[Jesus] took the [deaf and speech-impaired] man aside, away from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, spat, and touched his tongue. The, looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, which means ‘Be opened.’ With that his ears were opened, and at the same time the impediment was removed and he spoke plainly. Mark 7 vv33-35
To judge by the way so many different kinds of ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ which have no scientifically identifiable physiological effects are sought out for various real and imagined ailments, it seems that large numbers of people today want to believe in miracle cures. And the remarkable thing is that they do sometimes work, if by ‘work’ we mean ‘have a positive effect on the presenting symptoms’. What’s more, that effect has been scientifically investigated; it’s not unscientific to accept that ‘miracle’ cures do sometimes ‘work’. Among the explanations for why they work are the confidence of the healer, the faith of the patient, and the relationship between healer and patient, along with the use of the kind of ritual act that our text describes. It may be that the miracles attributed to Jesus are of-a-kind with those attributed to other worshipped figures, and that the details have been shaped by early Christians’ desire to see Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy or to express graphically his impact on people. Even so, we certainly can’t be sure that Jesus was not involved in miracles of this kind, however much they have been exaggerated and their timescales compressed in the telling and retelling.
But there is a question as to whether we ought to call them ‘miracles’, and indeed as to whether to do so would not be curiously irreligious. We are called on to approach the world with humility and awe, to see it as well-ordered and not in our control except to the extent that we align ourselves with the laws of nature. To suppose that every now and again the laws of nature can be capriciously abrogated by a god-out-there to impress us or to serve our convenience seems rather to demean God than to exalt him. It also raises awkward questions about why a god who is keen to demonstrate his care for humanity fails to arrange the many very desirable miracles that don’t happen. Which is not to say that we cannot be thrilled and surprised by things that happen; we don’t, perhaps can’t, know everything about the universe. Nor is it to say that we can’t achieve things without understanding exactly how we manage it. Openness to the unexpected and the not-understood is a mark of a lively approach to life; to decide that we will never be surprised or to insist that there is nothing we can’t understand is inimical to both science and faith. And the Jesus who understood that people killed by a falling tower were killed by chance, not as a divine punishment, probably also knew that some people just do recover from conditions that were thought to be incurable, for much the same kind of reason.
Some of the gospel miracles are in a very different category from these medical miracles. Turning water into wine, for example, or finding a fish with a coin in its mouth, or feeding of thousands of people from a few loaves and fishes. I don’t think there’s much sense in trying to explain them in non-miraculous terms – the feeding of the thousands as just the ‘miracle’ of everyone sharing their lunch-packs for example; such stratagems smack of a rather pathetic desperation. It is these miracles that are among the things that make it hard for people today to hear what Jesus has to say. It wasn’t always like that; there was a time when people paid more attention to those about whom such stories were told, which is why such stories were told: it was a way of saying, ‘This is a great and wonderful person; honour him and pay him attention.’ It would not occur to us today to try to do people honour by telling such stories about them. We honour remarkable people for their insight, their humour, their energy, their persistence, their creativity, their courage, their kindness; but we feel it is quite enough to recount incidents when these characteristics were on display, and have no inclination to make up stories about the performance of bizarre miracles.
If people want to believe literally in the more fantastic miracles, that of course is up to them. But if they proclaim that belief, they need to realise that that is likely to affect how other people regard them. It is hard to take seriously those who one moment would like others to accept as their sensible, informed, reasoned opinions about the business of life if the next moment they can say they believe literally in outlandish miracles such as turning water into wine. Holding firmly to a belief in fantastic miracles suggests credulousness and a wider inability to make reasoned judgements about life. On the other hand we have to remember that as great a scientist as Isaac Newton was extraordinarily credulous in some of his religious ideas; we wouldn’t allow them to make us think he was wrong about calculus or the spectrum – but then, calculus and the spectrum aren’t opinions.
If these non-medical miracle stories about Jesus are frankly unbelievable, their very unbelievableness has sometimes made accepting their veracity a touchstone for real faith. This is a bizarre idea, and one of the ways in which it is bizarre is that it seems not to see how the miracles function in the gospels. There, people are asked to draw from the miraculous event they have seen and do not doubt a conclusion about the authority of Jesus. To argue the other way – to say that, if you believe Jesus is God’s Son, you ought to believe in the miracles, and then to use the miracles to confirm the premise – is certainly not to be faithful to the logic of the gospels, or indeed any other kind of logic. You either believe the miracle stories or you don’t; if you don’t, they won’t lead you to any particular conclusions, but you won’t have somehow failed to be adequately faithful. But it’s worth thinking further about how miracles function in the gospels, as a starting point for developing deeper understanding. There are things all about us that ought to arouse our wonder, our sense of Awe. I hesitate to call them miracles, but they can sometimes certainly feel pretty miraculous. We need to be alert to these things; they illuminate our lives, deepen our joy, enrich our understanding and inform our faith – not our faith in bizarrely unlikely happenings, but our faith in life itself and in our ability to access the necessary resources to cope with it.