A Scientist and a Christian on the Possibility of Miracles
Reflecting on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Three Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 53
Old Testament: 2 Kings 4:1-7
Gospel: Luke 9:10-17
Eternal lover of our wayward race, we praise you for your ever-open door. You open your arms to accept us even before we turn to meet your welcome; you invite us to forgiveness even before our hearts are softened to repentance. Hold before us the image of our humanity made new, that we may live in Jesus Christ, the model and the pioneer of your new creation. Amen.
Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.” So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:1-7).
And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces (Luke 9:16-17).
by John Polkinghorne,
...but what about miracles? Christianity can’t dodge this issue, because at its heart is the claim of the stupendous miracle of Christ's resurrection....we surely can’t suppose that it was through a clever exploitation of chaos theory that Jesus was raised from the dead, never to die again. If this happened (as I believe it did), it was a miraculous, divine act of great power.
The question of miracle is not primarily scientific, but theological. Science simply tells us that these events are against normal expectation. We knew this at the start. Science cannot exclude the possibility that, on particular occasions, God does particular unprecedented things. After all, God is the ordainer of the laws of nature, not someone who is subject to them. However, precisely because they are divine laws, simply to overturn them would be for God to act against God, which is absurd. The theological question is, does it make sense to suppose that God has acted in a new way?... God can do unexpected things. Yet there will always have to be a deep underlying consistency that makes it intelligible, for example, that God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter Day, while, in the course of the present history, our experience is that dead men stay dead.... Does it make sense to believe that God acted in this unprecedented and extraordinary way? Can we see a deep consistency beneath the surface surprise of the event?
I believe the answer to these questions to be a clear “Yes” in relation to the Resurrection.... Christians believe that what is unique in the Resurrection of Jesus is not that it happened but when it happened. What God did for Jesus in the midst of history, God will do for all of us at the end of history.
Miracles are only credible acts of the faithful God if they represent new possibilities occurring because experience has entered some new regime, where the consistencies of the past must be open to enlargement in the light of the novelty of the present. This sensitivity to regime must be the answer to one of our greatest perplexities about miracles, which is not that they happen, but that they happen so infrequently in a world that seems to cry out for more vigorous divine action. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that stories of miracles cluster around what he called “the great ganglia of spiritual history,” times when powerful movements of religious discovery are taking place. A preeminent era of this kind was the life of Jesus Christ.
As a Christian, I believe that God was in Christ in a special, focused way in which God has not been present in any other person. Jesus, therefore, represented the presence of a new regime in the world (this is what he meant by proclaiming that with his coming the Kingdom, that is, the rule, of God was being realized). I believe that it is a perfectly coherent and reasonable belief that this new regime should be accompanied by new phenomena, even raising a man from death to a glorified and everlasting life.
From John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), portions of chapter 6, “What About Miracles?”