In Search of the Miraculous

On May 21, 2011, a miracle did not happen. Or, maybe, it did.

The miracle in question is known as The Rapture. It’s a curious bit of religious doctrine. It’s not mentioned in any recorded words of Jesus. Instead, it’s based on a single passage from Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. At the Second Coming of Christ, he forecasts, true believers will be lifted off the ground to meet Jesus, as he descends from Heaven. St. Paul writes, “We who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

Over two millennia, The Rapture has had its ups and downs. Various believers have predicted it would be fulfilled in 1844, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993 and 1994.

Come 2011, a California radio preacher named Harold Camping calculated that  The Rapture would occur on May 21. Up to 200 million of the faithful would be teleported towards the stratosphere. The rest of us would stick around to endure five months of tribulation, timed to coincide with summertime in Texas.

As the date approached, thousands of the faithful disposed of their worldly goods, while humorists had a field day. One website offered, for a small fee, to watch your pets after you’re gone. Said New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, “If the world does end tomorrow, it would fix our traffic problems.”

In the end, May 21 came and went without apparent incident. Reverend Camping rescheduled The Rapture to October 21. Two weeks later, he had a stroke. Comedians moved on to other subjects.  Skeptics were convinced that, once again, a miracle had not happened.

And yet, a rapture actually did occur on May 21, in plain sight and much as Saint Paul had predicted. Three million people were lifted off their feet and caught up into the clouds. None of them met Jesus, but they did meet stewards and stewardesses, who offered them water and wine.

Now, to you and me, commercial aviation might not sound like a miracle. The only miracle is reaching our destinations without losing our baggage. But to someone born in the First Century A.D., the very notion of a machine that could raise people into the sky, held up by invisible forces, would qualify as a miracle of the highest order. And Christianity was hardly the only religion that pictured Gods in flying machines.

So I put to you the question: Did a miracle happen on May 21? The answer depends on your point of view. One person’s miracle is another person’s myth, and on occasion, another person’s annoyance. A miracle, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is often looking in the wrong direction.

I’m bringing up the Rapture to suggest that the subject of miracles is not as simple as it seems. It is often framed in the same terms as the subject of God – as if it were a simple Yes or No question. Do you believe, or don’t you? When asked about God, my answer has always been: Which one? As for miracles, I would ask: Which sorts of miracles?

You might have a different question: Why talk about miracles at all, especially in a Unitarian church? Miracle is not an easy concept to wrap our minds around. Our rational reflex is to view it as superstition, a bygone relic of the faiths that we cast off when we put away childish things.

And yet, miracle already has a place in our faith. The original Latin word, miraculum, carries no hocus-pocus. It means, simply, “object of wonder.” In our seven sources, we describe it as, “The direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”

For many of us, once we’ve experienced that wonder, it’s hard to be satisfied with pure rationalism. In the words of our spiritual forebear, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

I was raised with a strictly scientific worldview, in which my dad put miracles on the same level as the tooth fairy. Being an avid astronomer, he couldn’t look through his telescope without feeling there was some kind of intelligence organizing the vast array. But that intelligence would not stoop to dabble in human affairs, any more than we dabble in the affairs of amoebas.

My dad’s worldview had the virtue of being self-contained and consistent. In that way, it was a lot like fundamentalist religion. As I grew older, though, I found that, for me, it wasn’t enough. On an emotional level, there was a hole in my heart that longed for some kind of connection with a higher power. I felt that divine connection when hiking a mountain trail or singing a favorite song. To me, they were objects of wonder.

Nor did my dad’s worldview work completely on a material plane. All my life, I’ve run into experiences that evoke a different sort of wonder: They make me wonder. I call them minor miracles. Many of you probably have them, too. None of them rises to the level of walking on water or raising the dead. I think of an old friend I haven’t spoken to in years, and within a couple of days I hear from them. I turn on my cell phone and find that my greeting message has been altered. It uses a nickname that was only ever used by one friend, who passed away a year before.

A couple of minor miracles occurred as I began researching this sermon. One Sunday, I stopped by Half-Price Books to look for the book A Course in Miracles. The next day, at lunch, a friend told me a moving story about reuniting with a sister, from whom she had been estranged for twenty years. As soon as I got home, I got a call that tied these two events together. It was from my adopted sister Mary Beth, with whom I hadn’t spoken in six months. Mary Beth, it turned out, was about to give a sermon based on A Course in Miracles.

A strict rationalist can dismiss such connections as mere coincidence. The mathematician J.E. Littlewood defined a miracle as a one-in-a-million event. He calculated that if we have one experience per second, then we should see a miracle once every 35 days.

But I’m not the only one who feels there must be a little more at work than pure chance. The psychologist Karl Jung gave the phenomenon the grandly Greek-sounding name synchronicity. He defined it in a variety of ways, like, “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” Or, “improbable accidents of an acausal nature.”

Jung was stumped, however, when it came to the question of what synchronicities might mean. He related them to everything from déjà vu and clairvoyance to quantum mechanics. But in the end, he confessed, “No one has yet succeeded in constructing a causal bridge between the elements making up a meaningful coincidence.”

On another level, I find synchronicities oddly reassuring. To me, they’re suggestions that, in the words of Hamlet, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. My spiritual life feels incomplete without a sense of the miraculous.

But what do I mean by the miraculous? Which sorts of miracles do I believe in? More broadly, is there a concept of miracles that would make sense to the average Unitarian – apart from the fact that it would be a miracle to find an average Unitarian?

Before I proceed, I’d like to ask: What sorts of miracles do you believe in? Raise your hand if you believe the following qualifies as a miracle:

– Synchronicity

– Faith Healing.

– Space Travel.

– Birth.

– Falling in Love.

– Forgiveness.

I ask you to keep your answers in mind, and keep an open mind, as I explore three different concepts of miracles.

Let’s start with the standard one. Merriam Webster defines a miracle as, “An extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” That’s just one sentence, but it packs in a load of theology.

A miracle, the definition tells us, is an unusual event. But not just any kind of unusual event. It’s one in which God gets involved. In ordinary situations, God sits back and lets the world run itself. But once in awhile, He decides to roll up His sleeves and stick His hands under the hood. God makes the rules, so God can break them.

Why is God breaking His own rules? The standard story is that he’s showing off. By giving signs, he’s manifesting to unbelievers that He is a deity to be reckoned with.

As you might imagine, I have problems with the traditional definition. For one thing, it’s a throwback to the most primitive form of religion, in which God is easily annoyed. Make your rituals and sacrifices, and He makes the rain fall. But fall behind, and you get a drought or a flood. This prehistoric idea persists into the 21st Century, as when our own Governor Rick Perry asked Texans to spend three days praying for rain.

Another problem with the standard definition is that it only works as long as my God has the most powerful magic. If you can show me that your God is stronger – generally by whipping me in battle – I’ll drop my God and start worshipping yours. A faith that is based on signs alone is a fair-weather faith.

At the dawn of the scientific age, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza proposed a more rational definition of miracles. He argued that God cannot break His own rules. Events that appear supernatural are really the result of natural laws that we don’t yet understand. As the Russian mystic Gurdjieff put it, “A ‘miracle’ can only be a manifestation of laws which are unknown to men or rarely met with. A ‘miracle’ is the manifestation in this world of the laws of another world.”

This definition offers an appealing bridge between ancient mysticism and modern science. For our ancestors, the world was alive with unseen spirits, which dwelt on another level of being but worked on this one. Over the past few centuries, scientists have essentially proved them right. They’ve exposed the invisible forces that make us sick, hold us to the surface of the earth and lift airplanes off the ground, thus fulfilling a 2000-year-old prophecy.

If these phenomena no longer seem miraculous, there are still plenty of hidden  forces to go around, from the causes of many diseases to the dark matter that is said to hold the universe together. For myself, I would add my nagging experiences of telepathy, precognition and synchronicity. Rationalists insist that because we can’t measure them in a lab, they don’t exist. But the same was once true of electricity and radioactivity. I won’t be surprised if science eventually discovers natural causes for many sorts of extrasensory perceptions.

Medicine is already learning how deeply our minds affect one kind of matter: our own bodies. A growing body of clinical research is documenting how meditation, visualization, relaxation and psychotherapy can improve everything from blood pressure and cholesterol to survival rates from breast cancer. Just as we worry ourselves sick, we can think ourselves well.

Which brings me to a third definition of a miracle: A change in perception. This definition comes from the New Age classic A Course in Miracles. The Course means it metaphysically. The world is an illusion created by our minds. Change your mind, and you change the world.

At first glance, this definition sounds irrational as can be. But it fits comfortably  into the findings of neurobiology. My brain filters out most of the information that comes in through my senses. At subconscious levels, it lets in the data that fit my existing picture of the world, and it rejects much of the rest. We’ve all had the experience of overlooking an object that’s right in front of our faces – and then having it bite us on another part of our anatomy.

To a large extent, the reality I see is the reality I expect to see. That might help to  explain why scientists have a hard time observing psychic phenomena. Wrote the poet William Blake, “The man who does not believe in miracles surely makes it certain that he will never take part in one.”

The psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce, who studies conversion experiences, calls our self-contained pictures of the world our “cosmic eggs.” “Our cosmic egg,” he writes, “is the sum total of our notions of what the world is, notions which define what reality can be for us.”

Our minds have hard shells, but periodically, life’s potholes cause them to fracture. They allow our imaginations to leak out and light to leak in. Many a scientific revolution has come through a crack in a cosmic egg, from the apple falling on Newton’s head to the dreams in which Einstein envisioned new ideas of space and time. Writes Pearce, “Man’s conceptual level changed, and the kind of universe with which he dealt proved to be different from that of previous dealings.”

My personal cosmic egg is not just a set of beliefs about the physical world. It’s also a set of beliefs about people and about right and wrong. The older I get, the more I resist change, and the harder my prejudices are to crack. I hold grudges. I believe from the bottom of my heart that other drivers are dangerous maniacs, and that in general, other people are wrong more often than I am. In the symbolic language of the Gospels, I’m suffering from spiritual paralysis and spiritual blindness. I need healing.

More fruitful than physical miracles, then, might be spiritual miracles. It’s a miracle, when my higher self breaks through into my lower self, and I live up to my highest ideals. Once in awhile, I love my enemies and forgive my friends. I stop casting stones at other people, and I recognize the beam in my own eye. I change my worldview, and I end up changing my world.

Sometimes, what changes is my humble perception of my daily life. Instead of seeking the Divine in extraordinary events, I have moments when I see it operating in ordinary ones. It might happen when I’m walking my dog down a neighborhood street, or strumming a rich chord on my guitar, or sipping a mint julep at sundown.

In such rare and pregnant moments, when I glimpse the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, I grasp the words of Jesus, “The kingdom of heaven is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” I reflect on the words of the Buddha, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”

What, then, might a Unitarian miracle look like? I submit that it might include elements of all three definitions: the divine, the laws of nature and human perception. It would leave room for both the truths of science and the operations of higher powers.

Most important, it would take account of the interdependent web of existence. The web is woven of strands I can’t fully see or understand. Miracles, however I define them, remind me that the web is full of imperceptible connections. When I change my consciousness, I start to see a few more of them, and they are objects of wonder.

Instead of grumbling about airport security, I might relive the words of Saint Paul. As my flight clears the runway, I might marvel at Bernoulli’s Principle, the miraculous relationship between air speed and air pressure that’s pulling me aloft. As I gaze at the city receding beneath me and the sun glinting off the wing, I might look ahead to the moment when I’ll be soaring above the birds, caught up in the clouds, to meet the divine in the middle of the air.

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