Defining “Miracle”

People seem to be of two minds about the word miracle. Many use it to refer, with varying degrees of religiosity, to something brought about by a deity or other supernatural force. “The universe is a miracle that we will never completely understand.” “It really is a miracle that the baby survived the avalanche.”

Jesus miracle

Two biblical miracles: Jesus walks on water to save sinking St. Peter, and the disciples, including St. Peter, in a fishing boat are shocked to see the resurrected Jesus. The setting is a an actual landscape at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with Mt. Blanc in the background. Here, miracles are part of the real world. The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes, by Konrad Witz, 1444 (

Others make it a point never to say “miracle” because they believe the word reflects superstitious, magical thinking. They might allow an expression like “miracle skin cream,” but beyond that, science can explain how nature works, coincidences do happen all the time, and any talk about miracles is hocus-pocus.

heart in clouds

Miracle or coincidence?
( )

I seem to stand somewhere between these two camps. I’m a non-theist and I trust science and yet I use miracle at times for notable events that stand outside my picture of how things normally and naturally take place.

For example, I think that the revival of life every Spring is a tried-and-true miracle. My understanding is that living plants and animals require moving liquids inside them, that every winter plants and animals are subjected to freezing temperature for days or weeks at a time, that water can’t move when it’s frozen, that liquid-filled cells should all burst their walls when water freezes, that an organism would die under such circumstances.  And yet every Spring, life bursts out anew.

I’ve read a little about how hibernating plants and animals take steps to prevent the water inside their cells from freezing. I’m sure that if I were a scientist who experimented with plants and animals in cold climates, Spring would not seem so miraculous.  But as a general observer of the seasons, I can’t help but see Spring’s display as a miraculous exception to the basic meaning of being frozen.

plane on hudson

Miracle on the Hudson? To me, great human skill aided by some luck, but not quite a miracle.

What makes certain events miraculous for me is not so much why they happen, not whether their causes are natural or supernatural. It’s that they happen. A miracle is a positive event that takes place even though it seems against the odds and lies outside my grasp of how things work.

I’m not in favor of people defining words in whatever way suits them. But I think the idea of a miracle has a place in describing human experience as long as we emphasize its sense of exclamation and the limitations of our common knowledge. We need words for that point of view.


Spring, the all-natural miracle.

3 thoughts on “Defining “Miracle”

  1. Interesting that your definition of “miracle” and my favorite definition of what makes something funny is the same: Incongruity.


  2. Well written and thoughtful article. I’ve struggled with the idea of miracles most of my life. Some years ago I came upon the following quote: “Miracles are explainable; it’s the explanations that are miraculous.” This is from the mathematician Tim Robinson, and it works for me at this point of my life.
    Wonderful blog!


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