Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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Personal Miracles

Personal Miracles: A View from St. Paul and the Cognitive Sciences

Susan Grove Eastman is Associate Research Professor of the New Testament at Duke University.

Are miracles possible? This is a distinctly modern question. It presumes the existence of a “natural world” governed by laws that must be broken for a miracle to occur and a “spiritual world” of divine action that may operate contrary to the laws of nature. But if we take off the post-Enlightenment lenses that make such a distinction between the natural and the spiritual realms, then the question looks very different.

For example, the Greek word translated “miracle” in the New Testament writings of the first century is dynamis, or “power.” Think “dynamite.” When Jesus does “works of power,” the point is not that he contravenes some independently existing natural order, but that he personally enacts the presence and power of God. There were other “miracle workers,” both Jewish and pagan, in the ancient world; the “possibility” of such demonstrations of power was not debated. What mattered was determining their source. How do we recognize a powerful event as coming from God? The question is not, “Are miracles possible?” but, “How do we know or recognize God’s action?” And that question takes us to questions about how we know anything or anyone at all. In answer to this question, the writings of some contemporary cognitive scientists and the ancient letters of Paul converge in surprising ways.

First, knowledge begins in personal relationship. As Kathleen says to Joe in You’ve Got Mail, “What’s wrong with personal? … Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” Here is what some leading cognitive scientists say about beginning by being personal.

Experimental psychologist Peter Hobson argues that primary social engagement is necessary for the development of language and, indeed, of all human capacities for thinking: “Central to mental development is a psychological system that is greater and more powerful than the sum of its parts. The parts are the caregiver and her infant; the system is what happens when they act and feel in concert.”

The neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese posits that the action of “mirror neurons” in the brain creates a “we-centric” space between interacting individuals, an “intersubjective” space that “blends the interacting individuals within a shared implicit semantic content.” He further claims that such “shareable characters of experience and action are the earliest constituents of our life.”

Vasudevi Reddy says: “It is the other’s attention at grips with the infant that makes attention exist for the infant.” Expanding on the same idea, she says, “[Y]ou have to be addressed as a subject to become one.”

These are just three examples from a spectrum of scientists who, despite their differences, converge on an interpersonal account of human being and knowing. Philosopher Timothy Chappell puts it very succinctly:

[N]o human starts out as an island. Each of us at least begins as a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Insofar as we ever come to be anything like ‘entire of ourselves,’ this is a learned and socialized achievement; an achievement, moreover, which is necessarily built upon our prior status as parts of the main. In a word, individuality presupposes relationality.

Here are Paul’s words from 2000 years ago:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)

Here knowledge is incomplete and analogous to children’s ways of knowing; it is thoroughly, irreducibly interpersonal; and it is initiated and sustained by the assurance of being known and loved by God. Knowledge grows out of the gift of attention, of being known by another. Here that other is God. But Paul doesn’t focus primarily on God and the individual in a private relationship. His focus is rather on a “we-centric” space between people, in which the knowledge of God is mediated through other people. He says that the Spirit of God dwells “among you,” so that knowledge of God is “between ourselves” (Romans 8:9).

Furthermore, for Paul, such knowledge happens in the midst of embodied relationships, particularly in the midst of suffering and struggle:

It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:6-10)

Thus in both scientific and Pauline accounts of human knowledge, the experience of being seen and known precedes and grounds the capacity to know another. And in both accounts, such knowledge happens in and through our embodied and socially embedded experience. Knowledge of the “miraculous” is thus hidden in the events of daily life.

How does this claim relate to the possibility of recognizing something as a “miracle,” an action of divine power? It suggests, in the first place, that such recognition happens interpersonally, because we human beings are irreducibly interpersonal in our capacity for knowledge. The focus is on what happens in our interaction with one another, not in our isolated thought processes. Neurobiological explanations of private ecstatic visions will not get at Paul’s interpersonal understanding of the knowledge of God’s presence and action in the world. Such private, esoteric experience is not his concern. Rather, insofar as the knowledge of God’s presence and action takes place in the visible, tangible bonds between persons, that is where “miracles” are to be seen.

Secondly, this focus on the personal subverts the usual idea of “miracle.” Paul reframes the extraordinary power of God in terms of personal endurance, resilience, and hope in the face of overwhelming odds. Miracles – the operations of divine power – are hidden in the humanly impossible eruption of hope in the face of despair and love in the face of hatred and in the formation of countercultural communities that incubate such hope and love.

The American public has witnessed such a miracle recently in Charleston. The racist hatred that motivated the gunman who murdered nine African-American Christians is heinous, and altogether too familiar, particularly in light of the church burnings that have followed. But the statements of forgiveness given by relatives of the victims witness to an alternate reality with an altogether different kind of power, funded by worship and prayer in their life together. “I forgive you,” they said to the murderer, one by one.

Is this not miraculous?

Susan Grove Eastman is Associate Research Professor of the New Testament at Duke University.

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