This week Indonesians will celebrate two religious holidays, both of which commemorate miraculous phenomena in Christianity and Islam. First is the ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven. Second is the ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Sidrat al-Muntaha where the Prophet directly spoke with God, advising a spiritual regimen of five-times daily prayer.
The two holidays highlight Indonesia’s tolerance as a state towards the “recognized” religions. Out of all Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia is the only one that declares Jesus’ ascension a national holiday. Out of the 10 most populous Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia is the only country that makes commemoration of isra-mi’raj [isra’ means a night journey; mi’raj means ascension] a national holiday as well.
With regard to the substance of that which is commemorated, one cannot deny that such events are miraculous in the sense they transcend the bounds of natural law. Modern people, both atheists and religious adherents, may ask such questions as: Where is the heaven to which Jesus and Muhammad ascended? Does this heaven exist within or outside this universe? Is the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension of Muhammad to be understood in the literal, physical sense? How could Muhammad have made a journey from Mecca to the “farthest mosque” (believed by most Muslims to be al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem) and then ascended to the seventh sky and come back to earth in a single night? And so forth and so on.
The Bible records numerous miracles performed by God. The Koran and the hadiths do too. Most, if not all, religions, both the “world” religions and indigenous religions, feature supernatural accounts. Some of these stories are very significant to the believers’ doctrinal formations and/or ritual performances. Some believers say the miracles are a kind of proof (in Islam, it is called mu’jizah) that venerated figures have a special relationship with God.
The thing is most religions were born in the axial age and some even medieval era. For the people of those times, such miracles were without cognitive dissonance: They could believe in events that today would be seen as violations of scientific truths.
For those studying mythology, that may be due to the fact the people of the pre-modern era made no differentiation between myth and fact (in the sense of scientific history). There was no distinction between the physical and the metaphysical. Empiricism has been regarded as the only reliable scientific epistemology in the post-Enlightenment era. What the pre-modern people called a “true history” was a sacred history that mattered very much to their cosmological existence — some of this we may refer to today as mythology. The sacred history was also significant for identity formation and we see some of the miraculous stories of different religions coming into conflict.
For those studying history, those miraculous stories may originally function as a kind of story template, which is shared by all people of places where the respective religions were born. Such a template was eventually ascribed to the venerated figure and projected to the time back. Those who have been involved in the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus” know this well: how Jesus’ miracles had precedents in the surrounding stories/legends/folklores transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition.
Ascension to heaven alive, for example, is not unique to Christianity and Islam. Judaism has Enoch and Elia (shared also by Christianiy and Islam); Hellenism has Hercules; Hinduism has Yudhisthira; Zoroastrianism has Arda Viraf. Stories of humans entering speaking to God, and/or God-incarnate are common among indigenous religions throughout the world.
Now, in the 21st century, when science has advanced and modern cosmologists have been able to measure the earth and the universe, the question becomes: how do we reconcile religious miracles with science?
The thing is that some miracles are at the very core of respective religious doctrines. They are constitutive of what differentiates some religions from other ideologies, such that some of them are nonnegotiable. We see nowadays the phenomenon of some religious adherents trying to reinterpret the miraculous story so that it can suit modern science. In some Muslim countries, including Indonesia, there have been efforts to prove that the Prophet’s mi’raj can be made factual by relying on Einstein’s theory of relativity and/or the modern cosmological inquiry of the unseen dimensions of the universe.
There have been also some believers seeking to metaphorically reinterpret the story. In Islam, some rationalists come up with the argument that the Prophet’s isra’-mi’raj was spiritual, instead of physical, by relying on some other narrations in the classical Muslim traditions that said as such. Yet this argument is not favored by mainstream Muslims today.
On the other hand, we also have scientists who insist on the idea that scientists cannot believe in such old-fashioned miracle stories. They believe that science and religion are always in conflict and that the two cannot be harmonized.
Responding to these kinds of scientists, some theologians and scholars argue that a miracle, by definition, is an event that cannot be explained by natural law — otherwise, it would no longer be a miracle. Therefore, they say, science cannot comment on it, since a scientific theory must be inferred based on empirical evidence and/or reproducible experimental methods.
The very basic proposition of these theologians is that once you believe in God, who is beyond natural law, beyond all the creations, including space and time, those miracles, despite violating natural law, are just as possible. Within this idea lies the notion of distinguishing what is “probable” from what is “possible”. Improbable (in Islam: mustahil ‘adatan) is what is unlikely to happen. Impossible (in Islam: mustahil ‘aqlan) is what is unthinkable; for example: that one is more than two or that someone is both alive and dead at the same time.
Those religious miracles, despite being very unlikely to happen, are still possible. With this idea, religion and science need not be in conflict. Some religion scholars say that science need not invalidate or replace religion — in fact, this is not the purpose of science. Religion and science, they say, are two separate modes of knowing, two different world-views.
That is it. Explanations above prevail if we define miracles, as commonly understood, as an event contravening the natural law. There is, however, another insight on miracles from Albert Einstein. He said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is miracle, or you can live as if everything is miracle.” It is, thus, not only the religious miracle that should be called a miracle; the natural law itself is a miracle. Coming back to the basic theology, all in the universe is God’s miraculous creation.