What do world religions teach us about COVID-19 and the possibility of miracles?
To mark World Religion Day 2021, Professor Yujin Nagasawa of the Department of Philosophy and leader of the Global Philosophy of Religion project, discusses what world religions teach us about the pandemic, and the possibility of miracles.
People seem to talk a lot about miracles in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Donald Trump predicted in February 2020 that the COVID-19 outbreak would disappear one day ‘like a miracle’ and Boris Johnson, in his announcement of the January 2021 lockdown, thanked the ‘miracle of science’, which has enabled the speedy development of effective vaccines. The BBC has also published many reports of ‘miraculous’ recoveries from COVID-19 over the last few months (example 1, example 2, example 3). On World Religion Day, it is timely and worthwhile to discuss what world religions teach us about COVID-19 and the possibility of miracles.
We can find abundant reports of miracles in religious texts, particularly in relation to health. In the Tripitaka, the Buddha is reported to have healed a woman called Suppiyā, who badly injured her thigh to save a sick monk, only by seeing her wound. In the New Testament, Jesus is reported to have healed a paralysed man in Capernaum by telling him, “Get up, take your mat and go home”. In Hadith, Muhammad is reported to have cured a man with an eye condition instantly by spitting on his eyes. Religious texts also describe other types of miracles, such as acts of turning water into wine, producing food out of nowhere and appearing in two places at the same time, but miracles of healing are most prevalent across all religious traditions.
What then is a miracle? Philosophers often define a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. Nature is uniform and stable—everything in it behaves according to seemingly immutable laws. These laws explain that, for example, no object can travel faster than the speed of light, and the dead cannot be revived. The abovementioned examples represent miracles because they cannot be performed without violating them.
Surprisingly enough, the leaders of the world’s great religions do not seem to be particularly enthusiastic about performing miracles, even though they are miracle workers themselves. For instance, when Pindola Bharadwāja performed a miracle of rising into the air in response to a rich man’s challenge, the Buddha said to him, ‘Oh, Bharadwāja, it is not proper, it is improper, unlike a monk, shameful and should not be done’. Another well-known example is that Jesus refused to perform the miracles of turning stones into bread or jumping from the highest point of a temple without getting hurt when he was challenged by the Devil. Jesus also warned his disciples that when the end of time comes, false messiahs and false prophets will appear, and they will perform great signs and wonders to deceive people. Also, in Islam, whereas the Quran is believed to be a miraculous revelation from Allah, individual reports of Muhammad’s miracles play a relatively small role. The Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel writes that many Muslims would acknowledge that ‘[t]he performance of miracles is a sign that a person’s intention is still directed toward worldly approval, not exclusively toward God’.
We can hypothesise that religious leaders warn against dependence on miracles because they want their followers to focus on more important acts. Similar to performing a magic trick, violating the laws of nature can impress people easily, but it does not, in itself, make the act worthwhile. The novelist Shusaku Endo makes a relevant point by referring to Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered to be sent to a starvation bunker in the Auschwitz death camp in place of a stranger:
I would not think of it as a miracle if bread had suddenly fallen from heaven or lights from heaven had blinded the Nazis officials when the priest was sent to a starvation bunker. What is important is the fact that to save the crying young man in front of him, Kolbe said without a sense of despair, ‘I don’t have a wife or a child as I am a priest. Let me substitute him’ and voluntarily went to the starvation bunker only to die. I want to say that this fact is a miracle.
Over the long process of evolution, humans have acquired strong behavioural traits to act selfishly in many circumstances in the fight for limited resources. A selfless, altruistic act such as Kolbe’s is not exactly a miracle because it does not violate the laws of nature. Yet, we are still touched by such a deed because it is an act of compassion and self-sacrifice involving what is akin to a violation of the laws of nature: defiance, with one’s own will, of strong behavioural traits ingrained in us through the laws of nature.
When we face a crisis, such as the ongoing global outbreak of COVID-19, we naturally wish for supernatural miracles. The world’s great religions seem to teach us, however, that acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, which we have seen exemplified by health and social care workers and families of patients worldwide, are more admirable than instant miracles and that they are, in a sense, more ‘miraculous’ than miracles themselves.
Endo, Shusaku (1983), Watashi Ni Totte Kami Towa (What is God for Me) (Tokyo: Kobunsha).
Schimmel, Annemarie (1975), Mystical Dimensions of Islam, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press).