The Meaning of Miracles
by Bharath Vallabha
I believe in the miracle that is at the heart of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe Christ died on the cross, came back to life three days later and ascended to heaven.
What does it mean to believe in a miracle such as the resurrection?
When I entertain the belief, some images often pass through my mind: Jesus on the cross, being buried in the tomb, appearing to the apostles a few days later and floating up into the sky. These are the kind of things one sees in the movies. But these images don’t capture the meaning of the belief. I have no idea of the spatial location of heaven or even that it has a spatial location.
Moreover, when I think of a person dying and coming back to life three days later, my mind freezes. It’s not just that I haven’t seen this happen, or that there are no non-religious reports of such events. That assumes the idea of resurrection is conceptually clear, but lacks empirical proof. But the idea is far from conceptually clear. When I entertain my belief in Christ’s resurrection, my reaction is akin to when I look at one of Escher’s drawings: my mind halts, as if I can neither comprehend nor disavow what I am seeing.
The idea of resurrection is not gibberish (like Chomsky’s “Colorless green idea sleep furiously”) nor logically impossible (like “2+2=10”). It has a resonance of possibility, and it feels like we can image it: it’s just like ordinary cases in which a person dies, except three days later he is alive. So far so good. But the trouble begins when we try to fill in what happened in those three days.
One can imagine all sorts of explanations for those three days. Perhaps Jesus, like an extreme magician, learned how to hold his breath and shut down key organs. Maybe there was a chemical anomaly where he was buried that had life generating powers, and so on. But no matter how complex such an explanation is, it wouldn’t be satisfactory. For the key element of the explanation will have to be what is central to faith: Jesus died a normal death, and God brought him back to life. Here is where my mind starts to sputter. Once God as an infinite power is introduced as a causal explanation for an event in the everyday world, it ruptures our normal understanding and makes it hard to know what to hold on to.
This rupturing of our ordinary categories is not a bug in the system of believing in the resurrection. It is the whole point. Most Christians downplay the rupture by insisting that everyone ought to believe in the resurrection, as if we would be wrong not to. But this gets things backwards. The point of believing in miracles isn’t that we should embrace faith regarding the causal explanation, so we can double down on our social identities as Christians and non-Christians.The point is to allow the rupturing to affect our rigidly held pieties and self-conceptions, so we can change as people and develop a faith that we will be the better for.
Normally, my mind hums along with the assistance of everyday categories of myself and how I fit into the social reality around me. I am permeated, consciously and unconsciously, with thoughts and emotions of pride, anger, frustration, shame, entitlement and so on. Theoretically, I know I am only a speck in the larger fabric of life: one of billions of people on a planet, with billions of other life forms, in a corner of the universe filled with thousands of other galaxies. From this cosmic perspective, my cares seem minute. But this is not how my life seems to me. In the midst of daily life, it seems all important that this person slighted or misunderstood me, that I achieved this or lost that. From the egocentric perspective, how I feel and think within the social matrix seems to capture reality as it is.
When I speak of my mind halting, I don’t mean my mind stops altogether. Of course, I still have beliefs and desires. I still perceive objects and colors and move about the world. I mean rather that my egocentric awareness is halted for a moment. Contemplating the miracle of the resurrection – the utter incomprehensibility and beauty of it – makes me step back from some of my deepest assumptions. In that moment, I hover in a kind of mental levitation, between the cosmic perspective where I am just a speck and the egocentric perspective in which I am the center of the world. It is as if I am able to hold both in view at the same time; to see the duck and the rabbit together; to partake of life and death at once, in a holistic awareness.
In that space of stillness, the last thing I want to do is tell others how they should be. How they should think or act. Belief in the miracle of resurrection isn’t a cudgel with which to force others to be like me. It is a self-applying balm through which the tight grasp of the ordinary categories of self and other on me is loosened. In the stillness, the rigid walls of the egocentric perspective give way to a more porous sense of our interconnectedness and our shared situation. Hate, anger, anxiety and shame turn into a healing and soothing peace. A shift in my basic emotional stance takes place, from a tenseness that relates to the expansiveness of the cosmic perspective with fear, to a beautiful vulnerability, which embraces it as wonderful. This is the living experience of the miracle of resurrection: dying to the egocentric perspective, only to be risen into a more expansive awareness.
There is nothing anti-natural or supernatural about the resurrection as I have just described it. No need for endless debates about how the laws of nature can be suspended or what magical powers enabled Jesus to come back to life. The scientific perspective and the belief in the resurrection of Christ aren’t opposed. Actually, they are similar, for both forgo the egocentric perspective to take on the cosmic perspective. Whereas science does it through the abstract language of mathematics, belief in the resurrection does it through the human-centric language of miracles. Belief in the resurrection is the scientific perspective with a human face.
If I could live my daily life while constantly having in mind the view of Earth from a space ship, I wouldn’t need the belief in resurrection. But I doubt whether most people can live that way. Affirmation of science isn’t enough to bring the cosmic perspective into the messy tangles of daily human anxiety. If it were, every scientist would be a saint, but this is no more true than the claim that every Christian is a saint. The abstract affirmation of the cosmic perspective is one thing. A lived reflection of such a perspective in one’s day-to-day interactions is quite another.
Of course, cultivating the cosmic perspective in one’s life doesn’t require belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Atheists might do it through Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism and so on. Religious people who are not Christians might do it through Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. Or one might mix and match any of these wisdom traditions, as I prefer to. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s metaphor: what matters is not which ladder one uses, but that one climbs it and kicks it away.
To some Christians, my interpretation of Christ’s resurrection will seem too bland. If belief in Christ’s resurrection is compatible with science and other religions, what is left that is uniquely great about Christianity? One might object, “The resurrection means that Christ is greater than all things, and so greater than what non-Christians believe. The greatness of Jesus’s sacrifice means we have to submit only to it.”
This way of interpreting Christ’s uniqueness conflates the cosmic perspective of Christ with a tribal perspective. Instead of expanding our social categories to fit the mind-bending nature of the resurrection, it normalizes the miracle to make it just one more ground for our social battles. It’s like looking at the Grand Canyon, and rather than focusing on the majesty of geological time thinking, instead, “This is why America is special and better than every other country.” The power of this kind of tribal perspective is the root of fundamentalism: the ecstasy of spiritual growth is merged not with a cosmic perspective but with a limited, communal one, as if one could overcome the egocentric perspective by focusing on how others are the problem. But this is as futile as trying to cure one’s own illness by forcing others to take the medicine.
Some atheists might object to my view from a different direction. To them, a view of Christ’s resurrection that is free of metaphysical extravagances and institutional bullying might hardly seem religious. I can imagine them saying: “You are talking about something else than what most Christians are talking about. You are simply talking about a person being good. But Christians mean something more, and that is the trouble.” But this objection is mistaken in two ways.
Certainly my interpretation of Jesus’s resurrection is different from what the majority of Christians believe, as they tend to understand it in a much more metaphysical way. I agree with my fellow Christians that Christ was resurrected, but think they are mistaken with respect to what that means. Fortunately, the meaning of ideas isn’t determined by what the majority thinks. Many Americans believe that American democracy means that America is a Christian nation, but that doesn’t make their interpretation of ‘America’ or ‘democracy’ correct.
Secondly, belief in Christ’s resurrection isn’t simply about being good in a moral sense. It is about the personal transformation involved in letting go of one’s egocentric perspective and cultivating a cosmic point of view. The relation of such a transformation to ordinary morality is subtle and complex. As Nietzsche argued, ordinary morality can often be a mode of a kind of groupthink that is contrary to the cultivation of one’s personal growth. But contrary to Nietzsche, that is not all ordinary morality is. Of course we shouldn’t torture living beings, kill wantonly or do any of the other things morality commonly forbids. Yet the practice of shedding the egocentric perspective is something more. Though it often leads to moral goodness, it is not defined by it.
The Christian and atheist objections to the non-metaphysical interpretation of miracles I have sketched are rooted in a shared assumption: that modern science poses a threat to Christianity. The only difference between them is that most Christians bemoan this, while most atheists applaud it.
In my view, modern science is one of the best things to ever happen to Christianity, as it helps brings out the true meaning of Christ’s purpose. When Christ spoke of his resurrection, his aim wasn’t to shed light on the inner working of the universe or of human biology. He meant that as he must suffer, die and be reborn, so must we, if we are to see the world free of our illusions.
Prior to the emergence of modern science, it was easy to conflate the meaning of the resurrection with causal-explanatory meanings, because the two kinds of meanings were not clearly separated. One achievement of modern science is to mark the separation, from the scientific side. Those of us who are religious now have to mark that separation from the side of religion as well. This doesn’t mean that science has defanged religion. It shows rather what the saints knew all along: that the struggle to follow Christ is first and foremost the personal struggle to allow oneself to be transformed through his example.