“Small Miracles”, Pt. 1: An Introduction

Scene from 1963’s Lilies of the Field, with Sidney Poitier.

Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I like to pick up relatively random books and read them just for shits and giggles. I recently did that with a book someone donated to me called Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life (1997), by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal. The authors are Jewish, but to my ear they sound uncomfortably like conservative Evangelicals, with their absurd rose-colored-glasses take on the world. It’s exactly the sort of thing my tongues-speaking, faith-healing, prosperity-gospel-preaching Kentucky grandmother would love.

Normally, that means I would hate it. And I didn’t exactly “like” it. I certainly felt uneasy with the basic theology that underscores the book—the sort of self-serving, feel-good worldview that finds God’s angels around every corner and miracles in every game of bingo or JC Penney’s sale.

But it was interesting. It certainly contains some incredible true stories of “extraordinary coincidences,” a few of which I’ve decided are worth sharing. Those will be in my next post. But it has also pushed me to think more about some of my own theological beliefs. Thus, first of all, by means of introduction, I wanted to offer some thoughts about the whole matter of “miracles” themselves. Here’s what came from that…

Introduction: On the Question of Miracles, Large and Small

The great American short story writer Raymond Carver once said, “I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do believe in miracles.” For me, it’s the opposite that’s always been the challenge: I believe in God—the Creator and Sustainer of the universe—that’s pretty easy, in my view. It’s the miracles I’ve struggled with. Does the Lord of the Starfields really deign to intervene in specific ways in our puny little human lives? Is the God of the Cosmos also a redeemer of human beings, an active participant in our history—and thus more than just a kind of passive, benevolent, “ground of all being”? Does the universe really care what happens to us? Is there a Beating Heart at the center of everything?

Ultimately, I think there is and God does, but it’s certainly not always easy for me to see things that way. In theory, I can get on board pretty readily with the idea of revelation—that God “speaks” to and through humans in ways mostly subtle but occasionally quite direct, and that in that sense, is actively involved in human life. I mostly take the great mystics at their word. I can also get on board with the idea of “spiritual healing”—the John Newton kind of revelation—that comes in the form of seemingly miraculous transformations, in his case, from the captain of a slave ship to an abolitionist clergyman. If you keep your ears to the ground, you’ll meet plenty of people in this world who’ve undergone incredible inward conversions; I’m thinking, for example, of abuse victims who are somehow at last able to heal and forgive and love again, or addicts that finally get sober and turn their lives around. That kind of grace is real.

But “miracles”—in the conventional sense—are harder to accept. As a Christian, I “believe” in them, but I tend to think they’re pretty rare, and, by and large, they don’t make sense to me. Why would God be so choosy with His/Her cosmic fiddling? Unchecked evil and suffering abound, after all—the world literally cries out for miracles! And yet God grants so few, and always seems to prefer to remain in the shadows. So many of the just and desperate prayers of human beings down the ages have gone unanswered—the sick still die, the poor starve, the soldiers don’t come home, the captives are not freed, the blind remain blind, the righteous are put to death, and the hardest hearts are so often never changed.

Like most folks in the developed world with advanced degrees, I’m a natural skeptic. Notwithstanding my regard for the great mystics, I tend to be respectfully dubious of reports of spiritual visions, ecstatic experiences, faith healings, speaking in tongues, etc., and have very little patience for the most ridiculous-seeming New Age or Paranormal stuff—ghosts, crystals, energy fields, seances, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology and all the rest of it. It may sound contradictory, but I tend to approach spiritual matters from a mostly rational vantage point. As J. K. Rowling once put it, “I believe in God, not magic.” To me, the world generally seems too grim for us to trust much in “magic.” In fact, if God ever spoke directly to me or if I ever witnessed an actual miracle, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’d probably just ignore it and write it off as some kind of hallucination. If it ever does happen, I hope I’m wrong.  

Like most of you, I’ve been thoroughly conditioned to always favor the objective over the subjective, the material over the spiritual, logic over intuition, reason and evidence over faith and anecdote—that is, to be intensely skeptical of anything bearing even the slightest whiff of the “supernatural.” In many respects, that is the great legacy of the Enlightenment, of modern science, medicine, and technology. It’s a key theme of modernity: that there is no “supernatural.” The world has been largely demystified, which is, in most respects, an immense blessing. You’d be a fool to disregard the great contributions of modernity to human life. “Magic” and superstition are no match for, say, modern medicine. As Steve Wonder put it, “When you believe in things / That you don’t understand, / Then you suffer, / Superstition ain’t the way.”

But that legacy of modernity has also clearly been a mixed blessing. I’m not just talking about the really terrible stuff that modern society has wrought—atom bombs, gas chambers, communist dictatorships, climate change, mass extinction, and so much else. I’m talking about the effect of modern thought on our day-to-day experience of life itself.

Spiritually, modernity has hollowed us out. It has left us with a kind of gut-level despair, an ever-aching sense that nothing really matters—that all our moral-spiritual-aesthetic-intellectual-relational passions are just sort of useful mirages to keep us occupied and give us false hope as we trudge through the vast empty desert of life. In fact, modernity has convinced us on some level that life itself is a kind of mirage, that consciousness is a mere chemical fabrication, that matter and energy is all there is, and all we are. The universe and everything in it is unconscious, purely material. We are no more “alive” than our toenails and the pavement beneath our feet. At best, God is an idea, a convenient hypothesis. All that may seem spiritual is just a trick of the senses, another part of the great mirage. Ditto good and evil. Ditto justice, love, beauty, meaning—value of any kind. All is ephemeral. All is passing away.

Among other things, this dominant materialistic, nihilistic way of viewing the world has thoroughly closed us off to the spiritual insights and disciplines of our past—alternative ways of knowing and experiencing the world that once were common aspects of life. And yet, in fact, as Richard Rohr has explained, our transition towards this overarching cultural preference for left-brain, reductionist, hyper-rational thought actually began long before the modern era, hastened in part by the church itself. Once Christianity split between East and West “in the Great Schism of 1054,” he explains, “much of the wealth of the contemplative tradition, frankly, was lost to the West.” Rohr continues:

If you want to think of the … East and West as the two hemispheres of the brain, certainly we were the more left-brain, dynamic, extroverted church. … The Eastern Church was much more contemplative, and when we split, we pretty much lost that…

Then, a few centuries later, we came to the Reformation, and all of Europe divided over various denominational, doctrinal issues [and] we moved into … [a period of intense] dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking is when you see everything in terms of binaries—either/or, either/or—and you have to choose one side and damn the other… [I]t’s the nadir of Western thinking—you just cannot deal with paradox, deal with mystery, deal with subtlety, deal with any kind of integration. It’s always taking sides.

In other words, we learned to see everything in black-or-white, all-or-nothing, win-or-lose terms. We learned a ruthless way of dividing up the world—between fact and fiction, material and spiritual, modern and backward, good and evil, civilized and savage, beautiful and ugly, etc. But of course, that’s not how the world works. It’s not how human beings work. The world is neither purely physical nor purely spiritual. Humans are never wholly good or wholly evil. One religion, or ideology, or political party is never entirely right and the others entirely wrong. According to Rohr, part of reanimating our spiritual senses or spiritual capacities is learning to go beyond dualistic thinking. That’s one of the vital insights the contemplative traditions can give to us weary moderns. He writes,

What the contemplative learns to do is wait for win-win. Now, that takes training and that takes practice… [Y]ou don’t choose sides. You say, “By the grace of God … [life] is what it is, and how can I be present to it in a loving way, without labeling it, categorizing it, damning it, excluding it, omitting it?”

Brothers and sisters, the humiliation most of us have to face is that [dualism] is the way most of us think. It’s the normal functioning mind of the Western person. It’s almost all we have left. We confused education … with transformation. You can be a highly educated person—three PhDs if you want—and still be a totally dualistic thinker, and you will not be able to harmonize people, you will not be a peacemaker in reality, because you will not be at peace inside your own mind and your own heart.

Of course, Rohr is not suggesting that we never “take sides” in anything or in any way whatsoever—he’s merely saying that it shouldn’t be the only way we approach and experience and understand the world. At some point in modernity, I think we started to realize at least on a subconscious level some of what Rohr is getting at, that we’d been spiritually hollowed out, that we were missing something, the capacity for more open and holistic encounter with the world around us and understanding of ourselves.

This persistent sense of “something missing” has driven modern people in all kinds of ways over the past two centuries—for example, to seek higher purpose in utopian politics or unfettered material gain, in exploration, the pursuit of knowledge, moral purity, military glory, or physical or professional accomplishments. In many cases, however, our responses have been more explicitly “spiritual” in nature. Going back as far as the 19th century, for example, I’d guess much of the popularity of Romanticism, the Second Great Awakening, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, the Pentecostal and Holiness movements, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Hippie movement, psychedelic drug culture, the “born again” movement, free-market fundamentalism, yoga and meditation, and the many diverse manifestations of New Age spirituality, can be attributed to this general spiritual emptiness and confusion that is the curse of modernity.

But it seems like I’m getting off topic. What does this all have to do with miracles?

Well, if you could summarize many of these modern spiritual trends, you might say that we’ve seen a general movement—in reaction to materialism—towards a more panentheist understanding of God, or God’s relationship to creation. This shift, influenced in particular by a growing interest in Eastern religious traditions, has been useful in helping us Western folk begin to reclaim some sense of the spiritual in our world, and that includes an understanding of “miracles.” Perhaps Albert Einstein summarized it best: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The great mystical poet of the 19th century, Walt Whitman, offered a similar view, though, like Einstein, his was not remotely grounded in any orthodox religious beliefs. Here’s a relevant chunk from one of Whitman’s poems:

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

That’s beautiful stuff. Much of the rest of Whitman’s poetry only reiterates ad nauseum that basic idea—that to be alive is to stroll through a vast garden of miracles, to be surrounded by nothing but miracles.

You can often find this rather romantic view of life in contemporary literature as well, such as, for example, in the poems of Mary Oliver. Here’s one of my favorite examples. Ultimately, I’m quite sympathetic to this perspective and I think there’s a lot of truth to it and value in it, not least because it’s helping to foster an important cultural shift away from stark materialism in how we conceive of creation itself—at a time when the consequences of our centuries of under-valuing of nature (and by extension, each other) are more evident than ever. As Rowan Williams has put it, “Our present ecological crisis … [has] a great deal to do with our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God — not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.”

So I appreciate this more all-encompassing, rather mystical concept of “miracles.” It’s certainly easier for skeptics to get on board with.

But that’s not quite enough for me. That view is a useful extension of the concept of “miracles,” but it’s not really what most people mean by the word. It’s certainly not what they’re praying for in their moments of greatest need. If you say you believe in “miracles,” most people assume you’re talking about virgin births and resurrections, calming storms and casting out demons, turning water to wine and feeding the 5,000, walking on water and ascending into heaven. Those are the kinds of miracles I struggle with, and the ones I assume to be, at most, exceedingly rare.

What I enjoyed about the Small Miracles book was that it pushed me to consider how truly incredible coincidences might actually be mini-versions of those kinds of miracles described in the Gospels—examples of how the God of the Cosmos might actually fiddle, for whatever reason, in our puny little human lives. Many of the coincidences are so extraordinary that it’s hard not believe that some benevolent God had a hand in them. Of course, it still doesn’t make sense why God would be so choosy—intervening in one time and place, and not in a million others of equal or greater merit. But it’s worth considering as a good possibility.

Ultimately, I’m still generally skeptical about such things, even as I try to stay open-minded too. I think it’s actually important to approach “miracles” with a healthy dose of skepticism. There are plenty of snake-oil salesmen out there who are keen to get you to believe all kinds of horseshit. That’s always been true. We’ve had one such con-man for President the last four years, and way too many gullible Evangelicals have bought the boatloads of crap he was selling them, to the detriment of us all. I have relatives who seem to treat every little stroke of good luck in their lives as a direct intervention by God—and thus presume every stroke of bad luck to be a divine punishment or a cosmic warning. To me, that’s insanity, the very definition of superstition. It’s also just not the way God or the world works. “Everything happens for a reason” is a dangerous and cruel fiction. I prefer Christ’s view, which is also the lesson of the entire book of Job, that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” And that therefore, we shouldn’t be too superstitious and self-centered about every little thing that happens to us. Most of the time, shit just happens, and God helps us get through it.

And yet … I’m willing to believe that sometimes God goes a little farther too—yes, by sending prophets to teach us and his own Son to save us—but also by moving and shaping our hearts and the forces at work in the world to bless us in occasionally very specific ways, ways we can scarcely imagine and so rarely acknowledge. I like to think I’ve felt that benevolent hand at work in my own life on occasion, particularly in my relationship with my wife. Who knows? I don’t. But it’s fun to wonder.

Anyway, in my next post, I’ll share eight true stories of astonishing coincidences from Small Miracles. Cheers.

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