Harry Rubenstein is cradling the small red leather-bound book in his hands as if it were a baby bird. He lets it fall open, and this back room at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History is suddenly filled with the wafting aroma of old yellowed pages.
This is Thomas Jefferson's 1820 Bible; or rather, his version of it. The author of the Declaration of Independence has used a razor to meticulously excise his favored passages from a pair of King James Bibles and pasted them onto blank, bound pages. In fact, lying here next to Jefferson's version is one of those cannibalized Bibles, the rectangular windows flipping by as Rubenstein gently thumbs through it.
Left behind in those edited Bibles after Jefferson's excisions: every miracle, every hint of the divinity of Jesus. So his New Testament has no loaves and fishes, no walking on water, no water into wine, no Resurrection. Jefferson dismissed such passages as superstition. What he wanted was something more straightforward, as reflected in the title he gave the work: The Philosophy and Life of Jesus of Nazareth.
"This project is purely of the Enlightenment: Rewrite the Bible," says Rubenstein, the Smithsonian's chair of politics and reform. Popular as Jefferson was, his bold experiment ran squarely against the grain of American culture.
"He was attacked for what he did," adds Laura Duff, a Smithsonian expert in 17th Century America. "People wrote how he was an infidel, and how in Jefferson's America you'd have to hide your Bible."
To this day, there are those who stand aghast at Jefferson's chutzpah, and that raises a fair question: Does faith exist without miracles? In fact, are there miracles at all—and if not, just how do we explain away those events that inevitably become defined as such?
Nearly 200 years after Jefferson, we decided to find out who's winning that intellectual tug-of-war.
In an AARP the Magazine survey, we asked 1,000 people 50 and over what they thought about miracles, and the results are striking: 80 percent believe in miracles, 41 percent say they happen every day—and 37 percent say they have actually witnessed one. Most intriguingly, the older you are, the less likely you are to believe in miracles.
When we went in search of miracles in America, the first thing we had to do was come up with a definition, because frankly, the word "miracle" seems to get tossed around an awful lot. Some may quibble, but for our purposes The Mets winning the 1969 World Series is not a miracle. Neither is 24 Black on a roulette wheel. We needed to set a high standard, and here's what we said in our survey: "In the following questions, when we talk about a miracle, we are specifically referring to an incredible event that cannot be explained scientifically."
So what gives? We're skeptical, post-modern Americans. Why do we still believe in miracles?
Dennis Finch, 63, of Kuna, Idaho, believes in miracles because, he insists, he's witnessed one from the inside:
"A few years ago I was in the hospital, in a coma," he says. "I stopped breathing several times, and the doctors told all my relatives they'd better get to the hospital to say their goodbyes. But people were praying for me. While I was in that coma, I remember seeing my brother David, and my brother-in-law Roy—who had both passed on—and I was really upset because they wouldn't talk to me.
"Well, it turned out they wouldn't talk to me because it wasn't my time. I lived. The doctors still don't know what was wrong with me, and they also don't know why I survived. One doctor calls me his miracle child."
Of poll respondents who said it was okay for us to call them, Finch's miracle story is the most typical: a hopeless illness, a desperate prayer, a miraculous recovery. Strictly speaking, perhaps, these stories may not fit into our narrow definition of a miracle, because, after all, most medical ailments have some record of recovery, no matter how slim. But those who report such cases as miracles feel there is an extra ingredient present, and to them their conviction of that is as certain as the fact that they are alive today.
Then there's the truly unusual case of Donna Neugent of Ballon, Missouri—who says she and her husband experienced not only a medical miracle, but also advance notice that it was about to happen.
"We had a five-year-old son, but we wanted another child, and just couldn't get pregnant," says Neugent. "My husband and I prayed about it, but never together—until one night when we lay face-to-face on our bed, with our arms around each other, and we started praying.
"Then we got a strange feeling and sat up. There, floating in the doorway, was a figure the size of a 3-year-old child. It stayed there for about 45 seconds, and didn't say anything. And then it was gone.
"My husband just said, 'Before you do anything, tell me what you saw.' We'd seen the same thing.
"Two weeks later, we found out I was pregnant."
So what's going on? If miracles are by definition a case of God temporarily revoking the laws of nature, then why does He bother to have the laws in the first place?
"Well, the scriptures tell us that creation is God's way of saying 'I am, I always will be, I'm here," says Patsy Clairmont, one of America's most popular Christian speakers and author of All Cracked Up: Experiencing God in the Broken Places.
"I think through miracles we step back and we start re-evaluating our place in the universe. What is this? I can't explain it. Is there truly something more than me?"
Of those who believe in miracles, 84 percent agree wholeheartedly wth Clairmont that they are of God. About three-quarters further identify Jesus and the Holy Spirit as sources of miracles—while lesser numbers attribute them to angels (47 percent), saints (32 percent), deceased relatives or others who have passed on (19 percent) and other spirits (18 percent). Twenty-nine percent of those who believe in miracles say they've witnessed divine healings-but it's not the only type.
On his website theburningbush.net, Pastor Ed Wrather of First Baptist Church of Sweetwater, Oklahoma, has collected financial miracles reported by believers who've found themselves in economic crisis.
"We had to have X amount of money by the 30th of January, and no foreseeable way of attaining that amount," wrote Scott Montgomery. "On the 26th, one of the pastors from our church called...He was smiling and handed me an envelope and said, 'Manna from Heaven, Scott.' Inside was a check for the exact amount I had to have in four days. No one, not even my wife, knew how much we had to have. My pastor said that someone came to him and told him that the Lord had laid a burden on his heart to give this money to me. He didn't know my name, but described me to him.
"Well I broke down and started to cry—and it is not a pretty sight to see a 300-pound, tattooed hippie biker, now saved by the blood of Christ, crying like a little kid."
That Judeo-Christian concept of miracles—a personal God reaching into space and time to work remarkable acts—overwhelmingly dominates the American spiritual landscape. Virtually absent in the U.S. is a view held by another billion or so people worldwide: The Hindu belief that miracles come from a far less definable source.
One rainy afternoon, I put the question of miracles to guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of India's leading spiritual figures—and whose U.S. following is growing—during a visit to the Washington, DC headquarters of his Art of Living Foundation. Dressed in white robes, resplendent with a flowing, graying beard, he sat amidst sprays of brightly colored flowers with his back to a window overlooking Meridian Park.
"Nature has many unpredictable instances happen," he said in a singsong cadence. "We see the whole of nature as one living organism—very lively.
"In that sense, a miracle is a part of nature. It is the small mind connecting with the larger mind. You call it God, I call it Universal Energy. Many healings happen, driven by that energy. Every day, I hear of some healing happening."
Foreign as the Hindu concept of miraculous energy may be to most Americans, there may be a grain of it present in the widespread Western belief in sacred places.
I am standing in one of the world's largest plazas, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Across the length of the square I can pick out small knots of the faithful, inching along a well-worn path, each group encircling and encouraging a believer—crawling or walking on their knees. Each of those supplicants is, through their efforts, either thanking the Virgin for a favor or asking one.
Here in the blazing Portugese sun the believers are working their way toward an open-air chapel where, in a glass case, stands the Virgin's statue. In her crown dangles a lump of lead: What's left of a bullet that tore through Pope John Paul II in a 1981 assassination attempt. Although he stopped short of calling it a miracle, John Paul credited his survival to Our Lady of Fatima.
Europe is dotted with sacred sites like Fatima—the U.S. less so. Still, in our poll 41 percent said they would travel to such a place if they had the chance. And six percent have actually made the trip, among them Cary Canli, of Troy New York.
"I was a non-believer until I went to Lourdes," says Canli. "But I saw frail and fragile people walk out of there perfectly fine."
The whole idea of heading off somewhere or enduring physical discomfort to earn a miracle raises a fair question: What are the criteria for receiving one?
Nearly three-quarters of those who believe in miracles said that someone worthy of receiving a miracle has faith, and 67 percent said prayer was important. But 55 percent also said that "desire and conviction" play a role. Miracle beneficiaries are "good, decent" people, according to 44 percent, and about one-third agreed that those who receive miracles have "the greatest need" or "have faced enough trials in life already."
Only 9 percent said those who receive miracles have done nothing to deserve them. Falling into that category might be L.C. Woodard of Altoona, Pennsylvania, who told me he has survived five head-on car collisions—one of them while driving a stolen car—and walked away from them all.
"I wondered, 'How could I have survived this?" he says. "It's a miracle."
You'd think miracles would be pretty evenly distributed demographically and geographically—but in fact there seem to be people in certain states and social strata who are either not getting their share or are simply missing out on the miracles around them. People in the North Central and Southern United States are more likely to believe in miracles (84 and 81 percent respectively) than those in the Northeast and West (77 and 76 percent). Similarly, just 71 percent of those with a college or post-college degree are believers, compared to 85 percent of those with a high school degree.
And the more money you make, the less likely you are to believe in miracles: 78 percent among those making $75,000 or more believe; 86 percent for those making $25,000 or less do. Women are more likely to believe in miracles: 85 percent of them compared to just 73 percent of men.
Advancing age seems to diminish belief: 85 percent of those ages 45-54 believe in miracles compared to 78 percent of those 55-64, and 75 percent of those 65 and up.
There's also no ignoring the sizable 18 percent of people who simply reject the whole notion of modern day miracles. I caught up with one of America's most celebrated skeptics, Penn Jillette, at his Las Vegas, Nevada, office. Half of the legendary magic team Penn and Teller, he has made a second career debunking reports of supernatural phenomena.
"Once you say something is a miracle, what you're really saying is, 'I understand every physical property and mathematical property in the world, and this is outside of it,'" he says. "It's saying 'I know everything, and this can't be explained by anything.' So there's a tremendous amount of hubris in the closed-mindedness of accepting a miracle."
So, when the world sees a miracle, what's really happening?
"The answer that I love," says Jillettte, "the answer that I embrace, and that shows what a big and beautiful a place the universe is, is the answer, 'I don't know.'"
While believers may say "Miracles happen every day," Christian speaker Clairmont adds that they must also account for the corollary statement, "Miracles don't happen every day."
"My brother was on life support," she recalls. "He was 38 years old and had six children. I knew those children needed their daddy. So we wanted a miracle. But we did not get a miracle. When they took him off life support, he was gone."
But, she says, only in a universe where miracles are possible can the absence of a miracle become a life-affirming event.
"When you don't get a miracle—like when you do—it is a startling moment of deciding again where you stand in the universe," she said. "You have to say, 'Lord, what does this mean about the two of us?'"
Thomas Jefferson probably wouldn't understand. The reason most of us keep looking for miracles, against all odds, is most likely floating somewhere in the neat rectangular gaps of his cut-and-paste Bible.
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the January-February 2009 edition of AARP The Magazine
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the Jan-Feb 2009 issue of AARP the Magazine