The Death of the Miraculous

The car rockets down the track as if on rails, precise, controlled, purposeful. The balancing act between not succumbing to the prosaic in the name of safety, and embracing the chaotic in the name of a win is masterfully executed. Then, the film slows down. The car, unhinged from precision, control, and purpose, leaves the track. The metal of the car crumples and twists chaotically as it slams into the barrier. Pieces of wreckage fly into the heavens and into the body of the man piloting the car. The car spins once, twice, and finally, comes to a rest. The man in the cockpit is motionless, as are those who, holding their breath, watch and wait to see what will unfold. The barely perceptible twinges of movement in the body lend hope to the idea that all is well, that the driver will be ‘OK’. And as the images of this violent and sudden demise of a racing icon settled into my conscience, I became acutely aware that what I was witnessing was not just a racing accident, not simply the death of yet another human being; but that it was in some manner an allegory for all deaths, and in my mind crystallized the answer to the question, never enunciated, which I had carried with me throughout the entirety of my thinking life: What is it in the death of a human being which at one moment, any number of platitudes will seem to render a sufficient perspective, yet in the next, seems to transcend all capacity of human inquiry and render dumb any attempt to satisfy our need to know and understand? The answer is that death is miraculous.

Let me first clarify my invocation of the term ‘miraculous’ adjectively of death: suffice it to say that when I state that the death of a human being is miraculous, I am not so unfeeling as to think that such an event could be regarded by those who have loved and cherished another, as anything approaching our common conception of ‘miracle’ and for those who are close to an individual who has passed, it is one of the few genuine calls to suffering, because to be separated from that which we love can be unbearable. By ‘miraculous’ I do not mean wonderful, expeditious to our ends, or pleasurable. It is the lot of our race to typically regard as miraculous only those things which both defy explanation and which also serve some purpose which we, in our limited understanding, can construe as beneficial to ourselves, either directly or by proxy. No, when I say ‘miraculous’ I intend the term with the full necessary and sufficient force with which it was born: an extraordinary event taken to manifest the supernatural power of God fulfilling his purposes (Webster’s Third International Dictionary). Something extraordinary. Something which makes apparent that there are forces at work which defy human explanation.

Like so many of the things which inhere the potential to give us pause to reflect, my awareness of this man’s death was a matter of happenstance, and consequently the details of his death shall not concern us here. What will concern us is that not only was the vibrancy and skill of this racing phenomenon miraculous to all who have eyes to see, but it occurred to me that his death was as well, and so it is for all human life. What does concern us is that at one moment in time, the man who was this driver, existed, lived, breathed, hoped, and remembered, and that in the next moment, there was nothing in time which remained of him except for a collection of complex molecules: there was no breath, no hopes, and no memories, and no method of science could ever recapture, encapsulate or revive that which was. In attempting to articulate that which appears to be inarticulable, one will inevitably be forced to employ the heresy of paraphrase as handmaiden to the task, and therefore what results will always fall short of that which was aimed, but it is my sincere hope that the essence will come through nonetheless.

In one instant of time, this man passed from life to death. The time at which his brain ceased to function, his heart stopped, he breathed his last, however the mechanics of it may be described, can be spoken of, analyzed, and discussed. In other words it is something finite, something graspable by the methods of science and the reasoning processes of man. What cannot be measured is what occurred at the precise moment when this individual became a memory as opposed to a living force in the world. The separation between life and death, from our perspective as human beings, is an infinite one. Shakespeare described it as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no man returns.” Alan Bloom described death as an abyss and remonstrated with us as a culture to not shy away from coming to grips with it when he stated “Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss”. In that moment of the death of a human being is comprised both the finite and the infinite: in a finite measure of time, an infinite transition takes place. That is the miracle.

Examples of this abound if one only looks with a modicum of attention into any worthy human endeavor. For example, motion is impossible according to the dictates of reason alone. This is known as Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. Even in an infinite amount of time, a finite distance cannot be traversed. Reputable dictionaries and encyclopedias of philosophy recognize this tension, and don’t merely disregard it as at odds with ‘common sense’ (which it most assuredly is, and therein lies the point). In his book Paradoxes, R. M. Sainsbury states:

No one nowadays would dream of accepting the conclusion that Achilles cannot catch the tortoise. (I will not vouch for Zeno’s reaction to his paradox: sometimes he is reported as having taken his paradoxical conclusions quite seriously and literally, showing that motion was impossible.) Therefore, there must be something wrong with the argument. Saying exactly what is wrong is not easy, and there is no uncontroversial diagnosis.

Analogously, between the numbers 0 and 1, there is an infinite number of rational and irrational numbers, and in fact, the number of rational numbers is countably infinite, whereas the number of irrational numbers is uncountably infinite. So, in essence, between 0 and 1, there’s not only an infinite number of numbers, but there’s two different kinds of infinities, one which is countable and one which is not! Any non-empty and finite set of phenomena, when subjected to analysis, will give rise to an infinity of possible hypotheses, and hence, no scientific theory can ever be proved, only refuted. And finally, the Bible teaches us that when we are saved by faith in Christ, that the Holy Spirit comes and abides in us. Again, that which is infinite, is bound, or present in, that which is finite.

The scoffers amongst us may assert that death is merely mechanical from the get-go and that’s it. Death is death, there’s nothing mysterious or miraculous about it. However, simply asserting something does not make that which has been asserted true or relevant. Even if one, through years of study and reflection, were to graduate from scoffer to the level of being a true skeptic, the best that can be done in this instance is to disclaim any acknowledgement of the miraculous professed in the world view which allows for the supernatural. But that is hardly a refutation. It is in fact a commitment, not based upon any ratiocination, but upon what feels ‘right’ to the adherents of the skeptical mindset, or put more bluntly: that which makes their lives more comfortable and gels with how they want life to be. And as anyone who is even cursorily familiar with philosophy knows, regardless of which ontic commitments one makes to shore-up a particular world view in one’s mind, those very same commitments will lead ineluctably to paradox. Paradox and the miraculous are conceptual siblings: the former has to do with those propositions which lead to conclusions which cannot be resolved through reason, and the latter with events in the natural world which cannot be satisfactorily explained by the methods of science.

Science, that pursuit of man which in this modern age, has all but banned philosophy and the contemplation of the miraculous or paradoxical, even though the physical world is rife with counterexamples to such a metaphysical stance. Why depecrate philosophy? Why ostracize edificial reason? Because these pursuits force man to come to grips with his limitations qua man. Science is created by man, as is mathematics. We can rework their tenets until they serve us. Man did not create himself, and as such, cannot be legitimately or practically reworked as a hypothesis or theory to suit how we want the world to be. Science as it exists today is not about the search for truth, but the search for utility and mastery of the universe. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest of all modern physicists, put it rather bluntly: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Philosophy was not of much use to Feynman, in fact, he eschewed it. I cannot speak with any degree of certainty as to what his actual motive was for such a position, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he rejected that which did not serve his pride. Regardless of his true reasons, without such pursuits as those which he disdained, the name of Richard Feynman would not be known, for he excelled in a playground not of his own making. To come up against questions which appear to be unresolvable by reason, which have existed since time immemorial, and which cannot be empirically tested or validated is decidedly unpleasant to one who aspires to godhood. It is certainly easier to assume the answers to the questions which are presupposed by science. And while it is one thing to prefer not to tackle such questions, it is quite another to denigrate them. In the view of the materialistic practitioner of science, the shell which remains after death was in fact a shell prior to death and always was nothing but a shell. Everything else is illusory and in the final analysis, meaningless.

But it was not always so. The great scientific progenitors were every bit as much philosophers as they were scientists and they were fascinated by the creation and sought to be able to understand it; for in understanding creation, they came a bit closer to understanding attributes of God. We can look upon the schoolmen’s plain clothes and simple ways with a smug contempt as we channel and web surf. And we can peremptorily dismiss them for the ideas or beliefs which they held which have since been found to be in error, forgetting or neglecting the many areas in which they were right and for which we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. If we refuse to acknowledge and come to terms with that which is tenuous and paradoxical in life then we deny life itself, and in denying life, we also deny death. There are no great questions any more, no camaraderie with the thinkers of the past who wrestled with the questions which still hang on tenaciously, but which have been locked away in a dungeon where they cannot disturb our slumber. For us, all that remains are optimizations and a bland adherence to the mundane; for the mundane will never yank us up by the shorthairs, or force us to come to grips with that which cannot be gripped. The mundane is safe. The sure methods of science offer safety but no solace. And as we stagger towards eternity, if we’re fortunate, we may have a moment of clarity wherein we recognize that our philosophy is as arid as the desert and that we forsook the cool streams and placid waters which lay before our eyes because we had believed the lie that they were simply mirages, and we have slaked our thirst with a counterfeit.

Just as every civilization, past, present, and there’s no reason not to believe, future, extolls the virtues of those who distinguish themselves either through intellect, feats of physical prowess, or some combination of these, each has also been enamored of and mystified by the mortality of man. Both are shrouded in mystery, for who can explain from whence the fugues of Bach emanated, the sonnets of Shakespeare came, that which gave rise to Michelangelo’s David arose, or where the great skill and spirit of the athlete comes, all of which defy explanation, for it is not merely physical ability which lends itself to these enterprises, but the human spirit as well? And just as we cannot offer any definitive explanation as from where such things emanate, we cannot offer any definitive explanation as to where they go. Any position, even the denial of a position on these questions, is a statement of faith, not pure reason. Discussion and contemplation of the miraculous in our society has been killed, not through the forces of reason and science, but rather through our innate dread of the unknown and unmitigated apathy. And though we nervously proclaim as the abyss looms before us that the miraculous is dead, we have only succeeded in burying it in a mountain of distractions, distractions which, when reality comes knocking, will reveal themselves to be empty husks which never contained the soul of anything, and we will greet eternity empty-handed. Arthur Pink saw the tendency towards the abdication of reasoning about the eternal in this way:

How sad to note that this unconcern is shared by the great majority of our fellows. Age makes little difference. The young are occupied with pleasures, the middle-aged with worldly advancement, the aged with their attainments or lack of them; with the first it is the lust of the flesh, with the second it is the lust of the eyes, with the third it is the pride of life, which banishes from their minds all serious thoughts of the life to come. “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). O the blinding power of sin! O the deceitfulness of riches! O the perversity of the human heart! Nothing so reveals these things as the incredible sight of men and women enjoying themselves and being at rest, while they are suspended over the eternal burning by the frail thread of mortality, which may be snapped at any moment.

Let us not be unconcerned. Let us as a civilization once again plumb the clear, cool, and life-affirming depths of reason. Let us run the race that is before us and not forsake the thrill of victory because we feared to enter the arena.

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