Syllabus: Course Explores the Changing Meaning of Miracles

Author: Burton Bollag

“Miracles,” University of Notre Dame

Arecent university news release lauding this course mocked secular explanations for what the Christian faiths hold as miracles. Skeptics, for example, might explain the story of the loaves and the fishes this way: Many people who came to hear Jesus speak packed lunches but selfishly concealed them. Jesus’ words so moved them that they shared what they had, producing an overabundance.

The news release called that a “boring and knee-jerk rationalist” explanation. But for John C. Cavadini, who teaches the class and leads the theology department, the truth is more complex. “An old priest on campus sent me an e-mail” questioning the news release, says Mr. Cavadini. "He said: ‘John, what’s wrong with that? Getting people in a poor society to share is a miracle.’

“In a way, he is right.”

The course, intended mostly for theology majors, explores the changing meaning of miracles. It starts with the Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Baruch Spinoza, who challenged the wide acceptance of miracles by arguing that they violated natural laws. The class then looks at the meaning of miracles in the Bible, where an actor can in some circumstances display miraculous powers, and in others, be powerless. Jesus’ closest followers, for example, abandon him at his crucifixion, revealing the limits to the power of the many supernatural deeds attributed to him. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other classical Christian thinkers are consulted.

The class considers the place of miracles in modern theological movements, like liberation theology (which, despite its Marxist influences, enthusiastically upholds miracles), and in the social sciences, which favor social explanations like the one derided in the news release.

“It is very important to me that miracles physically happened,” says Mr. Cavadini. But, he adds, “you don’t put your faith in the miracle, but in something that it points to: God’s love.”

Students say:

“The course asks some serious questions about a topic that often isn’t discussed in an academic setting,” says Kathleen M. Fox, a senior majoring in philosophy and theology. “At the end of the day, it comes down to a question of faith: You decide to believe or not.”

Reading list:

The Cult of the Saints, by Peter Brown (University of Chicago Press, 1981); The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene (Penguin Classics editions); Miracles, by C.S. Lewis (Macmillan, 1978, any paperback edition), plus about 500 pages of book chapters and articles.


Six papers and a final exam.

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