Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Nature of Miracles

When people think of miracles there are several things that come to mind. Hopefully most of those things will be addressed. An idea that needs to be brought forth and ironed out is the idea of there being Nature and Super-Nature. Strangely enough, everybody has an idea of something that is supernatural but has not gone back to the root of the word and wondered what the meaning would be of something called Super-Nature.
When someone thinks of a miracle, a common idea is that some sort of invasion has just occurred. I don’t mean to speak of aliens from outer space, but that is not all that far off from what people envision. People see everything around them and they assume that there is nothing else, after all, if something else existed why would it not be here? That thought is both self-centered and naturalistic. When I say that something is naturalistic, I don’t mean that it is something produced by nature so much as the philosophy known as Naturalism.
Naturalism is the idea that nature is the be all and end all of reality. It is often heard by scientists and philosophers defending naturalism that the only things that someone can know is by their empirical senses, ergo sight, touch, taste, smell and feeling. Naturalism goes a lot farther than defining what someone believes to be true, as someone who simply takes naturalism as picking up a pen and discerning that it is real based on his senses would be no trouble at all, in fact discerning something’s “realness” by the senses is one of the most efficient and convenient ways to do so. The problem occurs when the naturalistic viewpoint starts to invade other areas which it is unable to provide answers for. There are several things which you or I may never be able to see, taste, touch, smell or hear yet they are still extremely real. The obvious examples would be something like the moon. Unless you become an astronaut, the odds of you being able to empirically prove the existence of the moon are very slim. However, we do know that (all conspiracy theories aside) we have had human beings that have landed on the moon. Pictures were taken of the moon, videos were recorded of the landings, and moon rocks were brought back as empirical proof of having been to the moon. These kinds of things are easily enough dismissed because there is enough empirical evidence to make someone who has not themselves discerned them to be real to be convinced. There are other things though that do not fall into the previous category. These are things that everyone takes to be real but rarely take the time to wonder why they think so. The easiest example that I can think of is something that seems to be native to humans (native in the sense that all humans are capable of doing it, not that nature brought it about). This thing is of course being our ability to reason and think rationally.
To recap briefly what I have written in another paper, our cognitive faculties could not have possibly come about by the naturalistic, evolutionary process. There would simply be no reason for them to come about. Reason has no naturalistic benefit to the survival of the species in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word. One does not need to think objectively about the intentions of a hungry bear when it comes at you, nor does one need to think of the moral outcomes of its eating you. The naturalist will tell you that the brain functions by the correct and complex sequences of firing synapses between neurons. I however find it hard to believe that things slamming into one another should provide me with any sort of way to objectively think “outside the box” about anything that I can’t naturally do. Operating within the naturalistic paradigm there should be nothing that does not involve the prolonging of the species, staying alive and being protected.
The idea that nature as we can empirically verify it is all that there is to reality is an idea that is simply not well thought out. All knowledge that you have of things you have not verified yourself to be true empirically has been taken on faith and trust from others. Science itself is a perfect example of this the more our technology progresses (ie. telescopes, satellites and microscopes). There is an interesting idea that comes to mind of the “human created miracle”. It is important to realize that these are not miracles at all so much as they are illusionary to one party and perfectly planned and normal to the other. We experience these types of things all the time throughout our lives. Every Christmas, there are exchanges from one person to another of gifts. Part of the excitement of giving a gift to someone (especially wrapped) is that the person receiving it has no idea what they are about to receive. Now, the person that gave the gift knows exactly what it is, in fact they bought it with the specific purpose that they assume the person they give it to will greatly enjoy it, that is they planned on an assumed reaction. This might not seem like a miracle because nobody thinks of it as such, especially because the surprise of the unknown could be ruined without the person who gave the gift being present. It is a small step toward what I called the human-created miracle because there is that moment of surprise. To take things a step further there are instances where one person starts a chain of events, often just a transaction, that is planned for a specific purpose and reaction, and then removes themselves from ever seeing it completed. These events are often portrayed in movies and books so that there will be opportunities for happy endings and life lessons to be taught. An example of one of these instances would be someone reading the newspaper and finding out that a man has lost his house and all his belongings to a fire, and then figuring out a way for the man to mysteriously stumble upon a large sum of money to cover his losses. To the man who finds the money, this is a miracle, an unexplained occurrence that just happens to benefit him in a fantastic way.
I mentioned earlier that a common idea was that miracles were some form of invasion into the natural or the norm of everyday life. Miracles are certainly different from the norm, but are not necessarily opposite of it. A better way to look at miracles would be to create a mental picture of a bathtub. Supposing that everything that can be empirically verified are inside the tub and inside the water contained therein, the act of a miracle would be like reaching into the water. The analogy is to illustrate only the act, not the effects of it, as obviously it would break down otherwise. The water does not react negatively to the hand that has just entered it; it simply conforms and allows it “naturally” to enter itself. The water acts much in the same way that nature reacts because nature itself is not the entirety of reality. The hand is something that is beyond nature, something that is powerful enough to come into nature without damaging it or violating its “laws” yet knowledgeable enough to understand nature so well that whatever activities it does inside her are conceived of as being “natural”, that is to say that it “could have happened” given the right circumstances. (At this point I feel it is necessary to point out to the readers that are smarter than myself and have at once begun to question my thinking that the two categories of miracles will be explained later.) The hand in this analogy, and indeed more so the person it is attached to, are superior to the water. The person can do things to that water that the water could not do to itself, though it still remains the same unchanged water (ie making waves etc.). In the same way, so something more powerful than nature could create things within nature that are entirely miraculous but not at all invasive. This power, most accurately reflected in the creation story by the God of the Christian worldview would be superior to nature in every way and would be able to create and technically be a part of, yet superior to even still, what would be named Super-Nature. The idea of Nature and Super-Nature is essential when looking at the topic of miracles in more depth, especially before moving on to the different types of miracles that have evidence of them happening.
Miracles can be placed in two different categories based on the information we have of them happening. C. S. Lewis aptly names these categories “Old Creation” and “New Creation”. All miracles are showing the workings of what God will do or what God is currently doing or has done. Miracles that show us things that have already been done on a larger scale; they are miracles of the Old Creation. Miracles that focus more on things that are still to come or what God will do in the future; they are miracles of the New Creation. On the surface, the two types of miracles appear to be very similar but under scrutiny the differences are made plain.
The miracles of Christ can be summed up into a number of different categories: Miracles of Healing, Destruction, Power over the Inorganic, of Reversal, and of Perfecting or Glorification. (C.S. Lewis.)
An example of a miracle of the New Creation is Jesus turning the water into wine (John 2 1-11). There are processes that take place over longer periods of time which allow grapes to meld with water and turn them into wine. This is a process which God has been doing forever; it is just that in this specific instance He chose to speed up that which he had always been doing. All miracles have purpose and in that case Jesus did it to reveal his glory to his disciples and verse 11 says that his disciples saw this and put their faith in him. This miracle is one of Fertility because it means that the God of wine was present. God is the driving force and the reality behind the natural processes of the making of wine. God is constantly turning water into wine because he created the grapes which can mix with water and dirt and sunlight and turn itself into a juice and ultimately wine under certain conditions. For a specific purpose, God chose to bypass the natural processes and turn water directly into wine instantly, with the reason mentioned above.
The other miracles which fall under the heading of Fertility are the times of miraculous feeding of the multitudes of people, the turning of the little into much, in those cases, fish and bread. Every year god creates much from little in a number of ways which we normally attribute to the “laws of nature” such as when a farmer plants a few seeds in the dirt and come harvest time there is much to be reaped. Another example is by looking at the enormous amount of fish that are in the seas and lakes, this attests to the creating of many from few. The “laws of nature” which we so often attribute these to are simply a pattern; they are not an end or a purpose. God commanded all species to go forth and multiply from the beginning of time, in this particular instance God chose to do instantly what he has been doing since the creation of the Earth. The two instances where Jesus feeds thousands are found in Matthew 14 and 15 respectively.
The most obvious example of a miracle of fertility is the one which has a strange paradox among people. Several people are willing to believe in God or even in miracles but will still not believe in the Virgin Birth. I say it is a paradox because it seems that we have a line with which we judge miracles and based on their amount of “miraculousness” we decide just how much we can believe in them. On most lines we are able to accept the above miracles of the multiplication of food and the changing of one substance to another but for whatever reason we seem unable or unwilling to accept the miracle of the Virgin Birth. A reason for this might be because the previously stated miracles did not directly involve humans. Miraculous things can be done to plants and animals and people won’t start to ponder much about what the other side (wine, fish, bread) thinks about it happening. The miracle of the Virgin Birth is something that happens directly to a human. It is something that she could not have done simply by willing it to happen and therefore the control is out of her hands. I believe that is one reason why we as humans have a hard time accepting this one; it is because we have to be willing to submit control over to God. Those that are more versed in classical literature like the Greek mythologies will draw connections from the Virgin Birth to Zeus lying down with Alcmena but unlike in the mythology the process of the Virgin Birth is more closely linked with the former miracles than what first appears apparent. The process of birth, the physical ability of human beings procreating has been started by God and are, essentially, out of the control of the individuals that are participating. Obviously the man and woman each have to contribute something for the process to work but ultimately that’s all they do, they have parts that start a reaction, God wrote the code for the genes to determine just what the child will look like and He also made humans with the correct parts to be able to start the process in the first place. In this instance, God is again doing what he has always done, just in a miraculous way. He is starting the process of birth inside the woman without the assistance of a man. Just as He made many from little and turned one into another, so here God creates without one of the physical parts necessary.
Next are the miracles of Healing which seem to be more common today and, sometimes, faked. Something that isn’t always thought about however is that most people are entirely willing to admit that they have been healed from any manor of ailment, disease, or deformity, but will deny with every available resource that it could’ve been at all miraculous. Faith healings are prevalent and are therefore; even if they are legitimate, to be thought of as being less miraculous. Lewis points out that the symptoms from a good number of diseases can be affected by hysteria, and hysteria can be cured by mere suggestion. Therefore it could be argued that such suggestion is a spiritual power, and then also a supernatural power and that would make all instances of faith healing miracles but we are dealing with miracles in a different way. In reality, the types of healing which people attribute normally to doctors have nothing to do with the miraculous. Doctors don’t actually heal people, they simply administer or prescribe the medicine, and even the medicine does not heal the person, it’s the person’s body that does the healing. Medicine might stimulate white blood cell production or whatever is necessary for a known disease to be eliminated by the body but it’s the body that does the actual work. Medicine doesn’t so much insert fighters into the human body so much as alert the correct fighters already inside the body that they need to get into action! The same is similar with cutes and scrapes to human skin and flesh, the body naturally heals the wound; there are different things that we can do and apply to the wound to make it heal perhaps more quickly but really we’re just letting the body know that it’s time to do what it normally does. The one problem with this is that if a person has died and becomes a corpse, its cuts will never heal. There is still a body which is injured but the wound won’t heal, and I can imagine the same would be for a disease as well that could infect the body. The element of it being alive is necessary for it to function. While that statement might seem arbitrary it is also a necessary step to point out in order to more clearly link it back to God. God gives each organism life as well as the abilities to heal itself and fight off diseases and mutations that, if left unchecked, would harm it. In the multiple instances in the bible where Jesus heals people of different things this is yet another example of God doing what He has always done in a miraculous way.
The single miracle of Destruction that Chris performs in the bible has a fairly straightforward significance and purpose. Christ makes wither the fig tree in Matthew 21:19 as an illustration of what happens when people no longer bear fruit. There is the plainly visible moral significance of that in terms of people in their daily lives as well as in that age of Judaism but there is also the same thing going on in this miracle as in all the others. The cycle of being alive and then dying is something that God has been doing all along, the act of God keeping something alive and then ceasing to keep it alive is a cycle that is plainly visible everywhere one looks if he waits long enough. In this particular case he simply bypassed the extended period of time which is normally necessary for a tree to die by natural causes to make it a living embodiment of a parable.
Miracles of Dominion over the Inorganic seems to me to be the bridge from Old Creation miracles and New Creation miracles as some of them can be applied to either category (a bridge that is a connection, but not to say that it is a necessary connection as part of a process or time line). Christ calms the storm from the boat in Matthew 8:23-27 and that is an example of Him doing something that God has always done, that is that He designed nature to always have calms and storms, in a instantaneous and miraculous fashion. A miracle under this category which crosses over into miracles of the New Creation is when Jesus walks on the water in Matthew 14:22 -24. Here we see something that goes against what God has allowed nature to make possible. In this particular miracle, something else happens that is also special. Just for a fleeting moment, Peter also walks on the water; his faith at first allows him to do as Christ does and defy nature. The rest of the previously mentioned headings of miracles fall under the category of miracles of the New Creation. These miracles are of a nature that is yet to come with Christ being the progenitor.
There are two miracles that are the foundation of all miracles that are in the category of the New Creation; those miracles would be that of the Resurrection and the Ascension. When most people today talk about the Resurrection, they refer to one or perhaps two instances. The first instance is right after the discovery of the empty tomb and Christ appearing. The second instance is actually the Ascension of Christ to go “prepare the rooms”. Someone who was called an apostle claimed to be an eye-witness account to the Resurrection. If the Resurrection were simply the instance mentioned above we would be left with two apostles: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Instead we see several apostles, and they are not in fact the two mentioned above. That is because the Resurrection includes more than just that one specific instance. The Resurrection includes that instance up till the Ascension, which is every appearance of Christ to his disciples and others during that time. Being an apostle was not someone who witnessed the first event much as it was meeting Jesus in the weeks (6 or 7) after his death. The numbers of times that Jesus appeared to people were sometimes different. He appeared to an individual in private one time and appeared to a crowd of hundreds in another. The Resurrection was a clear event of breaking a chain of events or a cycle of nature that had been happening one way since it started and was now being seen as happening the other way. Christ had died a physical death and was suddenly back alive; not as a ghost or an apparition but as a physical or corporeal being. Jesus had to spend a good deal of His time convincing the people He appeared to not to be afraid and that it was, indeed Him. The people did not immediately recognize him, which leads me to believe that He was still who they remembered Him being, but instead of being different, He was more than they remember Him being, more of Himself than he was before. This is one reason why it is under the category of New Creation miracles, because this is a work of God which is yet to come; the transforming of people into more than they were before.
It is somewhat easy to picture the Resurrection so long as you imagine that Christ was in some sort of ghostly form, as it has actually been portrayed before. The problem for most people comes when they read that He was, in fact a physical being. Jesus did things like eat fish and allow people to touch Him. He even goes so far as to dispel the idea of Him being a ghost directly when He says “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24: 38).
The miracle of the Ascension is one that is perhaps another of the most difficult to grasp simply because it brings to mind several of the mental pictures that several of us have been brought up picturing; images of heaven being in the sky and God as a large old man with white hair and a long beard sitting on a golden throne with another throne to his right for Jesus. If we can get rid of those images, we can start to dig into the miracle itself. Here we start at the word itself, ascension, and we get a mental picture of Jesus flying upward into the sky. Now the problem with this isn’t actually the picture itself; while that picture may indeed be a distraction, what we’re really doing is deciding for ourselves what it was exactly that the eye witnesses saw Jesus do when he “ascended”. It would be easier for us to accept that He just simply vanished; perhaps with a puff of smoke for dramatic effect, or even if He was taken away like Elijah in a fiery chariot. It’s the act of the actual movement that is hard to understand. The reason for that is that we can’t seem to disassociate the act of ascension with that of our childhood fantasies of Him going to heaven in the sky. What we have to understand is that movement in any direction but one away from the position that the earth is currently occupying would be conceived as being “up”. What Christ is doing is transitioning from Nature to Super-Nature. It is a necessary thing for there to be a movement away from one in order to get to the other, and if there is movement away, we are bound to perceive it as being “upwards” as was previously stated.
The wonders of the New Creation miracles as has been previously stated are glimpses of what God will do in the future. Christ has become the “firstborn” in doing the miracles He did that went against what was the norm for the current state of nature. The “yet to come” is what Christians often refer to as the time when we have our glorified bodies. This is the state that Jesus was in when the disciples didn’t at first recognize him; when He was more of Himself than what they had previously stated. This is the time when the Spirit will be in perfect co-existence and harmony with nature. Nature will become subservient to the will of the Spirit and the things that were considered miraculous will become the norm. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” – Jesus (John 14:12)

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The Nature of Hope

Hope is one of the principle strengths of every human being. Hope is what gives us determination and drive to do anything. The hope of some day living up to our “potential” or perhaps society’s potential for us is a key factor in especially American society. However we learn from a very early age that one should never get their “hopes up”; therein lies the problem, how are not supposed to get our hopes up while still trying to draw from hope to accomplish our daily goals.
If it would be correct in saying that hope is something that is a positive driving force in one’s life, why should we not be getting our hopes up for something? The answer is simple, to avoid pain. If you don’t have “high hopes” for something to happen or to accomplish something, then you won’t be let down if it doesn’t happen the way you plan it. However if we never get our hopes up for anything for fear of failure what will we ever accomplish in life.
A life spent worrying about failure is also a life lived in fear. Fear is also something that leads to depression, because if someone is afraid that they’re always going to fail, they soon avoid the problem altogether by not trying to accomplish anything. It’s a daily struggle between taking a chance to accomplish the dreams that you have and possibly failing and having to start from scratch. If someone were to never try anything for fear of failure, taken to the extreme, would die within a few days. Because there’s always a chance that you could choke on your food so why try eating it? There’s a chance that you could get mugged on your way to purchase groceries so why leave your house? In that specific example you run into a problem because you could get robbed if you leave the house, however your house could get broken into so why would you want to stay in your house?
These questions would seem absurd to most people however they are in fact choices that we make on a daily basis without giving them much thought. More normal questions would sound like this: Why should I bother trying out for a play when I might not make it? or Why should I ask someone to dance when they might say no?
It is hope, as established earlier that gives people the strength to take chances on grounds that they might succeed. The real problem however is when it becomes equally pertinent to hope for something that you would really like to happen, and to fight against “getting your hopes up” so that you don’t get hurt. In some of life’s more important decisions, the outcome is less in your hands than in the previous examples. Now, if you attempt to fight against hope there are two ways you can go about it. One of these ways is through your mind. You can very efficiently push the idea of succeeding out of your thoughts so that you are already setting yourself up for failure, and are thus adequately prepared for it. However in doing so you leave no room for God (or chance, depending on your point of view) to work. If you are in a position where you believe the best course of action would be to force out hope this way, then you need to stop and consider what it was that got you into the situation in the first place. Likely it is something that involved you seeing the situation and having an idea of what the best possible outcome could be, weighed the “sides of the coin” and thought it favorable to your liking. Going back to the first method of fighting against hope, with that logic in place there would be no reason why you should’ve ever thought about taking a chance in the first place.
The second way of fighting against hope would be through your heart, or a means of controlling your emotions. While being the better choice it is also the more difficult. If you chose to fight against hope using your emotions you will simply be extremely cautious. The hope of accomplishment will still be there but you will be prepared for the possible failure because of the walls that you have built in case of failure. While this seems like a good compromise it is also extremely dangerous. The very nature of hope is to dominate all other emotions and logic in ones body. So, if you place guards on your heart in order to adequately prepare for the possibility of failure you are also caging something that naturally wants to explode in abundance. This method is also one that requires far more attention than the first because if you are not always thinking about pushing hope out, it is likely to escape into your “daydreams” and in turn ruin all the work that you have gone through in caging it in the first place. Unfortunately, in paying constant attention to make sure that your walls are still in place it also forces you to always think about the issue in which the walls are in place. If you’re being forced to always think about the issue, is hope not still present?
In reality, hope is not something that you can consciously control; there is only the illusion of control. Both options of controlling hope require you to constantly think about not hoping or constantly think about keeping guards on your emotions. In both cases you are inevitably thinking about the scenario which caused you the dilemma in the first place. The best case scenario comes out of option one, for if you always force to think upon failure, you will be likely to receive it. But if someone fails constantly they are likely to become depressed, which eventually leads to other, more serious issues.
After this realization is made there is only one option left to choose. One must acknowledge that the situation is out of their control, and thus give the control to something, or someone else. The two viewpoints I mentioned earlier labeled them as either chance or God. Chance is sometimes referred to as fate as well, though fate has a far greater deterministic connotation. If you resign to chance you will come to the conclusion that there is no certainty in life. If everything is based on chance then that should be cause for worry, leading people to be driven only by what they control. For instance, if someone never leaves their house then they can control everything that is within it at all times. However as we know from experience that is not the case, as we mentioned earlier there is always the chance that someone could break into this persons house. So in reality this view, once again, relies on hope. The hermit living in their house is only hoping that they can control things before chance gets an opportunity to happen.
If you were to decide that everything is determined by fate then you have a slightly more deterministic outlook on life. The general idea is that fate is something that man can’t control. It is a force that ends up being the sole summation of everyone’s life ending. Fate is sometimes used synonymously with destiny; however destiny implies grandeur, and therefore hope. Fate is simply what happens at the end of any given situation. This view will lead people to think that their decisions don’t matter because, after all, whatever the person ends up doing will be their fate. If someone has that view of life it would appear to me that they are a step away from wanting the outcome of failure. But even if they wanted the outcome of failure they would have somewhere to go; people that resign themselves to fate seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of a purposeless existence and a lack of motivation to attempt to change their current circumstances. That view alone would be counter to the “American dream”, which would tell you that anyone can accomplish anything if only they apply themselves.
That leads us to the second option, accepting that the only choice is to leave the situation in the hands of God. If God is someone who loves unconditionally and also looks at a world without time, then it would make sense that he would have His creations best interest in mind. This option alone suppresses hope by knowing that whatever happens will be what is supposed to happen. Whatever each person wishes the outcome will be is irrelevant to the grand scheme of his life. For no person can see past the choices that he hasn’t already made, save God who sees all choices at the same time as having been already made. In this sense, the outcome of a person’s choice has already been made, and should thus not be worried or hoped about. However this view can only be accepting in know that God has your best interest already in mind.