Let me just say how much I have enjoyed the conversation this week. One of the dynamic elements of a conversational blog is that sometimes that conversation takes longer or goes in a different direction than expected – this is the nature of dialogue (vs. a monologue). I was supposed to write on allegory today but that can wait till Friday – today we get talk about miracles, the supernatural and signs that make you wonder.
It seems to me that there are two main things to get on the table here.
The first is the phrase ‘super-natural’ comes from specific worldview that came to ascendancy in the seventeenth century. It is very mechanistic. It says that God set up the natural world to work a certain way (like a clock) and the debate was really between folks like the Deists who said the God stepped away after creation and is letting it run like clockwork. The other group believed in intervention and held that God did – from time to time – interfere with the normal mechanisms and do something … super-natural. The activities of angels and demons were outside the perceptibility and predictability of the ‘natural order’ and so on.
That is the supernatural and that is exactly what I do not believe in.
Now, I do believe in the miraculous. The miraculous in this sense is that which is extra-ordinary, outside the expected normality of human experience. Since I am a believer, I attribute that to the power of God who is at work in the world in Holy Spirit.
I want to say again that I do not believe in a solely transcendent God who in ‘his’ holiness can have nothing do with fallen matter and thus resides ‘up’ in the heavens and intermittently ‘breaks through’ the veil of reality in order to intervene in human affairs.
The second thing that we need to get on the table is Biblical language repeated so often in the Gospels of “signs”. What we calls miracles are often referred to as signs. I have even heard them called ‘signs that make you wonder’. This is sacramental language – which is why so many of us are not familiar with it.
A sign, by being fully itself, points to something that is beyond itself. Think of a road sign. A symbol, similarly, is something that participates in that which it signifies without being totally that thing. So in communion, we might say that the bread points to the body of Christ while remaining fully bread. Or that the church is not the Kingdom of God even though it participates in the it. It is a sign that points to a greater reality.
What we would call miracles, what the Gospels often refer to as signs, are activities of God’s presence that point to something beyond themselves while – or by – being fully themselves.
Once these two understandings are in place the conversation takes on a whole new set of possibilities. Once you say goodbye to predictable formulas (mechanistic) then you can move to a conception of a dynamic relationship with a living God. Once you move away from a super-natural mentality (which is often superstitious), you can move to a sacramental participation with the natural world.
God is at work in the world. As Christians we say this proudly and confidently. (I understand those in the Enlightenment who rejected the interventionist view of god and who explained away the miracles in the Bible by simply saying that ancient pre-modern people only interpreted things that way – but that is not where I am at).
If you are into Process Theology, there is a whole second conversation that takes you into all sorts of fun places! But today I just want to point people to Chapter 7 in the Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren called “the Demonstration of the Message”. It is wonderful. I will close here with the words he closes with there.
… this is in large part what I believe the signs and wonders of Jesus are secretly telling us: that God, the good King, is present – working from the inside. The King is in the kingdom, and the kingdom is among us here and now – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The King is present in the mess and chaos of everyday life on earth, bringing healing, sight, perception, liberation… The incursion of the kingdom of God has begun. We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life.
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September 22, 2011 at 1:51 am
I really like this Bo. I’ve for some time felt uncomfortable with the language of “supernatural” but default to it because I lack language to explain the divine activities of God in creation. I like the way you’ve appropriated miraculous and sign here. Keep bringin’ the heat brotha Bo!
September 22, 2011 at 3:35 am
Okay I think I’m following you but I’m not quite done processing. May I use a specific set of examples? I would like to go with healing, since I’m familiar with and passionate about it, and it’s a place where I may have been criticized for seeing miracles through a scientific lens (or perhaps I imagine I’m being criticized). Healing is a broad category, so I can choose widely variable examples: My child cuts her finger and I place a bandaid, knowing her body is designed for intrinsic healing with platelets, fibrin…For me this is design and is amazing (no less so than healing I can’t explain through physiology). Despite our body’s amazing defense system, a bacterium is introduces and begins to divide until an infection forms. The body sends in troops (white blood cells) to identify and attack the intruders. When that fails, the body sets up barriers to isolate the infection and protect the rest of the organism (person, in this case). When this fails, the abscess will often drain itself, which is the cure (as long as it doesn’t drain into the blood stream or some other space inside the body). A person might use a knife to assist this process, and maybe even antibiotics…no less amazing (my perspective). Another person has pancreatic cancer, and, because it is wrapped around vital structures, it is not amenable to surgical intervention. Chemo and radiation are done palliatively and because the person wants to fight. She is told she has a “terminal” diagnosis. She is alive and apparently cancer free 4 years later. It is a true story, and I’m one of the people who told her that a miracle was her only chance and beating this cancer (she’s the only long-term pancreatic cancer survivor I know). Do I believe chemo and radiation played a role? Yes. Do I believe design played a role?Yes. Do I believe her will to live played a role? Yes. Do I believe there is something extra-normal (outside the normal experience) going on here? I do. Is it the Holy Spirit directing patient, doctors, tumor cells. I can certainly go there. I would love your perspective on these examples.