Conversations with Dan: 4 Shane miracles

Dan, I’m loving having these conversations with you – especially since your questions and thoughts are so stimulating. Before getting into the nuts and bolts just a brief response to your comment on the meaning and purpose of life. As I hope you know, I certainly do not think your life is without meaning and purpose. My point was simply that Christianity imbues life with a particular meaning and purpose – that faith becomes a driving force in life.

Your last post was probing, and to provide a short answer will be impossible. But stick with me and I shall make things as brief as I can. First I do need to dispute your definition of miracle. For Christians, miracle could never be limited to that outside the laws of nature, because that would prevent us from celebrating the hand of God in and through nature. This fact is, I think, recognised even by some scientists. Cosmic physicist Paul Davies describes the likelihood of life in the universe in terms of our having won the ‘cosmic jackpot’:  “If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a bio-friendly universe looks like a fix – or ‘ ‘put up job’ … as if a superintellect had been monkeying with the laws of physics.”[1]

Many people (including many Christians) think that God is constantly intervening in the laws of nature to bring about his purposes. Thus, people presume that to locate God we need to do so in those things that cannot be explained by science. Yet as Davies also notes  “A God who lurks in the dark corners of human ignorance is a God who must make a slow and inexorable retreat as science progresses.”[2] In fact the church founded universities precisely because they understood that God was the primary cause of nature, so that an exploration of nature is one into the wonders of God.

This is a vital point. Christian tradition understands God as the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is not one cause among many. We do not say ‘this thing cannot be explained by a natural cause therefore it is God’. Instead we recognise that God is at work in all secondary (I.e. natural) causes. He does not just start up the world and leave it to its own devices but he sustains and lies behind all that is.

So, I’m a firm believer in miracles but I do not believe that God breaks natural laws all that often (although no doubt he can and sometimes does). Such would actually undermine his power, since it would suggest that the creation is somehow deficient -that it needs tinkering around the edges to be effective!

So, what then is a miracle? It is something that causes people to recognise the wonder of God. It is a sign that points to the providential goodness of God . This may be the “miracle of nature”, such as the miracle of the human body. This may be the miracle of circumstances – when each individual event has a ready enough natural explanation but there is a miraculous confluence of events (e.g. Jesus calming of the storm; storms always go calm – just not always in response to prayer!). This may be something extraordinary that cannot be explained by science now – even if one day it might. My close friend Neil Ormerod notes that there have been recent discoveries of the way in which bacteria have brought about instantaneous cures of certain cancers. This observation, however, does nothing to reduce the miraculous experience of a person who receives such a healing after prayer; nor does it eliminate the work of God in that healing – as I’ve already suggested, the opposite is true.

Clearly, I am not as sceptical of science as many of my Christian friends. In fact, I am a passionate amateur scientist who reads cosmic physics in my spare time. Having said this, nor do I give science the ultimate authority that you seem to give it. Science cannot and never will be able to explain everything. This is not only because of the limitations of human knowledge and human capacity. It is also because the universe, and God at work in universe, is spectacularly mysterious. Science does a good enough job of explaining certain phenomena, but there is so much that is beyond its reach. Because this is so, I actually am sure there are miraculous events that simply cannot and will not ever be explained by science. Given my earlier arguments I will not be in a position ever to be able to say categorically that this or that event has no natural explanation, and since God is at work in nature I do not need to. Yet I am also open to God transcending nature, and I think that is a perfectly rational position to take. Christian faith then is not irrational.

Shane

PS – my insights into these questions have come from ongoing conversations with my friend Neil Ormerod. But they are not unique to he and I. They are in fact the standard theological responses of mainline church thinkers such as Augustine Aquinas etc. That is to say these are not heterodox views but long-standing orthodox ones.

PSS – I have not directly answered your question about God healing a cataract rather than healing leukaemia or fixing the problems of poverty in Africa. Will do so in another post

PSSS – sorry to all of this lengthy confusing post!


[1] Davies, Cosmic Jackpot , 3-4.

[2] Ibid. 195.

14 thoughts on “Conversations with Dan: 4 Shane miracles

  1. Dear Shane (& Dan),

    I have enjoyed reading your posts about Science/the laws of nature/& miracles. Mind if I join in on the fun for a moment? It seems there is some confusion over the definition of “miracle”. I actually take issue with any sort of definition of ‘miracle’ that includes “breaking at least one of the laws of nature”. For if God is the first cause of all things (including nature), then for Him to transcend a set of laws (i.e. creation as we know it) with a higher law (supernatural realities, what we term “miracles”, mysteries beyond our finite understanding, a spiritual realm) is not to say that He is a law-breaking God! but that maybe the laws that we know are superceded by another set of higher laws (from another dimension) as very particular things occur. (N.B. this would include prayer). That said, I actually agree with Daniel – sorry Shane ;( – when he says “I believe that the world, universe, is governed by a set of laws that cannot be broken by anyone ever.” That is actually scriptural! God is a law-making, law-abiding, law-fulfilling, infinite, personal being. He is author of both the laws of nature AND the laws of supernature. They are not at odds with each other. Creation is under the law of sin and death. God’s kingdom is under the law of life and grace. Hope that didn’t confuse or annoy anyone too much ☺

    Shane you said “I do not believe that God breaks natural laws all that often (although no doubt he can and sometimes does). Such would undermine his power, since it would suggest that the creation is somehow deficient – that it needs tinkering around the edges to be effective.” Really??? If it undermines his power and suggests the deficiency of creation, why would he ever be bothered to do it ??? As I said above, “transcending” an order is not the same as “breaking it”. The “miracles” in the bible (most notably the resurrection of Jesus) were no breaking of laws but a fulfillment of the creation order, and a further jettisoning of a higher order/dimension (i.e. the kingdom of God – a supernatural realm) into the mix of the created order. So WHY was this necessary or a good thing for God to do you may well ask? Well, the scriptural answer is because we live in a created order that is “fallen” and needs redeeming. Even though we see the fingerprint of God all over it, it has been infected by sin and the forces of evil upon the earth. That is why redemption is necessary. Hope that all doesn’t sound like double dutch ☺

    But I certainly agree with you Shane when you say “a miracle is something that causes people to recognize the wonder of God and points to the providential goodness of God”. It does indeed remind us that the universe is bigger than our human understanding. Not meaning to bring up another can of worms, but then how do you explain to an unbeliever the sovereignty of a “Good God” behind phenomena like earthquakes, tsunamis etc.? 😉 But anyway, the big question for Dan (& many others it seems) is why Sam mum’s cataracts got fixed and another child’s leukemia did not? Or why there is still poverty in Africa etc. etc. I do not pretend to have all the answers to these questions but happy to attempt a reasonable response in a later post as you tackle that one! 😉

    And just for the record Shane, I have never been skeptical of “true science” – it is the fascinating and exhilarating discovery of how God has put together creation, but I do agree with you that it does not and can not give us answers to the “why” of life and oft times not even the “purpose” for creation. So, in conclusion I would suggest that there need be no conflict between the supernatural and the natural realms. The “supernatural” is, as the word conveys “super” the “natural” – simply beyond it. Therefore faith in God is not irrational, it is simply beyond reason, not against it. It is governed by a higher law which involves trust and belief. It is a relational REALITY for some of us, no less real because we can’t explain it properly or sufficiently (sorry about that Dan). But this one thing I know – the God of the scriptures is not some ignorant God hiding in the “gaps” of human reason and understanding, but a wonderful, awe-inspiring being of cosmic proportions to be known and enjoyed for a very long time … Selah ….

    1. i think you and i are saying the same thing. but i have left some ‘wiggle’ room for god given things such as resurrection and empty tomb. i am also a little surprised in your view given i know you reject evolulution – a theory now proven by science and controlled by the laws of nature?

  2. Well, I think Shane we are saying some things the same, but not all. I’ve left a lot more than “wiggle” room for the supernatural. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. I think the supernatural realm (which also operates according to laws) can regularly manifest and make it’s presence known in our physical world. The 2 orders (natural & supernatural) can and do coalesce in many people’s experiences, all the more since Christ’s resurrection and the inauguration of a new kingdom for humanity (the kingdom of God). The first creation is under the law of sin and death – but this doesn’t make me an evolutionist. I don’t believe human beings came from apes – every species procreates after its own kind. As believers in Christ we are translated into a new kingdom of grace and life because Christ has satisfied our debt of sin (& death) and reversed the curse for humanity (& the whole creation). We don’t see the complete fulfillment of this NOW because it is an ongoing eschatological reality and not everyone wants to accept the gift. Furthermore, even though supernatural healing is possible for our mortal bodies, we will all die one day because our bodies are of the first creation. Our real selves though will live on, with eternal life and one day be given resurrected bodies (not of flesh and blood, but of a different substance that possibly can walk through walls etc.). Ok, I’m off on a bit of a tangent now but one I thought you might be interested in – the mysteries and complexities of healing and resurrection …

    1. Let me clarify, I use the term wriggle room only in respect to natural laws. Of course god lies behind every thing – the primary cause of everything that is true beautiful and good.

  3. Ok, I’m sure we are believing the same thing Shane (at least re: resurrection of Christ), but I wouldn’t describe God’s supernatural intervention into his created order (i.e. casting out of demons etc. described as “the finger of God”) as mere “wriggle room” for Him to act in regards to his natural laws. This would seem to connote that God only intervenes on the periphery of natural laws, whereas I see God intervening through the very centre of our physical realities. There are many examples of this but the most significant is Christ Himself. i.e. God clothed Himself in flesh and walked upon the earth in the Middle East 2000 yrs ago, doing miracles and speaking of “the kingdom of God”. He died a physical death at the hands of men fueled by evil and on trumped up charges without a just cause. He conquered death (because he was sinless) and was resurrected from the dead, appearing to multitudes for 40 days upon the earth before his ascension. Furthermore, when Christ was crucified, cataclysmic events happened in the created order …. there was an earthquake, darkness blanketed the land for 3 hours, and some saints were resurrected from their tombs when He was resurrected (Matt 27:52-53).

    I think we could agree that these demonstrations were more than God just hinting to us of his existence around the edges of our reality… but were more like a definitive, bold entry into our world! And this He did so as to reveal his amazing heart of love and good will towards us! (humanity). Anyhow, this is how I see it and am unashamed to proclaim the gospel as the bold, unapologetic love of God to the world that it is …

  4. Hi Shane and Dan,
    I’m really enjoying this discussion. I want to throw a different perspective in if I may. I remember hearing a testimony of a drug adict whose wife was on the verge of divorcing him and taking the kids. This man had stopped showing interest in his wife and children and it was a really unhealthy environment for them. Then this man had a Christian religious experience, started attending church, reunited with his wife and started investing into his childrens lives. His life was, so to say, turned around.

    Now we can speculate that this was a placebo effect etc, but regardless of what we may say, it was quite ‘amazing’, ‘unlikely’ and even according to Shane’s definition ‘miraculous’. Indeed, I think genuine love, not infactuation, but human selfless love, is the greatest miracle on the planet and is in my oppinion God’s greatest testimony. It is hard to explain, but there are moments of such human flourishing that defy words, Ghandi, Martin Luther King jnr etc.

    Within our world the laws of nature provide much room for human heartache, be it disease, tsunami’s, or the loss in death. These things are for us humans a given reality. Perhaps we don’t have legitimate explanations as to why these things happen, we say that God is not for them, and is working against them, but the greater problem is perhaps the loss and suffering in human lives. Nature is not the only thing broken. Perhaps the greatest miracle is not that God meets a particular physical need, but that God graces humans to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world, that our nature and character are the grounds for his miraculous work as well, to recite a overused cliche, ‘to be the miracle’.

    While Christian’s await for the new creation in which such weaknesses will be removed, we experience the grace of God in our ability to transcend the abyss that such situations would normally push us down, and when we transcend the urge to focus only on ourselves at the expense of others. While we often talk about miracles in material and physical terms as a break of the laws of nature, I think the greatest miracles are those that break the laws of human nature. Lives that are turned around, people who give up certain narcissistic tendencies and willingly pay large sacrifices to genuinely give, become relationally vulnerable, and intimate to genuinely love.

    Perhaps God seems to want to redeem the brokenness, not remove it altogether.

  5. Beautifully put Andrew …you are absolutely right that the most fantastic miracle of all is the transformation of a human heart. Sacrificial love is at the heart of God and is what Jesus came to deliberately reveal about the Father. Most amazing of all is that this kind of love is attainable for human beings also, through faith. Note it was the drug addict’s encounter with Christ that turned him around and enabled him to act out a new script for his life and his family. God absolutely does work through our brokenness – indeed the finest examples of His Grace and power come through our weakness and brokenness. It is an example of the cycle of grace and life “breaking”/”superceding” the cycle of sin and death. So glad God did not just discard us but made a way through our despair into his enormous, merciful arms of love and strength… such amazing Grace …. Such unspeakable Love! It does defy words …..

  6. Thankyou Andrew and Sandra for your insightful contribution to this discussion. Interesting to me how many different interpretations there are, seems if you speak to a thousand different christians on these things you would probably get a thousand different inetpretations.

    A couple of quick comments before I get back to the main conversation with my brother.

    – Are we now saying that the laws of nature include an out clause that “the lord can choose to do as he pleases and that this still fits in with the laws because I created them”. From a non beleiver this does not seem like a very acceptable senario.

    – The transformation of the “human heart” are we getting a little esoteric here? People do transform but it is not always positive and I see no evidence that these transformations are neccessarily at the hand of god or a miracle – your drug addict did transform from a beautiful young tenager full of innocence and joy to a drug addicted theif who abused his children – are you giving the credit for this transformation over to God? Although some peoples lives do change after going to Church others including myself have managed to transform there lives without being touched by god. Whether or not god is at the helm of all these things is a matter of faith not of evidence that can be readily explained at least to me.

    1. Hey Dan, thnx for your reply. In some senses I am getting esoteric. It is like trying to describe to someone what beauty is; it is subjective and beyond empirical verification. So you are right, it is a matter of faith, those expecting certainty from Christianity are either self decieved or naive. There will always be elements of mystery, and faith will require exactly that, faith. But that does not mean Christianity needs to be irrational, or blind faith; it can be informed.

      – I’m not saying that all human change is attributed to God, nor all good human change. But their seems to be some human change that is quite ‘miraculous’, and many of these people attribute it to their experience of the divine. Whether or not God is indeed real, I’m glad that those who have such a radical change for the good beleive they encountered God. I’m sure the children of the drug addict are thankful that their father believes he encountered God, and that this became the impetus for his personal transformation. I find quite the opposite a miracle though as well, that if God was not real, and their was no supernatural experience behind Christianity, how so many people could go to a human social institution and find the motivation and impetus to love greatly, and transform their lives for the good. I suppose I find this hard to believe.
      There are those outside of the church who may do the same also, and in some senses I also believe this to be miraculous as well, and I would even attribute it to the grace of God at work. That is not to go down the route that God determines everything. that is another debate for another time, but I’m not a calvanist.
      All that to say, I believe God is at work in the world today, but his greatest work is in the hearts of human beings; restoring peace, healing pain, and transforming lives.

      kind regards
      Andrew

      1. Andrew, just a couple of thoughts on faith …… Faith, as the scripture speaks of it in Hebrews 11:1, reveals to us that FAITH is the SUBSTANCE of things not seen – not just wishful thinking or vain hope. Hebrews 11:6 says “And without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him”.
        Just because God may be shrouded in mystery a lot of the time that doesn’t make him “uncertain” or “less real” or “less substantial”. Indeed the word says the “spiritual realm” is more substantial than the “physical realm”, nature being a “mere shadow” of heavenly realities. God is a whole lot more than Casper the ghost or a nice idea to placate our yearning hearts for “something more”. Furthermore, Christians would be the most miserable of all people IF what they believed was false / not true (See 1 Cor 15:17 “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.) Personally, I’m not interested in believing in (giving my whole life for) a God who may or may not be real. Hosts of serious believers have been brutally persecuted, tortured, and killed for their faith in Christ. Why would they? They know something. Faith is a substance, a down payment for a future inheritance.

      2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply Andrew. Your response certainly hits a cord with me. Undoubtably many peoples lives have been changed through going to church and this is a wonderful thing for them as well as society. I attribute this to the love, support and fellowship provided by the congregation as opposed to a higher being. The question is does Christianity provide a greater outcome in this respect than other religions or support groups? I guess either way who cares – if it works it is wonderful.

      3. You ask, who cares? Dan…. who cares about where our healing and restoration comes from? …. well, God does care. God cares about who the glory of His handiwork is attributed to. Why? … because He is some megalomanic? or is so insecure that He needs constant reminding of His greatness? No, not at all …. it is because He is interested in truth – and to say or pretend that we are above our Creator / have no need of Him/ deny His existence etc. is to tell a lie …. I’m conscious that you probably don’t care much for my thoughts and would strongly disagree, but I’m putting them out there because I was under the impression that these conversations were to help each other understand why we believe what we do, as opposed to trying “to convert” one another. The “conversion bit”, either way, is indeed a God-call. Peace to you ….

  7. ps. Sandra not sure whether your comment on “not being desendent from apes” was simply trying to raise the red flag to the bull or was purposfully put in to demonstrate the generally cliched and flawed interpretation of the accepted thoery of evolution that predominated in the 19th century (or course species procreate with their own kind, this does not stop them from evolving over time) . Either way the point I have been trying to make through my posts is that this type of uninformed statements further cement my view that there is an unreconcilable difference between christian religous views and those of accepted science – if this is a generally accepted christian view my aethist opinions are further supported and any change in them may be termed a “miracle” :-).

  8. Dan, I was about to apologise for interrupting your conversation with your brother but then I’m not sure I need to – afterall, Shane wouldn’t have posted this conversation on his blog if he did not expect or invite some public comment along the way …. 😉 So just before you continue your discussion with him, I will try to briefly respond to your comments above.

    a) that is exactly what I am NOT saying … I am certainly not saying that God is capricious, quite the opposite. The scripture reveals (& many people’s experiences testify to) there are 2 sets of laws working in the earth today (given by one law-giver): the laws of nature (cycle of sin and death) and the laws of supernature (cycle of grace and life). Everyone knows about the first one, and some of us live betwixt the 2 of them. God is bound to both, but the higher law transcends the first one. I won’t bog you down with all the theological reasoning behind this, but this is what scripture reveals. God is law-abiding and even his “miraculous” interventions in our physical world are governed by spiritual laws. The fact that we may not understand them doesn’t negate their reality.

    b) You are quite right that human beings are being transformed all the time and we can grow “better” or “worse” at any point along the way. Furthermore, this can be explained primarily by our choices in life and God is not responsible nor to be blamed for, our choices. But even though we can decide what choices we make, we cannot decide the consequences – they inevitably flow on from our particular choices (i.e. a law is at work – I would say God’s law). Additionally, there are things that happen to us that are beyond our control and our personal choices. A “non-believer” who intuitively does the “right things” according to God’s moral law will be blessed. The gospel however is life on a whole new level – it is not merely about trying to lean more towards the “good” rather than the “bad” aspect of human nature (there is mixture in all of us) but it is receiving a “divine nature” (the righteousness of God) and living out of that. It transcends good and bad and gives us “God”. Receiving God’s gift of “eternal life” does require “faith” but it is also evidenced in a transformed life/ good works/ ethical living. Faith without works (evidence) is dead (meaningless).

    P.S. red flag / bull / took the bait … will leave that discussion to you and your beloved brother, who is a theistic evolutionist as I’m sure you know … I am not …. best not to further that conversation here.

    P.P.S. Dan, my primary motive in participating in this blog is not to argue nor to change your viewpoint necessarily, but merely to speak a few things I know. Grace and peace to you!!!

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