Defining a miracle
Can we give a definition of “miracle” that is really tight, clear, and useful?
Sometimes, people offer definitions that simply mean anything astonishing or awesome. A big rainbow or a beautiful child is thus called a miracle. But, lovely as they are, rainbows and children are part of the normal course of nature; these may be miracles by analogy, but the word certainly means something that points to the divine in an unusual way.
So people may add the qualifier that a miraculous event must have religious significance; thus visions are called miracles. But again, visions can appear in the natural course of events, sometimes even in an unhealthy course of events; so this is not a good enough refinement. People think miracles are “good” through and through. It’s more.
One might say then, that a miracle is awesome, religious, and beyond normal possibility, so while the rainbow and the child are merely awesome, and visions problematic, a sudden remission from cancer qualifies as a miracle if you were praying for it.
But this is surely untidy. Sudden remission of a disease whose cause is unclear, and from which unexplained remissions are not infrequent, cannot be used to make a clear and persuasive definition. You can always thank God for such speedy remissions, and also for slow ones, but miracles, if they exist, are clear and stark — almost impossible — events.
Many then add that a miracle goes against the laws of nature, whereupon the atheists rumble that “Why would a god [no caps here] make laws and then break them?” or, indeed, “What laws?”
Laws of nature
First off, the laws of nature are not moral laws. God can break them if he wants to; He’s in charge.
More to the point: indeed, what are the laws of nature? Do we really know any? I mean, unexpected things are always happening; who can know what is possible? Today, there is no explanation; tomorrow there may be a perfectly simple one. It happens all the time in the sciences as well as in every other human endeavor. All the time.
There is, however, an interesting law of physics which has been accepted “as law” for over a hundred fifty years now: the law of entropy, which states that, while matter and energy are completely conserved, their orderliness, which allows them to do work, always diminishes over time. This is called an increase in entropy – in mess if you will, in chaos; it is the universe running down. It is a law of probability and there is no escape.
A minor squabble with the biologists has arisen because biological systems seem to increase the local level of order, pulling all sorts of material into ever-larger coherent systems, impressing local energies to work on projects that come from within each bio-system. Are they bucking entropy as they enlarge their systemic constructions?
On the other hand, biological systems consume buckets of energy, spewing and scattering their heat back into the cosmos in total disarray. Thus the larger systems in the biosphere are costly; they are probably gaining entropy after all. In any case, if entropy is stopping or even being slowed by life, nobody has yet been able to measure it for sure.
A miracle is
It is in view of the law of increasing entropy that I would like to offer a definition of miracle that seems clear to me:
A miracle is 1) an awe-inspiring event, which is 2) of obvious religions significance, and which 3) involves a sudden and/or long-term remission of entropy.
Now, the interesting point here is that, yes, entropy is a physical law, but it is actually a statistical concept. Any small particular universe event is, physically considered, simply more or less likely, not absolutely posssible or not. Sometimes unlikely things happen, and if you were praying for them, you owe God thanks even if it isn’t absolutely awesome.
But the signature miracle, the beautiful word to the modern Thomas, is surely either the tilma of Guadalupe or the image of Las Lajas. In both cases, a religious image appeared quite suddenly, without paint or painter, and with a depth that defies all probabilities. The events are awesome; the images are obviously religious; and entropy stands completely challenged. Yes, a single an agave fiber might have been pressed into iridescence once or twice as houseflies are every day, but an entire tilma, no, and it wouldn’t have lasted more than 20 years anyway. The tilma of Guadalupe is from 1531, many times 20 years.
And yes, such or any such colorful grains of sand might be found in Ipiales or somewhere in the Andes of Columbia, and various vague figures can be imagined in many sedimentary rocks whose tumultuous history spills out endless, intriguing forms; but none of these constitute an entire assembly of friendly human (and religious) figures colored two feet deep into the rock.
These are miracles. They are not only records of miracles (they are that) but they are ongoing and have been left within our reach, giving us a contemporary clue as to the correct understanding of the miracles of scripture and history.