No tricks (And God saw that it was Good I)

November 15th, 2013
by Chris

I’ve a bit of a weakness for superheroes, and it seems to me that I’m pretty average that way. I loved “Heroes” (which most unfortunately lost it’s way and got cancelled after four series to the intense distress of many fans), quite like “Alphas”, liked the sideways take of “Misfits” and am partial to the odd Marvel or DC comics film, which keep coming out on a regular basis.

And, as far as I’m concerned, God isn’t anything like that. As I’ve written before, God doesn’t wear his knickers outside his tights. I like the idea that God might intervene supernaturally to rescue his favoured people (possibly even me) just fine, (though see below) but I would be astonished if that were ever to happen, or if it actually happened at any time in history. Including in the Bible…

I was listening to a guest at Alpha this week explaining his reactions, in this case to the “Why and how should I read the Bible” talk, and feeling that there’s still a very large gap between some well-respected liberal Christian writers and the “feel” of the average church. He was explaining seeing the texts as allegorical and metaphorical, including the miracles described (which he sees as purely plot devices), and I was so with him – and he was clearly seeing this as a reason why he could not be “part of” the church. It isn’t part of the Alpha course for helpers to provide answers in the discussions, so I stayed quiet. But I don’t see this as a valid reason for not being part of the church myself. I used to – for rather a long time I used to, in fact, but I’ve read John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk and Marcus Borg and many others who are entirely comfortable with a demythologised (and sometimes remythologised) Bible as still being a text to take seriously, though not literally. They seem to manage, so I should be able to – and I think, so should he.

I’ve also spent years debating religion on The Religion Forum (which used to be far more active than it has been lately) and found that once you get beyond “he worked a miracle so you must take him seriously” (I already take him very seriously indeed, so let’s move on), all the meaning which is extracted from miracles is of the metaphorical or allegorical kind. What is the meaning of taking five loaves and two fishes and feeding 5,000, after all? (This, incidentally, impresses me the more having been involved in the feeding of 50-80 for five Wednesday evenings now!). It isn’t limited to “well, this guy could multiply food in a marvellous way 2000 years ago”. No, it speaks to a culture of sharing, it speaks to God being sufficient for all and not exclusive to a few, it speaks to overcoming cultural barriers and fear of the “unclean”, and I could go on for quite a while. And none of this is dependent on how five loaves and two fishes became sufficient.

The “big one” is, of course, the Resurrection. I’ve written about this recently more than once. How can you be a Christian and not believe in a bodily, physical resurrection, you might ask. And I’d reply that firstly the evidence of the gospels is, on the whole, against a bodily resuscitation (which is more like what is being talked of) and secondly that Paul appears not to have believed in one, though he did believe in resurrection (and how!). But it was a spiritual resurrection. And that is not something for which you expect or need suspensions of natural law as you do for most miracles. Everything else works perfectly well whether or not you accept that the dead body lodged in the tomb revived at some point and started walking through walls and travelling substantial distances without passing through the intervening space. And similarly everything else about the New Testament works perfectly well whether or not you believe that Jesus (or God) was working a few magic tricks. OK, real magic rather than just illusion, but tricks nonetheless.

Incidentally, I except the healing miracles in general from this scepticism. Medical miracles do happen from time to time, and I do not think we have begun to understand the extent to which the mind can, on occasion, make the body do things which are impossible in normal circumstances.

It isn’t just a matter of sticking to a hard scientific dogma here, either. If I consider that Jesus worked miracles, I can see no particular reason why I can say that the noted Jewish rabbis of around the same time, Honi the Circle Drawer and Eliezar did not work miracles as well. Or a host of later Islamic notables, or earlier Buddhist or Taoist sages. Or, indeed, that the stories of Nero Redivivus are not true, or that the emperors Augustus (of Rome) and Alexander (of Macedon) were not miraculously conceived. Christianity has absolutely no monopoly on the miraculous, and the miracles do not advance us by being factual rather than allegorical. I may even be in difficulty accepting that Elvis has not been resurrected…

However, there’s more than that. I may not think of God the Creator in the same way as the Biblical literalist, but the God who can speak an universe into being (according to John 1 and, possibly, Genesis 1), who is omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient is not going to need to tinker with His creation with magic tricks. I will grant you that the only one of those “omnis” which I think it anything like correct is omnipresence (I can’t get away from that, it’s how I experience God), but I do think that the general impression is correct even if the reductio ad absurdum implicit in “omni” is not. God does not need to tinker with his creation, because he made it and, according to Genesis, he saw that it was good. Very good, in fact. And if it is good by God’s standards, that is beyond my pay scale to criticise.

And yet, apparently, the God who, according to Paul, is apparent in every part of creation such that we are without excuse in not accepting him (Rom. 1:19-20) is thought to need to suspend natural law in a few cases in order to demonstrate that Jesus is special?

No, I’m afraid I don’t see that.

What I do see is a God who is beyond and above that. Even though I’m a sucker for magic tricks and superheroes.

And that has some more consequences which I’ll look at in a further post.

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