Tis the season to attack traditional Christianity by pedaling, through social networks and the mass media, speculative theories that contradict orthodox Christian beliefs. On Christmas Eve (predictably), the Washington Post revived a 2014 article promoting the discredited theory that the “historical Jesus” never even existed. Yet even the agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, famously remarked that Jesus “certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” (but it is only conservatives who are anti-intellectual, right?).
To give another example, Patheos put out an article last Friday in which self-styled theologian, Mitch Mallory, opines that virginal birth theology is “misguided eschatology” that bears “Gnostic influence” and is at odds with “modern science.” Many readers who assume from the outset that miracles—like a virginal birth—are impossible are all too willing to accept recycled arguments like Mallory’s.
Such claims as these are to be expected in an era when imaginative, yet unscrupulous, writers routinely abuse their freedoms in the pursuit of attention or wealth (though it is unclear whether these particular writers fit into this category). Here, I wish to exercise my freedom by offering some thoughts on Christmas, as well as miracles in general.
Christians face a certain Catch-22 when trying to convince religious skeptics that their faith is true. On the one hand, nothing short of a miracle is required to persuade many skeptics of the truth of one’s supernatural beliefs. (Suppose that I told a crowd of people that I am God’s messenger and that I can prove it by breaking the world’s record for holding my breath underwater. Few people would accept my claim on the basis of this feat. But if I walked on water before their very eyes, it is likely that more people would start to take me seriously.)
On the other hand, such skeptics are likely to claim that a miracle is, in itself, a logical contradiction. As the French poet, Anatole France, argued, to say that a particular event contradicted the laws of nature is to wrongly presuppose that we have a complete understanding of those laws. The corollary is that any worldview that contains miracle stories must, on that very account, be absurd.
But this betrays a deeply flawed understanding of what Christians believe miracles to be. The confusion may partly stem from our very use of the expression “law of nature.” In our society, which places a heavy emphasis on the rule of law—whereby any violation of the law is generally regarded as evil—using the term “law” to figuratively describe generally observed patterns in the natural world risks confusing people who are prone to treating this description literally. All events, the natural law enforcers effectively tell us, must comply with the inviolable laws of nature.
But, accurately defined, a miracle is nothing more than a religiously-meaningful departure from what’s normally observed in nature. This definition implies two important truths. First, it is not necessary to have a complete understanding of the laws of nature to realize that certain religiously-significant events practically never happen. The earliest Christians may have known far less than we do about the processes of conception and child birth, but they knew enough to realize that virginal births do not normally occur.
Second, a scientific explanation for how an event occurred does not necessarily account for why it occurred in the particular, religious way that it did. If my hand towel were to suddenly emit myrrh, it would clearly be a departure from what one normally observes. But since the event lacks any religious significance, it would scarcely qualify as a miracle. If, on the other hand, an icon of the Virgin Mary were to emit myrrh from her eyes, and there are no signs of human manipulation, then we would be faced with a theologically meaningful deviation from what we generally observe in nature. We have no need for an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature as they relate to the emission of myrrh to know that such events rarely occur. And unless we are committed to the a priori assumption that miracles are impossible (in which case we are being close-minded, since, as I explained above, such an assumption is invalid, as it rests on an impoverished understanding of what miracles are), then we are left to conclude that the odds of the event occurring in such a theologically explicable way are so low as to make it perfectly reasonable to believe that the event was indeed miraculous.
This leads us back to the Christmas story. When we accept the false assumption that miracles are a logical impossibility, we become vulnerable to accepting, without demanding much if any evidence, all sorts of novel, naturalistic explanations for Christ’s birth. Let us undo this mental shackle and approach the Nativity this Christmas season with a truly open mind.