Finding Calcutta 3: Sin and the Supernatural (RJS)

We are in the middle of short series on Mary Poplin’s thought provoking book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service. This is not a science and faith book – and it is a welcome respite from some of the more “academic” questions we discuss on this blog. Dr. Poplin’s book is a very readable set of short chapters reflecting on various aspects of her time with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and the influence that these experiences have had on her life since her visit in 1996. In Chapters 14 and 15 of her book Dr. Poplin deals with two topics, sin and the supernatural, that are discouraged if not taboo in secular western circles. She discusses these ideas in the context of her work with two sick and helpless infants.

The Supernatural. Ch. 14 brings up the question of miracles, not the miracles of Jesus but every day miracles today, the reality of the spirit world and of the supernatural.  The question here is not so much did God work miracles, but does God work miracles and does he make himself known. In Ch. 13 and 14 Dr. Poplin relates the story of a weak, very sick infant, Babloo, with whom she formed a special attachment. She worked to feed him and help him grow and thrive. After a near death episode he began to recover and grow.

After his brush with death I lifted Babloo from his crib and began to walk him around. His eyes searched the pictures above the windows until they became fixed upon the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When Babloo’s eyes met this picture, he began to kick and excitedly smile. … I looked at the picture and thought little of it; it was just a coincidence. … Yet every time we walked by the windows he searched out the picture and had the same reaction.

When I was confident that this was a sure thing, I showed some of the sisters, who were very happy about it. Sister Delphinus exclaimed with great enthusiasm that this meant that Babloo would be a great saint. (p. 78)

What is your first reflexive reaction to such a story? Belief? Skepticism? Disbelief?

Is your first impulse to rationalize away the incident?

I have to admit, my first reaction to such a  story is always skepticism. It is an ingrown reflex that arises, I think, from two factors, first the culture of western secularism that disregards anything supernatural, and second, the concern that I not be fooled or duped. The second reason is, I think, legitimate. Some level of care and skepticism is warranted. But the first is a real reflexive reaction of our culture, and this is a problem. Dr. Poplin continues:

Now I realize that in the West, one is at risk for reporting such things and even more at risk for believing in miracles. Certainly it is not part of the academy, which even in many religion departments has come up with alternative explanations for the miracles of Christ. Nevertheless it happened, and I have seen other miracles in other places, such as in Argentina where one of the longest-running and most powerful revivals has been taking place for over seventeen years. (p. 79)

In the West, and especially in the educated West, we simply dismiss such claims.  Dr. Poplin goes on to ask what the effect of this instinctive or reflexive disbelief might be:

Why are the “developing nations” in Africa and South America and Asia seeing revivals, signs and wonders so much more than the United States or Europe?  why are these events not reported, researched, or discussed in mainstream Western culture? I find it odd that universities, quick to research anything, do not study miracles. Essentially miracles do not fit our prejudices. We tend to either ignore or discredit anything that does not fit our current worldview. I am convinced, like many others, that many simply do not believe the totality of the gospel. We have too little faith – Mother called it spiritual poverty. (p. 79)

We are the worse, so Dr. Poplin suggests,  for our natural skepticism and disbelief.We cannot see, appreciate, or experience the fullness of God’s work in the world.

The Reality of Sin. If belief and appreciation for the supernatural is a casualty of Western society, so too is the concept of sin. In chapter 15, entitled “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us“,  Dr. Poplin describes an experience and revelation she had regarding sin while working at Shishu Bhavan. There was an infant there who was badly deformed and who seemed to be always miserable. She was not drawn to this infant as she was to Babloo, and generally cared for others. Yet one day this infant threw up, and with no one else around she began, out of a somewhat reluctant sense of duty, to clean him up.

As I was cleaning, I heard a muffled sound from the infant in my arm. Tears were pouring out of his eyes and the only sound he could make was a convulsive sob.

As I looked at him, I saw in myself what Jeremiah called the “desperate wickedness of the heart.” I realized I had approached this task with a spirit of repentance and impatience. … I must tell you that the moment I saw him weeping and realized the wretchedness in my heart, I knew it was sin. There was no doubt in my mind that this is what Christ meant when he said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts.” (Mt 15:19) I asked Christ to forgive and change me. In those moments as I rocked the baby I could feel Christ’s work inside of my spirit as surely as if he were sitting next to me. (p. 83)

One of the key truths taught as part of the Christian faith is the reality of sin. Sin is not something imposed upon us, a consequence of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but something that arises from the inside of the human heart, from the core of human existence. One of the features of the Missionaries is a recognition that sin comes from within. “They do not look outside to see the cause of the world’s problems; they look inside first.”

Dr. Poplin goes on to relate an experience she had returning to the US and telling this story.

Sin is not a common expression these days and just the mention of it can incite anger, even rage, in people. Once I told this story to a group of teachers. For a moment there was silence, broken by a young radical woman who in a loud voice exclaimed that I had hurt her feelings. “Why are you using religious language? Tell us what you have to tell us without it,” she exclaimed. After she had gone on for a while, she paused. I pointed out that in the radical theories she had just professed, there is a principle which posits that no knowledge is neutral and that the “secular language” she wanted to hear from me was not neutral either. (p. 84)

Sin is a misunderstood and under appreciated concept in our secular western world. It is misunderstood even within the experience of many Christians. We are the product of our circumstance, our history, our genetics, and our chemistry. Frankly, it sometimes seems that the story of Adam and Eve is used to distance us from the reality of our sin. Through Adam sin entered the world – so what can I do? This is somewhat flippant, and does not do justice to the depth of the doctrine of original sin in the church. Nonetheless I don’t think we have a proper appreciation of our individual internal sinfulness.

Dr. Poplin concludes the chapter:

Denial of the pervasive presence of sin may be the fiercest struggle for a Christian living today in the West. (p. 86)

What do you think?  Are sin and the supernatural the deepest struggles for you?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Bill Ferrell

    I must admit my first thoughts are skeptical. There has been so many phony healers and fake miracles that I have a hard time believing any stories of healing. Having said that, I cannot accept the materialistic world view. And I do see sin and the lack of its recognition as a big problem in society and the church.

  • Rick

    I agree with what Bill said in #1. Skepticism is my default setting.

    I do want to add that the idea “the concern that I not be fooled or duped” is also a factor. That is a “me” and pride problem, and it probably prevents me from seeing much of God’s work.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Why are the “developing nations” in Africa and South America and Asia seeing revivals, signs and wonders so much more than the United States or Europe?

    How come reports of UFO abductions are largely confined to the West?

  • http://lustus.wordpress.com Lustus

    I am moved by her testimony of her conviction of sin. I’m also taking a survey of people’s definition of sin. Here’s mine: http://wp.me/ppQvv-7Z . You can comment there to share yours. Thanks for the poignant article.

  • T

    I’m glad the author mentioned western worldview. When I do trainings on hearing God and learning to respond to his various forms of leading us and speaking to us, I almost always mention that, for those of us who grew up in western culture, there is a unexpectedly strong distrust and even shame associated with any spiritual activity that intersects with the physical world. Like most things, admitting that such hostility exists helps us deal with it.

  • T

    FWIW,

    On the “sin” issue, I’m a believer in substance rather than form. Some folks can admit that they are “a sinner” and use the term, but really not even approach authentic admission, self-awarness or repentence. Others never use the word, but live true repentance daily. I don’t think there’s anything magic about the term. Christians that focus on semantics, I believe, are choosing the wrong battle, and often with unfortunate costs among non-Christians.

    If someone uses the terms “wrong(s)” or “evil” or “failure(s)” rather than “sin,” I don’t take that to mean, necessarily, that they are denying anything. That said, I agree that the same worldview that is hostile to any supernatural reality is also increasingly hostile to concepts of “evil.”

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Yes to both. Heard an amazing wonderful testimony at a Vineyard church of a dear brother, I consider him a man of God, a friend, who after speaking for 45 minutes or more on promise and fulfillment from scripture, especially highlighting Abraham and Sarah, also on Jesus quite a bit, shared his own story. For fifteen years he had an illness which the doctors could not figure out (at least as to a cure), at the end of that time he was curled up and organs shutting down. Went to a conference and at end yelled either heal me or take me home, God! By the Spirit people had been prophesying that he would be healed. I was with him for some of the journey of those years. God’s presence came powerfully on him, but no healing. People praying, I think. Then all the sudden he felt his bones coming together, strange noises, etc. He was walking around and preaching wonderfully last Sunday. Of course changed lives are what we want, but there is healing.

    But we can get along just fine without God. We’re good enough, and we can solve all our problems, pretty much at least the air here. (hope this is okay, I must run!)

  • rjs

    T,

    When I originally read this chapter on the supernatural the first thing that came to mind here was your continuing comments on the very real power of the Spirit.

    On the second – the issue of sin, I agree that the precise word doesn’t matter. I think the idea that there is real culpable (wrong/evil/failure/sin) that arises from within us is the key idea. We are not to take comfort in the idea that it is beyond our control, we are victims (and insert “innocent” before victims, implicitly if not explicitly).

  • T

    RJS,

    I agree about “sin.”

    And thanks; I’m happy to be ‘that guy’ regarding the Spirit! It would be wrong of me to act otherwise.

    The example that the author mentions with the baby is interesting. It’s helpful because it creates more questions than answers, questions worth getting bothered by, if we let them. For one, it is not the kind “miracle” that most of us want. Also, it’s also impossible to verify as “God.” Rather, this author is simply confronted with this experience and has to interpret it, for herself if no one else. Such experiences cause us to wonder about all kinds of things: God’s willingness to communicate (to children, to adults, to “me”) and, also, about our willingness or ability to hear or recognize God and how; we wonder if babes and simpletons get/receive “revelations” that we educated folks miss–and why. Would God talk that way with me? Has he already? Is he doing so right now?

    I think Jesus consistently created these kinds of questions as he lived and worked in the flesh. It’s a startling prospect to think that God is personally doing something right in front of us that we can’t predict, confirm or even fully explain. “If this is God, why did he do this and not that?” “How many such things would need to happen before I trust?” And the comparisons to biblical narratives and characters begins . . . and on it goes, if we let it.

    For what it’s worth, I find that most young people, and even many adults, have, along with the western resistance, an undeniable longing, which is a kind of faith, that God does act and speak today in very powerful and personal ways. Further, most folks have several such experiences that they have been convinced to dismiss or minimize, even as part of their conversion. Unfortunately, the culture that is hostile to God’s present activity is not diminished much in the (western) Church.

  • lkb

    I am an average person who believes we sin personally against God…and don’t want to admit it. It is so much less personal to make in-unison confessions during the liturgy – one never has to examine oneself.

    The Catholic practice of confession seems to be of great value because it encourages self-examination in light of God’s holiness. Self-examination seems to begin at the point of one’s own acceptance of this truth: Me-myself-I have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

    If sin is not personal to us, can we recognize the supernatural when it comes to us in a personal experience?

    I sinned personally against Jesus in 2008. I recognized my sin and repented, but it didn’t come unti after I blamed – and even hated – another person. It took about a year for me to recognize my sin, which resulted in repentance. I asked God to give me a sign I had been forgiven. Did he give me a sign?

    Here’s my answer: I used to love flying. Then, in 1985, my first husband died in a plane crash. From that point on, I became more and more terrified when flying. Scripture didn’t help, praying didn’t help, drinking didn’t help, reading didn’t help. I was consumed by fear when flying.

    Fourteen years later, I asked God to give me a sign he had forgiven me. In October 2009, I had to fly to the midwest. I boarded the plane, sat at my window seat, and was ASTOUNDED by the JOY I experienced when the plane lifted off – and throughout the flight! I flew again just the other day – SAME EXPERIENCE.

    Are you skeptical? Or, is it true that we – as individuals – sin personally against God and receive evidence of his forgiveness when we repent?

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    rjs, thank you for this! It is encouraging. I recognize Dr Poplin’s disconnect between her experiences of faith & miracles in India and the responses here. I had some similar disconnects after I returned from Africa, and working w/ people who expected the Spirit to be manifest (and the enemy, too). We do tend to ignore or explain away or discount the inexplicable in our rational minds. I’m still hesitant to assign meanings so specific as Sister Delphinus, though; although I recognize the “miracle”, I can live w/ not understanding what the baby’s reactions mean.

    When I visited with folks in Europe or here about some of those experiences, the most disbelieving most strongly condemned any religious work, regardless of the good. The moral constraints of religion were anathema because they defined “sin”. They focused on denial of the supernatural as superstition, but rejection of constraints was central, too.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Thanks, RJS — and T. I have continued to ponder the posts I recently made concerning M. Scott Peck’s assertion that “original sin” is basically a form of laziness — unwillingness to extend ourselves for others. There are many reasons for this, but they are all “sin”….

    Those in the West have, I guess, a more difficult time “recognizing” God’s fingerprints. You would think that as we approach the view that evolution is part of God’s creative toolbox, it would be easier to see other things — like energy medicine — as God’s provisional cHesed.

    Lots to ponder….


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