Gellman: Are Miracles Real?

On Oct. 13 Sri Chinmoy died. The world famous Indian guru who lived in Queens succumbed to a heart attack at age 76. Two days before his death Christopher Hitchens, the noted atheist, debated Alister McGrath, the noted theist and biochemist, at Georgetown University under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. For me these two wildly disparate and disconnected events were mysteriously and deeply linked. The debate and Sri's death set a theological parenthesis around the question of whether miracles are real. In the debate, and in his important and provocative best seller "God Is not Great," Hitchens pressed the point that belief in miracles is both irrational and immoral. In his life Sri Chinmoy pressed the point that miracles are all around us, urging us onward and upward into ever higher levels of spiritual existence. Sri was a miracle maker and Chris is a miracle debunker. Some days you just have to pay your money and take your guru.

There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together—with the platform—we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. Fourteen years earlier Sri had lifted 7,040 pounds with his left arm. Fifteen years earlier, at age 55, he lifted 7,063 pounds—with his right arm. Sri Chinmoy lifted airplanes and elephants and over 7,000 people. In fact, we were told Sri had postponed lifting Al Gore that day in order to lift us, the God Squad. Sri believed in "Lifting Up the World With a Oneness Heart." It was part of his belief that "the physical and the spiritual must go together. They cannot be separated." The weightlifter and body builder Bill Pearl said, "I have learned from Sri Chinmoy that the size of the arm does not make the man; the size of the heart makes the man. Nobody on earth has done what Sri Chinmoy has done."

Was his lifting a miracle? Technically, it did not violate the laws of nature; it just stretched them. You could rationally explain our lifting by simply admitting that Sri Chinmoy was just preternaturally strong. You could say that and it might be right, and then you could go back to Chris Hitchens's world and have a drink and say, with Ebenezer Scrooge, that what we saw on that drizzly spring day in Queens was not the ghost of Christmas past but just "an undigested piece of goose." That's the thing with miracles. Real miracles, if there are any, are close enough to natural events to preserve the possibility that they are only natural events recorded, as Martin Buber said, "by extremely enthusiastic participants." Could be. Might be. On the other hand there is the possibility that the God who allowed Sarah to conceive Isaac at an old age is the same God who allowed Sri Chinmoy to lift the God Squad into the air.

Without messing with the space-time continuum and without committing ourselves to a God who, as Einstein believed, would never play dice with the universe, I ask you to think for yourself. Ask yourself this question: "Is there no possibility that between the clearly mythical and phantasmagorical miracles like Noah's ark and the talking snake of the Garden of Eden on one side, and the clearly naturalistic universe of science and atheism on the other side, there might not be just a small crack between reason and faith?" Through such a crack, miracles could sneak through into our world.

A wonderful old Jewish legend tells that some of the people who walked through the Red Sea in the Exodus from Egypt did not see the miracle of the splitting of the sea because they never looked up, and so all they saw was mud. Is it not possible that through that crack between reason and faith there might emerge a radiant glow, truly miraculous signs that God has put here on planet earth so that we might look up and so that all our vistas might not be mud? I think Sri Chinmoy was a ray of light from that crack. I am sad to see him go, but I know his journey continues and his strength endures in all those he lifted up into the air—either because he was really strong or because he knew the miraculous source of all true strength.