by Lyle Lofgren
October 2002

[Note: I've always been enamored of scholarly articles with footnotes, so I try to write them whenever I can, even when it's not necessary. Your understanding of this essay won't be affected if you refuse to scroll down to read each footnote.]

Sometime during the night of Sunday, September 9, 2001, I had a powerful vision. God appeared to me, his beard flowing in the night breeze wafting in from the open window. "Troubles are coming," he said. "My brother, Allah, has ordered an attack on Gog and Magog1. First thing tomorrow morning, sell all your stocks and buy puts on insurance companies and airlines." So I arose and did as the Lord told me. I called my broker, who tried to talk me out of it, but the vision had been realer than real, and I've always trusted in the Lord. When Tuesday the 11th came, with its terrible events, I took comfort in the fact that I, at least, was making out like a bandit. When the markets re-opened, I sold my puts and made a small fortune. The brokerage wouldn't lend me enough to make millions, though, so I had to be satisfied with thousands of dollars. Not much in some people's eyes, but a fortune for me.

The only trouble is, I haven't had an opportunity to enjoy my wealth. The FBI showed up a few days later and took me into custody. Now, a year after God laid his beneficence on me , I'm still in jail, and they haven't let me call my lawyer. I don't know when or if I'll have a trial. They keep grilling me, keeping me up for days without sleep, to find out how I knew about the attacks. All I can do is tell the truth, but they won't believe me. If I ever get a lawyer to defend me, I might go free, but of course that will take more money than the amount I made buying puts. I tried praying for an earthquake to make the walls fall, like with Paul and Silas, but so far I haven't noticed any tremors2. Even if the walls do come down, the authorities have my fingerprints and Social Security number, and will chase me down.

None of that happened, of course. God had the good sense to let me sleep well that Sunday night. But what if He had spoken? He spoke to Noah, after all, telling him to build a boat to save himself from the coming flood3. He sent some very attractive boy-angels to speak to Lot, telling him to get the hell out of Sodom4. When I was about 10 years old, in Lutheran Sunday School, someone asked the teacher why no one had added to the bible in a long time (I wish I'd thought of the question). She answered, "Because the bible is about miracles, and the Age of Miracles is over."

Many people do indeed believe that God has left us stranded. Messages from Him, for example, are not admissible evidence in court, and they have a poor reputation among CEOs who get big bonuses by making their own miracles. What is surprising is that so many people disagree with my old Sunday School teacher. They not only believe in miracles. They depend on them.

A scholarly essay with footnotes, like this one, also needs scholarly categorization, so after some thought, I came up with four miraculous categories:

If you pray to God for something specific, He can change the way the world works, just for you. This is what I call a Magic Miracle. My definition of Magic is the use of supernatural powers to directly affect something on earth, often for selfish ends. Examples would be praying for wealth, for a tumor to disappear, for the destruction of enemies, or for your football team to win on Sunday. Frazer5 used a different definition for magic, because he wanted to distinguish between "primitive" and "religious" beliefs. To him, a magician claims to directly control supernatural powers, while a religious person believes God can be cajoled, but not ordered around. Frazer believed in classical 19th century social evolution, and said that magical thinking was associated only with primitives, such as Australian Bushmen or French Peasants, and was superseded by modern religious thought. The dictionaries followed Frazer's definition6, until he was republished in the late 1950s with his theories of magic omitted7. The editor claimed the deletions were because Frazer's theories had since been discredited, and were based on false anthropological information. I'm not clear if the Political Correctness was due to objections from the Australian Bushmen or from the French Peasants, but dictionaries slowly followed the Bough's editor, segueing from "ability to compel" supernatural forces (1955)6 to "pretended art of producing effects by charms, spells and rituals" (1969)8 to the modern "use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces."9 It's good to see that the dictionaries have come around to my way of thinking.

My Uncle Paul told of a devout Catholic family that lived on a farm near Rush City, Minnesota. They had lived in a hovel for years. When they finally scraped together enough resources to build a house, the parish priest came by for regular church donations. The farmer said he couldn't spare any money because of the cost of the house. "It would be a shame to have a new house like that with the devil living in it," said the priest. The farmer, frightened by the veiled threat to curse the house, came up with a donation for the church. The priest (whether real or only a figment of Uncle Paul's anti-Papist imagination) managed to fill both Frazer's and my definitions of a magician.

In the 1950s, in a gravel pit near Rush City, my fellow high school students and I would gather late at night to drink Leinenkugel's beer (imported from Wisconsin where legal drinking age was 18) and listen to cornball music from the powerful Mexican radio station XERF across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. After the music, fundamentalist radio preachers implored you to place your hands on your radio receiver so you would be healed. You could even be healed from self-inflicted diseases. Frazer would say that the preachers, who claimed direct control of the healing power of Jesus, were magicians. So would I. Even then, I didn't believe that the radio could cure my impending hangover.

In the old days, prayer wasn't even necessary to initiate Direct Action Miracles. The Iliad describes battles where various Gods or Goddesses show up to aid some favorite or other without even being asked. They just look down from Mount Olympus, see a friend in trouble, and zoom down to help out. Nowadays, the Christian triumvirate doesn't show up unbidden on the battlefield to wield a sword at the side of a favorite son, but instead concentrates on making statues of the Blessed Virgin weep blood. Imagine how Jesus would have been treated by the multitude when they brought him the loaves and fishes and asked to be fed if he'd said, "Instead of that, how about if I make mom cry?"

An important first step towards the beatification (or, as a local TV news announcer once said, "beautification") of Mother Teresa occurred the other day10. Monica Besra, at Teresa's mission in Kolkata, India, had cancer and prayed for Teresa's intercession. Her tumors disappeared, and doctors said there was no scientific explanation for the recovery. The Vatican Panel, on doctor's advice, therefore proclaimed the cure a Miracle. Mother Teresa is on the fast track towards sainthood. The Pope has waived the "dead at least 5 years" requirement. Last month, she was declared "venerable," meaning she's a role model for other Catholics; this month she's already being beatified on the basis of a bona fide miracle. She needs to produce only one more miracle to gain sainthood. Being declared a saint within 5 years of death would be a miracle, so maybe that will be considered the second one. I expect her to join the elect category before Xmas. Devout protestants bypass the saints and talk directly to the VP, Jesus.

Whether you pray or not, Jehovah can take nasty Direct Actions, as when he smote Job with boils and all those other calamities, just to see if he could take it. He let Satan take the rap, as usual11. Satan is His fall guy for all the Direct Actions that we find unpleasant. Whether God or Satan is responsible often is a subjective judgement. If your football team wins, the other team, whose fans may have prayed to God just as fervently, has to lose.

Most of God's biblical actions are indirect. He sends visions or angels to warn of coming destruction or give advice about what you should do in the future. That's what I was describing in the opening paragraphs of this essay. But these visitations smack of magic, too. They imply that the future is malleable. If you follow the instructions, good things will happen. The catch, of course, is that since God already knows the future, He knows whether or not you will follow His advice, and therefore the future is pre-determined after all. As far as I know, no one has been able to sophisticate themselves out of the predetermination/omniscience trap. Fundamentalist Christians, if they don't experience direct visions, find comfort in pre-printed ones: they study the Book of Revelation for eschatological interpretations of every event reported on the Fox News Channel, much as others study Nostradamus to see if he predicted them.

Allah used Indirect Action to inspire the coordinated attack of 9/11/01 that took down the Trade Center towers and disrupted the mystical geometrical perfection of the Pentagram Building. Several fundamentalist Muslims declared it a Miracle. Very few of the US commentators characterized it as one, evidently believing that Jehovah has a miracle monopoly.

A friend of mine is an engineer but also a devout Christian who prays regularly. I once watched him making detailed calculations to ensure that a design of his would safely withstand internal pressure. Because he often spoke to me of the power of prayer, I asked him, "Why are you bothering with that? Why don't you just pray?" He didn't answer. He just looked at me with undisguised disgust.

My question was somewhat serious. Scientists or engineers may believe in divine Direct Action in their personal lives, but they can't conduct their professional careers that way, so they have to compartmentalize their beliefs. Science is based on faith that for every effect there are one or more discernible causes, with a predictable relationship between causes and effects. This approach views God as the Great Watchmaker, who set the universe in motion, which is certainly an example of a Direct Action Miracle. It now runs by itself and needs no interference from Him. All we have to do in the line of worship is to discover the principles He uses to let the whole thing run by itself. Science is most successful when it is limited to the study of the watchworks, the reproducible effects. You restrict your experiment to a small number of controllable causes, and want to be able to run the experiment repeatedly, obtaining measurable results that can be correlated with the hypothesized causes. If test results are not as hypothesized, it merely means that you failed to recognize and control one or more important causes. As science strays from this ideal, into historical and/or non-reproducible topics such as the origin of the universe, it becomes less reliable.

Science also runs into trouble when it's carelessly applied for practical uses. In the case of my friend's pressure enclosure, there are lots of uncontrollable variables not covered by the formulas: initial strength uncertainty due to steel manufacture variabilities or flaws; mishandling during installation; effects of corrosion in service; overpressures due to accidents; and other unpredictable events. Typically, an engineer uses an arbitrary Safety Factor, but faith in a Safety Factor is similar to faith in a Magic God who will intervene and keep you from harm. My friend's approach was correct. He should both calculate and pray, in this case for Direct Inaction to keep the device from exploding under pressure.

My experience is that if you pray that nothing "bad" happens, God will often answer your prayers. Paradoxically, the Age of Miracles God wasn't very keen on answering such prayers for Direct Inaction. We know from His dealings with Gideon12, for example, that He wanted to be involved in cases where His power was obvious. He showed the Midianites that He was more powerful than their puny Gods.

Miracles of this type are the commonest, but aren't usually acknowledged as such. The only prayer for such a miracle I could think of offhand was the one about "lead us not into temptation," which strikes me as disingenuous, given most people's innate desire for temptation.

UNNOTICED MIRACLES (Fifth of four categories):
Meister Eckhardt, the German mystic, did not believe in magic. He said13,

      "Who prays for something prays to nothing;
      who prays for nothing prays to something."

Prayers for Indirect Action, such as asking God for strength to see you through a difficult time, or for wisdom, are probably beneficial. They usually don't hurt anyone else, and they can provide steroids for your spiritual muscles. As with Direct Inaction, the problem for God here is that if our prayers are answered, we don't perceive a miracle. Perhaps we've been conditioned by the bible stories to search for our miracles in the paranormal, where unexplained events have earth-shaking consequences. Cecil B. DeMille learned from the bible that spectacle is what draws in the audience. Yet my next breath is the real miracle. It's not the work of a Watchmaker God, because it won't happen indefinitely. I don't even notice it. No wonder God gets disgusted sometimes.

1. Revelation 20:8. The idea of Gog and Magog as twins and therefore symbolic of the twin towers comes from Karl Shapiro's 1942 poem Scyros:
      That prophet year by year
      Lay still but could not hear
      Where scholars tapped to find his new remains
      Gog and Magog ate pork
      In vertical New York
      And war began next Monday on the Danes.

2. Acts of the Apostles chapter 16. Also, Bascom Lamar Lunsford's song Dry Bones (Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music):
      When Paul prayed in prison,
      Those prison walls came down,
      And the prison keeper shouted,
      "Redeeming love I've found."

3. Genesis chapter 6.

4. Genesis chapter 19.

5. Frazer, Sir James; The Golden Bough, (1890; MacMillan, 1922). Chapter 4.

6. Webster's 2nd International Dictionary of English Language (Merriam-Webster, 1955).

7. Gaster, Theodor H. & Frazer, Sir James; The New Golden Bough (Criterion, 1959).

8. Webster's New World Dictionary of English Language (Merriam-Webster, 1969).

9. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (on-line).

10. Mother Teresa on Road to Sainthood, CNN.com news item, Oct. 1, 2002.

11. Job chapter 1.

12. Judges chapters 6 and 7.

13. I read this quote somewhere, but can't find a reference.