Miracles and the Golden Rule: A Christian Approach to History

One doesn’t have to be committed in advance to history’s inability to deal with miracles in order to begin to realize that one cannot claim that Christianity is grounded purely in history while other traditions are at best shrouded in myth. One simply has to apply the most basic Christian principle to one’s investigation of the competing claims. That’s what happened in my case. I didn’t know that much about historical methodology yet as an undergraduate interested in defending and spreading his faith.

But I did know about fairness, about treating others as you would want them to treat you. The Golden Rule.

And so what does it mean to do history from a Christian perspective? It doesn’t mean to allow for miracles in the Biblical stories while assuming that, when the cookies are missing and your child says he or she doesn’t know what happened to them, that you’re dealing with a lie and theft rather than a miracle. It doesn’t mean defending Christian claims to miracles and debunking those of others, nor accepting Biblical claims uncritically in a way you never would if similar claims were made in our time.

It means doing to the claims of others what you would want done to your claims. And perhaps also the reverse: doing to your own claims, views and presuppositions that which you have been willing to do to the claims, views and presuppositions of others.

Once one begins to attempt to examine the evidence not in an unbiased way, but simply fairly, one cannot but acknowledge that there are elements of the Christian tradition which, if they were in your opponent’s tradition, you would reject, debunk, discount, and otherwise find unpersuasive or at least not decisive or compelling.

What I find most striking about the recent discussion is that, even though I am a convert to Evangelical Christianity, because I’ve arrived at “liberal” conclusions about many historical and doctrinal questions, there are attempts being made to shoehorn me into the box of someone who comes at these matters with a liberal set of assumptions. But those are not my assumptions: they are my conclusions, ones that I resisted reaching long after enough evidence had amassed pointing in their direction. I drew them not because I wanted to, not because I had been brought up to, not because I had been influenced or compelled to, but simply because I honestly felt that these conclusions were correct, even though a radical rethinking of my views, and in particular of my understanding of my faith, were necessary as a result.

I cannot help wondering how many of those who are trying to shoehorn me out of the Christian category and into that of liberal Christian-hater, were themselves brought up in conservative Christian contexts, and are struggling to defend their own presuppositions and assumptions with which they were raised.

In other words, I wonder whether the problem with at least some of these self-proclaimed defenders of Christianity is that they have never had a conversion experience, a genuine life-transforming rebirth, and what they are deeply committed to defending is the worldview of their upbringing.

I’m sure that, when it comes down to it, there are people with conversion experiences and people with upbringing on all sides.

But I still maintain that my conclusions were reached starting from a powerful life-transforming born-again experience, a deep desire (which I still have) to take seriously and do justice to what the Bible says, however much it challenges my assumptions and views (even my views about what the Bible is), and a committment to the Golden Rule not merely as inspiration to kindness or fiscal generosity but as a method for treating one’s own claims and those of others fairly.

In what sense is the approach I’ve outlined above, and adopted in my discussions on this blog, anything other than a Christian one? On what basis, if any, might the conservative approach (which I’ve been criticized for departing from) be judged “more Christian” than this, rather than merely more conservative?

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12399706958844399216 terri

    James…don’t let the triablogue group get to you. They are merciless and unkind….frequently. I’ve only visited their site a few times and found it to be the usual “take-down” type of blog that exists in many forms online.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16623045145691355028 Blake

    Terri,It is obvious that you have not read enough of Triabogue to comment. I do not always agree witht he tone, but I find it to be one of the better blogs on the net. James,I find your post to be an over generalization. You seem to assume that Christians reject miracle claims in other religions. I would not reject anything a priori. Are there false miracle reports? Of course! Does that mean they are all suspect? No. If we say that an account of an extraordinary event is unreasonable because we have unreliable witness in other exrtraordinary cases, then we had better kiss history good bye. There are plenty of lies about regular events, so why should we give preference tot he one over the other? Maybe we should be extremely skeptical of all events.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17303885427565816487 Josh

    But those are not my assumptions: they are my conclusions, ones that I resisted reaching long after enough evidence had amassed pointing in their direction. I drew them not because I wanted to, not because I had been brought up to, not because I had been influenced or compelled to, but simply because I honestly felt that these conclusions were correct, even though a radical rethinking of my views, and in particular of my understanding of my faith, were necessary as a result.That is an important distinction between assumptions and conclusions. Too often in debates over the bible people are declared to be guided by their prior assumptions. It is not a given that someone reaches a conclusion because of their prior assumption. Though of course biases can color our perspectives inordinately (I know mine can).For me it becomes the freedom to think for myself. Darkened mind or not, the best I can do is to honestly and open-mindedly seek what is true. But if that is really an honest search, it has to allow that the conclusions I reach may not fit certain things that are considered true by other people.

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    James -The folks at triablogue are going to have their opinions regardless of how articulately you state your case.I’ve had run-ins with at least one of those folks before, in another venue, and (at least in his case) you might as well be arguing with a fence post.The important thing isn’t whether you’re pigeon-holed as a liberal or a conservative or anything else. The important thing is that you’ve used your intellect and experience to arrive at a philosophical position that works for you. That’s the best any of us can honestly hope for.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08891402278361538353 Truth Unites… and Divides

    For an intellectually honest perspective, click on More on Methodological Naturalism and Miracles and Methodological Naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    …assumptions rather than conclusions….apolegetics? polemics?…Life itself is about faith. Faith in any belief cannot be absolutely proven. I find the discussion on doctrine, and other “church interests” uninteresting, unless they conincide with other disciplines…moral philosophy, moral, intellectual and faith development are some that crosses the boundaries of church, as it speaks to the human condition and it is needful in today’s climate and need for rational understanding and agreement, no matter what “brand of faith” one has….faith in this sense is really unnecessary, as it is more about humanity and humanness than about “god”…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I attempt to apply the same rules to the New Testament that Christians do to the Koran and the Book of Mormon in my article Miracles and the Book of Mormon It goes without saying that the article is fair and well-balanced.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11875276817490928873 Andrew Vogel

    James, I appreciate your recent posting about ‘liberalism’. I am on the conservative side still and I am thankful to see that there are good reasons to conclude ‘liberal’ thoughts and that they are not the presuppositions. I can’t say I agree, but it broadens the scope of what is possible.

  • Bryan

    James I find your ability to frame so many of your own personal reflections and philosophies in a Christian ethic or some other positive part of the Christian heritage/symbolism to be really impressive. I have never heard anyone speak of a “fair” approach to analyzing history as being grounded in the Golden Rule, but I really like it. Essentially that is the essence of skepticism: treat all claims fairly, and judge them on the evidence that does or does not support them.I must comment on something Jay said though. Jay said “The important thing isn’t whether you’re pigeon-holed as a liberal or a conservative or anything else. The important thing is that you’ve used your intellect and experience to arrive at a philosophical position that works for you. That’s the best any of us can honestly hope for.” I agree that worrying about what someone labels you is unimportant, but I suggest you rethink that approach a bit. Certainly a philosophical position that “works for you” is not the best we can hope for, is it? A Scientologist or a homeopathic “doctor” would fit that criteria. I don’t know if it would be the best we could hope for, but off the top of my head, a philosophy that would work for us, help and not not hurt others, and was also true would be far better than the way you put it, in my opinion. It’s the last part, that it be true, that is really hard, because it requires so much rigor in our inquiry and intellectual honesty in putting our own biases to the test.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    James, I think you just adequately expressed in Christian terms what I’ve been arguing for some time with regard to the Outsider Test for Faith!

  • steph

    I like the Golden Rule. I think it is about treating the biblical traditions with the same degree of skepticism as miracles are treated in other religious traditions. Other scholars don’t always do this as for example NT Wright demonstrates in his uneven treatment of Christian and non Christian sources.

  • http://christian4moses.wordpress.com Daniel

    Nice post,I find myself heading in a somewhat similar direction.. my zeal for God after a born-again experience led me to dig deeper in the NT to understand Jesus better and consequently be able to more perfectly follow him. After learning about the Jewishness of Jesus, I started to learn more about Judaism, all in name of understanding Jesus, I started to learn Hebrew etc but after some time realized, or so it seemed, that the NT didnt teach the doctrine of the Incarnation, now one might point to my interest into Judaism that led me to question the Incarnation and while this certainly was a great factor, I was holding to the perspective that the NT was inerrant and ‘God-breathed’, thus I was willing to accept it even if it was only taught in the NT. Yet after reading for example James Dunn’s Christology in the Making it seemed hardly possible anymore to believe that the Incarnation was taught in the NT… and that was a huge blow to me, I mean all I wanted was following Jesus and be the best disciple I could be yet my beliefs wrt the Incarnation got me the label of at best liberal, but in some cases heretical. And thats difficult as in my understanding this was my honest quest to get closer to the ‘original’ Christian but in the eyes of most of my fellow believers, I had gone astray.And so it sometimes feels as if Im being pushed into the ‘liberal’ camp which is not really what I want to self-identify with…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17303885427565816487 Josh

    RE: Daniel’s comment. It is a tragic aspect of “conservative Christianity” (for lack of a better term!) that when one begins to question the thinking there doesn’t seem to be a place for you there anymore, or a framework to work it out in. Meeting people’s expectations vs. being honest and transparent about what you believe.Thus the problem with attaching labels like “liberal” or “conservative” or “bible believing.” And that is on top of the personal struggles one goes through when wrestling with these issues.

  • Jason

    Presuppositions and conclusions: I think there is an iterative process that shapes these two. For most conservatives there is a concrete presupposition, namely that whatever we might find the Bible it is historically and scientifically true, free from all error and contradiction. Therefor we will accept ANY justification for an apparent scientific or historical error, and any justification (regardless of how contrived or often silly) for apparent contradictions. If we here two such answers we will accept both, even if they are completly mutually exclusive, just as long as they protect our view of the Bible. If you have the opposite presupposition, namely that the Bible is not necessary free from all error, these answers will be totally unpersuasive. I say the process is iterative because for some, it appears the amount of evidence they encounter about the true nature of the Bible becomes so much they finally “twig”, ie change their earlier presupposition. If one switches from the “error free” to the “lets find out”, I think a great many inaccuracies surface.The other direction is the stuff of legendary apologists, who claim a strong atheist past, and yet after a strong critical look at the Bible they find it so compelling and convincing they can not help but assert it is totally innerent. They also assume this is purely a conclusions of careful study, though if you start pressing them are hard matters, you will also find they begin to accept ANY explanation, no matter how contrived.

  • http://rtjones.wordpress.com/ rtjones

    I am surprised that both sides of the debate generally assume we must read non-Christian reports uncharitably. Although Blake is at least open to alternative miracle claims, I suspect this is more theoretical than practical. As a committed supernaturalist, I tend to think we should read other traditions with charity, but would ask the same for my own tradition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00840974074283188834 Ignostic Morgan

    Thanks James and John! Platinum Rule Epistemology and the Outsiders Test exemplify good scholarship! It isn't a priori to reject miracles as that is from a posteriori- empirical stand.Where's the beef?