Miracles – December 1998

Question: How does process explain miracles and what is God’s role in them?

Publication Month: December 1998

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The question as to why miracles occur for some and not for others and how God is involved is an excellent one. I think process thought can throw some light on it, but certainly not dispel the mystery entirely. I’ll introduce my answer by saying something about what the word “miracle” has meant.

In the modern period scientists developed a sense of laws having been imposed on the physical world, such that what occurs is exactly determined by them. This changed miracles from being astounding occurrences to being ones that violated the laws of nature. This became the meaning of the supernatural. Many believed that there were no miracles. Others held that they occurred or, at least, had occurred at the beginning of Christianity. A miracle was then understood as a unilateral intervention by God, setting aside the laws of nature and acting in a way that conflicted with them.

That understanding of miracles does not make much sense today. Most of what we call the laws of nature are better understood, following Whitehead, as the habits of various species of creatures. Instead of absolute imposed laws, the laws are now statistical averages. The behavior of individuals is not governed exactly by them; still they work well to describe what happens when vast numbers of individuals are involved. But the behavior of individuals can deviate considerably from the average, and it is never impossible that many will deviate in the same way at the same time, so that macro events will also deviate from the norm. This might well be considered a violation of a law, but in fact it simply demonstrates the statistical nature of the law.

Of greater practical importance was the dualistic assumption that physical events could have only physical causes. This meant that a person’s emotions and attitudes could, in principle, have no effect on the health of the body. This kind of dualism lingers on in some of the sciences, but practical life and common sense have long since rejected it.

Most doctors are now convinced that placebos have some effect and that, in general, emotions and attitudes, and even meditation and prayer, influence the healing process.  Few doubt that stress can be the cause of bodily problems. This “influence of mind over matter” is so commonplace that few would think of calling it miraculous today. This is a problem for some philosophies, but certainly not for process thought.

On the other hand, process thinkers generally expect the influence to be subtle and gradual. We believe that the physical processes in the body also have their causal effects that are unlikely to be abruptly overcome by psychic ones. When changes are rapid and dramatic, we are astonished, and like Biblical writers, think of a miracle having occurred.

From the perspective of process thought, we suppose that the greatest causal efficacy in most events derives from their immediate past and their closest neighbors. Hence a major influence of a more remote event, such as the experience of the person in whose body changes are occurring, is somewhat surprising. But we know that our personal experience is in fact extremely influential in some parts of the body, and that its influence in others can be heightened by intentional practice and efforts. We set no limits on the possible influence except to say that it will never render all the other influences negligible. We may then agree that when the influence is very pronounced and has striking consequences, a miracle has occurred.

We are still more likely to speak of a miracle when the influence is by one person on the body of another. For many philosophies this is difficult to understand. But process thought emphasizes the interrelation of all things in such a way that this fits, even if it is surprising.

The question that has been asked is not, however, whether such things occur, but why they happen for some people and not for others. There are those who teach that if one has enough faith all sickness will be healed. Yet some very strong believers do not experience such healing, while others, who do not seem to be so filled with faith are healed. Similarly, the meditational disciplines recommended for healing help some far more than others. What makes the difference?

There is a common sense answer that often seems relevant and that fits the process model. Since the outcome is the consequence of both the state of mind and the state of the body, the difference in response may come from the latter. Sometimes the bodily condition may be such that no change in the state of mind will make much difference. Sometimes the forces of healing and sickness in the body may be more nearly balanced, so that a little added help from emotions and attitudes or psychological disciplines makes a dramatic difference.

The concern underlying the question is intensified to whatever extent one thinks of God as the unilateral agent of the healing. Why would God help more in one case than another. Does this mean that God favors the one person over the other?

Process theology holds that God is already present in the healing forces of the body and is working also in the experience of the person involved. God is calling the person to that state of mind that is most conducive to healing. God’s healing work in the body is more effective when that state of mind is present.

God is calling others also to contribute what they can to healing influences. This includes their attitudes, their prayers, sometimes their touch. It certainly includes the normal help of doctors with their drugs and operations. If the healing occurs, it is indeed God’s work, whether it is facilitated by chemicals administered by doctors, by exercises prescribed by physical therapists, or by the prayers of friends. It is God’s work whether it is dramatic and “miraculous” or gradual and normal. But it is not as if God works unilaterally and apart from the creatures. God does not cause the illness or determine its virulence. God does not choose to heal one and leave another to suffer. If we know that God is a loving presence in all our cells and especially in our psychic life and trust God to do what God can do, God’s healing work is aided. Faith is highly relevant. But it is not magic.