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God Squad: Thoughts on miracles

Q. Why does God not heal amputees? For all the claims of faith healing of cancer, never once has an arm or leg regrown.-- Anonymous via email

A. The two best brief explanations of why God does not perform miracles that violate the laws of nature are first, from Einstein, who wrote: "God does not play dice with the universe" and second, this teaching of the ancient rabbis: "The world operates according to its own laws." Together, these statements explain that God wanted and therefore created a regular, rational, ordered universe. God wanted this so that we could use the brains God gave us to solve problems. If God was in the habit of capriciously and miraculously intervening in nature, we'd have every reason to just give up seeking to understand anything.

The fact that limbs do not regrow has, for example, led medical researchers to develop amazing prostheses that nearly replace lost limbs. Soon, genetic engineering might even allow us to grow new limbs and organs using our own DNA, and none of this could happen if we were just spiritual couch potatoes waiting passively for God to perform miracles.

The problem for religious folk like me/us is the existence of biblical miracles that seem to violate the laws of nature. Our religious options are all challenging. The first is to take a naturalistic view of the biblical miracles.

Theologian Martin Buber in his book "Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant," says miracles are merely natural events viewed by extremely enthusiastic observers. The problem with this approach is that it basically makes all the biblical miracles false, and this is highly problematic to those who believe every word of the Bible is true.

The advantage of this approach is that it frees rational people to be religious without forcing them to accept talking snakes and donkeys, or seas that suddenly split open. It transforms biblical miracles into allegories and metaphors for truths that do not require a suspension of rational belief.

For example, the Eden story is the true account of the folly of human arrogance. The Flood becomes an allegory about our responsibility to care for the Earth, and the Exodus becomes a story of God's desire and demand that all his creatures be free.

The second approach to miracles is to swallow them whole and simply choose to believe that they are all true and happened exactly as described in the Bible. The problem with this view is that it just makes no sense to believe that an animal with no larynx can talk, that the laws of gravity did not apply at the Red Sea, or that the laws of celestial motion did not apply when Joshua stopped the sun at the battle of Jericho.

The choice between rational thought and religious belief does not work out well in the long run for religious belief. It fosters the false idea that only dumb people are religious. The advantage of this approach is that it fully honors God's omnipotence. It acknowledges that God's power is absolute and that nothing is impossible for God.

My own view is a combination of Option 1 and Option 2. I'm basically a religious rationalist. I believe that if something is scientifically untrue, it's also religiously untrue. However, the entire realm of human morality is beyond science, and it is the first revolutionary contribution of biblical religion to human culture in the West.

The moral laws of the Bible transformed what Thomas Hobbes called "the war of each against all" into a moral community of shared duties and mutual respect and compassion.

Beyond giving us a path of moral virtue, I believe that God also has done miracles for us in the world. The spontaneous remission of cancers, the sudden flashes of genius in science and art and philosophy, and the way people who've hardened their hearts suddenly find a soft spot where forgiveness and compassion can enter -- all these miracles and more are, for me, evidence that God is with us and cares for us and can, unprovoked, act on our behalf.

Some human events and human achievements are so transcendent in their beauty, truth and liberating power that I can't believe they are just the products of unaided minds. Sometimes, we're just gifted by miracles. We need to believe in miracles so we don't arrogantly assume that we can understand everything. We can't depend upon miracles. We can't wait for miracles and ignore the needs of the world, and we can't harbor the cruel and invidious illusion that miracles only happen to those who believe exactly as we do.

However, we can and we must recognize miracles when they happen, shouting joyfully, "Thank you, God, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and enabling us to see this miraculous time."

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