Miracles: Modern Perspectives

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The attitude toward miracles in the Western world is a strange combination of belief and disbelief. Most of the Mediterranean cultures that laid the groundwork for Western thinking believed that human beings have two modes of coping with animate and inanimate reality. One is the ordinary way, the other the religious or miraculous way. (Most nineteenth-century Western anthropologists called the second way magical.) Humans act in the ordinary way when they use habit, conventional thinking processes, or acquired skills. When these methods fail, when humans cannot adequately deal with the physical world, or when other human beings are hostile or unchanged by threats, war, contracts, or persuasion, another option is available: they can seek the help and intervention of a spiritual or nonphysical dimension of reality, which exists alongside and interpenetrates the ordinary physical dimension. This supplication can be quite conscious or it can be performed unconsciously through actions that imply control over these powers. Help can be invoked through concentration, meditation, ritual, spell, or ecstatic trance. Aid can be sought for knowledge, protection, or deliverance. The spiritual powers called upon can be either beneficent, malignant, or neutral. When a result appears in response to such an action, a miracle is said to occur. The miracle may occur within an individual or in the external world.

Four different attitudes toward miracles are to be found in Western cultures at the present time. (1) Christianity's view, which has remained quite consistent from the teachings and practice of Jesus to the present time, holds that miracles are natural manifestations of God. (2) Rational materialism maintains that material reality accounts for all data of experience and infers therefrom that spiritual reality is an illusion and that miracles do not exist. This view has encouraged liberal Christianity to doubt the reality of the miracles found in the New Testament and to rule out the possibility of their happening at present. This view has influenced conservative Christianity as well, for conservatives believe that miracles did occur within the dispensation of God at the time of Jesus but that they do not occur now. (3) A resurgence of interest in and study of phenomena not accounted for within the framework of materialism constitutes yet another approach to miracles, which has recently engaged the scientific community. (4) A fourth attitude toward miracles prevails in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Western Christian Science. In this view, material reality is seen as illusion. A miracle occurs once an individual realizes this truth. This approach is increasingly popular in the West, for it provides an alternative to rational materialism.

Christianity and Miracle

Christianity is both a historical religion and a living one. The historic Christian faith is one of the few in which miracles are seen as constituent of the orthodox faith. It continues the Old Testament tradition of God acting powerfully in the physical world. As C. S. Lewis (1947) points out, historical Christianity sees the incarnation of God in the world as the greatest miracle that culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection. Through this invasion of God the powers of evil are defeated and the kingdom of heaven begins to manifest itself on earth. Reginald H. Fuller (1963) sees the New Testament miracles as signs of the breakthrough of the kingdom into the ordinary world, though he questions the historicity of most miracles.

I have shown in detail in The Christian and the Supernatural (1976) that the miraculous in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles described in the New Testament falls into six categories:

  1. The most common miracles are physical and mental healings, from curing ailments like a fever (Mk. 1:30) to raising the dead.
  2. Another class of miracles involves exorcism, or healing through the expulsion of a spiritual force causing mental or physical illness. Most mental and physical sickness was perceived not as the action of God but as the infiltration of negative spiritual powers at war with God, an infiltration that morally caused sin, physically caused disease, and mentally caused madness or possession.
  3. The third category comprises communication with the spiritual world and with God through dreams, visions, revelations, or prayer. Such communication is a basic principle of the teachings and practice of Jesus.
  4. Nature miracles comprise a fourth category. Examples include Jesus walking on the water (Mk. 6:48), the stilling of the storm (Mk. 4:38), physical disappearance (Lk. 4:30), and the feeding of the multitudes (Mk. 6:35).
  5. In another category of miracles Jesus shows telepathic, clairvoyant, and precognitive power (Mk. 2:6, Jn. 1:47, Mk. 11:1). Sometimes his statements are prophetic, as when he foretells his own death and resurrection, relates the destruction of Jerusalem, and speaks of the coming of the Kingdom.
  6. In the final category of miracles are the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which combine both the physical and the spiritual in a religious experience that is dynamic and transforming.

Similar miracles are reported among the apostles after the ascension of Jesus in Acts of the Apostles and in other books of the New Testament. This tradition of miracles continued without interruption in both Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity; services for healing and exorcism are found in the official service books of both. Writing during the fifth century, Sozomenos reports that miracles began to occur again at the end of the Arian controversy, when churches held by Arians were returned to Orthodox pastors (Ecclesiastical History 7.5). Throughout Christian history miracles have been reported to occur around saintly people. To this day several attested miracles are required by the Roman Catholic church before a saint is canonized.

During the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin wrote that the age of miracles was over and that their occurrence should not be expected. At the same time Protestantism was overwhelmed by the rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment, and discussion of the miraculous nearly disappeared. The Roman Catholic church upheld its practice without trying to defend it intellectually, and shrines like Lourdes drew great crowds. The academic Protestant community came to believe that the practice of Christianity was largely a matter of morality and that neither God nor the spiritual world contacted or influenced practical human life to any great extent. Rudolf Bultmann presented this thesis consistently and thoroughly.

Philosophical Materialism

Materialism as an adequate explanation for all things originated in the thinking of several classical Greek thinkers, was developed by Aristotle, and came to fruition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My book Encounter with God (1972) traces this development from its first beginnings to its full-blown denial of any aspect of reality not perceived by the five senses and not objectively verifiable. This view, diametrically opposed to the view of Hinduism and Buddhism, dominated the intellectual and academic life of the West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and influenced nearly all disciplines from psychology and anthropology to comparative religion and Christian theology. In several books B. F. Skinner dismisses human consciousness as the ghost in the box. Melvin Konner in The Tangled Wing (New York, 1982) writes that there is only the blind action of natural selection, sifting material genes. A person is only a gene's way of making another gene. This skeptical materialism has arisen many times in human historyin China, Greece, and Romebut only recently has it effectively taken over nearly a whole culture.

This worldview considers all miracles and all contact with any dimension of reality other than the concrete physical one absurd, the result of ignorance, superstition, or the refusal to search long enough for the purely physical causes. Supposedly intelligent people will classify miracle with magic and ignore any experience purporting to be miraculous.

Scientific Study of Paranormal Experience

Since the mid-twentieth century, when man succeeded in splitting the atom and the implications of Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy and Einstein's theory of relativity were fully realized, theoretical physics has become much less certain that it can provide final answers. In Physics and Philosophy (New York, 1962) Werner Heisenberg suggests that we live in an open universe and that the conventional words describing God and spirit may have greater correspondence with reality than the highly developed words of physics. The mathematical thinking of Kurt Gödel, the analysis of scientific theory presented by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), the findings of psychosomatic medicine, the work of modern anthropologists, the data in Andrew Greeley's The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance (1975), the scientific study of parapsychological phenomena, and the theory underlying the depth psychology of C. G. Jung all cast doubt on Western materialist determinism.

In the heyday of materialism in London a group of serious scientists organized the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. An American society was organized three years later in which William James was active. Sigmund Freud was a member of the original society and contributed to its publications. Jung too studied and published on the subject of paranormal experience; he discussed synchronicity, mediumship, and telepathy and provided models for understanding these events. Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University did many scientific studies of events that did not fit into the materialistic paradigm.

Finally, the professional organization calling itself the Parapsychological Association was accepted as an affiliate by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. One of the most comprehensive surveys of scientific parapsychology to date is that of Robert F. Jahn (1982). Jahn describes four categories of psychic phenomena; three of these are divided further. These categories are similar to the Christian ones. In the following outline, I have added explanations of the terms.

I. Extrasensory Perception (ESP)

  1. Telepathy: information passing from mind to mind without physical means
  2. Clairvoyance: perception of events or happenings at a distance in space
  3. Precognition/Retrocognition: perception of events in future time or past time
  4. Animal ESP

II. Psychokinesis (PK): the affect of mind or psyche or spirit on a material environment

  1. Physical Systems
    1. deliberate, actually effected by conscious intent
    2. spontaneous, as in poltergeist phenomena
  2. Biological Systems
    1. psychic healing
    2. plant PK

III. Survival: experiences of the deceased

  1. Reincarnation: evidence of a former life of the indi-vidual
  2. Apparitions: experience of the person deceased or spiritual reality
  3. Mediumship: using others to make contact with this nonphysical domain

IV. Out-of-Body Experiences (OOBE): the experience of having existence as a psyche, but no longer tied to the physical body

Once it is acknowledged that human beings can receive verifiable information through means other than the five senses and that this reception breaks the rules of space and time, the serious scientific study of miracle becomes possible. It becomes possible to examine critically data that are not easily verifiable, such as communication from the deceased and the transformative power of religious experience. A strict materialistic framework considers communication through nonphysical means as absurd as a miracle, because it assumes that some physical signal has to enter the closed system and move the cogs so that the message can get through. An alternate theory of perception is required to avoid such an impasse.

Since the first decade of the twentieth century the medical profession has come to realize that a materialist point of view cannot explain or heal all human disease. Both James and Jung point out that the experience of meaninglessness is a disease causing both emotional and physical sickness. In The Broken Heart (1977) James J. Lynch describes the medical consequences of loneliness and calls organized religion to task for not providing ways to meet this human need, which is largely ignored in a mechanistic, materialistic society. O. Carl and Stephanie Simonton have described a meditative treatment for cancer in Getting Well Again (1978). Herbert Benson describes what he calls the faith factor in Beyond the Relaxation Response (1983).

In The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1960), Jung presents a theory of synchronicity developed in conjunction with the Nobel Prize-winning atomic physicist Wolfgang Pauli. He offers a hypothesis as to how events can be influenced both by physical causality operating within the material world and by other forces as well. Jung never denied physical causality, but he concluded that it could not explain all happenings, a conclusion also reached by other scientists. Those events not explainable in purely causal terms Jung called acausal or synchronous. In his theory each instant of time contains meaning; there is a coherence in each period of duration, and these coherences have their source in the nonphysical, psychoid, or, in Christian terminology, the spiritual aspect of reality. The Chinese call this the Dao, and the Chinese book of oracles, I ching, is based upon this principle. Miracles exemplify synchronous events. In oracular information, dream interpretation, religious experience, healing, and nature miracles the synchronous appears autonomously or through mediation.

The most recent studies seem to suggest that the issue of miracle or paranormal experience remains an open question in the Western world.

See Also

Otherworld; Philosophy, articles on Philosophy and Religion, Philosophy of Religion.


Benson, Herbert, and William Proctor. Beyond the Relaxation Response. New York, 1984.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Rev. & enl. ed. New York, 1964. The authoritative study of the shaman and the technique of esctasy by which the otherworld is mediated to the physical world.

Frank, Jerome D. Persuasion and Healing. Baltimore, 1961. A comparative study of the various schools of modern psychotherapy, healing in primitive society, religious revivalism, and Communist thought reform.

Fuller, Reginald H. Interpreting the Miracles. London, 1963. An attempt to study New Testament miracles using the framework of Rudolf Bultmann.

Greeley, Andrew M. The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1975. Hard sociological data on the incidence of religious experience and its effect on human beings.

Jahn, Robert F. "The Persistent Paradox of Psychic Phenomena: An Engineering Perspective." Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 70 (February 1982): 136-170. The finest and most up-to-date summary of parapsychological research.

Jung, C. G. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. New York, 1960. Gives Jung's theory of personality and synchronicity.

Kelsey, Morton. Dreams: The Dark Speech of the Spirit. Garden City, N.Y., 1968. An analytical and historical study of dreams as conveyors of information from the space-time world. Republished without appendix as God, Dreams and Revelation (Minneapolis, 1974).

Kelsey, Morton. Encounter with God. Minneapolis, 1972. Provides a study of the development of Western philosophical materialism and the evidence that points beyond its worldview.

Kelsey, Morton. Healing and Christianity. New York, 1973. A study of the miracles of healing and exorcism found in the ministry of Jesus and in the history of the Christian Church, together with a consideration of their psychological, medical, and philosophical base.

Kelsey, Morton. The Christian and the Supernatural. Minneapolis, 1976. An analysis of miraculous elements in the New Testament.

Kelsey, Morton. Companions on the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance. New York, 1983. Contains both a philosophical base for religious experience and miracles and an analysis of the nature of religious experience.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles (1947). Rev. ed. New York, 1968. An excellent analysis of the subject from a Christian viewpoint.

Lynch, James J. The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness. New York, 1977. A serious medical study of the effect of human and religious values on health.

Simonton, O. Carl, Stephanie Simonton, et al. Getting Well Again. Los Angeles, 1978. The theory and practice of using meditation for the treatment of cancer.

New Sources

Cavadini, John C., ed. Miracles in Jewish and Christian Antiquity: Imagining Truth. Notre Dame, 1999.

Geisler, Norman L. Miracles and the Modern Mind: A Defense of Biblical Miracles. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1992.

Grosso, Michael. "Miracles: Illusions, Natural events, or Divine Interventions?" Journal of Religion & Psychical Research 20, no. 4 (October 1997): 182198.

Mullin, Robert Bruce. Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination. New Haven, 1996.

Rao, Ursula. "How to Prove Divinities? Experiencing and Defending Divine Agency in a Modern Indian Space." Religion 32, no. 1 (January 2002): 312.

Saunders, Nicholas. Divine Action and Modern Science. Cambridge, U.K. and New York, 2002.

ter Haar, Gerrie. "A Wondrous God: Miracles In Contemporary Africa." African Affairs 102, no. 408 (July 2003): 409429.

Morton Kelsey (1987)

Revised Bibliography