Monday, March 28, 2011

Miracles, Signs, and God's Intervention

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection. This responds to Mr. Martin's arguments about types of miracles, and about God's motives for performing (or not performing) miracles.

Non-Interventionist miracles and Sign miracles
In his article, Martin mentions that there may be non-interventionist miracles where God may have set up the world from the beginning in such a way as to produce a certain effect at a certain time, noting as an example the wind that parted the Red Sea in the days of Moses. He notes that such an occurrence might serve as a message or sign.

I think Martin's treatment confuses two separate topics. Whether a miracle requires direct intervention and whether a miracle serves as a sign are two separate questions. A miracle in which God actively works in nature can serve as a sign just as easily as a miracle in which God may have set up the world so that certain events would occur without any (further) intervention. The fact that God is actively working in a miracle does not preclude its value as a sign.

Reasons to perform a miracle and reasons to abstain

Mr. Martin claims that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, asserting that miracles are "an impediment to a scientific understanding of the world." This seems an unlikely argument. Miracles are rare, and as such they are not likely to interfere with our understanding the world. In actual fact many of the great scientists of the world have believed in miracles, including Jesus’ resurrection, so the known facts are against the claim that miracles would hinder our scientific understanding of the world.

Particularly, consider that miracles could not be recognized as miracles unless people already had a clear idea of nature’s regular workings. That is to say, a miracle could only be recognized as a miracle if people already had a basic understanding of the natural order. If nobody had ever noticed the natural order, they could not possibly recognize anything as a variation from that order. So on the contrary, recognizing a miracle presumes an understanding of the normal workings of nature.

Martin also asserts that the "difficulties and controversies" in recognizing miracles constitute an argument that God should not perform miracles. That seems to say that God should not do a miracle because it affords argumentative people a chance to argue. But "difficulties" are such a normal part of human experience, and "controversies" such a normal part of human behavior that there does not seem to be a reason why God should exclude miracles in particular of all the things which can be the subject of argument. The difficulties and controversies surrounding miracles may indicate that people are careful and thorough in evaluating miracle claims.

Martin asserts that miracles "impede, mislead, and confuse", but this seems to be the opposite of actual the case. Consider this: one common view of a miracle is as a "sign" -- something that leads, guides, and explains. If a miracle has value as a sign, then by definition it communicates a message and gives understanding. When Mr. Martin acknowledges that a "sign" is a valid view of a miracle, and further argues that the reason or purpose of the resurrection is a factor in deciding whether to believe it occurred, he unintentionally acknowledges that miracles may in fact be significant and purposeful, the opposite of his claim that they impede, mislead, and confuse.

In contrast to Mr. Martin’s views that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, it is worth noting this: if God’s purposes include letting people know that there is something beyond the natural law, then he has near-compelling reasons to perform miracles, as the plainest way to show that there is something beyond the natural law. It is difficult to imagine how God would cause us to recognize the reality of something beyond natural law without showing us an example; this example would be seen as a miracle by definition. It is interesting to see the anti-religious claim that God never shows any clear reason to believe that he exists -- but then dismiss the possibility that miracles serve exactly that purpose.

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