At small group this week (which I actually managed to get to, after a couple of months worth of the fortnightly session clashing with other commitments), we looked at Mark 9:14-29, which is headed in the study notes “Jesus confronts our unbelief”. While I strongly suggest you click the link and read the passage, shortly it’s an account of Jesus healing a boy possessed by a demon, the symptoms described being almost certainly (to my modern eyes) those of epilepsy. The disciples have clearly failed to cure him (following Jesus’ instructions to them back in Mark 3:13-15, Mark 6:7 and Mark 6:12-13), possibly due to the presence of scribes and a crowd of other people. Jesus reproaches those present (which the group and the study notes thought was directed at the disciples) as an “unbelieving generation”, asks the father how long he has been this way (since birth), says that all things are possible for those who have faith, and elicits the famous “I believe, help thou my unbelief”. The fit ends, and the boy is helped to stand up.
Unfortunately it appears that I am the only thoroughgoing sceptic in the group. After several testimonies of belief in the power of faith healing, I felt I had to say that I don’t believe it works. I have a fairly thoroughly non-supernatural view of reality, and faced with such testimony, the best I can manage is to suspend disbelief and concede that strange things do occasionally happen (and, of course, be glad for the person for whom it has apparently happened). Very occasionally. That hasn’t prevented me from storming heaven asking for a cure for some other people, in the very faint hope that this time it might work (and the absence of anything more likely to succeed), but that has never worked for anyone I have prayed for. I’ve heard insanity defined as “doing the same thing which hasn’t worked in the past expecting that it will work this time”. OK, it’s a very bad definition of insanity, but everything I know about the real world tells me that unless you change some aspects of what you’re doing, what hasn’t worked previously will still not work today… so there is no way I can rationally have any significant expectation that prayer will cure people (or, indeed, have any other effect beyond the relationship of the person praying with God and their own psychology).
I should maybe have clarified that I think prayer or belief may work sometimes with illnesses with a significant psychological component (though my track record of seeing cures to psychological illnesses through prayer is still a blank sheet, despite a LOT of attempts in that direction on behalf of myself and others, by myself and others – unless, that is, you consider that the cure might take over six years and involve several other possible causative factors, in which case the record may stand at one partial cure in the case of my own longstanding depression). I can also see a possible mechanism for it to work (very rarely) for some physical illnesses via producing an excess of some chemical already naturally produced in the body, but again have never actually seen that. I know of no occasion when anything of the sort has cured epilepsy, though in conscience, all the passage tells of is the alleviation of a single fit. We do not know if according to the author, the child went on to be free of the complaint for life – it is not stated, though I found it interesting that (reading between the lines) the group seemed to think it was a permanent cure.
I have listened to a lot of testimonies of people who have thought themselves cured via such means, and after discovering that there were sound naturalistic explanations available in every case I looked at, eventually stopped looking for such explanations for fear of annoying people or, just possibly, causing them to doubt and thus prompting a psychosomatic recurrence of symptoms. Nothing is to be gained by doing that, unless people are refraining from seeking actual medical (or psychological) help in the expectation of a miraculous cure. But my group are not of that mind, they would unhesitatingly call for an ambulance rather than a priest on seeing an epileptic fit, just as I would.
Even so, I could see that my merely stating that I could not believe in such cures was upsetting to some, and I stopped talking about that aspect – and then clearly upset people again when the discussion turned to “unseen forces of darkness” and I said I did not believe in demons, whether or not a demon might have been responsible for the incident related in Mark. Again, I think the group were unanimous in thinking it was probably an epileptic fit, but it seems that there is widespread belief in demons, and indeed one person testified that each time he makes an advance in faith, difficulties seem immediately to arise – which he ascribes to demonic influence.
As a result of this, I did not explore the fact that possibly what we were actually talking about in our discussion was not faith in God or Jesus as such but self-belief. The disciples clearly were suffering from a loss of self-confidence. The trouble there is that the passage seems to me to be mocking the afflicted – I do not know any way to become more self-confident save for a history of repeated success in doing something, and to tell me that I should just have more belief in myself is somewhat aking to telling me to grow wings and fly. I would dearly LIKE to have more self-coinfidence. Indeed, I belive in self-confidence – it seems quite strongly to me that those who are self-confident have a far greater success rate than those who are not, and indeed, I have seen people serene in the confidence that something would work do things which I would have previously regarded as just plain impossible. I would really like to have more faith of this kind. But I don’t, and I don’t see how I can pull myself up into that by my bootstraps.
I did very briefly outline my acceptance of Walter Wink’s idea of the “Powers that Be” (I link to the single volume, though I have the three volume, in depth version) in relation to demonic powers. I didn’t amplify this – it didn’t seem that there was much interest beyond the fact that I had just said I didn’t believe in them in the absence of them being expressed concretely. This was Wink’s view of how Paul was thinking when he talked of the “powers and principalities” – the Jewish world-view of the time did not include the possibility of disembodied spirits; any spirit had to be embodied – a viewpoint with which I find I agree, in contrast to a view prevalent in Greek thinking of the time, which did have a view of disembodied spirits – and, indeed, for much of Greek thought, the disembodied was more real than the embodied. The study guide included a quote from C.S. Lewis “Enemy occupied territory – that is what the world is”, and it seemed to me that the prevalent world-view was of a demon-infested universe – which is not really the way I see things. Yes, I do see the world as gripped by some “powers”, including that of neoliberal economics (about which I write frequently, and which I tend to characterise as “the System of Satan”), but not as having a plethora of little imps set on frustrating our faith-based actions. Indeed, sceptical Chris sees the legend of “making an advance in faith and then being assailed by some setback” as a get-out clause – indeed, another get-out clause to add to the “your faith wasn’t sufficient”. When I come to believe that something will work, take action and find that it doesn’t, I question whether my initial belief is correct. I don’t assume that some incorporeal force of general buggeration is attacking me, or assume that if I just believed a bit harder, it would all work.
What are we to make of the last part of the passage from Mark, where we find Jesus explaining the disciples’ failure by “this kind needs prayer”? One could suspect that he had found by his question to the father that this was a functional disorder, whereas the disciples might have been having success with psychological or psychosomatic complaints. This statement does, in any event, tend to argue against the idea that his condemnation of a “faithless generation” was levelled at the disciples – it was, perhaps, rather levelled at the crowd generally. My sceptical side suggests that he might have more honestly responded “this practice largely doesn’t work, at least not for anyone except myself”, though perhaps, indeed, his prayers were commonly answered where my experience is that they aren’t.
If, however, I am correct in saying that the criticism was levelled at the crowd generally, it might suggest that a theory of a friend of mine regarding supernatural effects was in mind – he thought it possible that where a group of people is involved, it is the faith of all of them which produces a result, and the disbelief of the crowd (and particularly the scribes or teachers of the law, depending on your translation) impeded the disciples faith having the desired effect. On this understanding (which, I may say, I don’t share, but can’t entirely discount), the presence of even one or two sceptics might prevent faith healing working (or prayer being answered); the father’s thin faith, connected more closely with the child than anyone else, could have tipped the balance… OK, while I think that unlikely, it seems possible that the author (or even Jesus himself) may have subscribed to a similar view.
And there, possibly, I have an answer to why my personal lack of belief in faith healing upset some members of the group (and meant that I wrote this blog post instead of sharing further thoughts on the day). Perhaps on some level, the state of my belief is seen as in some way counteracting theirs?
There is one further thing which springs to mind, and that is returning to demons. I may not think the world full of disembodied inimical spirits (well, with the possible exception, on occasion, of my computer!), but I do think we can construct within our minds (and chiefly our subconscious minds) templates which are very inimical to our flourishing in various ways. Deep psychological work, then, can very reasonably be talked of as “talking with our demons”. The snag is, I strongly suspect that believing in the reality of demons above and beyond psychological mechanisms is capable of strengthening those which are already there, or even creating new ones. I have therefore said on occasion “If Satan did exist, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”, which combines combatting the strengthening of the template in our own minds with, if my friend’s idea about belief creating supernatural effects happened to be true, reducing the power of such an entity.
Hey, I’m very conscious of the fact that these pieces of paper in my wallet marked with various numbers of pounds are only worth something because everyone believes they are. Now the £5 and £10 notes are mainly plastic, indeed, they aren’t even much use for lighting the barbecue… but don’t worry, my scepticism about their actual value doesn’t reduce their utility for you. Unless my attitude were to become commonplace, of couse.
Now there’s a scary thought!