The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Seven Types of Everyday Miracle by Donald A. Crosby
Two prominent questions come to mind when I think of readers likely to pick up a book with this title. Those attracted to a study of miracles will probably ask, "How can miracles be 'everyday'?" And those who eagerly anticipate Donald Crosby unfolding another dimension of his religious naturalism might well ask, "Why do we still need to be talking about 'miracles'?" In The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, Crosby weaves a gracious and expansive argument that brings both kinds of readers to the same existential meeting place, a space where we take time to stand together in awe and wonder at the inexplicable mysteries of even the most seemingly mundane aspects of our daily lives—mysteries that draw us irresistibly toward something MORE in the depths of our experience.
This book continues to develop the Religion of Nature Crosby has been writing about for some time, but with increasing intensity in recent years.1 In this latest installment of his project, he aims to cut across the particular conceptual and doctrinal beliefs that divide us and evoke something deeper in our nature that's common to all of us, regardless of religious tradition. His purpose is to encourage "a radical shift of attitude and receptivity," "a revolutionary shift of heart and mind," enabling us to perceive "the abundance of stupendous miracles that already pervade the so-called ordinary world" (70). Crosby defines "miracles" quite broadly as "powerful inducements to wonder" (xiv), a wondrousness that evokes profound reflection on our participation "in the majesty of the world," which in turn kindles a sense of focus and urgency "to make the most of our brief lives, especially with respect to the effects for good our lives can have for others, both human and nonhuman" (xiv).
As the title of the book indicates, Crosby's thesis is that these extraordinary dimensions of our experience inhabit the ordinary events of daily living. From a religious naturalist perspective, miracles are not alien occurrences that break [End Page 63] into this earthly realm from some Other reality, but rather are readily available to everyone whenever we perceive the intrinsic sublimity, sacredness, and mystery at the heart of our everyday experiences. Crosby's goal throughout the book is to awaken us to this awareness, creating "an attitude of wonder and an outlook of thankfulness, as well as an aspiration toward goodness and contribution to the betterment of the world" (150).
In his first chapter, he compares and contrasts the popular, conventional religious conception of miracles with his naturalistic view. Traditionally conceived, miracles are treated as unique acts of a god who intervenes in the ordinary course of events in some extraordinary (and naturally inexplicable) way to disclose the divine power, presence, character, purpose, and will. Crosby briefly traces evidence of this conception of miracles in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism. However, Crosby is not content with a simplistic bifurcation of naturalistic versus supernaturalistic forms of faith. He also draws our attention to other familiar stories in these religious traditions that reflect the sacramental view of natural phenomena and events that he is promoting here. One example he gives is the story in I Kings of the Hebrew scriptures, in which the fugitive prophet Elijah finds God's voice not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a seemingly ordinary "still small voice":
This still small voice, I suggest, can be construed as a symbol of a contemplative, openhearted spirit that is able to attend to the natural, everyday events of the world—not just those of a highly unusual or unfathomable character—with empowering religious insight, faith, and conviction. Experience of the authentically miraculous can in such cases lie in keen discernment of the profound religious significance of commonplace things and occurrences.(4)
Crosby's purpose here is neither to negate the role that conventional notions of miracle may play in various religious worldviews, nor to claim that quotidian miracles can or should replace conventional notions. His arguments never get heavy-handed or devolve into arrogance or supersessionism. He simply lays his vision out there for others who may recognize themselves in that vision or experience themselves recognized by it:
As a religious naturalist who does not believe in or appeal to anything supernatural, my entire focus is on nature and on the wondrous features of nature considered in and of themselves. …
I respect those who differ from me on these points and do not argue that their views should be rejected out of hand. There is mystery enough in the world as we experience it to encompass or allow for both views. Who can claim to have the final and indisputable word on such matters?(17) [End Page 64]
Crosby also does not shy away from treating the dark side of ordinary miracles. He acknowledges that "there is much in our lives as creatures of nature and in nature as a whole that is tragic, including such things as diseases, accidents, natural disasters, predations, the finality of death, and the sometimes horrible consequences of misuses of human freedom" (17). A naturalistic piety directs us to our own, not insignificant creaturely resources for coping and wrestling with these mysterious tragedies. Throughout the book, Crosby deals with our moral obligations in the face of these everyday miracles (both wondrous and tragic).
The main body of the book consists of seven chapters, each of which deals with a distinct kind of "ordinary" miracle—the deeply mysterious nature of time and causality (chap. 2); the history of the universe and life on earth (chap. 3); individual consciousness and freedom (chap. 4); our astounding ability to communicate in language, especially metaphoric language, with all of its creative and destructive power (chap. 5); the immensity and diversity of the world, and our role in that diversity (chap. 6); the revelatory and evocative power of human imagination (chap. 7), viewed here in the spheres of physics (Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein) and novelistic literature (George Eliot's Middlemarch and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children); and the transformative power of love in all of its various manifestations (chap. 8), the hope of which "lies at the heart of human meaning, value, and importance" (146). In all of these chapters, Crosby instills an attitude of standing together in humility before the great mysteries of our existence in a spirit of profound gratitude that has no need of supernatural explanations. To take miracles of this kind for granted or to treat them dismissively as routine "is not only to be myopic of eye and deaf of ear to the scintillating and resounding wonders of the world. It is to be guilty of a kind of sacrilege—a spirit-numbing habit of continuing obliviousness to multiple manifestations of the sacred in the history of our universe and in our everyday lives" (43).
Crosby frequently uses words like "sacred," "spiritual," "soulful," "sublimity," "glory," "majesty," and "religious" to communicate his sense of the "miraculous." But how do these words work in a Religion of Nature? To what do they refer? Crosby states: "My thesis throughout is that when it is mindfully approached, reflected on, and comprehended, nature is amply entitled to the reverence, honor, and awe others have reserved for God or for some other focus of religious faith and commitment" (103). But we typically associate these words with those more conventional forms of religion, which confers upon religious naturalists an obligation to develop their own lexicon of meanings when they use them. Has Crosby succeeded at that task here? I think he has, [End Page 65] but in a very subtle way that readers have to discover, bit by bit, as they work their way carefully through the book and attempt to put these perspectives in their own words. They may find themselves frustrated by the lack of precise definitions here, but we need to acknowledge that we are dealing with a sublime quality of experience elicited by the intractable mysteries of our existence, a quality that defies clear definition. To attempt to reduce such unfathomable experiences to a clear conceptual formula would inevitably miss the mark.
There are several passages where Crosby's language gets in the way of communicating this kind of experience, especially when he asserts that we are able to "comprehend" nature (e.g., 103), and that we can learn to see the world "as it amazingly is" (16). But for the most part, his prose effectively conveys the same depth of feeling about the incomprehensibility of nature that conventional religions reserve for supernatural realms. To get a better sense of Crosby's particular applications of these terms, readers will need to turn to his other works, where he has developed these dimensions of religious naturalism more extensively.
In terms of the breadth of his target audience here, Crosby set himself a challenging goal, one I think he achieved with grace and sensitivity. Of course, his position will be most attractive to religious liberals and progressives. He is developing a theological program that can be traced back to Friedrich Schleiermacher's grounding of "religion" in the realm of human experience. In his Speeches on religion, Schleiermacher defined a miracle as any event that reveals the Infinite to you; "it refers purely to the mental condition of the observer."2 And while he relentlessly resisted any attempt to differentiate the objective and subjective aspects of "religion" itself, Schleiermacher's practical theology effectively relocated the "miraculous" from the objective to the subjective sphere. Crosby follows a related trajectory when he defines miracles in terms of our sense of wonder, our ability to discern the sublimity and mystery of ordinary experiences. No doubt this move will not be entirely successful for more traditional religious believers whose faith relies on some kind of objective grasp on a sacred ground external to their subjective experience. And although Crosby has not set out here to convert those believers to his position, he is attempting to broaden the applicability of what we consider "miraculous" to the naturalistic realm, and it is hard to know whether they will find that usage meaningful. I think he will have far more success with religious liberals and with naturalists of all stripes. Religious liberals who are sensitive to the [End Page 66] literary and historical contextualization of their sacred texts will recognize that Crosby's use of "miracle"—denoting something wondrous, marvelous, and astonishing—translates the terms used in those texts far more accurately than the modern sense of "miracle" as an inexplicable violation of the known laws of nature. And although some naturalists may not find his "sacred" and "miraculous" terminology altogether congenial, they will likely resonate with the attitude of wonder and awe they find described here.
This work has both the depth and the breadth to provoke earnest reflection in all of those audiences. Its language and arguments are fully accessible to general readers, and are equally well suited for a broad range of undergraduate and graduate courses. It would be particularly fruitful for small group discussions because each chapter begs for lively conversation to tease out its implications for personal experience and discovery. It would lend itself easily to groups focusing on a variety of topics in religion, philosophy of religion, religion and science, and interreligious dialogue.
1. His major works in this area include A Religion of Nature (2002), The Thou of Nature: Religious Naturalism and Reverence for Sentient Life (2013), More than Discourse: Symbolic Expressions of Naturalistic Faith (2014), and Nature as Sacred Ground: A Metaphysics for Religious Naturalism (2015), all published by the State University of New York Press. Most recently, Crosby coedited The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism with Jerome A. Stone (Routledge, 2018).
2. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (1831; repr., New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 88.