Little faith

In small group last week, we were looking at Matthew 14:22-33, which is the story of Jesus walking across the rough waters of the Sea of Galilee to the apostles in their boat, Peter asking Jesus to call him to walk on water, and Peter’s limited success. Limited in that while it initially worked, Peter became frightened and began to sink, and needed rescuing.

I commented that I had difficulty with this passage, as I could not put myself into Peter’s position. Asked why, I said I didn’t believe in the supernatural. There was a silence, and then someone said “But, you’re a Christian?” Others chipped in, and the moment passed, but I felt I hadn’t dealt with this well; in addition, I notice that we’re going to be looking specifically at the question of belief and faith next week. I think it worth clarifying the position.

Accurately, I don’t believe in physical miracles, that is to say of the “walking on water” or “water into wine” variety. Healings and exorcisms are a different matter; I have seen cures through faith, and have talked to other people’s demons as well as my own (and you should read that very metaphorically!). Communications with God are also very much another matter, including tangible apparitions. I don’t think anything physical is actually happening in these; what is happening is changes in people’s consciousnesses and the results of that, so far as I’m concerned.

Against that, I don’t actually disbelieve miracle stories as such. As miracles are, by definition, exceptionally unlikely events, I would not expect the normal rules of how things work necessarily to apply to them if they did happen, and so the presumption that everything always works along naturalistic lines would be too strong – it definitely works along naturalistic lines almost always, but the absolute statement is one which I would think it foolish to make.  I might like to be able to believe in miracles the way many of those in my faith community do, but I can’t. The nearest I can get is suspension of disbelief, an acceptance that maybe, just maybe, things will not be the way every ounce of my rational thinking says it will be.

Thus, in Peter’s position, if I stepped out of the boat I would with huge confidence expect to sink.

But that isn’t the only reason why I couldn’t put myself in Peter’s position. As someone else noted in the group, there was no obvious reason for Peter to walk on water. From Peter’s point of view, he was putting himself in danger in order that God could save him miraculously, and in Matthew 4:1-17 we have seen Jesus tempted. Note particularly verses 5-7, where Jesus is invited to endanger himself and trust in a miracle, and responds that you should not put the Lord to the test. Peter is going completely against this principle. I’ve spent years training myself not to do that, after a certain youthful enthusiasm many years ago – though that never went quite as far as one of those preaching the previous Sunday on the subject, who did actually try to walk on water…

That said, I have occasionally hoped for a miracle without any belief that one would occur, but only when every other avenue was closed to me, and only a miracle would suffice. On a very few occasions, things have, to my amazement, worked out – not always in any way which I might have asked for, but worked out nonetheless. I can’t, however, say that any of those required a physical miracle, though they have certainly required psychological ones more than once.

The thing I’ve increasingly come to recognise as I’ve studied scripture over the years is that the real message of the miraculous stories is not in the fact that a miracle has occurred, it’s something else, a deeper message which can be found (and sometimes more than one). I don’t need to believe in the occurrence of the miracle to see the deeper message. In this case it’s that one should have absolute trust in Jesus; once Peter’s trust faltered, he was in trouble.

For me, indeed, miracles which just show that Jesus (or Peter, or Paul) was something really special don’t do the job they were supposed to. Rowan Atkinson has an extremely funny satire on this attitude on You Tube. I hope readers will see this not as lampooning Jesus, but as lampooning the attitude of some, at least, of his followers. I’ve done enough studying to know that a large number of famous people of the first century and before (and a few after that) had miracle stories attached to them; the New Testament is not unique or even particularly unusual in attributing miracles to its leading characters, and (for instance) Alexander the Great, Hippocrates and Augustus Caesar have such stories, as do quite a few rabbis of the first to fourth centuries, such as Eliezer and Honi the Circle Drawer. If I accept miracles in the New Testament, I have no way of rejecting them in (for instance) the Talmud, or the Koran. Those in the Gospels, at least, do have messages beyond just “this was a very important man whom you should pay attention to” – and I don’t need miracle stories to pay attention to Jesus.

Indeed, going back to the story, if I were in that boat on the sea of Galilee and rather than asking to walk out to Jesus, Jesus asked me to step out of the boat, I would probably do that. I would expect to sink, but hope not to – and in any event trust that what he asked me to do was the right thing. Even if I drowned.

I say “probably”. I am only too conscious of the fact that I have other allegiances as well as to God and Jesus which, at least to date, I have not been willing to set aside and follow the Great Commandments to the letter, or the injunction to the rich young man. (I don’t qualify as rich by the standards of my immediate society, but by world standards there’s no doubt of it). My other allegiances are to my wife and family, and unlike the disciples, I balk at leaving them in order to follow Jesus.

But, to date, all I have is scriptural statements. If I were to have a personal message? I don’t know. I’d certainly argue, taking my cue from plenty of Biblical figures from Abraham onwards, but might obey nonetheless.

So, may be I can put myself in Peter’s shoes (at least when they were dry) after all. I feel the statement “Oh ye of little faith” could be directed squarely at me. As I’ve blogged before, maybe that makes me merely an aspiring Christian, or a not-very-good Christian. But I think, for some value of “Christian”, that’s what I am.

One Response to “Little faith”

  1. Chris Says:

    Since writing the above, I’ve come across a rather good article on (inter alia) the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. I am, of course, methodologically naturalistic – after all, I still do some science. I avoid being philosophically naturalistic, even if it’s only by a hair.

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