Aficionados of Star Trek know that the engineer Scotty enjoys a reputation as a miracle-worker, but when the Enterprise is facing near-certain destruction, he tells Captain Kirk, “I can’t change the laws of physics!” If miracles involve breaking the laws of physics, as is mistakenly believed, Scotty’s miracle-working is figurative at best. And if everything in the universe follows mindless, mechanical laws, any kind of special divine action seems impossible. Such a prejudice has a withering effect on Christian life. Towards the end of the second millennium, for example, many came to view Scripture as if reports of divine grace, inspiration, miracles, and providence needed to be explained away, leaving nothing but the dry bones of historical-critical analyses devoid of supernatural considerations.
But this picture of the cosmos misses the whole point. Laws of physics are fantastically successful in special cases, like navigating a spacecraft to Jupiter, but cannot determine, for example, if I will reach out and catch a falling stone. The cosmos is full of spontaneity, voluntary action, and free will, being more like a garden than a machine. And if we are free to act, surely an omnipotent God can also intervene with works of wonder (‘miracles’) that exceed the productive power of nature. For such reasons among others, scholarship at the beginning of the third millennium is no longer quite so hostile to special divine action as in the recent past, and there is a resurgence of public interest (see “>Elizabeth Scalia’s recent article for the Catholic Herald).
To promote better understanding, I have taken part, with Fr Marcus Holden, Jamie and Joanna Bogle, in a new video Miracles, produced by St Anthony Communications and on sale here. At Oxford University, I am also working on a project, Special Divine Action. As an introduction to the philosophical issues, one of my colleagues, Prof. Timothy McGrew, has written an excellent article, “Miracles” for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
In the fictional world of Star Trek, Scotty can normally summon up a deus ex machina to save his shipmates from death. In the real world, salvation is offered to us by the living and eternal God, who rose from the dead. Once we dispel prejudice against the possibility of miracles, then we are free to live in the hope that this good news offers us.
Fr Andrew Pinsent is research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, a member of the Theology and Religion Faculty at Oxford University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College. A former physicist at CERN, he publishes today on virtue ethics, neurotheology, science and religion, the philosophy of the person, second-person relatedness, divine action, and the nature of evil. Fr Pinsent is also the principal investigator of the Templeton-funded project, Special Divine Action.