Schleiermacher: What’s a Miracle?

  • The text: The Christian Faith
  • The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • Notes: The text is organised by sections, and also ‘paragraphs’ – where each paragraph, so-called, is essentially one individual argument. Today we’re talking about paragraphs 46 and 47, in the First Section.
  • Read it yourself: I haven’t found any freely available digital version of this text.

One night in my youth group, our leader told us about a time he prayed a mountain away. We were talking about Matthew 17:20, where Christ says “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” Being an early 2000s pop-rock church, we obviously took that as an instruction. So this guy in his early twenties was telling us about this time when he was a kid, where him and his cronies sat around for a night praying that some hill out the back of the church would get up and throw itself into the water. They prayed all night and nothing happened, but then they came back the next week, and lo and behold, the hill was gone. It had been levelled for a development or something.

And let’s not shy from the obvious question. Does that count as a miracle? It’s one of those tiresome questions that, as soon as it’s asked, already feels exhausted. You know how the conversation plays out. It’s not a miracle, because it’s just an ordinary coincidence. Ah, but what if God used ordinary things to fulfil our prayers? Isn’t that miraculous in itself? No, because the hill was scheduled to go regardless of what we did. Yes, but the fact that we prayed means that our prayers were answered. It goes round and round, and one party seems credulous and naïve, and the other seems mistrustful. And in a way, each party is seeking to defend something important. The first believes, correctly, that we depend on God for everything – that He is the ground of our being, and that all things only come to us through Him. The second group, also correctly, believes that God has set out a steady, internally consistent world with rules and laws that have a regular, largely undisturbed function. Both groups believe that the other is neglecting God’s action on our behalf – whether that’s His direct, personal, miraculous action, or the action of maintaining and upholding an internally consistent universe.

And really, both impulses are good in themselves. It’s more about finding a way to put them together in a way that respects the integrity of each. In The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher describes these two poles as the interdependence of nature, and our absolute dependence on God. We are, unquestionably, absolutely dependent on God – that’s a key tenet of Christian thought. But at the same time, nature does have this internal consistency, this interdependence, where there are rules and structures that we can rely on as well. We can trust that gravity works how it’s supposed to, and that it’ll work all the time. And there’s a question here about how we balance our faith in the normal operation of the universe against our absolute dependence on God. If the world has this standard operation, then surely we can come to rely on the universe – surely we can trust that it’s going to behave in this reliable, consistent way. And surely that trust in turn takes away from our absolute dependence on God – because we’re not solely dependent on Him any more. Now we’re also depending on the universe to keep doing its thing. The threat here is that we might decide that we don’t really need God at all – that we’re quite happy to depend on the systems of the universe, and remove that other, unscientific layer from our thinking. Schleiermacher even touches tangentially on that consequence: “it is certainly, however, an expedient often adopted by human indolence to attribute what is not understood to the supernatural.” If our absolute dependence on God is restricted to the systems that we don’t understand, then as our understanding increases, God will be pushed into an ever-smaller box, such that “only the incomprehensible would be placed in absolute dependence upon God.”

As a solution to these opposing poles, we might note that God made the world, and that our absolute dependence on Him isn’t necessarily curtailed by our grounding in the system that He’s created. It’s just a sort of second-tier dependence, if you like. Schleiermacher describes this idea as the pairing of “the unqualified conviction that everything is grounded and established in the universality of the nature-system, and the inner certainty of the absolute dependence of all finite being on God.” We are absolutely dependent on God, and we also exist within a universe with a consistent set of rules, a nature system, which itself is also absolutely dependent on God.

But what about the magical disappearing mountain? Part of the issue, Schleiermacher suggests, is that “prayer seems really to be heard only when because of it an event happens which would not otherwise have happened.” It’s hard to say God answered your prayers when it could have just been a coincidence. The hill probably was scheduled for destruction. But, Schleiermacher says, prayer is not actually a supernatural event. Rather, “prayer and its fulfilment or refusal are only part of the original divine plan.” In his view, the universe was designed in such a way that when those lads prayed, the answer to their prayer was already in motion, not as a supernatural action from the outside but as a natural occurrence, as something existing within the pre-established bounds of the universe. It would be like praying for food and discovering an apple tree that’s been growing in your yard the whole time. It’s just a tree, and it got there through natural processes, but those natural processes are not in themselves accidental. The answers to your prayers were already being provided at the time when the world was being knitted together by the almighty God.

And alright, that’s a pretty cool idea. It’s poetic, and maybe it’s true. But what about the things which pretty explicitly do seem to be supernatural? What about water turning into wine, or the resurrection of Lazarus? Schleiermacher doesn’t avoid those topics, but you can tell he’s not super excited about them either. If the universe is this closed system, like a giant intergalactic clock with all these moving cogs and parts, where everything’s linked together and interconnected into one universal whole, then a miracle, Schleiermacher says, is when God reaches into the guts of the clock and moves something around, making the clock run slightly fast or slow. The original order is disrupted, and a new universe takes its place, telling a slightly new time and working in a slightly different fashion. It might be faster or slower, or late or early, but it will tick along in its own new way. For Schleiermacher, that makes a true miracle impossible to identify. “As regards the miraculous, the general interests of science … and the interests of religion seem to meet at the same point, ie that we should abandon the idea of the absolutely supernatural because no single instance of it can be known by us, and we are nowhere required to recognize it.” When something happens that seems miraculous, it is “a problem for scientific research.” But if it inspires or empowers your faith in some way, that’s fine too. It doesn’t matter whether it was actually a miracle. It doesn’t matter whether we might be able to come up with some purely scientific explanation for it later. If it stimulates your faith, that’s good enough. Schleiermacher believes that religion is a vibe. How you feel about the mountain is probably more important than where it actually went.

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