Posted on January 22, 2013


If you’re familiar with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, you may want to skip past the next two paragraphs.

“As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was so profound that if I had been blindfold I should have supposed I was in a solitude instead of walled in by four thousand people. There was not a movement perceptible in those masses of humanity; they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and dread sat upon every countenance.  This hush continued while I was being chained to the stake; it still continued while the fagots were carefully and tediously piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my body.  Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible, and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing there petrified.  With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky.  I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning!  The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man!  The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless.  I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next.  When it was, I was ready.  I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun.  It was a noble effect.  You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.”

This quote is from Mark Twain. It’s from the scene where the engineer (the main character) is tied to a stake just as an eclipse occurs overhead. The engineer is a man from America who is transported to King Arthur’s 6th-Century England. He is an ordinary man, excepting perhaps his education, with ordinary intelligence and talents. When compared to the people of the past, however, he is at a distinct advantage in most things. His knowledge of the world and his confusion of his situation single him out. He makes an enemy of Merlin (nothing more than a charlatan, sadly) who arranges his death. The engineer plans a way out, using information from an almanac he was carrying. He tells the people that he will blot out the sun unless they set him free. It happens, he’s declared a wizard or some such, and he’s allowed to stay on in King Arthur’s court (where he proceeds to revolutionize the past with his engineering skills).

But is this man performing miraculous feats?

In other words, when does a miracle cease to be a miracle?

Let’s consider this hypothetical situation: you are transported back in time to 18th-Century America. You have brought a few items with you, like a cell phone, flashlight, pocket calculator and a few other odd assortments. You meet an educated man, a scientist or philosopher, and you show him the stuff you have. Can he figure out how they work? He probably can through trial and error. But does he “know” how they work? He can use the flashlight and the calculator. If you show him how the cell phone works, he can use some of its functions (like the apps that don’t require network access). But does he understand the principles involved? Will he know how the flashlight works? Will he discover how a battery works? Or electricity? And if you explain all this to him, will he see the objects as a natural extension of the natural world and its scientific principles? Or will he see them as miraculous devices?

I’m beating this topic to death because I want to make two points about miracles: 1) a miracle does not cease to be miraculous once you learn how it works; and 2) miracles still happen and we can see them happening, if we’re open to the possibility.

We can harness the power of electricity. We can convert raw matter into unnatural objects. We can separate and recombine materials at the cellular level. We can build machines that can practically think for us. Hell, we can bring a Neanderthal to life. (Well, we’re on our way at any rate.)

How are these things not miraculous?

More to the point, I believe that miracles can and do happen. I pray for God to protect my family or to provide a job so we can support ourselves and pay our debts. When I eventually find work, I know that it will be where God wants me to be. I know that it will be result of my years’ of experience and my diligence is searching for a job. I know that the result will be the logical conclusion based on thousands of little conditions. But that does not diminish my belief that God has worked a miracle. Just because I know how it works, doesn’t make it any less wonderful.

Posted in: Philosophy, Religion