Embarrased by the Supernatural?

Embarrassed by the Supernatural?

Some years ago Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published an article in Christian Century that some believe launched the “postliberal” movement in Christian theology. The article’s title was “Embarrassed by God’s Presence.” (CC January 30, 1985) Hauerwas and Willimon accused “mainline” Protestant churches and theologies of conducting business as if God does not exist. This was, of course, hyperbole and intended to get attention, but the grain of truth in it raised many Christians’ consciousness about the prevailing secularity of modern Western Christianity and its accommodations to modernity.

My present concern, in this blog post, is with Western evangelicals—those Christians who claim to resist over accommodation to the Enlightenment, modernity and secularity and who claim to believe in and abide by the worldview of the Bible.

I teach modern theology in an evangelical seminary. I’ve taught modern theology in three American Christian universities over thirty-three years. I’ve spoken about modern theology in numerous American evangelical churches and institutions and written several books on modern theology. (The most recent is The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction published by InterVarsity Press.) My students routinely react negatively to the secularism of much modern theology and much of modern theology’s accommodation to Enlightenment rationalism and naturalism. However, they are also routinely bemused by my claim that, by-and-large, American evangelical Christianity, including most Baptists, has also accommodated to modernity’s rationalism and naturalism.

How so? they rightly ask. My claim is that most contemporary American evangelical Christians only pay lip service to the supernatural whereas the Bible is saturated with it. To a very large extent we American evangelicals and Baptists have absorbed the worldview of modernity by relegating the supernatural, miracles, scientifically unexplainable interventions of God, to the past (“Bible times”) and elsewhere (“the mission fields”).

This is obvious in how we react to illness among ourselves. We pray for the sick—that God will comfort them and “be with them” in their misery. We pray that God will give their doctors skill as they treat them. But we avoid asking God to heal them. We avoid any mention of demons or demonic possession and strictly shun exorcism as primitive and superstitious—except when Jesus did it. We look down on churches that anoint the sick with oil and pray for their physical healing. We suspect they are “cultic” and probably encourage ill people not to seek medical treatment. We (perhaps rightly) make fun of evangelists who claim to have prayed for God to re-route hurricanes but never ourselves pray for God to save people from natural disasters. We have gradually adopted the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me” and, like Friedrich Schleiermacher, regard petitionary prayer as something for children.

We claim to believe in and follow the Bible but totally ignore James 5:14 “Is any sick among you? Let them call for the elders of the church to anoint them with oil and the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up.” When do most American evangelical churches pray for the sick other than the mealy-mouthed “Dear Jesus help them not to suffer too much”?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who happens also to pastor a Baptist church. My friend is evangelical in his faith. His wife is a medical doctor. I shared with him my own testimony of physical healing—something I’m reluctant to do more often or publicly because even my fellow evangelicals and Baptists look skeptical when I share it. (I was healed of rheumatic fever when I was ten years old and have never suffered the usual heart damage from my months-long bout with the disease that had me hospitalized for weeks. The elders of a church anointed me with oil and prayed fervently for my healing. That week my doctor pronounced me well. No echocardiogram since has shown up any evidence of rheumatic heart disease. Most middle aged adults who suffered rheumatic fever with what my doctor called an “impressive heart murmur” have damage to their heart valves and eventually need valve replacement surgery.) My Baptist pastor friend shared with me that his little daughter was very ill. He went into her bedroom, anointed her forehead with oil and prayed fervently for her healing. She was healed. He admitted, however, that his church would probably not be favorable to this practice.

I am not advocating mass healing revivals or taking sick people hundreds of miles to be prayed for by a famous (or infamous) healing evangelist. What I am advocating is obeying Scripture in spite of the plain fact that the practice encouraged, even commanded there, does not always “work.” Not everyone prayed for is healed. There is no known explanation, but this does not justify avoiding prayers for the sick with anointing and laying on of hands (which in the Bible always accompanies anointing with oil).

My experience is that the richer and more educated we evangelicals and Baptists become the less likely we are to really believe in or expect miracles. We relegate the supernatural to the inner world of persons believing that God can change people’s hearts, but we do not really believe God intervenes in the physical world. Yet the Bible is full of examples of God’s interventions in the physical world, it commands us to pray for such, and evangelical (and Catholic) Christians in the Global South almost all believe in and pray for God’s miraculous interventions—especially in healing the sick.

For those who are skeptical of miracles but believe in God, I encourage them to read C. S. Lewis’ classic Miracles. It completely explodes the usual intellectual objections based on misinterpretations of “miracle.” A miracle, he rightly explains, is not a “violation of a law of nature” as if God had to “break into” and disrupt an autonomous natural system. That is a deist view of God and nature, not a Christian one.

I suspect our contemporary evangelical avoidance of the supernatural in the physical realm of reality has little to do with intellectual questions and issues. I suspect it has more to do with wanting our religion to be respectable; above all we don’t want to be viewed by the world around us as fanatics. The abuses of the supernatural seen on cable television cause us to drop it entirely. But, as the old saying goes, the cure for abuse is not disuse but proper use. We have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Over the years of teaching theology I have made a point of interrogating Christians who come to America to study theology from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I ask them about their view of American Christianity. Normally they are very reluctant to open up and say what they really think. But when I give them absolute freedom to be totally transparent they often say that they are shocked by American Christianity—including evangelical Christianity—because of its individualism, consumerism and lack of belief in the “spiritual world” by which they mean the supernatural. I, too, am shocked by these conditions of American evangelicalism.

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