The Experience of the Miraculous

I am interested in the experience of the miraculous, not as a way of proving the existence of miracles, and certainly not as a way of proving the existence of God, whom no amount of miracles would be sufficient to prove and whom no lack of miracles would be sufficient to disprove, but rather as a unique aspect of human existence.  I am interested, in other words, not in miracles as such, but in how people perceive and describe and experience something that they can only call miraculous, even if this something is afterwards demonstrated to have an entirely mundane cause.  What is significant for me here is the experience itself, how it determines how people act, how it comes to be spoken and written and shared, particularly in our current culture where speaking about these kinds of experiences is increasingly unacceptable.  It does not matter, therefore, whether there are miracles.  It only matters that miracles might be possible, that people might believe in them, that they might live differently because of this belief, and that they might share this belief with one another.

Part of what intrigues me about the idea of the miracle is that it is by definition unpredictable, unnatural, unreproducible.  Despite the claims of faith healers and charlatans everywhere, our common experience readily tells us that no amount of prayer, no degree of faith, no focus of will, nor anything else for that matter, is capable of producing miracles on demand.  If there are miracles, if such things do occur, they only occur quite apart from our desires and our wills, and virtually all scientific research on the subject, such as it is, has confirmed this, finding no substantial difference in populations who receive prayer and those who do not.  Of course, if we could produce miracles on demand, they would no longer be miracles, and so part of what makes a miracle essentially a miracle is that it cannot be produced on demand, that it occurs, if it occurs, only where and when it we do not expect it.

The other intriguing part of miracles is that, also by definition, they can never be definitively verified.  It is always possible to rationalize, explain, ignore, or otherwise reject any proofs that might be offered for miracles.  Even if someone was to be raised from the dead, it would always be possible to claim that there had been no death in the first place, that a medical error had been made or that a hoax had been perpetrated.  No evidence can really suffice for miracles.  Because miracles lie, in their nature, entirely outside of scientific and experiential norms, because they cannot be replicated or reproduced, they can never be truly verified, and the very idea of a verified miracle should strike us as a bit bazaar.

Despite all this, many of the people with whom I speak, religious or otherwise, have admitted to experiencing things that have appeared to them as inexplicable, as impossibly coincidental, as unnatural, as miraculous, though they are often reluctant to admit to these kinds of experiences.  They have encountered something that does not fit with their understanding of the world and that certainly does not fit with their rational and scientific culture, and they are not sure what to do or say about it.  The experience has sometimes even come to play a central part in their lives, and yet it is not something that they can readily articulate.

This situation, where the experience of the miraculous has only a tenuous place in public discourse, is a fairly recent one.  Stories of signs and miracles were standard fare in western culture before they were gradually displaced by scientific and rationalist discourses, and these kinds of miraculous stories remain significant in certain of our microcultures, particularly religious ones, but they no longer find any place in our broader public discourses, and I am curious to see how this experience of the miraculous would be expressed were it given an appropriate forum.

So, I am proposing a discursive experiment.  What if were to use a second blog to solicit stories from people about where and how they have encountered the miraculous in one form or another, from the extraordinary to the banal. The stories would be submitted by comment on the static main page, and I would select from among them and publish them as posts.  Submissions could be made anonymously, and they would not need to conform to any form in particular.  The purpose of the project would not be to prove anything about miracles, but to open a space where people could begin to describe their experience of the miraculous within a culture that is no longer able to hear this kind of discourse.  Its aim will be to explore how the phenomenon of the miraculous experience operates in our lives despite the fact that we are no longer able to discuss it openly.  I am not sure how long I would give to let the project run its course, but I think it would be fascinating to read people describe their experiences.

What do people think of think of this idea?  Is there any merit in it?

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5 comments
  1. ‘I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression it was a new island in the south seas…There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed…to plant the British flag on the barbaric temple which turned out to be the the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.’
    ~ Our good friend GK.

    Despite the obvious irony, in reading Orthodoxy recently, I think this is a great idea- I mean irony in that, when, like you said, we don’t have proofs, just perspectives, and in our society, even a reasonable mind is thought insane when it comes up against something so unmaddening as to be shown- their mind is small enough to be amazed and wise enough to accept it! Even if it is an exclamation of how amazing the sunrise was glinting off floating snow, or breaking cherries on a new flavour or old flavour of coffee.

  2. Sandatola said:

    The other day, I was skiing with some friends when I heard one of the best stories of a personal miracle I have heard. If you wind up running this experiment, I will ask him to contribute his story.

    Maybe without realizing it, your post on miracles relates to the Feb. 15 post about the muskrat sighting. Isn’t it fair to say that you will find more miracles the more you are willing to open your eyes and look for them? I think that part of the reason people generally don’t speak about miracles of their own is that those with a Christian upbringing come to know miracles as they are described in the bible: the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah surviving in the whale’s belly, and the like. Through the prism of such miracles, modern-day miracles without such mythological themes get discounted. As a result, we don’t hear much about them.

  3. Sandy,

    I agree very much.

    I have not exactly had an overwhelming response to my idea, but if I do it, I will be sure to let you know so that your friend can share his story.

  4. Actually, I think this can connect even farther back to your article on how you love your sons. If we broaden our definition of miracle and get it a little more in with the biblical description of ‘mighty work’. Since I find, that in the exact predicament, some people describe a miracle based on supernatural criteria, other people are emulsified by a simple event, like I described in my first post, coffee, or getting up in the morning, even though they are the same thing newly discovered as they always were; both get discredited, the supernatural and the simple in today’s age- one because it’s simple and just a common occurrence and the other because its outrageous.

    Since we’re clearly dealing with the simple version, at least presumably, that simple poetry that keeps us sane, and at least gives us a sense of wonder, intimacy, connection, with the world around us. It makes me think of your post about your sons, because there is this sense in experiencing even something apparently silly as a good meal as ‘a mighty work’, or something miraculous, that makes us feel, particularly seen, particularly known- perhaps, not at a stretch, giving feelings of a particular love, which either we know, or have a feeling of it knowing, that such a mighty event, despite being small, would expand our little patch of time and space.

    With that in mind it seems to me alot more complex than simply feeling foolish for disclosing something not in the vogue for being ‘reasonably’ discredited. I think that is the forefront of the situation- the more something is analysed the less personal it becomes, and we do not wish to lose our intimacy and unlooked for but open reception of this sense of love- but it’s also fearfully arrogant to say ‘On this day I got the impression, the Universe, God, all of it, LOVED ME!’ Because as soon as we say that, we invite the analysis of the discreditors who can, just by their lack of perceived love and a few questions, take from us as our experience takes from them. On the other hand, might we not want all our experiences turned into the kitchy more than forty volume series ‘Chicken Soup Etc.!’

    That in mind. I think all reports should be Anonymous and open to no criticisms- so that people can get up and say ‘Hello, I am Mike, and I have experienced the universe acknowledging me, and in just the way it knew I would see!’ It causes us to blush, just saying it that way doesn’t it.

    Anyways sorry for the long post.

  5. John Jantunen said:

    Luke,

    Don’t be discouraged by a lack of response. It seems to me that this kind of posting space is one that would require very little upkeep (except for the prescreen, of course) and would be one that would have to be a around for a while (years) to build up a suitable archive of posts. I, like sandatola if I read him right, think that such an expirment would be worthy even if only because it would make us more likely to be on the look out for the miraculous in our day to day. I have a had a few experiences that I’d fit in this category, nothing major; little moments when something happened just at the right time to make me think that the universe was actually paying attention to little old me, if only fleetingly. (Odd that most of these events occurred pre-kids, but then it is kind of hard these days to keep an eye out for anything besides which of the two is about to get run over by a cement truck or how close that lady casting me a look of derision is to calling Family Srrvices as I drag my screaming four year out of the grocery store. Which puts me in mind of criteria for your posting, Luke. Such as those limiting the use of the term miracle in the same sentance as mention of one’s offspring. I don’t know where this whole children as miracles began but, put bluntly, kids are about as miraculous as a bowl movement. Though I will admit that, as a general rule, it is pretty miraculous that any of them survive to reach puberty, what with all those blind dashes into the paths of speeding cement trucks and meltdowns in the express aisle at Food Basics.)

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