The modern world can be hard on devout religious believers. Its pluralism denies any one faith the power to organize the whole of social life. Its skepticism about authority undermines the efforts of churches to impose doctrinal discipline on their own members, let alone impose it on those outside the fold. Its economic dynamism unleashes human appetites, and gives individuals the freedom to choose among an ever-expanding range of ways to satisfy them. And its deference to scientific methods of determining the truth erodes received scriptural and theological beliefs.

All of this tends to place religion on the defensive, beating a retreat even when it attempts to assert its own legitimacy.

That's precisely what happened in a recent column for The Week by Matt K. Lewis titled "Why I believe in miracles." The title and tone indicated that the author would offer a robust defense of miracles against the systematic skepticism of science — or at least a personal testament as to why the author believes in the truth of miracles, despite that pervasive skepticism. What the column ended up offering instead was a redefinition of miracles that transformed them into something far easier for a modern person to believe in, but also something far less than Judeo-Christian religion has traditionally demanded. That this diminished conception of miracles is widely held today among believers doesn't make it any less of a contraction.

Miracles have traditionally been understood as temporary transgressions by God of the natural order. You know, like Moses parting the Red Sea, or a virgin giving birth to a child, or the resurrection of a man three days after his death. All three events and many others recounted in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are inexplicable in natural terms. They are divine incursions into the order of things, a suspension of the necessities that govern that order — like the necessity that tells us, for example, that only a female who has been impregnated by the sperm of a male of the same species can give birth to offspring. That necessity reigns supreme, without exception, in nature. But Christians believe — or are supposed to believe — that God overrode that necessity in impregnating Mary, a woman who had never had sexual relations with her husband Joseph or any other man.

Lewis, like many contemporary believers, uses the term "miracle" to mean something very different and far less, well, miraculous. Instead of referring to a divine intervention that overturns natural necessity, Lewis maintains that a miracle is any event within the world that appears to have personally beneficial consequences. As something taking place within the natural world, the event will always be explicable in scientific terms. But the believer is also free to interpret the event otherwise — as having been mysteriously authored or brought about by the hidden hand of God. That is the kind of miracle that Lewis believes in.

To illustrate what he means, Lewis gives a personal example of a well-timed mechanical failure in his car that kept him from backing out onto a busy road where a fast-moving vehicle without headlights likely would have collided with him at high speed. Though Lewis concedes that the breakdown of his car could have been accurately explained in purely physical terms by a mechanic, he also insists that he believes "God intervened" to cause the malfunction, because "he has a purpose for me."

Now, it is true that an all-powerful God working behind the scenes certainly could have acted to save Lewis from injury or death by imperceptibly manipulating the natural laws that govern the physical world to bring about a malfunction in his car at precisely the right moment. But it is crucially important that we recognize that this is not what the theological tradition has typically meant by the term "miracle." A miracle would have been Jesus Christ appearing next to Lewis in the passenger seat of his car to tell him not to back out of his driveway. Or his car levitating above Maryland's Route 17 so that the speeding vehicle without headlights could pass underneath without causing him harm. By contrast, what Lewis describes is merely a theologically inspired gloss on a normal physical event.

This kind of soft providentialism is extremely popular these days. We hear it every time a person responds to a bit of bad news by asserting that "everything happens for a reason," which implies that God is secretly pulling all the strings, making sure it'll all work out in the end. That can be comforting. But it is also far more modest than a claim concerning an actual miracle.

The great early modern defenders of science (men like Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume) understood that the belief in miracles was an obstacle to the advance of human knowledge, keeping alive the possibility that the findings of scientific investigation are at most provisionally true — true only so long as God doesn't act within the world in a way that contravenes natural necessity. That's why these and other partisans of the Enlightenment actively sought to explain (or rather, to explain away) miracles and undermine popular belief in them. They recognized that a universe in which miracles are possible is a world in which science, strictly understood, is impossible.

Centuries later, the philosophical critique of miracles has been so successful that many of the faithful are more comfortable affirming the truth of soft providentialism, which is perfectly compatible with science because it makes no empirically verifiable (or refutable) truth-claims about the world at all. It's even compatible with Darwinian evolution, which posits the radically non-theistic view that species evolve through a process of random mutation and adaptation, since it's always possible that God plays a crucial and hidden (but scientifically undemonstrable) role in the process. Perhaps God causes evolution's seemingly random mutations, or controls the environment to which these mutated organisms adapt themselves.

The good news for religion is that it has survived the philosophical-scientific assault on miracles. But the bad news for religion is that it now lingers on in a profoundly weakened state. Where faith once confidently ventured truth-claims about the whole of creation and its metaphysical underpinnings, now it often offers mere expressions of subjective feeling about a world that science exclusively reveals and explains. That represents a remarkable retreat.

No matter how many people still claim to believe.