The God Squad: How do we fit miracles into our lives?
Q: Rabbi, great column! I have seen many TV shows and read books that feature religious people and even religious scholars who seek to find rational and/or scientific explanations to "miracles" reported in the Bible (the parting of the Red Sea seems to be a favorite). I believe this diminishes the religious significance of these stories by trying to remove the hand of God from the events described. What are your thoughts on why they do it and is it a good thing? -- From F, Long Island, NY
A: Dear F, thank you for your kind and inquisitive words. Over the years of writing this column with and now without my beloved Father Tom Hartman we have tried to defend miracles in a myriad of ways. What we could not do, and what I cannot do, is believe in miracles that completely and utterly contradict the laws of nature.
If the two walls of water on either side of the dry path of land over which the Israelites walked and ran along with others who joined them in the march to freedom were really standing up and defying the laws of gravity then the world would have had to stop spinning on its axis, which is what causes gravity. If it stopped spinning it would explode.
So we have a simple and bracing spiritual dilemma. Either science is wrong, and religion is right or religion is wrong and science is right. I refuse to be gored by the horns of that dilemma (which means two horns). I believe that science is right, and religion is right and this is how and why I see their relationship: science is about how the world works. Religion is about what the world means. They are both right in their own domains.
Faith that demands a surrender of our scientific faculty of critical thinking is dumb. Science that refuses to acknowledge that there is more to existence than mere physical matter is blind. The late paleontologist and philosopher Steven J. Gould beautifully described science and faith as “non-overlapping magesteria” (NOMA). Each was sovereign in its own realm.
The only problems between these NOMAs are when they forget their natural boundaries. When scientists arrogantly state that they have disproved the existence of God because they have not seen God in any of their telescopes they look foolish. Psalm 19 opens with the powerful affirmation of faith through nature, “The heavens declare the glory of God and firmaments speaks of Gods handiwork.” Just as a watch proves that there was a watchmaker, even if the watchmaker is never seen, so too does the world and its orderly laws and brilliant life forms prove that there is a world maker and that world maker—that Creator—is what we mean by God. Francis Collins, the greatest scientist of our time, is also a man of faith for this reason.
On the other side of the NOMA divide, and this leads us back to your question, when people of faith say that since God is all powerful, nothing is beyond God, including suspending the natural order to make miracles that testify to God’s presence, they make faith impossible for people who want to live in both realms of human questioning.
So, what can we do with the miracles that confront the laws of nature? One way, that you do not prefer, is to “naturalize” the miracles. The Red Sea miracle was just a lucky accident where the Israelites escaped through a muddy swamp of the Sea of Reeds (Heb: yam soof) on foot while the heavy war chariots of the Pharaoh got stuck in the mud and could not pursue them. In the enthusiastic retelling of the actual Exodus over time, the waters rose, and the miracle became utterly phantasmagorical.
You believe that this naturalizing of the miracles demeans faith and in a way I agree with you. I am not a believer in God and the Bible because I believe the sea split. I am a believer because a slave nation—my ancestors—escaped to freedom and chose to worship the God who delights in freedom. Was this Exodus a miracle in the sense that such things rarely if ever happen—yes! Was the Exodus a miracle because gravity decided to take the day off—not exactly. I believe that the Ten Commandments which spoke to a new and higher morality are miracles. The belief that no matter what kings and pharaohs say, all people--all people—are made in the image of God and thus deserve respect and love and compassion—that belief is a miracle articulating the sanctity of all human life.
So let us find our own ways to fit miracles into our spiritual narrative and let those ways preserve both sides of our divided brains.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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