Sunday, December 18, 2011

Common Miracles

Orthodox icons
The commonplace miracle:
that so many common miracles take place.
The usual miracles:
invisible dogs barking
in the dead of night.
One of many miracles:
a small and airy cloud
is able to upstage the massive moon.
Several miracles in one:
an alder is reflected in the water
and is reversed from left to right
and grows from crown to root
and never hits bottom
though the water isn't deep.
A run-of-the-mill miracle:
winds mild to moderate
turning gusty in storms.
A miracle in the first place:
cows will be cows.
Next but not least:
just this cherry orchard
from just this cherry pit.
A miracle minus top hat and tails:
fluttering white doves.
A miracle (what else can you call it):
the sun rose today at three fourteen a.m.
and will set tonight at one past eight.
A miracle that's lost on us:
the hand actually has fewer than six fingers
but still it's got more than four.
A miracle, just take a look around:
the inescapable earth.
An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
the unthinkable
can be thought.
      "Miracle Fair,"Wislawa Szymborska

The world is suffused with miracles. Some can be explained – almost - by discussion of dna, bacteria, electrons, gravity. But look behind those and there’s the miraculous again: what holds atoms together? What determines how they operate? Each question opens new avenues of mystery. The deeper you go, the more perplexing.

Subatomic physics reveals an invisible world where a nearby observer can bend outcomes, where energy loops in ways no one can explain, where everything is separate, yet everything connected – a world that easily fulfills the definition of miracle: “not explicable by natural or scientific laws . . . highly improbable or extraordinary.”

The more I read of quarks and string theory, the more I’m reminded of Colossians 1: 16-17: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible . . .he is before all things, and by him all things are held together.”

7th century icon from Sinai
Look from the small to the large: we can explain the miracle of sun, moon, seasons- almost. But who can explain the miracle of precision that holds it all in tension? What miracle, or series of miracles, produced the set of realities described as the anthropic principle, or  the “goldilocks enigma”?  The composition of earth’s atmosphere, strength of the earth’s magnetic field, earth’s place in the solar system, in the galaxy, the color of the sun, the speed of orbits . . . those are just some of the factors which must be exactly right in order for our life to exist on earth.

We live on a privileged planet in a privileged solar system in a privileged galaxy in a privileged universe – a level of privilege not explicable by natural or scientific law.
According to Stephen Hawking, the level of “coincidence” necessary to explain the fine-tuning of the universe for human life is like teaching a pack of monkeys to type then waiting for them to produce a Shakespearean sonnet.  “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life…”

A clock-work understanding of a deterministic, rationally-explained universe dissolves as scientists stare with wonder at the meticulous design embedded in everything from dna to gravitational pull to the workings of the human eye. On the deepest level, it’s all miracle: inexplicable, improbable, extraordinary. Einstein repeatedly marveled at just this:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
“You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way…

“The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”
Ethiopian nativity, from The Road to Bethleham
The natural world, to many who know it best, is suffused with miracle. And beyond the natural world are miracles of another kind: What would compel people in one nation to extend kindness to people in another? What extraordinary motivation would prompt individuals to benefit those they don’t know, have never seen, at cost to their own tribe, own family, own comfort? Forgiveness, mercy, generosity, the idea of justice – who can explain them? Where do they come from?

Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, was much in the news this week as he lost his life to cancer. He was famous for insisting, over and over, that faith is irrational, atheism “the only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance.” Yet again and again, he stumbled over the inexplicable as he spoke of human dignity, beauty, love. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. . . . Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” 

If we are all mammals, even language is a miracle. The idea of fairness is a miracle as well. Where does it come from? What is it’s basis? The possibility of dignity, beauty, love . . . those, if we stop to think, are inexplicable mysteries we too often take for granted.

In a world suffused with miracle and mystery, what do we make of the incarnation, the assertion that God came to earth in the form of a baby? I’ve had friends, alarmed or amused at the Christian faith, who’ve found the idea of a virgin birth a particularly strange idea. But isn’t any birth, in its way, strange? Hard to imagine, mysterious, miraculous. If there’s an intelligence and power holding quarks in motion, fine-tuning the distance between planets in orbit, surely an unexplained pregnancy is a small thing to manage?

C. S. Lewis called the incarnation "the grand miracle," the miracle that explains all others. As I look toward Christmas, I give thanks for that miracle, but also for the daily miracles: the four bluebirds watching me from the feeders outside my window, the dusting of white on the ragged front lawn, the bright wide expanse of sky, and the unseen loving presence that tuned the universe and holds its quarks in motion.

Your thoughts and experience in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below.