story, as the procession neared its conclusion, Gregory looked to the sky and saw a vision of Michael the Archangel hovering above with a flaming sword, drawn and menacing. But as the procession neared, Michael sheathed his sword and disappeared. The people’s repentance, led by their new leader Gregory, worked. The plague supposedly abated shortly thereafter. (p. 48-49)
Maybe you can see some similarities to LDS institutional miracles of the common sort: ignoring contrary evidence (people dying along the route), a convenient private vision, a tale that grows in the telling over the years. It’s just much easier to acknowledge those features in an ancient miracle story than in a more modern story in your own tradition. Here’s another one, about Radegund of Poitiers, a noblewoman who, after some marital ups and downs, “became abbess of a religious house named after a relic of the True Cross given to her by the Byzantine Emperor Justin II”:
Radegund soon developed another sort of power, one derived from her spiritual position instead of her political one. Imbued with the presence of the cross at her own house, she worked miracles of healing, according to her hagiographers. … A blind girl regained her sight, oil from a lamp overflowed endlessly in the presence of the sacred wood …. Eventually, a tale in which Radegund turned away a dangerous serpent grew in stature, until the serpent became a dragon, the “Grand’Goule,” which Radegund defeated with the presence of the relic and the power of her personal sanctity. (p. 57)
Same process, on a smaller stage. Same deployment of miracle stories to bolster claims to legitimacy, for Radegund, then for nuns who carried on at the house after her death. Same “growing in the telling” arc of the miracle stories. Same questions in the mind of a modern reader (“Did they really believe that?”). I’m sure most of the peasants believed every account. Some of the leaders did, others were aware of how the stories were oh-so-useful, true or not. Were any doubting peasant to mount a bench at the back of a church and shout, “That’s not a piece of the Cross, it’s just a regular piece of wood, probably chopped from the forest on the hill outside town!”, they would probably be dragged out back and beaten to a pulp by a couple of burly monks.
So what do you make of Mormon miracles? How about modern Catholic miracles like healing attributed to the waters of Lourdes? What about medieval or ancient miracles, such as the two I quoted or hundreds of other examples? If you accept some but not others, where do you draw the line? If you don’t accept any at all, then have you banished diety and the supernatural from religion, any and every religion? Is attending a disenchanted church any different than a friendly book club with the occasional service project or potluck dinner and hefty monthly dues? Tough questions.
I expect the comments here will range across the spectrum, partly from a variety of views and partly from a variety of experiences. For many, this is a touchy topic and a personal one, so if you choose to respond to someone else’s comment or account, don’t offer scathing critiques.