Inklings of Truth


Signs and Wonders

By Audrey Stallsmith

A scientist recently attempted to account for Jesus’ walking on water by suggesting that He was riding an isolated floe. Of all the ludicrous explanations I’ve ever heard, that one takes the ice cake!

The scripture clearly records that a storm was happening at the time and the disciples in their boat were fighting heavy seas. Under those circumstances, even the most expert surfer would be hard put to remain upright on such a slippery “board”--let alone give the impression that he was actually treading on the waves.

As far as I know, the scientist didn’t explain how Peter managed to traipse across the sea for a brief time too. Perhaps a convenient floe popped up for him as well? Why do the explanations people posit for miracles always sound so much more unlikely than the miracles themselves?

And why, after all, do scientists feel the need to explain everything? Perhaps because, as Stephen Brown writes in If God Is in Charge, “that which can be explained can be controlled.” Or, at least, we think it can!

Fortunately, just as most people do believe in God, most of us also believe in miracles—generally because we have either experienced them ourselves or know someone who has. And we are at least vaguely aware that the intricate machinery of our bodies and nature is miracle enough. As Philip Yancey notes in Open Windows, “Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds; they are different expressions of the same reality. . .”

G. K. Chesterton agrees, commenting in one of his columns, “science is always saying that the other world, if it exists, is too distant to be seen. Religion is always saying that it is too close to be seen. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

So, although most of us can discern God in the splendors of His creation, many professors prefer to perceive blind chance. In that case, C. S. Lewis points out in Miracles, they might as well discount all their deductions since “every theory of the universe which makes the human mind a result of irrational causes. . .would be proof that there are no such things as proofs.”

The conclusions humans come to, he continues, can only mean something if the human mind “has its tap-root in an eternal, self-existent, rational Being.” He too postulates the closeness of the supernatural. The fact, he argues, “which is in one respect the most obvious and primary fact, though which alone you have access to all other facts, may be precisely the one that is most easily forgotten—because it is so near and so obvious.” “The miracles. . .,” he concludes, “are a retelling in small letters of the same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

The loss of awe that some of the overeducated experience is what Chesterton calls in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, “a vulgar familiarity with the earth, a familiarity without knowledge.” Because they know what makes the clock tick, they think they can discount the clockmaker. They might better, G. K. advises in Daylight and Nightmare, know “things as they are known, not merely by a man who is learned, but by a man who is learning—that is, who is still alive.”

The fact that God can’t be proved doesn’t discourage those who understand that, as Frederick Buechner states in Wishful Thinking, “almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved.” Love, for example. I know of no detector that can empirically verify that. In fact, some scientists would probably deny it exists at all and contend that most of our affections are based on either lust or self-interest! But, for the mass of mankind, love is “what makes the world go around.”

Dismissing what you don’t understand is hardly scientific. And it’s also more than a little arrogant. Referring to the miracle where a disciple found tax money in the mouth of a fish, Chesterton writes ironically, “It is plainly preposterous to say that God who made the fishes could open and shut a fish’s mouth if he liked. But we can believe anything. . .about the marvelous things that man can do.”

Most of us, if given Jesus’ power to commit miracles, probably wouldn’t have been able to resist showing off. Creating completely new stuff out of thin air, for example. But the Lord chose a more understated style. He preferred, as Rebecca Manley Pippert notes in Out of the Saltshaker, to “take natural elements and do supernatural things with them. . .he worked with what the disciples had.”

He apparently wanted to give people a part in their own deliverance, a part that required some faith from them. So he sent a fisherman to catch a fish, dispatched ten lepers to show themselves to a priest, or accepted the clearly inadequate gift of a little boy’s lunch bucket--and fed thousands of people from it.

But the people for whom he committed these matter-of-fact miracles had to be willing to admit their need. That’s why, perhaps, wonders are more likely to occur among the poor and unlearned—whom some scientists consider overly gullible. They may have a point, considering how many people claim to see the face of Jesus or other religious figures in grilled cheese sandwiches, smoke stains, etc.! But that just proves how starved the modern world is for the spiritual.

Science, Chesterton concludes dryly, “can go on day and night calling for evidence and it can rule out the evidence of the mass of mankind.” “If the question is rather believers can see visions,” he adds irascibly elsewhere, “if you are interested in visions, it is no point to object to believers.”

And, considering how many of its own theories science has had to refute, we can conclude that scientists aren’t completely lacking in credulity themselves. There has been so much backtracking in recent years—in the field of health—for example, that most of us have been reduced to deciding for ourselves what is and isn’t good for us. The public’s preference for alternative medicine points to a large disillusion with the scientific and medical establishment.

That isn’t entirely deserved, since the treatment of disease is one of the areas in which science has really made major strides. For a number of years we almost completely eliminated some of the major plagues of the past, but there are ominous indications that a few may be on the way back. So the intellectual establishment, we’ve discovered, is not really as infallible as people once believed.

According to Chesterton, the Victorians were so enchanted with the novelty of scientific progress that they saw it as “an oiled and smooth-running machine.” They began the “habit of treating things as obviously unquestionable, when, indeed, they are obviously questionable.”

It was inevitable that the public should eventually lose that implicit faith in science. Man is a spiritual creature after all, and cannot live on the physical alone. And science is, as Dorothy Sayers points out in Begin Here, “a method for discovering Why things happen as they do; it is not concerned or equipped to discover Why things should happen at all.”

But, given the kind of things people resort to instead of God, we have to conclude that most of us are more comfortable viewing wonders from a safe distance. “To acknowledge a miracle,” Buechner suggests in A Room Called Remember, “Is to have to act on it somehow—to become some kind of miracle ourselves.”

Imagine, for example, that you are the blind man Jesus healed. On the one hand, you have your former neighbors arguing over whether you really are the man they knew. On the other you have the Pharisees refusing to believe you were born blind and trying to bully your parents into saying otherwise. And you are left with a debt you can never repay to a Man you can’t begin to understand.

Not to mention that, for the rest of your life people will be watching you, expecting extraordinary things—or even hoping that you will relapse and prove their doubts right after all. Being a miracle isn’t for the faint-hearted! Perhaps the nine lepers who didn’t return to thank Jesus had some of that in mind.

But, while the Pharisees were trying to talk their way out of what had just happened, the blind man stuck doggedly to facts. “I’ve got no idea who this Fellow is—or isn’t. But what I do know is that I was blind, and now I can see!”

It’s a statement thousands of people can make about their encounter with Christ—including the once skeptical apostle Paul. And it tends to shatter all our preconceived notions about what can and can’t happen. But, as Chesterton advises, “the important thing in life is not to keep a steady stream of pleasure and composure (which can be done quite well by hardening one’s heart or thickening one’s head), but to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter, and a kind of young reverence.”