A while back, one of you asked in an offhand way if I believe in miracles. I shrugged and thought for a moment about how best to answer that question. Before I could formulate a decent response, the conversation moved off in a different direction, as conversations do. (This was probably for the best. Conversational wanderings typically are. )
The question stayed with me, though. And as I thought more about it, I eventually arrived at the following answer: I don’t place much faith in miracles, but I do believe in wonders, and my respect for the latter means I have to admit the possibility of the former.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” you might ask.
Let me explain.
Mention “miracles” and most people think of startling, supernatural events. They imagine interventions (divine or otherwise) that seem extraordinary when measured against our ordinary expectations. They envision statues crying and loaves of bread multiplying. They contemplate gods and devils, angels and demons, the power of prayer and the mysteries of magic.
They don’t think about the myriad marvels that underlie all sorts of natural processes, including every meaningful human experience. They don’t wonder how photosynthesis ever came to be. Or ponder the fact that we really are made of stardust. Or question why time never simply stops. They also don’t consider how startling it is that a billion neurons can somehow form a trillion synaptic connections that subsequently enable a reader to parse a (rather long) sentence on a page that talks about gods and devils, angels and demons, photosynthesis, stars, time, brains, and more.
Mention miracles and people tend to do what we all tend to do most of the time: They think within a narrow frame of reference and expectation. This is one reason that pragmatic people sometimes say they don’t believe in miracles. What they really mean is that they have no faith in the stories they hear about startling events and supernatural forces of the aforementioned sorts.
What they also imply is that they may have too much faith in the easy explicability of the “ordinary” world we live in–and may have lost some of the childlike wonder that enables that world to appear in its full depth, richness, wildness, and weirdness. They fail to notice all the things they just don’t know: from the circumference of the visible universe to the location and momentum of a single electron within it; from what happened 10,000 years ago to what will happen tomorrow at 10 AM.
Perhaps most importantly, they fail to notice that they themselves are wondrous beings living in a world of wonders. The consciousness through which they perceive and believe (or don’t) is wondrous if not miraculous. So is the living body by means of which that consciousness experiences the world. And so, for that matter, is any world that produces living bodies that can consciously wonder about it.
In fact, there’s a clear sense in which the “ordinary” world we live in is made up of wonders all the way down. And if we’re being honest, we have to admit that substituting the word “miracles” for “wonders” in the sentence (and paragraphs) above doesn’t really change all that much. Either way, you’re still left trying to come to terms with a lot of amazing, unexplained stuff, including the you who’s trying to come to terms.
This is not to suggest that I think we should ever rest content with mushy “It’s a miracle!” explanations to our questions about the world or believe in every story we hear about supernatural interventions. As I noted above, I don’t place much faith in miracles, and I don’t think you should, either. I think we should all listen skeptically, get to know our sources, demand to see the evidence, question outlandish claims carefully, and judge accordingly.
At the same time, I think we should recognize the limitations of our sensory, cognitive, and intellectual systems, even as we put their wondrous powers to use. We only ever know a little, and we’re not even sure how we know what we do. If we want to know more, we have to admit to uncertainty, proceed with humility, and continue to cultivate the wonder that feeds honest inquiry–even if doing so also means we have to admit the possibility of miracles. Admittedly, this is not the simplest way to look savvy or smart. It is, nonetheless, the only way to grow wise.