Miracles and atheists don’t mix. They are oil and water.
A religious person and an atheist discussing miracles is like two people playing tennis on adjacent courts. This is because the religious believer and the atheist start with two very opposite basic assumptions. The atheist assumes that miracles can’t happen because well…miracles can’t happen. In other words, he believes that the natural order is closed. The laws are set. They can’t be altered. That’s that.
The atheist admits that there are strange phenomena–that there are unexplained events, but he would say if there is something that we can’t explain it’s because we haven’t learned how that part of nature works yet. He does not want to admit the existence of God because he thinks the Christian God is the “God of the Gaps”–the supernatural being people usher in when they can’t explain something.
The believer, on the other hand, thinks God does interact with the natural order and that he has a right to do so from time to time because he made the natural order and he can interrupt it if he likes. The ordinary believer thinks that God and angels interrupt the natural order to do good things like heal people, protect them from danger and provide for them in time of need–and sometimes they interrupt the natural order to do strange things that help people to believe in them like answers to prayer or stigmata or angels appearing to people or incorrupt bodies of saints.
The believer, therefore, thinks the natural order is open not closed. For the atheist the cosmos is closed and always works according to predictable patterns–even if those patterns are sometimes very complex and difficult to understand.
The believer thinks that reality is rubbery, that there is more to it than you can see and God–rather than being the dull God of the deists who sets things in order then sits back and falls asleep–is a God of surprises–always tinkering with this and that to help his folks down below.
I believe in miracles. However, I am critical of those believers who are too gullible and too ready to proclaim a miracle when there may be a perfectly natural explanation. In this attitude I am simply being a good Catholic.
This is the Catholic position: we believe in the supernatural and we believe in miracles. However, we also only proclaim a miracle as a last option. We look for every natural explanation first. We consider natural explanations, psychological explanations and natural psychic explanations. We expect there to be a natural explanation and only when there is not other way to explain what has happened to we open up the possibility of a miracle.
According to the official Catholic view, therefore, most “miracles” have a natural explanation. Many cases of healing, for example, which some claim to be miraculous are probably due to human suggestion, the power of the mind and faith and belief over matter, and the support and positive power of human love and friendship.
Catholics recognize all these good natural qualities, but throw in the fact that God is also one of the ones dishing out the healing forgiveness and love. In other cases of healing things are more dramatic and the doctors have no explanation for how the person got better. The Catholic simply says, “Praise God!” If the doctor comes by and gives a natural explanation we don’t mind. We were open to that possibility all along.
Let’s take stigmata for example. The stigmata are a well known phenomenon amongst Catholic mystics. There have been documented cases in most every time period from the early middle ages–and some suspected cases before that. Some would say this phenomena is purely psychosomatic–there is a natural explanation which may not be fully explained, but has to do with the not fully understood interaction between the human mind and the human body.
What we do NOT do is explain the stigmata away with some crass and shallow explanation like, “the person is crazy and guilty of self harm.” No. We take it seriously. We discover that the person is anything but crazy. They are sane and ordinary and down to earth. St Padre Pio is a good example of this–as are virtually all stigmatists. We therefore say, “The stigmata are a strange physical phenomena in which the human body and mind and soul interact in a way we can’t explain.” So which of the two responses is more open minded and rational? The typical atheist response which is scornful and dismissive and mocking, or the Catholic one which examines the case, shrugs and says, “Something strange is going on. We can’t explain it, but it also has a spiritual dimension in which the person seems to be very close to God through their faith.”
However, sometimes there are other occurrences which cannot be explained in any other way than a miracle. Here’s one: One night when I was a young child asleep in the back of the car my parents were on the way home from leading a youth group. They were traveling down a country lane only wide enough for one car. Steep banks rose up on either side. They crested a hill and saw another car speeding down the lane towards them. They knew as they went down into the next dip in the road the oncoming driver would not see them. There was nowhere to go to the right or the left and no room for the two cars to pass. My parents said later that in a split second what they feared was upon them. The other car was in front of them.
They braced for the head on collision. My mother said she could see the terrified face of the other driver. Then it was over. They looked out the back window of the car to see the tail lights of the other car receding into the distance. My parents were both very sane and spoke about this in a matter of fact way. The two cars went through each other, or time was suspended or one car (or both) de materialized.
Given the laws of nature, there is no other explanation than what we would call a miracle. Furthermore, my parents’ story is not the only story like this. I know of at least two other instances amongst my friends, and when you tell a story like this immediately half a dozen other people step forward and share similar experiences. Even allowing that some are deluded, that there were other explanations or that some were exaggerating, there are enough stories from enough reliable, sensible and sane people to conclude that something miraculous took place.
The atheist might claim that this is not a miracle–it is simply nature acting in a way that we have yet to explain and understand. This overlooks, however, the seeming arbitrariness of the event. A miracle, by definition, is a break in the natural order. It is not repeatable in any predictable manner. It is observed, but is outside any explanation or any human capacity to predict, test or analyze. If this is the case, then the incident is either random–a kind of hiccup in the natural order–a strange anomaly–or the unpredictable event is part of some greater pattern and has some greater purpose, and if a pattern and purpose, then there must be one who is above the natural order who plans the pattern and has a purpose.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com
Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Blog: Standing on My Head