Thursday, February 22, 2018

Miracles and Modernity

The Roman historian Suetonius tells that when Julius Caesar was debating about taking the final, fatal step of crossing the Rubicon, “this sign was given him... a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed.” This “apparition... rushed to the river... [and] strode to the opposite bank.” ( Life of Julius Caesar, 32:1) Caesar took this as a sign from the gods and so proceeded with his plan.

Most modern historians would doubt that Caesar actually saw such an apparition, but obviously the story of the crossing the Rubicon remains essentially the same in either case. This vision adds very little to the story, even considered as a story, certainly considered as history. Subtract it completely (as most people would) and the story remains basically the same. The supernatural vision seems superfluous at best. However, the same cannot be said for the supernatural stories which intrude upon the history of the Christian Scriptures. Rather than appearing as extra elements to a story that is complete without them, they are the essence of what the story is about. If stories of miracles and other supernatural events are removed from Scripture, the result is something entirely different, and that difference is not merely academic but practical. “Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Saviour.” (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104)

Miracles, particularly the miracles performed by Jesus of Nazareth, are central to the Scriptural narrative and to the Christian faith. Whether these miracles did or did not happen is a pivotal question and one too large to be considered in this article. What I want to look at there is a particular part of the controversy. When the question of miracles is brought up, there is one stock answer that many people in the world give in reply. That answer is that while people could believe that sort of thing once, in the modern world such belief is impossible or at least irrational. Rudolf Bultmann put briefly: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” (Quoted in Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 138)

Is there anything to this? Does the fact that we live in the modern, twenty-first century make it impossible or irrational to believe in miracles? More so, that is, then if we lived in another time?

The first thing to point out is that time itself is not the issue here or, at least, shouldn't be. Except in a few very specific cases, the mere passage of time cannot make an idea more or less believable. “Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 5) When people say that a certain thing cannot believed in the modern world what they mean (or had better mean) is that certain beliefs cannot be held in the face of knowledge which we happen to possess. So, for instance, many people in the last two centuries believed that there might be intelligent life on the Moon. However, we have now learned enough about the Moon to make that possibility essentially nil. Of course, there may be people living in primitive areas of the world, without the benefit of a scientific education, who have no grounds for disbelieving in the existence of life on the Moon. And if, as seems possible, our entire scientific civilization collapses around us, there may be people in two hundred years who have no more knowledge about the state of affairs on the Moon than our ancestors two hundred years ago knew. The issue here is knowledge, not the mere passage of time.

But we do live in a time of great knowledge--a time when knowledge (at least of a certain kind) is more widely present and available then any known time in human history. The question is whether any of this new knowledge makes it less likely or impossible that certain miracles occurred in first century Palestine. I think when people say it does they are thinking specifically of general scientific knowledge. (I leave the question of textual 'science' aside as too large for this article.) Does our present state of scientific knowledge cast a shadow across the credibility of miracles?

There are two lines of argument that would tend to suggest that modern knowledge invalidates miracles. The first comes from our knowledge about the universe as a whole. Some moderns claim that our knowledge about the universe makes it unlikely that God exists or that He would perform miracles for human beings if He did exist. The main reason given would be the difference between the history of the universe as diagramed by modern science and the account found in Genesis. This is, strictly speaking, not a debate between science and religion (as people on both sides are endlessly saying) but between science and history, though it has religious (and scientific) implications. If the history given by Moses regarding the history of the universe is wrong, that does undermine the Jewish and Christian worldviews and therefore the miracles contained within them. (It does nothing, however, to disprove the existence of God.) It is here that the modernist has his strongest position. There are individual portions of the modern scientific history which are under attack from within, but as a whole it seems unassailable. Any attack on it would require someone with a scientific or historical background; not an amateur philosopher such as yours truly. I merely point out that this is the only place where the modernist can claim to have any support--and when that support is a series of suppositions about something which happened millions of years ago, one might think he should find a better one.

There are several other ways in which one might argue that our knowledge of the universe argues against God or miracles. One way is this: people can say that the ancient Christians and Jews believed that God lived in the sky; we now know that He doesn't--that in a strict sense “sky” does not exist. This seems to be the view of the Jesus Seminar when they say that “Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo have dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan, and bequeathed us secular heavens.” (Quoted in Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 126) The problem with this objection is that it does not seem to have taken seriously what the scriptures actually say on the question. Many of the ancient Jews and Christians may have had erroneous ideas about the nature of outer space and God's relation to it. (A good many of them probably never gave the question five minutes thought.) Solomon, for instance, may have some thought that God was locally present in the sky, in “the heavens,” just as he thought of God as somehow locally present in the temple. But Solomon also made it quite clear that “The heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded.” (1 Kings 8:27)  In other words, Solomon may (for all we know) have had false ideas about the heavens, but he knew that whatever they were, they could not contain God, that God transcended all creation. If Solomon had had a scientific education and learned just how vast the heavens are and the multitude of realities they contain, there is no doubt he would have said exactly the same thing, with even greater wonder: “The heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee.” The people in Bible days may have though the universe smaller and simpler than it is, but they knew that God was beyond the universe. They may have had false ideas about the universe, but not about God.

The second line of argument is closely related. It states that ancient people thought the universe was very small and that man was a very important part of it. They may point to phrases in the Genesis account of creation which seem to indicate that the universe was created for man's benefit. This, they say, has been disproved by modern science which has showed us how vast the universe is and how small man is in comparison. In light of this knowledge, it is absurd that God (if there were a God) would pay any attention to man, would work miracles on his account, would (especially) become incarnate and die in order to save man. This argument has a plausible sound, but it is wrong and catastrophically wrong on several counts. (1) There is no need to know the size of the universe to realize how small and weak a thing man is. “It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4) Lewis points out that for ancient man, the world itself was much bigger and wilder. The feeling we get from the vast, untamed cosmos, they could get from the world around them. (The Problem of Pain, Chapter 1) It may even be that this is reason why the size of space has become such a part of the modern imagination--because the world has been made too small. If we want infinite space to stretch our legs in, we must go into outer space. The old fairy tales told of a man traveling to the ends of the earth. The new fairy tales get the same affect by having him travel to the ends of the universe or (increasingly) the multiverse. (2) There is nothing new about this knowledge. As far back as Ptolomy, man knew how small earth was compared to the universe. (Lewis, Miracles, 77-78) For the matter of that, this exact feeling--the feeling of man's insignificance in comparison to the universe--is stated in compelling language in Scripture itself. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4) (3) The underlying assumption of this argument is that man is unworthy of God's attention because he is small and weak compared to the universe. The implication is that if man were bigger and stronger or the universe smaller he would be more worthy--and that is blasphemy. If man were the greatest and strongest of created things, if we were a race of demigods treading the stars and planets underfoot, we would not be one whit more worthy of God's attention and love than we are now. If the entire created universe were sentient, then it would look up at its creator and say: “I was as nothing before Him.”

But even if our modern knowledge of the universe as a whole does not invalidate the possibility of miracles, what of our more specific knowledge of how the universe works?

When Bultmann says that we cannot “avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time... believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” this seems to be his meaning--that it is not possible to believe in miracles because we now know that the world is ruled by the laws of science. The ancients, we are told, saw nature as controlled by the caprice of the gods or God; they did not what caused things to happen or prevented them from happening, and so could easily believe that miraculous healing or other miracles could occur.

Two things should be said in reply to this. The first is this: it is certainly true that many people in Bible times did see spiritual causes for natural events; many people did see sickness as being a judgment from God and the scriptural writers seem to say that sometimes this was true and sometimes it wasn't. (2 Chronicles 21:18, 1 Corinthians 11:30, John 9:3) But the fact that they, rightly or wrongly, attributed illness to the judgment of God does not necessarily mean that they were ignorant of the physical causes of sickness. Wars were also often pictured as having spiritual causes but obviously everyone was aware that they also had natural causes. Acts 2:23 and Genesis 45:4-5 makes it very clear that in Biblical thought a thing can truly be said to be the act of God and also to be the act of Man--in other words, that supernatural and natural causation are not mutually exclusive. I am not discussing here whether this doctrine is true--I just want to point out that at least some people in Biblical times held it which means that you cannot discount their testimony about natural things just because they also saw them as supernatural.

Second, this objection entirely misses the point. It was well captured by one modern scholar who mockingly remarked that only a naive fundamentalist could believe that Jesus brought Jairus' daughter back to life. The implication is that while people in ancient times (and uneducated fundamentalists) could believe that the dead could be brought back to life, we (we elite, scientifically educated sages that we are) know that such a thing is impossible. However, the story of Jairus' daughter (as recorded in Scripture) clearly shows the problem with this viewpoint--the fact that Jairus and everyone involved in the story knew every bit as well as we do that the dead can't come back to life. In Mark 5:35, when the messenger brings the news of the daughter's death, he adds: “Why troublest thou the Master any further?” In other words, he knew that with the girl dead there was nothing anybody could do to help her. When Jesus tells the mourners that He is going to awaken her, they laugh at him. (Mark 5:40) Why? Because they knew perfectly well that dead people do not wake up. The thing was impossible. And that is what made it a miracle when Christ performed it. C. S. Lewis, speaking of the Virgin Birth, comments: “In any sense in which it is true to say now, 'The thing is scientifically impossible', [Joseph] would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were... being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature.” (Miracles, Chapter 7) The whole point of a miracle is that it is something which cannot happen naturally, and therefore any new scientific information which shows its impossibility boasts the credibility of the miracle (as far as it affect the question at all). If science could prove that the miracles could happen naturally, that would be to disprove or at least throw doubt on them. (So, for instance, it is a credible argument to suggest that Jairus' daughter experienced what we now call a 'near-death experience.' Whether that explanation will cover Lazarus or Jesus is another question.) Miracles are something that are impossible--unless God (or other supernatural agent) performs them. “Those are the bare bones of the question; time and progress and science and civilization have not altered them in the least.” (Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 7)

This fact is hidden from us because in many cases we know more about what makes a thing impossible. So, for instance, when the Children of Israel heard the voice of God speaking from Mt. Sinai, they were terrified because they knew perfectly well that hearing the audible voice of God was not an ordinary occurrence. However, they probably took that voice as a brute fact. We know now what a voice is--that it is a pattern of vibrations received by the eardrum and interpreted by the brain. But the statements: “I believe God spoke from Mt. Sinai” and “I believe God created a pattern of vibrations radiating from Mt. Sinai” are not substantially different. Whether one believes it in either form in one thing--but there is no reason to suppose the second form is harder to believe than the first. In this case, the old poem is true: “Each new solution but once more affords/New change of terms, and scaffolding of words.

I do not here discuss whether miracles can or have occurred. My point is simply this--that there is nothing primitive or premodern about believing in them. Scientific advances and modern knowledge changes many things, but it leaves the question of miracles exactly where it has always been. We know now as surely as Jairus knew in the first century that it is impossible for the dead to come back to life--unless there is a God. And if there is a God, then anything is possible.