How do you know if it is a miracle?
In computability theory, there is a useful concept called an oracle. An oracle is a device that can give a yes/no answer to a particular family of questions instantly. We use them as a way of exploring ideas like “so we don’t know how to do x, but if we did would y still be hard to do?”
Does it take an oracle to know if you have witnessed a miracle?
Let’s take a real example. Last week my apartment, a basement apartment, flooded. It had rained hard for a few days and between 7:30 and 9:30 pm my apartment went from dry to having half an inch of standing water on most floor surfaces. Friends and neighbors arrived and we scooped and vacuumed about 100 gallons of water out of the house, but it was still coming in. After a couple of hours I thanked them for their help, gave up, and went to bed. I prayed earnestly before retiring that the water problem would go away as I was tired and had a full day the next day and didn’t want to deal with it in the morning. In the morning instead of large regions with a half inch of water, as there had been the night before, there were just a few smallish puddles. 15 minutes with a wet-and-dry vacuum and my apartment was just slightly damp.
Was this a miracle? I know some of my readers will immediately think “yes” and others “no”, and that’s OK. Would it have been a miracle if
I had prayed “don’t let my house flood” before the water came in and then it hadn’t flooded?
More water had left more quickly?
The water had literally vanished as I prayed, leaving not only the floor but also the five-gallon bucket I had left half full?
Someone had been measuring the flow of water and found it reversed from incoming to outgoing the moment I petitioned God?
Exactly the same thing had happened, but my prayer had been answered by a disembodied voice saying “The water will be gone by morning”?
My prayer had been answered by a disembodied voice saying “The rain will stop tomorrow, and by 11am the inflow of water will have stopped; you’ll be able to bail yourself out then,” and the voice had been right?
A friend-of-a-friend had come by with an industrial-strength pump, set it up in the lowest part of the floor, and said he’d come back for it once the rain stopped?
Is there a decision procedure for recognizing miracles, or does it take an oracle to know if an experience was one or not? If a glowing human-like being appears to you how do you decide if you should describe it as an angel, a space alien, a prank, or a hallucination?
I’ve heard it said, “faith precedes the miracle” The wording first came to my attention as the name of a book containing a collection of excerpt from talks given by Spencer W. Kimball. I suspect that is not its origin, but haven’t tried to track it down. Partly this is divine pedagogy, but partly it is a definition of miracle. Those with faith in a god of miracles see miracles; those with faith there are not miracles see none.
That said, there is an oracle. In my religion we call it “the feeling of the Holy Ghost” or other words like that. The spirit within can recognize the spirit without and in the moment a heavenly vision is undeniably heavenly. But who would believe such a witness? In 1 Kings 19, for example, Elijah tells us “the LORD was not in the fire”, while in Exodus 3 we learn that “the LORD appeared unto [Moses] in a flame of fire”. How do we know? We have only their word for it. Both saw fire where fire ought not to be; one said God was in it and the other said He was not.
The real problem, though, is that we have only our own past self’s word for it that miracles we ourselves have seen were indeed miraculous. The oracle itself is not memorable, leaving us with just the memory of the thought that “this is a miracle”, and not the witness that confirms it as such. Many are the events in my life that I know I knew to be divine in the moment. Many are the times that I recall doubting one of those and then remember a new witness of divinity coming. The oracle spoke. But it was an oracle; its declarations are not ones that I can arrive at on my own.
Was the receding water in my apartment last week a miracle? I could tell you, but I don’t see the benefit in doing so. The question is, I think, more interesting than either answer could be.