Last week, talking about the rescue of the Chilean miners, Roger Ebert wrote an interesting piece on how it was not a miracle.

miners the movie

I agree with him that the miners escape is not a miracle in the sense of it being a work of God. It is actually far more praise inducing to consider the sense in which the end result was the almost predictable application of man’s genius and man’s community, both of which are primary reflections of God’s character. Ebert makes a very under-rated point:

The construction of the mine itself, so deep in the earth, was a much more impressive feat, but no one thought to describe that as a miracle.

But he gets it wrong when he defines a miracle as an act of divine intervention. It is not true to say that the Christian understanding of miracle comes through Catholicism and it isn’t right to say that miracles are understood by the Roman church to be those events that are “inexplicable by natural or scientific laws”.

Etymologically, a miracle is a thing of wonder, an event that prompts astonishment. It is certainly true that God’s extraordinary intervention in history is categorised under the “miracle” rubric. But in its origin (and in its Gospel usage), miracle doesn’t primarily mean an act of God’s intervention, but an act that induces wonder.

Plato is tapping into this original meaning of miracle when he has Socrates declare that “philosophy begins in wonder”. Aristotle repeats this teaching in Metaphysics. I think that this is a situation where the classical angle is helpful for us as we consider Christian teaching. For the earliest Christians, God was not imagined as being elsewhere in a far removed realm. Heaven interpenetrated Earth. It is anachronistic to read a post-Enlightenment idea of miracle as God putting the laws of nature on pause back into early Christian theology. For the early Christians, miracle was a sign or wonder that evoked astonishment (that directed us towards God).

In that sense, I’d argue both the tunnel in the first place and the rescue from it could be described as miraculous. But making that argument, I realise I’d render a vast amount of contemporary Christian and atheist apologetics moot.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

Your Correspondent, Only his shadow walks beside him. And his pet kangaroo.