TOO MANY MIRACLES:
An essay by James G. McCully, MD
In the middle ages, many people believed that beyond the clouds and the moon there was a solid black roof over the sky. This roof was the outer limit of the world where we lived on “the firmament.” Outside this roof over the firmament was everywhere a brilliant white light. The stars were actually tiny holes in the roof of the firmament. If this was so, the starlight allowed us to peek outside the natural world and get a glimpse of heaven itself. This worldview was completely wrong but wonderfully inspirational. If this sounds foolish to you, I highly recommend you go outside on the next clear night and look up at the night sky. Visualize the stars as holes in the roof of the firmament and imagine that you are seeing light from outside the natural world. Try this, and then decide what you think of this notion.
Now we live in the post lunar landing era and spend many of our waking hours fiddling with our smartphones. We know that the stars are actually huge masses of hydrogen collapsing under their own gravitation, and that starlight comes from thermonuclear fussion: the stuff of hydrogen bombs. Quite a different viewpoint. We have fashioned a life for ourselves in which there is more information but less inspiration.
Some blame this on science, saying that we have learned relatively mundane causes of things that were once mysterious. This is not the case at all. In fact, the opposite is true; the more one knows about nature, the more incredible and breathtaking it becomes. As a Nobel laureate physicist put it: “….the ancients believed that the earth was on the back of an elephant, that stood on a tortoise, that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer. The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination, and it was a beautiful and poetic idea. Look at the way we understand it today. This universe has been described by many, but it just goes on and on, with its edge just as unknown as the bottom of the bottomless sea of the other idea — just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, and just as incomplete as the poetic pictures that came before.”
Someone once asked me if I—as a physician—believed in the miracle of the virgin birth. I told them that I thought that every birth was a miracle. The idea that two microscopic cells can first locate each other, blend their genes together, begin to multiply, and then somehow differentiate a tiny ball of identical stem cells into the different organs and body parts making up a beautiful, healthy baby—this is miraculous in the extreme, but it occurs so often that we just accept it as a normal happening.
Most folks assume that biologists can explain how a human egg develops into a healthy baby. Not even close. They have no clue how a microscopic ball of stem cells knows which cells are going to become the front or the back, the top or the bottom, the right side or the left side of a future baby. It is a complete mystery how starting from these identical cells some end up as eyes and some end up as ears, or fingers or toes, or bones or brains. Although we have indeed deciphered the code of our DNA, it is far beyond scientific understanding how that this code can somehow create a Mozartor an Einstein or—for that matter— a person who can decipher our DNA.
Imagine the world exactly as it is in the 21st century with one exception. In this imaginary world there are no flowers. It’s not that they are all gone; there is no such thing as a flower and there has never been any such thing.
Then one fine day, a man takes a walk in the country and he notices this bright red object growing on the branch of a thorny bush. Not only is it beautifully shaped, soft to the touch, and lovely to look at, it has a more wonderful smell than any perfume. He wonders if he has gone mad. Since no one else is there, he closes his eyes and shakes his head. But, when he opens his eyes and touches it once more, sure enough, it is really there. The next day he takes a friend back to see this miraculous thing. By then, the bush has sprouted a number of these amazing, dark red, feathery soft, sweet smelling wonders on its thorny branches. His friend agrees that this awesome thing is uplifting, inspiring, and has some deep meaning.
He sends photographs of the bush with the captivating red growths to his old biology professor, asking whether they are something special or merely something of which he was ignorant. Soon, biologists from all around the world have come to see this phenomenal, unique plant. They find that there is a yellow powder within the red growths, and that this powder tests as genetic material. Then they learn that—believe it or not—hummingbirds and bees are moving this powder from one place to another so that other nearby thorny plants are now growing the amazing red things on their branches. When asked how they could explain such a thing, they can only say, “It’s just miraculous.”
The reason that we don’t consider babies, roses, bees, trees, hummingbirds, eagles, tigers, dolphins, elephants, and ants as miracles is that they are so common that we have come to think of them as normal. Some skeptics say they are faithless because there aren’t any miracles. But for most of us, the problem is that we don’t see the universe for what it really is…..because we are surrounded by too many miracles.
Long ago, an elderly native american must have had a similar thought when he spoke this haunting, compelling quote:
“On many days
I made myself unhappy,
while my whole life
I flew on winds of high adventure
through skies of great mystery.”
Artist: James G. McCully, MD
Bio: Dr. James McCully was born and high-school educated in Jacksonville. After a degree at The University of Florida, he received his MD at Duke University and his specialty medical training at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He was an English major during his pre-med years, and he has published two books during his retirement. At age 75, he still enjoys taking creative writing classes.
Piece: Too Many Miracles
Piece Description: An essay about science, Nobel laureates, a fictional mind experiment, and the first flower on earth.