I had an interesting telephone conversation tonight with a Christian woman whom I’ll call Kate (not her real name). Our discussion ambled over several topics, but I only want to highlight one: miracles.

Kate claims to have witnessed a miracle. Specifically, she says that within the last year or so she and a few others prayed over a woman who had been born with one leg shorter than another and who had experienced a good bit of resulting pain. As they were praying, Kate saw the woman’s leg actually grow to be the same length as the other. Further, the woman reported that her pain was gone. Kate claims that this healing event was a lasting one.

I have no reason to doubt Kate’s sincerity. She struck me as an honest, open, and kind person, though I don’t personally know her. Kate showed no signs to me of mental instability or of a propensity for credulity. To the contrary, she seemed socially adept, well connected to reality, and the kind of person I’d want to hire someday.

Kate’s report raises some interesting questions: Are miracles real? If so, what implications might they have for faith?

In chatting about the matter, Kate asked how I might explain what happened. Quite simply, I cannot. But I am skeptical of her account, especially of her explanation for it.

For the moment, let’s grant that the woman’s leg was healed in a supernatural way in direct relation to the praying of Kate and her companions. This alone has no logical connection to certain claims about, say, the divinity of Jesus. Perhaps it is the case that incantations can in fact cause physical healing in the right circumstances, having nothing to do with a 2,000 year old pastoral preacher. That is, logic does not require us to conclude, for example, that because a prayer to Jesus resulted in the healing of a leg that, therefore, Jesus is God. In fact, logic would require us not to draw that conclusion yet. Of course, if we are dealing with supernatural events, logic may not apply, in which case I don’t know how we can draw sensible conclusions about anything.

However, the most likely explanation for what Kate says she saw is that her report of what happened may not be accurate. I am not suggesting Kate lied. I am suggesting that there may be a perfectly rational, natural explanation for what she saw. Maybe Kate misunderstood the events as they happened; perhaps no lengthening of the leg or pain relief of any kind actually happened. This would seem to call into question Kate’s powers of observation, which does not seem really all that fair. After all, if you or I were there and saw something like what Kate did, we would be insulted by the suggestion that we were, basically, too dense to get what was happening before our own eyes. But, if we are to be honest, we would have to admit that it is possible that this is the case.

Maybe the woman really was healed. Granting that her leg actually stretched and that her pain was permanently relieved, now we’ve got a much more interesting situation. When Kate asked how I would explain such a thing, I admit I was a bit flummoxed. However, when we are presented with things we do not understand or that are out of our normal experience of the world, I suggest that our first reaction when seeking an explanation should be to say, “I don’t know.” Instead, we are wired to immediately ascribe unreasonable and illogical causes to such things: “God did it!” Well, maybe, but could there be a natural explanation? Have we exhausted all possible explanations? Shouldn’t we?

As I say, I cannot account for Kate’s firsthand account of witnessing and participating in a miracle. However, let’s make sure that all natural explanations are exhausted before we conclude that what happened was, indeed, a God-caused miracle.

Either way, Kate’s account is interesting and certainly makes one think.

2 thoughts on “Miracles

  1. Just wondering what hope can you offer to the 12 Steps Programs that Alcoholics and others have found years of relief and recovery, when they came to believe in a ‘power greater than themselves’ ? Just wondering……

    1. Thanks for the question. My take is that hope is found in ourselves and in each other. The fact that AA folks and others have found meaning in the notion of a “higher power” is not very good evidence for the actual existence of such a supernatural power or being. I would be willing to bet that a deeper examination of the beliefs held by many alcoholics about their higher power would reveal several inconsistent, vague, and simply implausible notions about who or what that higher power is.

      This fact in itself should give us pause about the truth claim that there is a real, actual supernatural something out there. Further, it reveals a deeper truth about the AA program: Its effectiveness does not rely on the reality of there being a god or gods (or similar); rather its effectiveness relies on people believing that they can find strength or hope or courage from somewhere outside of themselves.

      Such a reliance suggests that we can simply take the next logical step and acknowledge that if (1) it cannot be possible that, broadly speaking, AA participants who rely on higher powers have conceptions of such powers that are consistent with each other, and if (2) the effectiveness of such practices is found in the belief itself, not its claims about objective reality, then why don’t we simply acknowledge that the power to overcome alcoholism (or other struggles) is actually found in ourselves and in each other? Let’s just be honest here. We have power that we are afraid to acknowledge. I’d prefer that we dispense with the fear and acknowledge the power we have within and among us.

      Believe in yourself and in your community. That’s where hope is to be found.

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