Miracles

Crippled Miracle Win Victory Crutch Overcoming

I spent 20+ years as a charismatic Christian. We not only believed in miracles (such as miraculous physical healings, resurrections, controlling the weather, etc.) but we prayed for them all the time. I was part of a “ministry team” trained to do this stuff. The thing is, if I’m honest, I can’t say I ever saw anything that was really and truly miraculous. We heard lots of stories–lots of anecdotes about someone who knew someone who experienced something–and we accepted those stories as real because we so wanted them to be real.

A few years ago I asked a question of my friends on Facebook:  Have you experienced a miracle?

I basically got three types of responses:

1) Yes, life itself is a miracle (in other words, diluting the definition of “miracle” to where it was meaningless).
2) Yes, I know someone/heard of someone who experienced something (an anecdote–not direct personal experience).
3) Yes, I had a (vague or minor) condition and it was healed (not really miraculous–maybe divine healing, maybe placebo effect, maybe attributable to medical treatment, maybe just gradual natural healing).

There were those cases where someone had a serious condition which ultimately went away and they chose to attribute the healing to divine intervention rather than the mysteries of the human body or medical intervention. But first-hand accounts of missing limbs growing back, actual blindness healed, serious conditions (like cancer) instantaneously (and verifiably) cured apart from accompanying medical treatment, real dead people raised?

Nada.

The problem, I’ve concluded, was that we looked at the biblical accounts of Jesus and his disciples performing miracles and we took them at face value and earnestly tried (with great faith!) to replicate them. I later learned that in the 1st century Greco-Roman world the only understandable way to express divinity was through power: power over sickness, power over the elements, power over “demons,” power over enemies, power over death. No claim to divinity or divine favor could be accepted (or even expressed) without claims to the miraculous.

As David Litwa wrote in his excellent book, ‘Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God‘:

Jesus’ divinity may have existed before our world began–but (given our historical existence) the notion of his divinity had to be conceived and propagated by human communities. Early Christians, with both creativity and competitiveness applied marks of divinity widely accepted in Mediterranean culture to Jesus. In this sense, then, Christians ‘constructed’ his divinity for their communities. The early Christian writings…are the artifacts of this construction…. Ultimately, however, both Christian experience of Jesus and Christian readings of Scripture were conditioned by cultural patterns of thought about the nature and character of divinity…. It is sometimes stated or assumed that Christians eventually ‘won’ the game of theological one-upmanship: the other gods died. But the so-called ‘triumph’ of the divine Jesus was at least partially a triumph of creative–and sometimes unconscious–assimilation. In Christian writings–indeed in the person of Jesus himself–the theology of the Greeks and Romans did not die.

When I use the word “miracle” I mean it in the sense that the eminent medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas used it, as something “outside the ordinary processes of the whole of created nature.” It’s not that I think miracles used to occur and have now stopped (a viewpoint known as cessationism, which is held by some Christians); no, I think the miracles described in scripture probably never happened. The laws of physics, of how our universe operates, are pretty well set (barring things that go on at the quantum level which we don’t yet understand) and have been in operation for billions of years. The sun doesn’t stop in the sky for extended periods of time (Joshua 10:13); severed limbs and optic nerves don’t grow back; storms do not cease because we command them to; water in its liquid form does not become solid enough for people to walk on.

Yet, in some mysterious way we are all interconnected.  I believe that prayer does help.  I just don’t believe any longer that it overrides the “ordinary processes of the whole of created nature.” Back in my charismatic days we used to say “if you pray for someone and they aren’t healed, at least they were loved.”

But, having said all that…

If it were my wife or child with a terminal illness or injury, would I pray for a miracle?

You bet I would.

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  • jekylldoc

    This is very insightful. I think it sorts the issues very well. “At least she was loved” is certainly one of the great reasons to pray.

    I would like to take the set of questions a bit further. We have many verses in the NT along the lines of “if you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could move mountains.” How can we update our understanding of faith to be responsive to the faith expressed in such sayings? To ask it slightly differently, the story of Peter walking on the water to Jesus was probably told to make a certain kind of theological point. How should we understand that theology?

    I think a good context is to think in terms of the early koinonia communities. They were boldly embarking on an experiment in living together which faces real challenges. Are the deacons neglecting the Greek widows to look after the Jewish widows? To overcome those kinds of challenges is a “miracle” of sorts – it requires moving mountains and walking on water, figuratively speaking. Maybe that isn’t your version of what our faith is supposed to be for, but some understanding of bringing the Kingdom is probably at the heart of the metaphors about great deeds resulting from a little trust and commitment.

    The result is a faith that has legs. It doesn’t threaten to dissolve into doubt when things don’t turn out as prayed for. Rather it sees that the values of the Kingdom are worth committing to, and if one objective turns out to be too difficult, there will still be others to focus on. And so we lift our eyes from the stormy waves to the gaze of the one who loves us.

    • Daniel P. Coleman

      That is beautifully expressed jekylldoc! To add another layer to what you’ve said, I think we often lose sight of the degree to which the Gospels were political in nature and dealt with how to find hope in a world of brutal oppression, social injustice and economic hardship. The degree of political/economic critique contained in the Gospels was obscured via reinterpretation after the Constantinian shift of the 4th century CE, when Christianity became the predominant religion of the Roman empire.

      So, for example, a case can be made that the “mountain” Jesus was referring to that could be moved by faith was Herodium, Herod’s hilltop palace/fortress which was visible as the highest spot in the Judean desert and a constant reminder of Herod’s grip of power over the region.

      Many terrific books have been written to explore these implications: ‘Come Out My People!’ and ‘Empire Baptized’ by Wes Howard-Brook are two of my favorites. Also ‘Binding the Strong Man’ by Ched Myers and ‘Jesus and Empire’ by Richard Horsley.

      • jekylldoc

        Thanks for the references. I will check them out. And thanks for “how to find hope.”

  • Etranger

    Voltaire has a great entry on Miracles in his Philosophical Dictionary. Essentially, the notion of a miracle flies in the face of Christian theology of an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God. Believing in a miracle means you technically believe God made a mistake to begin with. I bet that still would blow most Christians minds as it probably did back in the 18th century!

    • Daniel P. Coleman

      Excellent point Etranger! One can extrapolate Voltaire’s point out even further to encompass the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall.