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By Cody Delistraty
Are miracles real — or are they always in the eye of the beholder?
It was morning in a small town in England, and a young girl was playing on a railroad track as a train approached from around a bend. The girl could not see the train nor could the train conductor see the girl, and had nature taken its course the train would have continued on for a fatal crash. But something happened. Because the driver had eaten a particularly large lunch and ostensibly had previous heart problems, his blood pressure spiked, which caused him to faint, and, because trains require the conductor to hold continuous pressure on the accelerator, when he passed out, the train came to a halt not after the bend nor long before, but just meters before it reached the playing girl. She was spared.
R.F. Holland uses this true event as an example in his article “The Miraculous,” for a 1965 edition of American Philosophical Quarterly. The question he poses is whether or not this event can be termed a miracle. I’m sure the little girl and her family deemed it so. So too did the train conductor and every passenger who became aware of why the train had stopped. Yet what constitutes a “miracle” — if there is such thing — is still hopelessly ambiguous, and based more on perspective than any sort of empirical reasoning.
Someone who believes in a god would surely point to this instance as evidence of supernatural intervention. “Open your eyes,” they might say, “a little girl has been spared by the divine grace of God.” C.S. Lewis defined a miracle as, “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” What the miracle-believer is essentially saying is that there has been some violation of Natural Law and that had the world proceeded as normal — had the driver kept his hand on that accelerator as he had been doing for the entire trip — then the little girl would have been killed. However, that of course did not happen, and thus the only explanation was that Nature was disrupted by an external force — by the divine.
But take the perspective of Scottish philosopher David Hume in his 18th-century critique of miracles, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He says that in order to classify an event as a miracle, not only must Nature be violated, but there must also be divine will behind it. Divine will though is impossible to sufficiently prove. The epistemological question behind miracles is problematic because miracles, like most events, are based on testimony. Even if we knew what counted as a miracle, could we ever know whether one has taken place?
Nonbelievers sometimes note that miracles have ceased to occur once corroborated historical records, not to mention photographs, became widely used. Fish and bread could be multiplied. People could be raised from the dead. Cripples and lepers could be healed. But once written historical records became more common and widespread, miracles seemed to all but disappear. There has never been a man dead for three days come back to life under the scrutiny of video cameras and unbiased, levelheaded witnesses. Rather, miracles are always relayed through someone, and there have been far too many studies showing that humans have selective memories, memories that sensationalize, memories that do not mirror reality — and, that’s not to mention, people often have motives to lie about miracles.
Hume writes, “When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.” That’s to say, in the case of Jesus’ resurrection, is it more likely that a man came back to life, or is it more likely that The Church is deceiving its followers? In the case of the girl on the tracks, one could similarly ask, Is it more likely that a man had a well-timed blood pressure spike or that a divine deity emerged from the heavens to save her life? One predisposed not to believe in the supernatural would be thankful to this man’s bad heart, not to any sort of God.
Yet, to some, miracles happen every day — from the banal (a parking spot opens up just as you’re approaching) to the significant (childbirth). While Einstein was not a Christian (although many Christians have posthumously appropriated him into their ranks), he still believed that miracles, and by extension, life, are all about perspective. “There are only two ways to live your life,” he said. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Even the humorous Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler), took on a slightly more sincere tone regarding miracles, “Miracles are like pimples, because once you start looking for them you find more than you ever dreamed you’d see.”
But put really anything through enough trials, and something extraordinary will happen. About 2.1 billion years ago, scientists estimate that cells with a nucleus began to appear, and it wasn’t until only about 200,000 years ago that anatomically modern humans began to walk the Earth. If you ran an experiment where you continually drove a train around that bend, then you would have to imagine that after millions of tries, at one point, the driver would pass out and let go of the accelerator. Whether or not it was a miracle or a coincidence that it happened while a little girl was playing on the tracks — well that depends on how you see the world.
The most recent discourse on miracles, led by R.F. Holland, is that miracles do not have to be violations of Nature, which means a supernaturally significant coincidence counts as a miracle. Now this is particularly complex because Holland is arguing that even though we might understand why an event happened (the conductor fainted from high blood pressure), it does not mean that the divine could not have nonetheless orchestrated it to happen. Such a worldview lends itself nicely to belief in miracles. Anything that is wondrous (let’s not forget that “miracle” comes from the Latin “miraculum,” derived from “mirari,” meaning “to wonder”) can therefore be a miracle. Saint Augustine had a similar argument: a miracle is not contrary to Nature, only contrary to our understanding of Nature. Sometimes, our understanding of Nature is stretched to the extreme.
In 1962, a train traveling from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik careened off its rails, plunging into the water below. Seventeen passengers died, but the then-33-year-old Frano Selak was able to swim to land, suffering only from hypothermia and a broken arm. One year later, he flew on an airplane for the first time in his life, but the emergency exit flew open mid-flight and nineteen people were thrown to their death. Selak, however, landed safely on a haystack. Three years later, in 1966, a bus Selak was riding skidded into a lake, killing four passengers, but Selak suffered only minor cuts and bruises. Four years later, in 1970, his car caught on fire, and he escaped the vehicle moments before its fuel tank violently exploded. In 1973, a broken fuel pump leaked oil onto his car’s engine, causing flames to blow through the air vents. He lost most of his hair, but suffered no significant burns or injuries. Over two decades later, in 1995, he was hit by a bus in Zagreb, sustaining only minor injuries. Selak’s seventh and final accident occurred a year later in 1996 when he was driving in the mountains. He turned a corner only to see that a United Nations truck was coming straight at him. His car, a tiny Skoda, careened over the metal railing, tumbling down the 300-foot cliff. But he had leapt clear at the last second, able to watch his car explode as it hit the ground. In 2003, at 74-year-olds, Selak won the Croatian lottery, totaling roughly $1 million.
Some say Selak is the luckiest man alive. Others say he is the most cursed. Definitions are malleable things, and whether the fact that Selak is alive is a miracle or simply an incredibly rare string of coincidences is the type of question that exposes our deepest beliefs. Does believing in miracles dilute the beauty of human existence? Does not believing in miracles show an arrogant inability to accept the divine? Are we a part of Einstein’s first group or the second? Is everything a miracle or is nothing a miracle? How we define miracle has wide sweeping implications to how we define our lives.
When first interviewed by The Telegraph about his eventful life, Selak took a pessimistic approach, “I never thought I was lucky to survive all my brushes with death. I thought I was unlucky to be in them in the first place.” Yet, after meeting his wife, Katarina, Selak said, “When she arrived I knew then that I really did have a charmed, blessed life.”
Selak eventually gave away all of his lottery winnings, selling a luxury island home he had purchased. He endeavored to live a frugal life and bought only two things: a hip replacement and enough money to build a small shrine to the Virgin Mary, so he could daily give thanks for his luck.
Cody Delistraty is a writer, producer, and historian based in New York and Paris.
This post originally appeared at Delistraty.com.
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