Small Miracles

June 14, 2020

"Conflagration" by Eric Rennie

In a sermon preached at St. Jude on the Hill Church in London in 1942, the Christian fabulist C.S. Lewis made a point about miracles that is usually lost sight of by believers and skeptics alike.  He said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”  Did Jesus actually walk on water?  Did Moses really part the Red Sea?  Is not the real miracle water itself, the stuff that covers more the 70% of the earth’s surface and makes up some 60% of the human body, without which life itself would be impossible?  We take it for granted, and yet we have no explanation for its existence, any more than we can explain any other phenomena in nature.  As the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it: “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”

Miracles are usually understood as phenomena that appear to violate the laws of nature or otherwise defy rational explanation.  There are, of course, plenty of phenomena for which there are as yet no explanations.  Nevertheless, science proceeds on the assumption that all material phenomena are governed by natural law and will eventually be understood in those terms. Accordingly, as far as the scientific community is concerned, there are no stories written in letters too large — or too small — to see.  There is only objective reality.

The problem — or “the hard problem,” as philosopher David Chalmers calls it — is that we don’t see the world objectively, as if from the outside looking in.  We see the world subjectively, from the inside looking out.  We think of ourselves as being small creatures scurrying about with other small creatures in an immensely large space we call the universe. That’s how it might theoretically look from the outside, but from the inside we discover that the universe and everything in it are contained within an immensely large space called the mind. 

As the poet Emily Dickinson noted long ago, “The brain is wider than the sky.”  We may think there is an explanation for everything in the heavens and the earth, but the fact remains that they come with a frame around them, and we have no explanation for whatever it is that lies outside the frame of human consciousness.  Descartes never figured out how the mind fit into the grand scheme of things and concluded it occupied a separate realm altogether from the material world.  Many cognitive scientists believe consciousness is a byproduct of physical processes that are as yet unknown.  Others, like philosopher and neuroscientist Daniel Dennett, insist that it is an illusion.  If so, it would call into question our most basic perceptions of the world, including those we now categorize as scientific, since all are filtered through the framework of consciousness, illusory or not. 

As a fine arts photographer, I cannot speak to the scientific underpinnings of consciousness. But I know a thing or two about putting frames around things, since that is what photographers do.  A photographer points his camera at something that is plainly visible to everyone and hopes by putting a frame around it to make people see.  He hopes to still the mind’s ceaseless wandering by directing the viewer’s attention to a particular subject seen in a particular light at a particular time and place.  His business is retelling in small letters the same story written in large letters across the world.  And if he succeeds, he will have extracted from the large miracle of our existence some small miracle that cannot then be ignored.  

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