Faith, miracles, and other rational phenomena

Faith, miracles, and other rational phenomena

Why you don’t have to ‘believe’ to learn Hanukka’s lesson

Judah Maccabee depicted in an illustration for the 1553 French volume, Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.
Judah Maccabee depicted in an illustration for the 1553 French volume, Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.

In order to be a realist, one must believe in miracles. That is, at least, what David Ben-Gurion thought about life in Israel.

But Ben-Gurion’s insight applies far beyond the confines of the modern day State of Israel. Take, for instance, the holiday of Hanukka, celebrated by Diaspora Jews with perhaps even more fervor than Israeli Jews.

In stark contrast to the supernatural miracles that define other holidays, Hanukka celebrates an event whose truth even the direst of realists has to acknowledge. The Maccabees, led by Mattathias and Judah, really did defeat the Greek-Seleucid Empire and drive them from the land, ushering in an era of Jewish rein in Israel.

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with the secular nature of the Hanukka story. As some scholars have suggested, the other miracle of Hanukka — that a small dollop of oil found in the Beit Hamikdash was only enough to light the menora for one day but actually lasted for eight days — may have been first told years later as a way of downplaying the military nature of the holiday.

And yet, the story of the Maccabean victory is no less inspiring simply because it is true. The Maccabees were vastly outnumbered by the Greeks, and they had to conduct a guerrilla war campaign akin to that of George Washington’s troops fighting the mighty British Empire almost 2,000 years later. They prevailed, the sources tell us, because they had faith in what they were doing — reconquering the Holy Land and ridding it of the brutal form of Hellenistic polytheism imposed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes — and the fortitude to press on when the odds were against them.

It was an event that must have shocked the world then as much as the American Revolution did. But was it a miracle? Or can a miracle only be a supernatural event?

The fact is, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not God can — or ever does — suspend the laws of nature is an interesting intellectual question, but it does not change the fact that we need stories that are thrilling, awe-inspiring, scintillating — in a word, “miraculous” — to keep us going. While most of the time our ordinary common sense view of the world is an accurate predictor of what is to come, we hold out hope that sometimes — exactly how often and under what circumstances is up for debate — something happens that no one could have predicted.

That is where faith comes in.

While one would think that such insights are obvious, there are people that seem to want to deny this basic truth, like Sam Harris, who authored The End of Faith and recently wrote The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In his newest book, Harris claims that all religious people “suffer” from faith, which he refers to as a debilitating “condition.”

To be fair, Harris scores some excellent points against extremist religion, which resonate today not only in the Muslim world but also in the West, where the Catholic Church continues to debate the propriety of both exorcisms and condom use. But Harris goes too far. By defining faith as a “conviction without sufficient reason; hope mistaken for knowledge,” he subsumes non-religious faith under his definition for a purpose that is, at best, tendentious.

Should someone who plays the lottery be treated as mental patient? Obviously, belief in winning the lottery in one’s lifetime is unjustifiable, given the fact that the odds are one in 78 million. Sadly, there are people who play the lottery solely out of a mistaken belief that they will win (or who have a gambling addiction). But that doesn’t make playing the lottery insane. The chance of winning is only one of many other reasons for playing, including the thrill of checking the results, possibly winning one of the “mini” jackpots, and fantasizing about what life would be like as a multi-millionaire.

And this goes beyond the mundane. What would Sam Harris say about Betty Anne Waters, a high-school dropout from rural Massachusetts, who earned a high school equivalency degree, a bachelor’s, a JD, and then passed the bar — all in the hope of overturning her brother’s murder conviction, which was affirmed by the appellate courts years before? She had to be crazy to do what she did, and in the movie Conviction, which stars Hilary Swank as Waters, she does seem crazy at times.

But she couldn’t have done it if she had played the odds and assumed it was so improbable as to be impossible.

Religious faith, as the story of Hanukka proves, is really no different. It’s not only about what happened many years ago, but also about the conditions necessary in the mind to make great things happen today.

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