Posted: Aug 25, 2013 8:41 pm
by Byron
"The universe is big. It's vast, and complicated, and ridiculous, and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles, and that's the theory."

The Doctor, Doctor Who

Thankfully, I've not been asked to waste my time, and everyone else's, by debating the evidence for miracles. Whenever this sorry path is trod, Team Miracle runs itself ragged in chasing shadows, inflating claims, and, generally, doing everything possible to flip our perception of reality on its head via the Team Miracle claim that what appears to be a heap of nothing is in fact a test of faith, a sign from God, or any of the other saving throws for the failure of the evidence to back their claim that sometimes, very rarely (or not), impossible things just happen.

Instead we have a question that's more interesting by far: can the concept of Christian miracles be rationally defended?

We've done well so far not to get bogged down with defining terms, and I don't intend to break with that wisdom now. When it comes to definitions of rationality, myself and Will are preaching from the same book. Both parties to this debate have accepted hallmarks of "rationality," chief among them consistency and logical progression in explanation. For miracles to be rationally defensible, there must be a clear purpose to miraculous events, and they have to mesh with the framework within which they (are claimed to) occur.

Doesn't happen. Can't happen. Here's why.

Christianity can't agree on a theology of miracles. To a Christian miracles are signs, but of what? Their god's power, obviously, but what else? What's God in Christ doing when he suspends the norms of our existence? Testing people's faith? Sometimes. Rewarding it? Yeah, that too. Giving signs of how the world should be? Yup. All of these possible explanations slam into the core problem, the elephant sitting, implacable, in the graveyard of theological failure.

Miracles are exceptional.

Pious Christians suffer lives of torment and injustice. Devout multitudes are broken on the tides of history. Unworthy men like Paul of Tarsus are saved, redeemed and exalted. For every testimonial of God saving a sinning wretch with a miraculous sign, there the lament of a God-fearing disciple of Christ tossed to the wolves. Why, in the Christian framework, is God claimed to save some but not others? This intersects with theodicy -- the advanced theological school of asking why God lets shit happen -- and rationality is a stranger in the tortured explanations for why the triune Godhead allows his people to be tortured. Great is the mystery of faith when reason fails, and boy, does it fail here.

"This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us."

Rorschach, Watchmen

So then, explanations for why miracles appear to occur arbitrarily. A pitiful bunch they are, too.

A favorite is that God wants us to learn from suffering. This has a superficial appeal. We can most of us give testimony of someone who inspires by helping others in need, and of lives improved by painful experience. Dig below the surface and that appeal vanishes. The Christian god not only has the power to end suffering in an eyeblink, that's his stated endgame. There will, according to Christian eschatology, be a new heaven and a new earth, where tears will be wiped away, and all will be made good. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. In Christianity's own terms, God does not view suffering as a good, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.

What's keeping him, then?

The cry can go out, "Why doesn't God flick the switch on the greatest miracle and end suffering?" but even this misses the greater horror, and the greater irrationality. In the Christian worldview, God knowingly created an imperfect reality in which suffering occurs, just as he knowingly created one in which sin exists. The God who desires perfection created imperfection so great it could only be remedied, imperfectly, with a cosmic blood sacrifice. The perfect god of the Christians created a reality so flawed that he must periodically ignore its operational norms. Miracles are only needed to undo a design flaw from being-itself. There shouldn't be a problem to fix. To give the inevitable riff on Epicurus, if God was forced to create evil, he is not omnipotent, and orthodox Christianity implodes. Allowing that God chose to create suffering, we're left asking why, and coming up short. Learning from suffering even when it destroys us? Whatever you say, Jack. Being punished for an ancestral sin the capacity for which God hardwired into us.

Our ways are not God's ways.

Indeed not.

God's ways are a self-contradictory mess.

I am drawing a false distinction, strictly speaking, since God is our projection and creation. When viewed in this way the various miracle claims make so much more sense, but I'm not defending atheism here, I'm arguing against the rationality of Christianity, so back to its theological bandaids in defense of miracles.

"God did extraordinary miracles through Paul ..."

Acts of the Apostles (translation: NRSV)

To be fair to the early Christian writings, there are some coherent miracle explanations in the first New Testament writings.

They don't solve the larger issues of why God created a world that inflicts the evil that miracles are required to fix, but they do offer an explanation that follows from the premise: God is about to remake the world in an apocalyptic event, and his conduit and herald, Jesus of Nazareth, works miracles as signs of the imminent end, signs that draw Jews and Gentiles into repentance. In the argot of Madison Avenue, the miracles are the taster for the rollout.

Like all doomsday cults, the end never came, and here we are.

Burdened with 2,000 years of baggage and failed prophecy, orthodox Christianity can do nothing rational with miracles. It downplays them, or offers explanations that are either incoherent, incompatible with the wider theological framework, or both. How much easier it was when the end was nigh!

Of God and dice

Miracles are ipso facto incompatible with an ordered universe, since they are, by definition, extra-ordinary events that break with universal norms and rewrite our observed framework of how reality functions. Claims for a rational Christianity yet again serve up a schizophrenic deity who loves order, and simultaneously, overturns it with miracles. God has his reasons and, naturally, they've beyond our understanding (or rather, beyond the explanatory ability of his self-appointed mouthpieces -- not through any lack of skill on their part, but through the inherent flaws of the case they're trying to argue).

What we have is the familiar tale of Christianity juggling incompatible explanations, trying to keep itself from ghettoized fundamentalist absurdity by acknowledging human discoveries, while refusing to abandon the fruits of a dead paradigm. The house continually divided. Miracles come from the ancient worldview that didn't conceive of reality as we do: they've now been rebranded as arbitrary suspensions of universal norms of which the founders of Christianity knew nothing. The attempt to graft the fruits of an ancient cosmology onto the fruits of empirical observation makes even less sense than the thing it replaced. As least miracles had a sort of internal logic in their dead paradigm. Now they have none.

God doesn't play dice with the universe, except for when he does. God is rational, except for when he isn't. Non sequitur piles atop non sequitur to a height that'd do the Tower of Babel proud.

"Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church."

Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Life in Christ"

In Christianity, Miracles aren't confined to dubious healing claims. The church itself is a miraculous sign, as are its sacraments: rituals that are, to the Christian, outward signs of inward grace. The sacred heart of much orthodox Christianity, the eucharist, is a specimen count of everything that sets the miraculous against the rational. The elements of the mass are changed, miraculously, into the body and blood of the risen Christ. While appearing to be bread and wine. The miracle of transubstantiation has been defined in such a way that it cannot be tested, ever.

In Christianity miracles exist to overturn norms and actualize wish-fulfillment. Anything must be possible. Rational explanations can be applied to the miraculous, but these are nothing when compared to the emotional tumult raging beneath. Without miracles, Christianity would have to accept that it played by the same rules as everyone else. Even when there is no emotional need for a miracle, power-games demand the miraculous. Christianity will fight doggedly and furiously to retain the power to set the terms in any way it choses. The gifts of the Spirit must not yield to the skepticism of humanity, any more than the church militant can be allowed to yield to the same laws that every other organization must obey.

The miracle of "ontological change" is used to defend the all-male priesthood. Jesus didn't ordain women, and priests are miraculously changed to work magic on the sacraments, so valid sacraments require a man. The church's discrimination against women should appall us, but like victims of abuse, we've become inured to the horror through familiarity. There is no reason here, no sense, just the flint of power. Men have ruled, and by God, men will continue to rule, whether by the miracle of apostolic succession, or by the miracle of biblical authority.

The citadel of patriarchy is built on the foundation of miracle claims. The church uses miracles to beat women down, and the beatdown rests on the irrationality of miracles. Women aren't excluded from the structures of ecclesiastical power for any of the figleafs of "complementality" or "natural law." They're excluded because of various so-called miracles. Miracles aren't just hope and denial. They're power at its rawest.

We're back, again, to "because I say so."

Aren't we always?

"# It's a miracle we need ..."

Queen, "The Miracle"

Not only does the Christian notion of the miraculous contradict every systematic empirical observation undertaken, even if it somehow leaped the evidential burden, it lacks any internal coherence. Either Christians can't agree what miracles are for, or the explanations they produce are a trainwreck. The only thing in doubt is whether they collapse under the weight of their own incoherence, or under the weight of wider Christian dogma.

Christian defense of miracles slams repeatedly into the failure of God in Christ to work the ultimate miracle: the replacement of the world as it is with the world as it should be. Christianity is clear that what is, and what should be, are at odds. Miracles are signs of a power that the triune God refuses to exercise, reasons unknown, and unknowable, even to his would-be spokesmen.

The strongest Christian explanation for miracles, that found in the synoptic gospel accounts, is itself irrational in a wider framework, but collapses without the keystone of an imminent apocalypse. The 16th century protestant reformers who preached cessationism -- that miracles ended with the resurrection of Christ, and wouldn't resume until his second coming -- at least pegged the issue, but their solution didn't solve it. Nothing could. That boat's long sailed.

Miracles in Christianity are the very definition of irrationality, since they constitute extraordinary claims that run against the observed norms of the universe, have no logical basis, and are at odds with the very Christian dogma that posits their existence. Even their own irrational axioms are against them!

Miracles are "because I say so" taken up to eleven: they happen because God wills that they happen, without rhyme or reason, without regard for the piety or sin of the recipient, without any discernible pattern whatsoever. Great is the mystery of faith, but not great enough to begin to counter the incoherence of the miraculous in the Christian religion.

If miracles are a sign of anything, it's Christianity's estrangement from reason.

You'd think it doesn't get worse than this. Unfortunately, it does. Much worse.