Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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A Deeper Vision of Nature

A Deeper Vision of Nature: C. S. Lewis on Miracles

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and author of the acclaimed biography C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).

Debates about miracles have become fairly predictable set pieces these days, partly because the arguments on both sides are so familiar. One of the problems is that so much seems to depend on definition. David Hume famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” raising the difficult question of what it would mean for a “law of nature” to be violated. If the laws of nature are simply summative statements of natural regularities, an apparent “violation” of those laws could be seen as a miracle—but would more reasonably be taken as an indication that what had hitherto been assumed to be a “law of nature” was actually nothing of the sort. No law of nature was violated, because it wasn’t a “law” in the first place.

So what does C. S. Lewis’s Miracles: A Preliminary Study, a short extended essay first published in 1947, contribute to this discussion? Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity and achieved a remarkable reputation as a defender of the rationality of his newfound faith, especially in works such as Mere Christianity. As we might expect, Miracles is written in engaging, even enticing prose, which captures the reader’s attention from the outset and holds it as Lewis explores the regularity of the natural order and the capacity of the natural sciences to represent this. This serves as the foundation of his discussion about whether science limits or determines what actually happens in our world. While Lewis has obviously read Thomas Aquinas and Hume, and regularly picks up themes from their works, he wisely avoids any dull technical discussion. Only in the twelfth chapter of Miracles do we find an explicit engagement with Hume.

So what approach does Lewis adopt? For Lewis, the word “miracle” does not refer to an observation, but to an interpretation of an observation. And that interpretation is itself determined by the observer’s mind-set or outlook. “What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.” 

If we are locked into a mind-set that excludes the miraculous as a matter of principle, then miracles can’t occur. End of discussion. “If Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything.” For Lewis, the question whether miracles occur “can never be answered simply by experience.” A deeper criterion of the category of the miraculous is needed.

Lewis thus spends a considerable amount of time reflecting on how the natural sciences engage nature, and represent it using ideas such as the “laws of nature.” “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” It is an important point, but it is not Lewis’ central point. Lewis defines miracles in theological, not observational terms. Whether they are ordinary or extraordinary, the fundamental characteristic of a “miracle” is that it is “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”

At first sight, Lewis seems to be heading straight into the ambush laid for naïve theists by David Hume. But Lewis is ready for this. “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature,” but are to be seen within a deeper informing context. If God made the universe in the first place, why should it not have an inbuilt capacity for the miraculous? Having offered a theological definition of a miracle, Lewis lays a theological foundation for the integration of the miraculous within the natural order, grounded in the idea that both share a “common Creator.”

Developing Aquinas’s idea of miracles as events that transcend the productive power of nature, Lewis emphasises the fundamental continuity of divine action in creating and inhabiting the world. Miracles are not about an external God pulling strings within a world that has no connection or relation to him. Rather, God is a “Power which is not alien,” who works at a deeper level within the world to achieve its ultimate aims and goals.

The Christian way of looking at things, Lewis suggests, leads us to believe in the “total harmony of all that exists.” Everything that happens within nature—including miracles, if they do indeed occur—must reflect and disclose that harmony. While miracles must, by definition, interrupt the “usual course of Nature,” they nevertheless reflect the “unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level.” There is indeed a “total harmony” within the universe, which is only partially accessible to science. “In Science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity we find the poem itself.”

So what are we to make of these ideas? There is one statement within Miracles that seems unassailable to me: “The possibility of miracles cannot be disproven.” Yet many will feel that this is somewhat meagre fare. Surely Lewis ought to have offered a more powerful affirmation of the actuality of the miraculous, rather than a subtle redefinition of the category? Lewis’s defense of miracles, as well as his specific way of construing them, rests on a theological foundation, which many of his readers will be disinclined to accept. Lewis presupposes the rationality of faith (which, for Lewis, was an extension, not a contradiction, of a wider human reason), and aims to show how miracles can be accommodated within this. He is, in effect, inviting his skeptical readers to step into his way of seeing things and assess the plausibility of miracles from this viewpoint.

While this is an issue, Lewis himself noted that we cannot get away from the problem of particularity. The debate about miracles does not really focus on the (potentially) universal category of observation, but on the particular category of interpretation. The critical question concerns which particular assumptions should govern discussion of the question in the first place and which predetermine its outcome. Lewis argues that a naturalist worldview simply forecloses the discussion. There is no objective “view from nowhere” for this discussion. Miracles is better seen as a critique of a certain form of naturalism, rather than as a defence of the category of the miraculous. Yet Lewis was surely right to think that the critique of the former was an indirect affirmation of the latter.

The debate about Lewis’s approach will continue. Miracles is, in my judgement, a work which works best for Christian readers, who are likely to find an intuitive intellectual resonance with the lines of exploration mapped out by Lewis. Yet Lewis leaves us with a thought that won’t go away and is philosophically productive. The laws of nature themselves came into being with the Big Bang. So if the origin of the universe was not a miracle, then what was it?

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and author of the acclaimed biography C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).

Image by Michael Moyle.

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