Every other Thursday, a group of people meets together in Lakewood, Ohio to talk about theological issues and their relevance to modern life. When I stumbled upon this group, called Theology and Beer, I nearly wet my pants in excitement. As you know if you’ve been following my blog in the last year or so, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with theology. I haven’t been blogging lately and I just figured that I might as well write something since I’m paying for the domain. So, I’ll write about theology.
The last discussion topic was framed in this way: “Modern Mythology – where are miracles and the supernatural today?” I left the conversation feeling a connectedness with people who see the world in a similar way that I do, but I also left it feeling challenged to view the world differently. In this post, I’d like to touch on what was discussed, as well as my thoughts on the subject that may or may not have entered into the conversation. So, here goes…
Do miracles have to be supernatural?
The first direction the conversation took was, naturally, toward the defintion of a “miracle.” Does a miracle need to defy the laws of physics in some way, or can it have a rational explanation and still be a miracle? Many people seemed to adopt the latter view. There doesn’t have to be some unexplainable event for us to label the event a miracle. We survive a car crash–it’s a miracle. The cancer goes into remission–it’s a miracle. We have a civil political discussion on Facebook–it’s a miracle.
Miracles are all around us–we just need to have eyes to see them.
I think this perspective on miracles is a comforting one. We can believe in the miraculous without coming across as supersititious. But, realistically, I don’t think this has been the traditional understanding of miracles. I simply think that it’s the way we’ve reinterpretted miracles post-Enlightenment. In the Biblical accounts, I doubt miraculous events (parting of the Red Sea, exorcisms, resurrection of the dead, etc.) would have been conceived as such had rational explanations been offered. The very fact that events defy the natural order has always been fundamental to their being labeled, “miraculous.”
When it comes to the Christian faith, the subject of miracles is rather difficult to brush under the rug. Jesus, among other things, was known as a healer. We know this from the canonical New Testament documents, but also from non-canonical ancient documents. Although many efforts have been made in the last few centuries to tell the story of a Jesus who was simply a “great moral teacher,” these narratives simply don’t align with his historical reputation. Although they questioned its source, even his critics accepted the legitimacy of his miraculous power.
Most of the Christians I know believe that the miracles performed by Jesus happened quite literally but that miracles happen today in the softer, less spectacular sense mentioned above. They are skeptical of “healing ministries” that claim the power of Christ to perform miraculous feats of healing. And yet, if we believe we have the same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to his first disciples, we should be able to perform even greater feats than Jesus himself. Perhaps we just don’t have enough faith…
German existential theologian Rudolf Bultmann understood the miraculous work of Jesus quite differently. Rather than accepting the gospel narratives as is, Bultmann became famous for “demythologizing” the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t actually heal people in the literal sense, as the gospel writers later described; rather, his teaching and ministry somehow represented a healing power among those with whom he came in contact. The miraculous events inserted into the life of Jesus were a way of making sense of the powerful experience his followers had had in his presence.
I tend to veer toward Bultmann’s conception of the miraculous. When we ask the question, “why don’t miracles happen today?” we are operating under the assumption that miracles used to occur but don’t anymore. But it is possible that they never actually occurred and the record we have of them is simply the interpretation of those who experienced ordinary events that seemed extraordinary at the time. Perhaps our miracles are the same as their miracles; we’ve just developed a different language for speaking about them.
Regardless of how you feel about the nature of miracles, though, there is a bigger problem. And this problem was what dominated most of our discussion…
How does God allocate miracles?
The problem with believing in supernatural miracles is closely connected to the problem of believing in special revelation. Some claim that God has spoken to them. Of course, people mean this in different ways. But many people throughout history have claimed some special insight communicated directly to them from on high. The question is, why is it that these people are fortunate enough to hear the voice of God while others are not? Does God favor some over others?
Similarly, miraculous events could be occurring today. God could have been personally intervening when that tornado changed course and missed your house by a few feet. But to suggest such a thing is to suggest that your home was special and the dozen other houses that got ripped to pieces on your street weren’t important to God. If God chooses to intervene on behalf of some, we must also say that God chooses not to intervene on behalf of others. This kind of thinking paints God as a temperamental tyrant–not the kind of deity most of us would want to worship.
This problem, however, doesn’t go away if we understand miracles as natural occurrences. If God is simply letting things play out, rather than intervening whenever the inclination strikes, unlikely events will still occur. Statistically, these sort of “natural miracles” will inevitably happen–they are simply less likely.
In a normal distribution like that above, most people will fall into the ordinary experience category for any given phenomenon. A very small fraction, though, will experience a rare event that is highly desirable. We could call this event a miracle (surviving a plane crash). On the other end of the spectrum, though, people will also experience rare events that are highly undesirable. We call these events tragedies (getting into a plane crash in the first place).
In this model, God comes out looking better because the Divine isn’t picking and choosing who gets to have a miracle and who doesn’t. However, one could argue that God is completely absent from this model altogether. If supernatural events don’t happen in the real world, then we could ask whether or not God exists at all. If everything is left up to chance, what does the concept of “God” even mean?
What does God mean to you?
During our conversation, one of the group members mentioned a podcast in which Evangelical-turned-Atheist Bart Campolo makes the claim that religion without the supernatural is merely secular humanism. Is this statement true? If we demythologize our religion, do we just dilute ourselves into merely being “good people?” Does the notion of God disappear entirely? I don’t think so.
I read a book not too long ago called A God that Could Be Real, by Nancy Ellen Abrams. In this book, Abrams describes herself from a traditionally atheistic point of view. She does not believe in anything outside of the material universe, but she has actually come to believe in God. How is this possible? Well, Abrams describes her idea of God as an emergent phenomenon within human society–much like the economy, the media, or government. God clearly exists as an entity to which we refer, but there’s nothing specifically we can point to and say, “That’s God!”
Another member of the discussion group made an interesting point. The more we try to explain, describe, and codify God, the more we turn God into an idol. To the extent that we attempt to define God, we are in effect inventing God.
In the podcast mentioned above, Bart Campolo frequently expresses his frustration with progressive Christians who believe in God but do not believe in supernaturalism. If you remove all the supernatural components, he asks the interviewer, what does God even mean to you? The interviewer seems stumped and really unsure about how to respond. He stumbles quite a bit, uses a lot of big words, and sort of sounds like he’s trying to convince himself rather than Bart.
To many listeners, the interviewer probably appeared in that moment as if he didn’t really believe in God but simply didn’t want to admit it to himself. The pitiful response, though, reminds me of what happens when my wife asks me why I love her. I stutter and stammer, helplessly trying to articulate something I can’t really wrap my head around but still know to be true. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love her (I swear, I do!); it just means that my love for her is beyond words. What if God is like that? What if the Divine is fundamentally indescribable? What if God is mystery?
The experience of awe
Nancy Ellen Abrams describes God as the embodiment of humanity’s collective aspirations. I can certainly appreciate that framework. I think God is, in part, the name we give to the thing we are striving toward. But, paradoxically, God is also the vehicle we take to get there. If Bart Campolo were to ask me what a God devoid of mythological language means to me (now that I’ve had time to think about it), I would use a word that connotes a very natural, human experience. And yet, this word carries within it something profoundly otherworldly. That word is awe.
I’ve been in conversations with countless theists who gesture dramatically toward the sky and ask, “How can you look at the beauty of creation and not believe in God?” I’ve always been both convinced by and skeptical of this sort of argument. Many people do indeed manage to gaze upon the wonders of nature and still resist claiming belief in God. But I would argue that, whether they know it or not, they do in that moment believe in my God. Why? Because they experience awe. And my God is not merely “an awesome God.” My God is awe itself.
It’s not because of the grandeur of creation that I believe in God, but rather because of my ability to perceive creation as having grandeur.
We’ve all had experiences that leave us with a feeling of profound wonder and, in that sense, I believe we’ve all experienced God. Religion has been our stuttering and stammering attempt to explain this experience. We’ve tried to use our words to articulate what simply cannot be said. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think part of seeking the Divine is wrestling with how to explain it to ourselves. But, at the end of the day, I think God is mystery. God is that which cannot be explained or expressed but, at the same time, cannot help but be felt.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto. If you are struggling with understanding the nature of God, I highly recommend it. It’s a short book, but a dense read. In it, Otto explains that the idea of God (or “the Holy” or “Mystery” or whatever you want to call it) is not an absurd remnant of our know-nothing ancestors. Rather, it is a foundational element of the human experience. Here’s Otto:
It might be objected that the mysterious is something which is and remains absolutely and invariably beyond our understanding, whereas that which merely eludes our understanding for a time but is perfectly intelligible in principle should be called, not a ‘mystery,’ but a ‘problem.’ But this is by no means an adequate account of the matter. The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other’, whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.
In other words, Otto is saying that “mystery” (or “God” or “awe”) is not simply the name we give to things we have not yet discovered. It’s not simply the dark corner that we have yet to shine a light on. Rather, it is the sensation we experience upon the illumination. The mystery is the force that grasps us as we move about in a world full of wonder. There is something “wholly other” and transcendent that consumes us when we experience such awe.
Even if we could rationally explain this experience, we wouldn’t want to. Rationality is not enough. Love is not rational. Joy is not rational. Grief is not rational. Anger is not rational. For all of these things, we can offer rational explanations. But, in doing so, we deprive these experiences of their meaning. We devalue our love. We diminish our joy. We trivialize our grief. We tame our rage. We may want to reject specific definitions and dogmatic understandings of the supernatural, but I do not think we can be content with the merely natural. We crave something more.
Do miracles exist? Yes, I believe they do.
I think that everything we perceive in the natural world must necessarily have a “natural” cause, even though we may not have yet discovered it. Otherwise, how could we as finite beings in this world have possibly come to perceive it? I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do believe in miracles. I do believe in magic. I do believe in mystery.
A miracle is not some amazing event we experience that defies explanation; it’s the feeling of amazement we experience when we encounter that which needs no explanation. We don’t experience awe in response to miracles; the experience of awe is the miracle itself.