Do miracles really happen? Did they ever? We don’t really have to take a position on these questions, says Kenneth Woodward in his benevolent, sure-handed account of the miracles that mark the history of the world’s five major religions, The Book of Miracles: the Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (Simon & Schuster, $28). His aim is to show how miracles function within each religious tradition and what those stories disclose “about the meaning and the power of the transcendent within the world of time and space.”
“Without some knowledge of such stories and what they mean,” he writes, “no religion can be fully appreciated or understood.” As religion editor of Newsweek for the past thirty-six years, Woodward has made it his business to understand almost everything that goes by the name of religion, without daring to pass judgment on the truth claims of any of them. And this is what he asks of his readers here: to stand with him and listen (preferably with just a little awe) to the stories that have been told by Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Christians since the beginning of recorded time.
Why should readers bother with religions not their own? We live in an age of convergence, Woodward says, and so we must. “The people Christian missionaries once went abroad to convert are now their children’s playmates in the schoolyard back home. We cannot afford ignorance of what our next-door neighbors, or even the Bombay sales manager just an e-mail away, may believe about the nature and destiny of humankind.”
Furthermore, the future peace of our neighborhoods, indeed, the peace of the village that is now called global, may depend on our sympathetic understanding. Our young people seem to know this more surely than their grandparents did. I am told by a Jesuit from Heythrop College that enrollment in college religion courses is at an all-time high, with a strong emphasis on what is called “world religions.”
Need the parents of these young people fear that their children will grow up thinking that all religions are the same? In a recent symposium at the Anglican Center in Rome, some wondered whether the much-discussed Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus might not have been written by men in the Roman Curia who were stricken with that fear. But they dismissed the thought that there are any real grounds for dread. “People pretty much stick with the religions they were born with,” said one of them. “They might want to change them a bit. But Catholics aren’t comfortable with the thought of being Muslims, and vice versa.”
In fact, Woodward would have it that “serious engagement with another religion is the best way to discover the uniqueness of one’s own.” He cannot understand “Buddhist Christians,” for example. Here, he may need to keep an open mind: there are no less than twenty-one Jesuits around the world who are also Buddhist monks; for them Buddhism is less a religion than a mental discipline that allows them to see themselves (and the world they live in) in new, more creative ways. Some may call these Jesuits syncretists. But they would probably tell you that Christians have been syncretists from the beginning, when Christians took to baptizing an ancient midwinter Roman feast day and calling it Christmas.
But no one can say Woodward isn’t doing his homework. His acknowledgments indicate that he apprenticed himself to several dozen experts in order to write his chapters on religions other than the one he knows intimately. Woodward is a life-long Catholic who went to a Jesuit high school in Cleveland and to the University of Notre Dame. His mentors there did something right, for Woodward comes across in these pages as a man who has never lost his capacity for surprise.
Did you know, he asks, that according to some important opinion polls, 82 percent of the American public believe that “even today, God continues to work miracles”?
I am quite prepared to go along with the majority here. In 1994, behind the wheel of my Mercedes, I lurched out of my driveway in California and was awakened from a dreamy preoccupation by the sight of a speeding car bearing down on me, not five feet away on my left. I knew I was a dead man. All of sudden, that car was on my right. The driver weaved a bit, braked for a moment, then drove off, shaking his head in disbelief, as I was. For it was clear to me there was no way he could have missed crashing into me, no way he could have steered aside. His car had flashed through my car; his steel and glass and rubber passing through my steel and glass and rubber like a ray of light through a pane of alabaster.
Since my conversion to Catholicism at the age of 13, I have been a serious believer. But this miracle moment was, for me, a turning point in my life, for I took it as a sign that God wasn’t finished with me yet, and that I had some new business to attend to. It wasn’t that this miracle made me believe any more surely. I was always there, nodding with our resurrected Lord when he told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen [miracles] yet believe.” But, from then on, I felt more driven to do things I’d never done before, more important things than I was doing then.
Seeing in a New Way
Woodward’s stories (retold stories from the holy men and women of every great religion) will change the way you see the world. You will be most fascinated, I think, by Woodward’s treatment of modern miracles. Woodward rather sniffs at them, but he cannot deny that they are happening every day—even and especially within Protestantism itself (which once declared the age of miracles was over).
Woodward sees this phenomenon at work in other settings, too. He tells tales of the miracles that have attended the lives of living saints—notably Brooklyn’s Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and a motherly 44-year-old Indian sat guru known most simply as Ammachi (Holy Mother), who came to New York City in the summer of 1997 to meet 1,000 devoted followers.
But she declined to speak to Woodward about her miracles. “Genuine great souls,” she told an aide, who told Woodward, “do not care to prove their worth by working miracles. Such miracles are nothing in comparison with achieving mastery over the mind and helping others achieve their own self-realization.”
To Woodward, these people have turned the idea of a miracle on its head. “Where classical miracle stories inspired fear and awe, inducing worship of God and admiration of the saints, modern miracles tend to inspiration of the divinity that is the self.” He disapproves.
I asked Woodward what was wrong with the notion. He told me that realizing one’s inner divinity “in no way squares with the Christian idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps not. But why cavil when billions of people on the planet are well able to accept the notion that there is something of the divine in each of them?
The Prophet’s Miracle
Muhammad called for surrender—which is what the word “Islam” means—to the all-powerful and all-merciful Allah as the Creator and judge of the world. But the merchants of Mecca saw no reason to jettison the other gods; in a changing world, one needs all the supernatural help one can get. . . . Surrender . . . was as alien to their outlook as was the idea of resurrection from the dead. As one commentator observes, Muhammad was trying to do in a generation what it took the prophets of Israel centuries to complete: convert his people from many gods to one. The astounding fact is that he succeeded. But in the eyes of Muslims, it was not Muhammad who succeeded but rather the truth of the Qur’an that prevailed.
—The Book of Miracles