Defining “Miracle”

People are generally 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 a point of avoiding miracle because they want to distance themselves from language that suggests that supernatural entities are pulling the strings behind unusual events. Such avoiders might go along with an expression like “miracle skin cream,” but beyond that, any talk about miracles is hocus-pocus, coincidences do happen, and science can explain how nature works.

heart in clouds

Miracle or coincidence?
( )

But “miracle skin cream”!  What does miracle convey that word in that marketing context? Surprise, amazement, the exceeding of expectations, superiority to other products.

Miracle, I think, may be an expression of delight that, even in such minor, worldly sense, we should consider hanging on to. It has a unique place––and respectable credentials.  The mir syllable in miracle (as in the word admire also) comes from Latin for “to be surprised, look with wonder at,” according to Webster.

For a more significant example, consider Spring. Generally, during the cold of winter that precedes Spring, every plant, from the smallest to the largest, experiences freezing temperatures for days or weeks at a time. Frozen water––ice––not only doesn’t flow the way liquid water does but it also expands. By basic common sense about water and winter, liquid-filled cells should burst their walls in winter and every kind of plant would die.

And yet every Spring, life bursts out anew. The cells of plants have a kind of biological anti-freeze that wards off their freezing solid. I’m sure that for botanists, the sheer survival of plants through the winter is not too remarkable. But I see Spring’s display as a miraculous exception to the basic meaning of being frozen.

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 event seems against the odds and sends a pleasant shock to my ordinary understanding of how things work.

Now, I’m not in favor of people defining words any way they want. But I think the term miracle has a place in describing our perceptions as long as we include with it both a sense of exclamation and of the limits of our common knowledge. We do 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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