Are Miracles Essential or Peripheral to Faith Traditions?

Louis Hoffman & Katherine McGuire. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 1: Religious and Spiritual Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 

Miracles are reported in all the major world religions. This seemingly universal embrace of miracles in religion, in itself, seems to suggest there is something very important about the role of miracles in faith traditions. However, there are many ways to interpret miracles, and the placement of miracles varies greatly. For example, in Buddhism, the role of miracles is typically much more peripheral than in many of the theistic traditions, which will be our primary focus in this chapter. Perhaps that is understandable since Buddhism is essentially an ethical philosophy and psychology rather than a faith system with a divine figure or force at the center.

Kathryn Tanner, in her exploration of cultural influences on theological beliefs, asserts that within Christianity there is nothing that all Christians agree upon.1 Although this is a bold position that initially seems hard to defend, there is a logical rationale behind it. If taken in broad strokes, there are many things that arguably all Christians agree upon, such as the centrality of the historical Jesus in the Christian tradition. Few would claim Jesus as nonessential to Christianity. However, to claim agreement on what the centrality of Jesus in Christianity means is a very different proposition. In other words, even if all of Christianity can agree on essential content, they are not able to agree upon the meaning of this content. This principle could be applied to all major world religions.

A challenge to this supposition is that there is no one entity that retains the power to determine what Christianity is. Many who identify as Christians would define Christianity more narrowly, excluding others who would consider themselves Christians. Tanner states,

Social solidarity … can only be ensured through common concern for very vague, or one might say, very condensed, symbolic forms and acts. Just to the extent that they remain ambiguous, amenable to a variety of interpretations, are they able to unify a diverse membership, to coordinate their activities together in the relatively nonconflictual way necessary for a viable way of life.

Miracles can unite or divide faith traditions, and they can enhance or challenge individual faith. Thus, the role of miracles should be considered in terms of the practical consequences of miracles in the faith tradition as well as the theological necessity of miracles.

Tanner goes on to state that theological investigation into issues of shared concern can serve to unite, but the requirement of agreement divides.3 Faith traditions can agree upon the central concern of the role of miracles and this, arguably, could be considered essential to the faith communities. However, agreement on what miracles mean or what constitutes a miracle is nonessential and potentially divisive or destructive to the faith community.

The Role of Miracles in Faith

Throughout history, scientists, philosophers, and theologians have grappled with the elusive nature of miracles and their relation to myth. Debate over the occurrence, attribution, interpretation, and significance of these extraordinary events has been particularly evident within the Christian faith, where miracles are often considered central to belief. For this reason, we briefly discuss the role of miracle in other monotheistic faith traditions, but have chosen to concentrate primarily on the roles of miracle and myth and their impact on faith in the Christian tradition. Much, although not all, of what we discuss in terms of Christianity has parallels in other monotheistic traditions.

Defining and Explicating the Extraordinary

The word miracle is often bandied about in the vernacular and has come to mean anything in the normal course of events that causes astonishment. Earlier nuances of the term miracle, however, typically implied the intervention of a supernatural force in the natural world, the result of which was an extraordinary and seemingly unexplainable event. For purposes of our work, we define miracle as an anomalous event caused or influenced by some type of external metaphysical reality, such as God or an ultimate being. However, in order to understand better the authentic meaning of the word miracle, its relationship to myth and how the term miraculous is interpreted within monotheistic faith traditions, we should examine its roots.

The word miracle derives from the Latin miraculum, which means to wonder. Similarly, in the original Greek texts of the Bible, the most commonly used word for miracle was terata, meaning wonders. In the Christian faith, many of the wonders heralded through oral tradition and subsequently chronicled in the Bible were those extraordinary acts performed by Jesus that seemed to defy nature. One such act was Jesus’ transformation of ordinary water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. The transformation was seen as extraordinary because it appeared to operate outside the realm of the natural world.

A miracle produces a sense of wonder precisely because its cause is hidden and unexplainable in natural terms. Appearing to operate outside the ordinary course of events, a miracle is often interpreted as a sign of the connection between the supernatural and our world. St. Thomas Aquinas defined a miracle as something outside the order of nature. He saw miracles as events that we admire with some astonishment because we observe the effect but do not know the cause. Specifying cause, the contemporary Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, also defines miracle as the interference with nature by supernatural power.

In examining the difference between the ordinary course of nature and the extraordinary occurrence of a miracle, it is helpful to examine the terms normally used by Christian theologians when describing miracles. These terms help to separate the miracle occurring in the broad sense, such as justification of the soul, from a miracle occurring in the strict sense, that is, an occurrence that is grasped by the senses. Three delineations for extraordinary miracles specify whether the events occur above, outside, or contrary to nature. A miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is above the native powers and forces in creatures for which the known laws of nature usually prevail. An example of a miracle occurring above nature would be raising a dead man to life. Other examples of this type of miracle involve human beings who levitate or demonstrate bilocation. Alternatively, a miracle is said to occur outside of nature when natural forces may have the power to produce the effect, but could not have by themselves produced it in the way it occurred. An example of this is the sudden healing of diseased tissue. Indeed, diseased tissue has the potential to heal over time; however, a sudden healing can sometimes defy scientific explanation. Lastly, a miracle is said to occurcontrary to nature when the produced effect is contrary to the natural course of things.

The Miracle within Monotheistic Faith Traditions

Within Christianity it has been customary to chronicle miraculous events and equate them with proof for the existence of God and a divine power. In doing so, Christianity has laid claim to some of the most renowned miracles. Nonetheless, the concept of miracle also exists within other faith traditions. People of all creeds, including agnosticism, experience miracles. In the Jewish tradition, believers distinguish between the so-called hidden miracle and the revealing miracle. In rabbinic thinking, a hidden miracle is an occurrence that is so mundane that its wondrous nature is overlooked. Hidden miracles may include the rising and setting sun and the beauty of creation. In Judaism, these ordinary miracles are more significant than revealing miracles that appear to occur outside nature, for through ordinary miracles, God is viewed as constantly renewing the miracle of his creation. While Judaism does not emphasize, as central to the faith, the miraculous in the sense of extraordinary intervention, it still does not discount the extraordinary, revealing miracle. Rather, while acknowledging that God can and does intervene in an extraordinary fashion, such as he often does in Old Testament (OT) stories, Judaism suggests these miracles are not the bedrock of Jewish belief.8

Similar to the Jewish perspective, the Islamic stance on miracles does not view these extraordinary occurrences as central to the faith in the way that the miracles of Jesus are important to the Christian tradition.9 Nonetheless, the Qur’an is considered miraculous, per se, and miracles are also regarded as signs and wonders. The miraculous may include all of creation, much like the Jewish concept of the ordinary or hidden miracle, or it may include the wondrous workings of The Prophet, Muhammad. Interestingly, it is recorded that The Prophet declined to perform miracles whenever he was asked to do so. Nevertheless, many miraculous events are attributed to Muhammad. Some of these reported miracles include his miraculous feedings of large numbers of people when food supply was very scarce, the instantaneous creation of wells when there was no source of water available, and his uncanny ability to predict future events. These miracles of the revealing nature are not always woven into a consistent narrative of his life, but are simply listed in some texts as a way to show that The Prophet did perform miracles like other prophets before him. As opposed to the almost didactic manner of miracle reporting in the Bible, the Islamic referencing of miracles is not necessarily intended to illumine points of doctrine. Overall, the purpose of the miracle within the Islamic faith is to show how Muhammad was the agent for Allah, who allowed him to change the ordinary course of events. In this manner, the Muslim belief about miracles is similar to that held by most Jews and Christians: miracles occur because of interference by the supernatural, and in the case of an extraordinary miracle, such interference demonstrates a disruption in the ordinary course of nature.

Upon examining the different faith perspectives on miracles, we can correctly conclude that while various religions may disagree on their concept of God, they collectively attribute miracles to the working of a divine presence that intervenes in nature. Furthermore, in many faith traditions, miracles are viewed as symbols embodying a divine message. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich views symbols as participating in the reality for which they stand. He distinguishes symbols from signs, stating signs bear no resemblance to that to which they point. Hence, miracles may function in a mode similar to that of myths, since both contain an element that we humans recognize individually and collectively to be true.

Miracles as Producing and Enhancing Faith in God

When writing of Christ’s miraculous ascent into heaven, St. Augustine said the books of the Bible record “not merely the attesting miracles, but the ultimate object of our faith which the miracles were meant to confirm. The miracles (a)re made known to help men’s faith.” Miracles, therefore, can be thought not only to confirm the supernatural character of God, but also to enhance the faith of believers.

Miracles contribute to faith by providing tangible evidence for their human audience. The result is inevitably the provocation of awe, wonder, or a deeper belief in that which is unseen yet nonetheless believed. In this sense, miracles encountered through lived experience may initiate belief or strengthen the faith of believers. Likewise, miracles using others as conduits to enhance a deeper belief in the divine presence are also effective in this way. As an example of this, we will consider an apparition story of the Virgin Mary. While Catholics do not consider Mary as an equal to her son, she is still viewed as one through whom the power of God is revealed. In the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Mary appeared to three innocent Portuguese children in 1917. The children testified that during the apparitions, she appeared as a radiant woman standing among the leaves of a small oak tree. She instructed the children to pray for world peace and an end to war. Several prophecies the lady made to the children were realized. In her last appearances, a crowd of nearly seventy thousand onlookers, believers and skeptics alike, observed the dark and clouded sky suddenly clear and reveal the sun, which reportedly spun like a pinwheel, with yellow, blue and violet rays streaming from its rim. The three children to whom Mary had appeared earlier reported seeing Mary within the sun. The sun purportedly stopped whirling and appeared to zigzag toward the earth, while the crowd cowered in fear. Extraordinarily, the earth and the clothing of all present went from a state of dampness due to the rain, to instant and complete dryness. Was this truly a miraculous event? This question has been debated for nearly a century as skeptics employ astrophysics to explain the phenomena of the spinning sun, along with behavioral science to explain the collective perception by the nearly seventy thousand people, of an extraordinary event. Meanwhile, some believers accept the apparition simply on faith. While Marian apparitions are not considered central for belief in the Catholic faith, which takes a sober view of miracles, for some believers, the effect of the miracle provides a sense of wonder and awe at the possibility of divine presence and supernatural intervention in human affairs.

Miracles, whether directly experienced or passed on through word of mouth, become part of what Smith, in The Meaning and End of Religion, calls the cumulative traditions of religion. That is to say, past miracles become part of the myths and narratives that, along with other elements, inform and awaken present faith. Indeed, the miracles chronicled in the New Testament have served as evidence to bring some people to faith just as the miracles reportedly did during the life of Christ. In the New Testament (NT), there are numerous accounts of Christ’s direct intervention in the natural course of things. In the Gospel of John (11:1-44), for example, Jesus commands Lazarus to come out from the tomb and the dead man emerges, tied head and foot with burial bands. By biblical report, this caused many of the Jews who witnessed the event to believe in Christ and his divine power. Others, however, did not believe and turned Jesus in to the Pharisees.


In our entertainment of the miracle phenomena, we shall not presume that the possibility of miracles is accepted by all. Throughout history, some have remained so convinced of the uniformity and sovereignty of nature that they are compelled to deny the probability and even the possibility of miracles, or to explain them away. The skeptical view of extraordinary miracles, held by philosophers, behavioral scientists, and theologians alike, ultimately depends on the assumption that the material universe alone exists. As the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume proffered in Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle from the very nature of the fact, is as certain as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” Hume’s denial of miracles has been echoed by many others throughout the history of scientific and even theological thought.

Relying on the fundamental premise that whatever happens is natural and whatever is not natural simply does not happen, the controversial Protestant theologian, David Friedrich Strauss, introduced the concept of biblical miracle as myth in his 1835 work The Life of Jesus: Critically Examined.15 In disagreeing with the two warring factions of the nineteenth century, the rationalists and supernaturalists, Strauss shocked his contemporaries by asserting that biblical miracles, such as the multiplication of the loaves and fish, are actually mythical in nature. According to Strauss, the miraculous feeding of nearly 5,000 people by Jesus should not be taken as a literal occurrence. That this astonishing multiplication of food may have taken place is, in Strauss’ view, not even the point. What was of more importance to him was the figurative truth contained in the myth/miracle: Jesus is the Bread of Life who nurtures his followers. Strauss’s mythical sense of the Gospel stories, once considered highly controversial, has now become an accepted way of viewing the miracle stories for many contemporary Christian believers. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the occurrence of extraordinary events is always impossible.

Other more contemporary thinkers have totally discredited the notion of miracles, those occurring in the biblical context as well as those occurring in quotidian experience. Robert R. Funk, biblical scholar and founder of the very controversial Jesus Seminar and Weststar Institute, is one such scholar. Funk has stoutly maintained that the notion of God interfering with the order of nature from time to time, to aid or punish, is no longer credible. He states that “miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood.” He views miracles as conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order in the physical universe.

In other disciplines, such as psychology, the miraculous event has been explained in various ways. Carl Jung’s explanation for visions and apparitions centers on his psychological theory, which posits that the unconscious psyche has “an indeterminable number of subliminal perceptions, [and] an immense fund of accumulated inheritance factors left by one generation of men after another.” According to Jung, these psychic inheritances, also called archetypes, are universal patterns and motifs, coming from the collective unconscious, and are often the basis for religions and myths. To Jung, individual apparitions, much like dreams, involve psychic content from the unconscious that is forced into our conscious life. The experienced vision is then interpreted in a religious context.

Other psychological theories explaining the causes of extraordinary events include mentalistic theories, which identify a specific mental state like stress, anxiety, despondency or mental illness, as being responsible for miracles like conversions, apparitions, stigmata, inedia, bilocation, and levitations. It must be noted however, that mentalistic theories cannot account for certain extraordinary occurrences taking place after death. Specifically, the state and functioning of the mind cannot possibly account for the extraordinary condition of Incorruptibles, those saintly people whose bodies remain totally preserved without human intervention, for years after their deaths.

Other relatively recent research in the field of psychology addresses the connection between attachment style and spirituality. This research suggests that some experiencing of extraordinary miracles, such as sudden religious conversion, which is often attributed to the intervention of the Holy Spirit, may be linked to the attachment style of the individual. Attachment style, first studied by psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, stems from the early interactions of a child with the primary caregiver and is often determined by the feedback the child receives from the caregiver. These interactions are said to create an internal working model that can persist throughout an individual’s lifetime and deeply affect future relationships. Four identified attachment styles include: secure attachment, which is exhibited in those individuals who have received a caregiver’s true attention; avoidant attachment, which is apparent in those who have experienced coldness and rigidity from their caregivers; anxious-ambivalent attachment, which is often demonstrated by those who have experienced a highly inconsistent primary caregiver; and disorganized/disoriented attachment, which was differentiated by Main and Solomon and indicates an individual who tends to display very paradoxical, chaotic “come here/go away” behavior. These individuals have usually experienced “frightened, frightening or disoriented communication with their primary caregivers.”

According to Kirkpatrick, research on attachment styles and religious experience suggests that adult religiosity, particularly in the form of sudden religious conversions and highly emotional religious experiences, is associated with insecure childhood attachment. These results may imply that those with insecure attachment have a negative internal working model of attachment relationships and thereby seek to avoid intimacy, closeness, and love. Among those who do experience a religious conversion, however, something dramatic happens to cause a sudden change in perception. To someone with an insecure history of attachment, this sudden awareness of God as a warm, forgiving, and compassionate figure would undoubtedly lead to a more intense conversion or religious experience, something falling outside the realm of the normal experience. Indeed, we venture to say it may appear to be miraculous for the individual experiencing the conversion. In addition to conversion, there is some evidence that individuals with insecure attachments may also have a predisposition for other types of intense religious experience.

Miracles as Products of Faith

Thus far, our examination of miracles, believers, and skeptics raises interesting questions about the existence of God and the relationship between miracles and faith. Therefore, in our discourse on miracles, we would be remiss if we avoided a very obvious point, which is that faith is essential for belief in miracles, even if miracles are not essential for faith. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Unless there exists, in addition to Nature, something else we may call the supernatural, there can be no miracles.” Indeed, it is logical to assume that faith in a supernatural power must precede the acceptance of miracles.

Paradoxically, Christians would find it difficult to accept the tenets of their faith if they did not believe on some level in the miraculous, for Christianity is predicated on several pivotal and miraculous events: the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven. For many, these events are understood in the figurative rather than the literal sense. However, merely believing in that which is not seen (God) is a leap into the abyss of the unknown requiring suspension of natural disbelief. Faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, “is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Specifically, the very nature of faith implies that one makes the choice to believe in that which is not clearly revealed through the sensory intelligences. On the other hand, faith in the unseen does not necessarily entail the intervention of a miracle.

Throughout history, both believers and nonbelievers alike have posited the basic question: Does God exist? This question is fundamental to all of human existence; for even when one is uncertain or does not believe in God or a supernatural force that interfaces with human existence, the question still becomes unavoidable as an individual searches for the significance of his or her personal existence.

If we do suppose God exists, then how do we know this? Admittedly, our ways of knowing the existence of God are imperfect. In Belief and Unbelief, Michael Novak suggests that since God is basically incomprehensible to any human intellect, no creature can attain to a perfect way of knowing God. The age-old question then follows: Is it even possible to know anything beyond what we perceive with the senses? The history of humanity’s epistemological search for ultimate meaning or a creative force, like the Unmoved Mover, is well documented, and early philosophers, such as Aristotle, did not question that human knowledge is primarily derived from the senses. The theologian and mystic Theresa of Avila suggested that the miraculous event offered internal and external proof of the existence of God: “If God is a knowable object, He is such on the basis of man’s experience, both of the invisible world and interior world.”

General acknowledgement of extrasensory truths does not mean the existence of God has been readily accepted, in a literal or mythical sense. Despite the fight of church authorities in the eighteenth century to denigrate the rise of scientific knowledge, the positivist mentality that was initiated in the late eighteenth century has led to disbelief of unempirical matters; this mentality has largely prevailed. Positivism may be seen as a methodology or philosophy of suspicion wherein the concept of god has lost its prior meaning. Positivists question whether human beings are capable of knowing anything beyond what is perceived by the senses or quantified empirically. Therefore, human reason is completely subjected to scrutiny of the senses and to the laws of empirical validation. While this mentality has undoubtedly led to greater developments in technology, as well as in the natural and biological sciences, it has rendered the concept of god seemingly useless to many.

In spite of the pervading positivist mentality, the desire to know God or some supernatural force persists in modern times. Many still ask the question and seek for signs of a supreme being’s existence, which appears to indicate an internal, existential motivation in the form of a search for meaning. Pascal provocatively offered, “We do not seek God nor attempt to prove Him if we have not already found him.” Pascal also asserted that either God exists, or He does not, and human beings would do well to make a wager in favor of God’s existence without the benefit of certainty. In the Pascalian sense, then, miracles are peripheral to whether God actually exists. On the other hand, if God does exist, anything is possible, including miracles.

Thomas Merton, the twentieth-century Trappist monk and social activist, also suggested that by our nature as intelligent beings, we tend to have a simple and natural awareness of the reality of God, without which the mere question of his existence could not arise in our minds. As this pertains to the question of miracles, Merton’s assertion supports the concept that faith in a supernatural force who intervenes in human affairs must logically precede one’s acceptance of the veracity of miracles. That is to say, faith in God or a supreme being, either realized or unrealized, is essential for sustaining belief in miracles. A noteworthy example of unrealized faith informed by miracle is the conversion of St. Paul of Tarsus. While on the road to Damascus with the express purpose of hunting down the disciples of Christ, he was struck by a light coming from the sky. The light knocked him off his horse and rendered him blind. At that same time, a voice with an unexplainable origin was reportedly heard by Saul and others. The voice, thereafter identified as Jesus, rebuked Saul and commanded him to cease persecution of Christians and do as he was instructed. While the conversion story of St. Paul illustrates the rapid trajectory from disbelief to belief, we do not wish to suggest this is the normal course of events for most believers. Miraculous conversion stories notwithstanding, the acceptance of miracles appears to be secondary to an initial belief in a supreme being.

Lack of Miracles As a Barrier to Faith

For some, not experiencing miracles can be interpreted as not having faith, especially when the source attributed to miracles is a god-figure. The spirit of human competition and the quest to measure oneself against another are, arguably, natural human tendencies. Because the human relationship to a god-figure often metaphorically assumes the role of parent and child, we humans can sometimes feel like the overlooked offspring whose siblings are more favored by the father. This is especially true whenever we hear of another’s miraculous experience, but have yet to experience our own. On a very unconscious and insecure level, we may think, “If only I were a better son or daughter, I might win more favor with my father.” On a more conscious level, we may find ourselves saying, “Because I do not have enough faith, or I am not worthy enough, God does not choose me as an object for his revelation.” Sometimes, the lack of tangible proof of the existence of God may render some persons so insecure about their relationship to God that they denigrate the very possibility of God’s existence. In this sense, the lack of experienced miracles becomes a barrier to faith.

In her work, the visionary St. Theresa of Avila leaves her readers under no illusions about the matter when she states that for most people, visions and direct intervention by God are deemed unnecessary to faith.30 She also states that there are many saintly people who never experience a single vision, while others receive these gifts and are not saintly. It follows, therefore, that visions and extraordinary events are not a secure basis for judging one’s position in the spiritual life.

Nevertheless, numerous theorists, from Freud to the present, suggest the phenomenon of an internalized God-image that helps to determine our security or insecurity over our relationship with God. God-image is determined by both self-concept and parent/child relationship and an individual’s personal image of God. Undoubtedly, images of God as wrathful, controlling, or uninvolved are associated with self-esteem, as are personal images of God as loving, close, and nurturing. Those individuals embracing the wrathful image of God undoubtedly feel more distanced from and disfavored by God. According to Rizzuto, belief in God or its absence depends upon the conscious identity that is established as a result of the God-representation of a given developmental stage, such as that of a parental figure, and its relationship to that person’s self-representation.32

Based on research in the area of God image, we feel strongly that a person’s perceived experience of God, coupled with his or her self-image, impacts that individual’s perception of the miraculous, as well. Nevertheless, both believers and nonbelievers alike feel the power of a presence that they invent. In this way, faith is rather like myth. It is our human capacity for myth, faith in an “I believe” construct, perhaps regarding a supernatural force, that ultimately allows us to entertain the possibility of miracle.

Miracles and Myth

To speak of miracles is not without controversy; however, much of this controversy is more related to terminology than to the underlying ideas. The idea of myth has undergone a significant transformation since the earliest conceptions of this term. Today, most people speak of myth as a falsehood. However, as Rollo May states, “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular—though profoundly mistaken—definition of myth as falsehood.” When faith traditions that emphasize the importance of miracles interpret the label of miracles as myths as implying that they are false, they rightly become defensive. However, as we will illustrate, labeling miracles as myths does not discredit them, but rather has the potential to enhance the power of miracles.

As implicitly illustrated in May’s statement, definitions of certain terms, such as myth, are a product of culture that often reflects important aspects about the culture. Postmodernism reflected a shift in the understanding of language. In the modern period, language was often assumed to have a true or correct definition. It was seen as always being propositional and specifically denotive. However, in postmodern times, language is understood as socially constructed. Given this, the evolution of the definition of words often reflects important changes in cultural understandings. In the ancient Greek understanding, myths were intended todologymeaning, but were not necessarily intended to be interpreted literally. However, through the modern period, truth came to be understood differently and the emphasis shifted to literal truths, or scientific truths. Myths, therefore, were either literally true or simply fantasy. The modernist epistemology, or theory on the nature of truth, shifted the meaning of myth to falsehood. In fact, myth is more true and more truth than empirical data. Myth is an “I believe” statement that conveys a core truth, together with the interpretation or claim regarding its meaning. These creedal statements of meaning, proximate and ultimate, are much more important to us as truth than is mere empirical or logical data.

May believed the shift in the understanding of myth in itself was dangerous and destructive. When science replaced myth, meaning changed with it. Meaning became head knowledge, whereas mythical knowledge is more holistic; myth grips the entirety of a person. As knowledge became more one-dimensional and concrete, meaning shrank; the most powerful and productive meaning systems were devalued and miniaturized. But the definition is only the beginning of the story.

Rollo May and the Cry for Myth

A prophetic tone is evident in much of May’s writing. Scholars throughout history have always been drawn to making predictions about the future. What is remarkable about May’s predictions is the accuracy they prove to have over time. This was not due to any claimed psychic or miraculous abilities, but can be attributed to his being deeply aware of human nature and very observant of trends in culture.

May, writing during a time that represents the early transition from the modern to the postmodern period, was very aware of the costs of such a transition, even though he did not utilize the language of modernism or postmodernism very often. For May, it was not so much that postmodernism or modernism were good or bad, but rather, that the transition from one period to the next brought cultural upheaval. While others were discussing the intellectual validity of postmodernism and the new ideas reflected therein, May was observing how the transition impacted meaning systems. Here we can identify a second concern May had about myths in his time.

As noted earlier, May was concerned about the tendency for modernism to reinterpret myths as false. This was compounded by deconstruction of myths associated with the transition from modernism to postmodernism. May states,

I speak of the Cry for myths because I believe there is an urgency in the need for myth in our day. Many of the problems of our society, including cults and drug addiction, can be traced to the lack of myths which will give us as individuals the inner security we need in order to live adequately in our day … This is especially urgent as we seek to give meaning to our lives; in our creativity, our loves, and our challenges; since we stand on the threshold of a new century. The approach of a new period in history stimulates us to take stock of our past and to ask the questions of the meaning we have made and are making in our lives.

The transition from one period to the next requires a critiquing and deconstructing of the previous period, including the meaning systems of the previous period. In part, this occurred because the modernist project failed, and it failed in areas where it made its strongest promise: to end war, end disease, and offer opportunities at a utopian lifestyle. Although its failure opened the door to new opportunities in the postmodern period, it came with the cost of a loss of myths.

The Nature of Myth

May understood myths as belief or meaning systems that could not be proven to be true.37 Belief, in this sense, is contrasted with knowledge. Knowledge, regardless of its accuracy, tends to be one-dimensionally rational. It involves one part of our subjective experience. Conversely, myths, because there is always an element of uncertainty in them, includes anxiety. Belief takes courage because it is inclusive of anxiety; conversely, knowledge is easy. Many individuals seek the comfort of knowledge instead of the meaning of myth.

The power of myths lies in their connection to the innate existential drive for meaning. Speaking from the existential tradition, May argues that myths as meaning systems are more powerful and holistic than science or rationalism. This is not to say that science and rationalism are bad; they are just incomplete. Science and reason are reflective of a basic need for security, but security without meaning is rather dull. Anxiety, although often uncomfortable, requires courage and brings in the affective dimension of knowledge, therefore making it more holistic.

Mythic and Miracles

If miracles are understood as myth, their power lies not in their literal truth or validity, but in the truth of their meaning. Paul Tillich, one of May’s influential mentors, connected miracles to a sense of wonderment or awe. Indeed, this sense of wonderment is closely connected to Tillich’s approach to identifying a genuine miracle:

A genuine miracle is first of all an event which is astonishing, unusual, shaking, without contradicting the rational structure of reality. In the second place, it is an event which points to the mystery of being, expressing its relation to us in a definite way. In the third place, it is an occurrence which is received as a sign-event in an ecstatic experience. Only if these three conditions are fulfilled can one speak of a genuine miracle.

The reality of a miracle, as such, is measured at least in part by the response it is able to produce. Miracles, then, serve to connect us with the inscrutable, with the very mystery of being.

That miracles cannot be proved should not be seen as a threat to the nature or purpose of a miracle. Conversely, as Tillich illustrates, if a miracle were to enter into the realm of the known or explainable, it would lose part of the very essence of a miracle and would cease to be a miracle. In revisiting the basic question of this chapter, whether miracles are essential to faith traditions, we can provide a different answer in light of myths. If miracles serve the purpose of drawing one closer to God, the mystery of being, or the ground of being, then they are necessary insofar as they are the means to accomplish this purpose. Whether the miracles exist is not as relevant as the purpose that belief in them serves. The corollary to this asks if miracles remain essential if there are other means to draw people to God. The answer, it seems, is no.

A story from the NT illustrates this principle. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who neglected the suffering and needs of a poor man named Lazarus. When both had died, Lazarus was in heaven while the rich man was suffering in the fires of hell. The rich man begged for relief, even in the form of Lazarus dipping his finger in water and cooling his tongue. His requests were refused. Then the rich man asked to have Lazarus sent to warn his brothers so they would not end up in eternal suffering like the rich man. The response came stating, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NIV). One interpretation of this story would be to state that the rich man requests a miracle, Lazarus returning from the dead, to warn his brothers. In response, God tells them that even a miracle would not create faith, so there is no need for it. In other words, miracles are intended to promote faith, but there are many other media to accomplish this same task. Furthermore, without the seeds of faith, miracles are not powerful enough to produce genuine faith.

Miracles and Community

Thus far, we have focused on the role of miracles in the lives of individuals. Now we shift the focus to miracles and community, or cultural, contexts.

Miracles and Myths in Culture

Miracles and myths are always interpreted in a cultural context and cannot be understood apart from this. Furthermore, myths tend to be more powerful when they are shared. There is an interesting paradox in this, however: Myths are always a product of culture, but belief in myths is a highly personal act. A reinterpretation of Tillich can provide a frame of reference for dealing with this paradox. In Tillich’s thought, myth can be understood as a special type of symbol, and the power of the symbol is that it allows people to participate in that toward which the symbol points. In other words, there is a transcendent element to symbols that help a person participate in something beyond his or her own personal boundaries. This could be expanded to state that myths help people transcend their personal boundaries to participate in community on a deeper, more transcendent level.

Several important applications emerge from this theme that are relevant for contemporary culture. When myths are understood as knowledge or as factual, they become divisive, often leading to conflict. Facts are not humble; faith contains greater space for a more modest perspective. In other words, by returning to an understanding of myth, many divisions, arguments, and even wars may be prevented. It is excessive confidence in what is believed, or too much faith, that is dangerous. When believing in miracles, or even recognizing more contemporary miracles, becomes part of the standard for considering oneself a member of a religious group, harm occurs. On a personal level, this may emerge in forms of spiritual abuse in which members are admonished for their lack of faith. On a broader social level, this can be used as a justification for manipulative, coercive, or even violent evangelism techniques. In other words, requiring a certain understanding of miracles in faith communities is not only nonessential, but it is potentially destructive. However, this does not mean miracles are not important.

Walter Truett Anderson, in conceptualizing the transition from modernism to postmodernism, states, “We are in the midst of a great, confusing, stressful and enormously promising historical transition, and it has to do with a change not so much in what we believe as in how we believe.”41 This is instructive in distinguishing between destructive and constructive usage of miracles. The distinction is not about the content of what is believed, but rather it is how the content is believed and utilized. When miracles are believed in as faith, they are constructive; when they are believed in as literal empirical truth, they are destructive.

Constructing Myths

For May, myths are a natural product that emerges from culture as part of a collective wrestling with the existential condition and the search for meaning. In a sense, cultures cannot help but create myths; they can not survive without them. Communities spontaneously develop bodies of belief. However, at the same time, not all myths are healthy or sustaining. In The Cry for Myth, May explores a number of typical Western myths including Faust, The Great Gatsby,and the Frontier Myth in the United States. These storiesdology underlying meaning systems in our culture, and they represent examples of the way people live. Furthermore, they help people recognize meaning and bring meaning to their own personal stories.

Myths emerge from a cultural unconscious, so to speak. They often are best articulated in various forms of art, such as literature and movies. What artists do when they articulate myths is put forward an understanding or meaning that has been in the cultural unconscious but that has been unidentified. They bring the meaning into a symbolic format that people can interact around, even if they cannot clearly articulate it. By making the cultural unconscious into symbolic form, and potentially conscious meaning, they serve to unite people. Artists give communities a set of images and a language in which to realize and recognize their belief systems.

Miracles as Unifying

May stated, “Myths are our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world. They are narrations by which our society is unified.” We have discussed this idea several times already in the chapter, but it is worth restating. Although not intended to be an exhaustive list, two important, constructive roles of miracles have been identified: (1) increasing individual faith, and (2) uniting people with shared beliefs. Miracles, as important myth systems, provide solidarity among members of a faith tradition, as well as the broader culture. Several reviews of the literature have indicated that it is the relational or communal factor of being religious that has the most powerful benefits for physical and psychological health. Even if they are not literally true, miracles can serve the purpose of uniting and increasing psychological and spiritual health for the individual, the faith community, and the culture.


In this chapter we have tried to present a complex, multilayered answer to this question regarding whether miracles are essential to faith. There are many ways in which the requirement of a certain type of belief in miracles has been destructive. Because of this, we hesitate in stating that miracles are essential. Yet, at the same time, miracles have historically served to unite and inspire members of a faith community. Therefore, we do not want to discount the value of miracles.

If forced to resolve the pros and cons of miracles we would say that miracles are necessary for most faith traditions, but that there remains a tremendous amount of ambiguity about what a miracle is and what constitutes belief in it. This ambiguity is good. Miracles can range from the process theology viewpoint that miracles are God working within and being limited by natural laws; to a more fundamentalist view that belief in the literal occurrence of all the miracles in the sacred scriptures is necessary to be beliefs as reported in these texts. In the former sense, they are not miracles at all according to some definitions; though nonetheless miraculous.

This is a complex issue deserving serious consideration for everyone. Each of us must come to terms with how the question of the apparently miraculous in life illumines our sense of meaning and ultimacy. The benefit of this quest for greater meaning is more helpful when carried out as a dialogue between persons, experiences, and insights; rather than in the desire to conjure, craft, or create dogma.