Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coincidence or Divine Intervention?

A while ago a friend of mine wrote to me:

Quick question: what's your take on angels? I was on 55 the other day in heavy traffic in the left lane and I swerved to avoid a car that stopped suddenly. I spun around a few times and ended up in the right lane backwards (facing on-coming traffic). There wasn't a scratch on me, my car, or any of the other cars. Coincidence or divine intervention?

At the time I replied:

A quick answer:

I don't know.

Maybe divine or angelic intervention, but maybe not. Given the facts as you presented them, if this were a multiple choice test, I'd choose the "Not enough information to answer the question" option.

Since then, I've been meaning to write more about this. Hence, this post.

When it comes to the question of miracles/divine intervention, there are two extremes. On the one hand, there are the credulous—those who, when confronted with an occurrence for which there appears at first glance to be no natural explanation, reflexively consider it a miracle.

On the other extreme, there are the skeptical—those who, when confronted with an occurrence for which there appears at first glance to be no natural explanation, dismiss out of hand the mere possibility that it might be a miracle.

Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between.

The problem with the former is that bona fide miracles are in fact very rare, and that most seemingly unexplainable phenomena have an entirely natural explanation.

And yet, contra dogmatic materialists, miracles do happen from time to time.

Chesterton offers this devastating critique of their position:

That Manichean horror of matter is the only intelligent reason for any such sweeping refusal of supernatural and sacramental wonders. The rest is all cant and repetition and arguing in a circle; all the baseless dogmatism about science forbidding men to believe in miracles; as if science could forbid men to believe in something which science does not profess to investigate. Science is the study of the admitted laws of existence; it cannot prove a universal negative about whether those laws could ever be suspended by something admittedly above them. It is as if we were to say that a lawyer was so deeply learned in the American Constitution that he knew there could never be a revolution in America. Or it is as if a man were to say he was so close a student of the text of Hamlet that he was authorised to deny that an actor had dropped the skull and bolted when the theatre caught fire. The constitution follows a certain course, so long as it is there to follow it; the play follows a certain course, so long as it is being played; the visible order of nature follows a certain course if there is nothing behind it to stop it. But that fact throws no sort of light on whether there is anything behind it to stop it. That is a question of philosophy or metaphysics and not of material science.

Quite so.

Last month I came across a post on Mark Shea's blog that conveyed very well my thoughts on the question of miracles generally:

[God] tends to work his miracle in such a way that the one who seeks relationship with him can see his hand at work, while the one who seeks to avoid relationship with him can always chalk it up to a statistical anomaly.

Case in point.

A typical Vatican investigation of a miracle strikes the healthy balance between skepticism and the open-minded possibility of an actual miracle occurring. The assumption, as is normal, is that a miracle has no occurred and the normal naturalistic explanations are ticked off the list. If a naturalist explanation is found, then praise God, he worked through nature, but we are not looking at a sign that a saint has been honored by God and we move on. Catholics are free to see the hand of God at work in the occurrence, but the Church isn't going to push to call it a miracle if natural explanations suffice.

That sounds about right.

As a general rule, provided the Church has not ruled on a given matter, I think a certain amount of skepticism is entirely called for. It's for this reason that I'm increasingly convinced the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje are a fraud — especially in light of the most recent developments thereof.

In the case of my friend's question (whether there was direct divine or angelic intervention in the case of her near-accident), my initial guess would be that there was not, and that in this instance, God instead worked through the laws of physics to prevent an accident.

But Who knows?

1 comment:

The Dutchman said...

I think something always to keep in mind is that miracles always happen for a reason!

I'm sure your friend is a nice enough fellow, but how it is absolutely necessary to God's Plan to save him from prosaic catastrophe eludes me and thus (probably) precludes Divine intervention.

I do, however, love miracles. Especially really silly Medieval miracles (e.g. legs of mutton turning into fish, people's pants catching fire immediately after slandering a bishop).

I also detest the sort of explaining away of miracles that the secular do. Saying that the "miracle" of the loaves and fishes was that "Jesus taught the people to share."

The most idiotic critique of miracles I've ever heard was in John Cornwell's "The Pope in Winter." He said that the kind of miracle that should be accepted to prove sainthood should be expanded to include things like "the healing of a broken marriage." Yeah — stuff we could all do if we just put our hearts into it ...