What’s Miraculous

I grew up in a world of miracles. My father had many miracle stories, including five dollar bills that he prayed into twenty dollar bills, and one in which he had been in a car accident and saw a semi barreling down on the wreck. Somehow, the semi miraculously vanished.

My mother was miraculously healed twice, once of cancer, once of a rotator cuff injury. My parents were true believers in a world made miraculous by Pentecostalism and its focus on the Book of Acts.

The question of miracles has been a much-vexed issue. In the eighteenth century, when unorthodoxy was very much both physically and professionally dangerous, the Scottish philosopher David Hume examined the question.

Hume started from the idea that miracles are miracles because they violate normally observed reality. Hume would not deny the possibility of miracles because he did deny that we know for certain that any of the physical laws we’ve observed will continue to occur. For example, gravity might not operate tomorrow. We have no way of knowing for sure.

From this skeptical viewpoint, we can’t say that a barreling semi won’t vaporize or that fives won’t turn into 20s on US currency. It’s only highly unlikely.

Hume was too skeptical to be too skeptical about miracles. In his day, that appeared impious. In our time, it seems like good sense to me.

Miracles are miraculous because they violate the laws of nature that usually apply — walking on water, vanishing long-haul trucks, and spontaneously disappearing cancers just don’t happen to most of us on a daily basis.

Yet in my own skeptical life I come back again and again to the words of Buddhist monk Thick That Hanh, who said, “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

Dwelling in the moment and walking on the green earth feel normal, don’t they? These feel mundane, as if the laws of nature apply. That diminishes the wonder of it all.

Unlike my parents, I don’t expect miracles. But I do try to notice walking on the green earth in the present moment . . . the moment when, miraculously, I am alive.