Is it Rational to Believe in Miracles?

A recent conference in Rome communicated that while miracles may seem irrational if viewed solely through the lens of natural causality, they remain a profound reality in the context of faith and God’s transcending omnipotence.

Christ Walking on the Water.
Christ Walking on the Water. (photo: Julius Sergius von Klever / Public Domain )

ROME — Over the first weekend in March, scholars and experts from the world over met in Rome to discuss one of the core features of the Christian religion: Miracles. 

The event was organized by the Thomistic Institute, which exists to promote the theological and philosophical thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, and to encourage its dialogue with other contemporary schools of thoughts and sciences. 

“We try to organize events that bring together scientists, philosophers and theologians on various topics,” Dominican Father Thomas Davenport, a physicist and philosopher working with the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, told the Register.

Each year, the Thomistic Institute in Rome organizes a conference on the topic of “Science and Religion.” In past years, topics such as the origin of life, teleology and eschatology have been explored. 

“This year, the topic was on miracles,” Father Davenport said, “and how we understand God entering into the natural world from theological, philosophical and scientific point of views.” 

“From a popular perspective, miracles seem to be a central point in issues on the relationship between faith and science,” the U.S. priest added. “People tend to think that ‘If you believe in miracles, you clearly can't be taking science seriously,’ and ‘If you’re taking science seriously, you clearly can’t believe in miracles.’” 

This prevailing mode of thinking about miracles, Father Davenport contended, is “too simplistic” — a shortcoming the conference aimed at challenging.


The Enigma of Biblical Miracles 

 “Every aspect of biblical miracles is controversial,” Dominican Father Justin Schembri, head of the biblical section in the faculty of theology at the Angelicum, explained during his talk “Human Flourishing and the Enigma of Biblical Miracles.

The Bible presents us with two types of miracles, the Dominican priest noted: “nature miracles” such as the 10 plagues or the calming of the storm; and healings and exorcisms, such as the restoration of Bartimeus’ sight or the raising of Lazarus. However, in both cases “from their historical validity and theological value, there is little agreement among biblical scholars.” 

The problem, Father Schembri said, is that many scholars decontextualize miracles. 

“We cannot forget,” he said, “that miracles do not happen in isolation, but rather within the great context of creation and the history of salvation.” 

Instead, miracles need to be viewed in the context of interpersonal relationships and man’s covenantal relationship with God. Thus, one could say that miracles are “vehicles of encounter,” brought about to either heal or establish a relationship with God. 

Indeed, Father Schembri underscored, “the theological objective of miracles is to either bring about human flourishing, or to externalize a human withering already present, with the hope that such action elicits a return to flourishing.”

Father Schembri used the 10 plagues of Egypt as an example of God “undoing the order of creation” to show humanity his sovereignty, and call it to flourish under him. While the plagues could be explained by natural causes, such as by a nearby volcanic eruption or toxic algae bloom, the account is an example showing how God works “through and in creation.”

“To deny the very existence of the possibility of miracles is to deny the very core of the Bible itself,” Father Schembri asserted, “and that the omnipotent Creator, distinct from creation, is continually active in sustaining the universe.” 


God Acting Beyond Creation

 “For St. Thomas Aquinas, the most important and appropriate place to discuss the possibility of miracles is when discussing the power of God and how God acts in nature as the primary cause of all natural causes,” Ignacio Silva, professor of theology and science at the Universidad Austral in Argentina, said during his talk “Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Working a Miracle.

St. Thomas never really uses the terminology of “miracles” in his writings, but instead considers whether God can do things outside the order of natural things. 

“Aquinas is quite adamant about the possibility of God acting besides natural causes,” Silva explained. Indeed, Aquinas’ argument goes as follows:

“If God is omnipotent creator of all that is, then, God can certainly perform new things in nature that appear to be contrary to or besides the order he has established in it by creation, simply because he has established that order and is not subject to it.” 

For St. Thomas, a miracle is a free act of God that goes besides or beyond the natural created order — which he himself has created. God can so “transcend nature” by either “producing in natural things a new form that nature is unable to produce or by producing a form in a particular matter, as sight in a blind man” or by “restraining the action of nature from doing what it would naturally do.” 


Scientists and Miracles

“The question ‘can a scientist believe in miracles’ would have seemed very strange to 17th-century natural philosophers,” Dr. Denis Alexander, founding director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, past chairman of the Molecular Immunology Program and head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signaling and Development at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said in his talk “Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?” 

He pointed out natural philosophers and physicists of the early modern period all believed in miracles and accepted them as historical events. Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell are only a few examples of Christian physicists with such beliefs. 

Today, however, belief in miracles is not as evident among scientists. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s assertion that miracles are “violations of the laws of nature” dominates the modern understanding of miracles. 

Ironically, Alexander added, “the belief of the early modern natural philosophers in the biblical miracles, who at the same time established the idea of ‘laws of nature’ and were the founders of modern science, undermines the suggestion that belief in miracles by scientists today leads to acceptance of ‘weird and wonderful’ beliefs.” 

“Today’s scientists very often forget the theological roots of the idea of laws of nature,” Alexander noted.

“In 1610, it was universally and very frequently observed that all astronomical bodies orbited the earth,” Alexander explained. “According to Hume’s argument, the rational reaction on hearing reports that there were moons orbiting Jupiter would be to dismiss the report, on the argument that it is more likely for the observer to have been mistaken than for the well-established regularity of nature to be broken.” 

One could argue that the modern understanding of laws of nature as exceptionless norms governing the way things act rather than as a mere term used to describe the uniformity of repeated observations in nature, lies at the root of the doubt in miracles.

Alexander said that when miracles are understood as “exceptions” — not as anomalies contrary to the order of nature, but as “unique and unusual historical events” occurring within an observably regular yet not strictly unchangeable created order — there seems no reason to reject their existence, even if it remains that “science has no investigatory tools to be useful in such circumstances” since the events are not reproducible nor explicable by known natural causes.

In fact, miracles could be understood as being part of nature, as St. Augustine argued in his “Literal Commentary on Genesis”: “When such a thing [as a miracle] happens, it appears to us as an event contrary to nature. But with God it is not so, for him ‘nature’ is what He does.”


God Engaging With the World Today 

“As a physicist, I am really interested in understanding how miracles work,” Father Davenport, who earned a doctorate in physics from Stanford University studying theoretical particle physics prior to joining religious life, told the Register. 

After all, “miracles are a central, inescapable part of our Christian faith,” he added, mentioning the Incarnation and Resurrection as miracles central to our faith. 

“They are one part of a complex network of the ways in which God engages with his creative order,” he explained, “and a beautiful and striking aspect of the multiple ways in which God interacts with His people to this day.” 

““If we imagine the physical world to be this fixed, hard, unchanging machine for which miracles somehow break pieces, then miracles seem to be unpleasant and problematic,” Father Davenport said. “But if we understand the natural world as a beautiful order reflective of the glory of God, then the fact that there are times when that order is transcended to bring our attention more perfectly to God’s order is something very beautiful and perfectly reasonable.”