Can We Still Believe in Miracles?

We Can, We Must
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind, 1570 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The topic of miracles concerns God’s presence and power within creation and the capacity of humans to experience that presence and power. As such, it pertains not only to the signs and wonders found in the Bible, but also to those experienced by our contemporaries. So understood, the topic involves more than discrete acts of healing and exorcism then and now, dreams and visions then and now, tongues and prophecy then and now. Rather, it also involves the most fundamental truths by which Christians live and die: the reality of the Incarnation and the power of the Resurrection. Adequately “interpreting miracles,” then, requires more than biblical exegesis; it demands a coherent and consistent construal of reality within which both the exegesis of ancient texts and the discernment of present-day life make sense. I propose that our difficulties with miracles have much to do with our lack of such a coherent and consistent construal of reality.

Such a construal must not be reserved to academic experts in ancient languages and cultures, or proponents of literary-critical theories, or scholars occupying one rung or another of academic advancement, but rather to them and others in their capacity as committed believers who seek to be faithful teachers and transmitters of the tradition while still employing the critical skills that such disciplines require. How to teach and how to preach—in whatever sort of setting—the reality of God’s presence and power in creation? And how to do so in a way that illuminates not only the accounts of the Bible, ranging from the plagues of Egypt to the exorcisms of Jesus, but also—indeed perhaps above all—the healings and exorcisms and prophetic utterances and unexpected transformations happening all around us even now?

It is appropriate to ask these questions in an academic setting because the difficulty with miracles is greatest among those who have been most affected by modernity’s epistemological reductions, and most committed to the practice of historical criticism. Note that I speak of “our” difficulties with miracles. Yet countless Christians today, especially in Catholic and Pentecostal traditions, pray for, proclaim, and give thanks for the miracles they perceive to be happening in their lives. In contrast, those Christians most thoroughly schooled in the historical-critical study of the Bible suffer from the same double-mindedness that afflicts scholars themselves. With one side of their minds they profess the Creed, read the Scriptures, and celebrate the sacraments; but with the other side—the side influenced by university or seminary education—they possess a level of doubt and unease that prevents a single-minded embrace of Scripture, Creed, and sacrament.

Problems with miracles did not begin with the Enlightenment, to be sure. Within Greco-Roman culture, the Epicurean tradition notoriously challenged every sort of appeal to the actions of the gods in the world. In early Christianity, despite the celebration of miracles in apocryphal literature and in hagiography from the second century through the Middle Ages—think of the Golden Legend—all the way down to Medjugorje and Padre Pio, there existed a countervailing suspicion of miracles among many early apologists and among bishops, a suspicion later sharpened by Protestant reformers. As early as Augustine and Chrysostom, we find the assertion that biblical miracles were part of a special dispensation, and such phenomena as prophecy and tongues were no longer to be expected in the lives of believers. In short, the way to explicit Cessationists like Benjamin Warfield was well paved by centuries of ecclesiastical incredulity toward claims concerning the continuing experience of God’s presence and power in creation.

But it was the Enlightenment that initiated a frontal attack on miracles and set the intellectual framework within which their denial became a badge of the well-educated person. Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and above all, David Hume—all members of the Enlightenment pantheon—dismissed claims to the miraculous with remarkable ease, suggesting that only the backward and benighted could seriously accept them. Such easy dismissal was made possible by an epistemological reduction that defined real knowledge in terms of the empirically verifiable—a criterion that disqualifies not only healings and exorcisms, but also the central propositions of the Christian faith. The subsequent efforts of Toland, Chubb, and, most notably, Strauss, to render a historical Jesus by stripping away from him any suggestion of the supernatural was in great part driven by the quest for a Jesus who fit within this newly constituted intellectual universe. Defining the Resurrection solely in terms of the disciples’ psychology by Renan and Loisy—and, yes, eventually Bishop Spong as well—followed naturally, as did labeling the mystery of God’s embrace of humanity “The Myth of the Incarnation,” with the term “myth” used not positively but pejoratively.

Modernity took the epistemological framework set out by Enlightenment thinkers, harnessed it to science and technology, and brought into being a world that purported to be—and seemed to be—explicable on human terms alone. The success of this materialist premise has been astonishing, enabling us to reach the stars and to penetrate the puzzles of the genome. But together with such advances in empirical knowledge, modernity has also maintained a consistent hostility toward all things supernatural (or, in its terms, superstitious) in its effort to construct a totally secular society in which the very idea of God’s presence and power seems increasingly alien. This project of cultural secularization, whose most obvious recent manifestations include the proselytizing “New Atheism” and the scouring of piety from public places, has been powerfully effective. I believe that none of us, living as we do in a culture whose premises of secularism are propagandized through arts, entertainment, advertising, and education, is entirely secure in our traditional beliefs; those of us who teach Scripture or theology to the young are all more than a little double-minded, in the way I mentioned above, and in all likelihood we hand on to our students the same double-mindedness. 

The way toward singleness of mind (and heart)—and therefore toward a construction of reality within which the miraculous makes sense—must involve not a flight from all that is good in modernity, but rather a positive and powerful assertion of those dimensions of reality that modernity ignores and often actively denies.

 

We don’t have a language with which to interpret these truths cogently and consistently, and the people around us tend to deny that any such language is available.

Before I sketch the way toward a more satisfactory construction of reality for believers, allow me to state forthrightly the premises I bring to that task. I hold, first, that the Living God does act within creation in the present, just as the Living God acted within creation in the past—that is, that the presence and power of God within creation are real, and as capable of being experienced by humans today as in the past. Second, I consider the truths that we proclaim together in the Creed to be existential and not merely historical facts: the Incarnation continues in our world through God’s embodied presence; the Resurrection is the new creation here and now. Third, I propose that our difficulty in holding and proclaiming these truths is due to epistemological as well as sociological constraints. We don’t have a language with which to interpret these truths cogently and consistently, and the people around us tend to deny that any such language is available.

An image that can help us think about this comes—as so many good images do—from G. K. Chesterton. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton speaks of a madman’s mind as moving “in a perfect but narrow circle.” He means that a madman’s reasoning is perfect within its narrow range; anyone seeking to correct the madman will quickly find himself defeated, so long as he accepts the madman’s premises (all people are out to get me, all politicians are engaged in a conspiracy, etc.). If we replace “madman” with “modernity,” we can see how this idea relates to the topic of miracles. To secure a framework within which miracles can legitimately be discussed, we must begin by showing just how narrow the infinite circle of modernity is, and then show how our minds might enter an altogether larger and more capacious one.

I would never dismiss the many positive contributions of the Enlightenment, not only in the areas of science and technology—making substantial portions of the world’s population more prosperous, healthy, mobile, and secure than premodern people could ever have imagined—but also in the realm of ideas. None of us would want to exist in a world in which religious differences automatically cause persecution or war, or in which religious traditions do not need to answer to a more universal standard of morality, or in which reasoned argumentation is ignored in favor of brute force, or where the free play of the mind is constrained by tyrannical traditions. But while gratefully acknowledging these advances, one must also admit that the epistemological framework of modernity has notably failed to establish peace rather than violence, to narrow the gaps between the rich and poor, or to extirpate racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and hatred.

Indeed, while empirical research and inductive reasoning have proved superbly adept in matters material and mechanical, modernity tends to falter whenever humans enter the picture. Regarding human behavior, modernity is better at broad generalization (read: statistics) than at understanding individual cases, and better at finding causes for what has already happened than at predicting what people are going to do; it is better by far at the what and the how than at the why. Economics, political science, sociology, psychology—the social or “soft” sciences—fail miserably at the key scientific requirements of prediction and replicability; while good at telling us what has already happened, they’re of little use in telling us what is going to happen, and the closer their lens approaches the individual human rather than humanity in the mass, the blurrier their vision becomes. The realm of the properly human—that is, the realm of spirit and freedom—remains largely opaque to modernity’s gaze.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in expressions of human creativity. The Enlightenment famously banished imagination and fantasy to the epistemological basement, regarding art and literature and music as pleasing distractions rather than as rich cognitive resources, and treating all sorts of narratives (including biblical ones) as husks that required shucking to get at the historical truth inside. Only in late modernity did Freud tap into the ancient oneiro-critical tradition to recognize the revelatory capacity of visions and dreams; and even then he insisted that they must be understood within his rigid and mechanical “scientific” analysis of the human psyche.

Given modernity’s consistent refusal to acknowledge the cognitive significance of artistic and literary activity, we should not be surprised that it sought—and still seeks—to reduce religious experience and discourse to meaninglessness. The truth, however, is that while empirical research and inductive reasoning are supremely appropriate to the material and mechanical, they are not the exclusive sources of true knowledge. In fact, multiple modes of knowing reality exist: the kinetic, the mathematical, the musical, the dramatic, the poetic, the artistic, the erotic...and the moral and religious. All of these are legitimate ways of knowing, each in its fashion; and while the epistemology of the Enlightenment does some things well, reflection reveals it to be inadequate for truly knowing most of what is properly and importantly human.

And so what is necessary is the construction of an alternative epistemology, one that can enable a more coherent and consistent apprehension of truths that lie outside modernity’s competence. Such an alternative construction cannot be accomplished by any one of us alone. What is required is the sustained and patient effort of intentional communities to establish, reinforce, and live within a cognitive framework in which human religious experience and the perception of God’s presence and power within creation can be recognized and celebrated as genuine sources of knowledge.

Within such intentional communities—let us call them churches and schools—some headway might be made toward enlarging the epistemological circle, in hope of making it as encompassing as creation itself. In these communities, progress toward a counterbalancing social construction might be aided by an epistemological curriculum communicated and reinforced through the embodied social practices of teaching, preaching, prayer, and pastoral care and counseling. Such practices are crucial for the making of a community’s symbolic world, and only a consistent employment of that alternative epistemological framework can actually foster intelligible discourse about miracles. Let me explore what I think are the four critical elements of such a countercultural construction.

 

Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines

Creation in the fullest sense is not about the what or even the how of the world—these aspects are the purview of science—but rather the sheer existence, the isness of the world, dimensions to which science has little to contribute.

The first is the cognitive adjustment that allows us to imagine the world that Scripture imagines. This Copernican turn demands that we reclaim the organ of imagination, which the Enlightenment scorned, and recognize that the Bible does not describe empirical realities, but rather imagines them as suffused with the presence and power of God. In some ways, the biblical world is much smaller than the world of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking; but in the most important way it is infinitely larger, for it includes the presence and power of the Creator. In each of its parts, and as a whole, Scripture imagines the world of humans as defined by their relationship to the God who intimately and insistently presses on creation, inviting readers to enter imaginatively into the world so construed and, through embodied practices, to make that imagined world empirically visible. An example: Scripture proposes that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. This is clearly not a truth ever to be reached through empirical analysis of human behavior. Yet Scripture imagines such a link between God and humans, and invites us to live by that imagined image. And when we regard and treat fellow humans as created in the image of God, things actually can change in the empirical realm; our fellow human being, now perceived as bearing a divine image and likeness, may respond like someone bearing such an impress. This is a truth about humans that is not described by Scripture but rather prescribed by Scripture, leaving it to us to make it real.

The world imagined by Scripture is one filled with the presence and power of God, or, to use Scripture’s own parlance, signs and wonders that reveal God’s glory. A narrow historicism dismisses such signs and wonders as nonhistorical, and therefore not real, thus eliding the distinction between an epistemological incapacity and an ontological assertion. But the premise that only what fits the frame of historical inquiry is real is patently false. And if we take seriously the language of Scripture concerning signs and wonders, which include not only the plagues and the Exodus, and the visions of the prophets, but also the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the mighty works of the Spirit among believers, then Scripture’s imagined world invites us to see our own empirical reality with new eyes—eyes open to mystery and magic, and, yes, to miracles—as we learn to perceive the presence and power of God in the creation that is new every day.

 

Celebrating a Robust Theory of Creation

The second element in this epistemological curriculum is a robust theology of creation. Enlightenment thinkers and Deists—together with all the Christians influenced by them—focused exclusively on the creation accounts of Genesis 1–2, which encouraged the notion that creation happened at a chronological beginning, when God established the “immutable laws of nature” that miracles supposedly violate. Such a view was easily demolished by scientific accounts of the material world’s chronological origins. No need here to rehearse the embrace of Darwin by the New Atheists or Bertrand Russell’s mockery of an infinite series of horizontal causes (if God caused the world, what caused God, etc.). It helps little to argue feebly that the Genesis accounts teach existential rather than scientific truths; once the location of creation is placed at the start, it is difficult to focus elsewhere.

But a shift in focus is absolutely necessary, for as beautiful and true as the lessons of Genesis 1–2 are, they are not Scripture’s most important way of imagining the world as created by God. To gain a more robust and realistic sense of creation we must turn above all to the psalms and the prophets and the letters of Paul. In these writings, creation is something that happens constantly, as God brings into being that which is—whether it be the new creation of the restoration from exile or the new creation that is the Resurrection of Christ. In such declarations and prayers, “creation” is not a pretty metaphor or strong analogy; it points to the constant presence and power of God, bringing into being that which is not, the unseen first cause that underlies all secondary causes. Thus, Paul links God’s creation out of nothing to the birth of Isaac from Sarah’s dead womb, to the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and to the coming into being of the Corinthian community: they are all unthinkable apart from the presence and power of God. They are all equally miracles.

If God is the implicit premise of all that appears in the world, if God’s presence and power are the invisible cause of anything existing at all, then creation does not concern so much the chronological start to the world as it does the mystery of anything at all existing now. Creation in the fullest sense is not about the what or even the how of the world—these aspects are the purview of science—but rather the sheer existence, the isness of the world, dimensions to which science has little to contribute. The pertinence of this robust understanding of creation to the topic of miracles is clear. We believe, or profess, that God’s presence and power is everywhere all the time: everything that comes into being is a “wonder,” because it is not necessary and thus surprising; everything that comes into being is a “sign,” because it points beyond itself to God’s implicit presence and power. The real question, then, is whether we have the capacity to perceive wonders as wonders and signs as signs; whether we, unlike modernity, can imagine a reality that is greater and more powerful behind the veil of mere appearances. And this is, as Augustine already recognized, an epistemological issue.

 

Privileging Narratives of Religious Experience

The third element is asserting the validity of personal religious experience. A key prop of Hume’s argument against miracles was his insistence that the witness to individual experience has no standing against what he considered “universal” human experience. If no Europeans of Hume’s acquaintance had visions, then neither could the prophets have had visions; if no one in Hume’s Scotland rose from the dead, then neither did Jesus. Modernity has followed Hume’s lead, favoring statistics over individual cases, theory over personal narrative. Much of the tragic history of the past hundred years reflects the triumph of theory over individual experience; racism, sexism, and xenophobia signal a process in which generalization becomes stereotype, then caricature, then excuse for suppression. Once the individual profile, the personal narrative, has no value as evidence, then the individual has no value as a person.

The world imagined by Scripture, in contrast, is based entirely on the witness of individual persons rather than statistical theories about social entities. Moses heard the Lord and told the people what he had heard; Elijah heard the Lord and stood against the priests; Isaiah and Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord; and Paul said, “Last of all, he was seen by me,” asking “Have I not seen the Lord?” When speaking of the spirit-gifted speech of believers at Pentecost, Peter declared that the risen Lord had poured out “this which you see and hear.” The Old and New Testaments alike derive in the first place from intense personal experiences of the presence and power of God in creation, experiences that demand interpretation and narrative expression.

Witness to personal religious experience must, of course, be tested, through a process of communal discernment such as I have tried to describe in my book Scripture and Discernment. Just as a scientific discovery or philosophical proposition must be supported by appropriate evidence—in one case rigorously tested data, in the other case, close and consistent reasoning—so must claims to the experience of God’s presence and power in today’s world be tested within the assembly of the faithful by the use of three criteria: coherence (Is it consistent within itself and with the character of the witness’s life?); convergence (Does it align intelligibly with other reliable witnesses?); and edification (Does it build the church in its distinctive call to holiness?) But without the recognition of the religious experience of the saints among us—hardly the experiences of a statistical majority!—Christianity is in danger of becoming simply a set of formal doctrines, rigid rituals, and encrusted morality.

The present generation actually pushes back against the Enlightenment tradition when it asserts the validity of individual experience—sexual, familial, ethnic—that challenges this or that assumed societal norm. “Listen to me because I am different,” is the message, and increasingly society has shown a certain openness to it. But if the experience of being gay or lesbian or abused or bullied or vilified demands respect, why should experiences of God’s presence and power fail to? By entering into the imaginative world of Scripture, and embracing a robust view of creation, Christians are led to a new appreciation of stories told about religious experiences in our own day.

 

Embracing the Truth-Telling Capacity of Myth

Discomfort with the language of myth pervades the religious life of the double-minded.

The fourth element in recovering a sense of wonder about God’s presence and power in the world is embracing the truth-telling capacity of myth. Secularity’s success in shaping Christian consciousness is nowhere more evident than in the double-minded discomfort of educated believers with mythic language. We have been taught by our learned theologians that such language, in which divine forces are said to operate within the world, may have been appropriate for ancient people who knew no better, but cannot in good conscience be reconciled with a “scientific” worldview. Whatever is good and lasting in Scripture, they say, must be stripped of what is false about the construction of the world, so that what is true about God and humans might be saved. Others have gone further, observing that “God” is just as mythic as the three-decker universe, and all that Scripture ultimately teaches us is about the cosmic projection of human alienation and longing. All this is long past argument for religion’s contemporary critics; for them, “religious myth” is a redundancy, since religion is as false as the stories it tells.

Discomfort with the language of myth pervades the religious life of the double-minded. Listening to the stories of fellow-believers eager to share how God is working in their lives is positively painful, and recounting such narratives to others embarrassing. Teaching or preaching on the miracles found in the Torah or in the gospels becomes an excruciating exercise in avoidance or explaining-away. Even the public prayer of the church gives the sophisticated pastor pause, if he or she really pays attention to the wonders for which liturgy gives thanks and the wonders it seeks from God. This discomfort with mythic language forms a huge stumbling block, and believers need to challenge secularity’s pretense that its discourse is sufficient to understand human existence in the world. We need to demystify, and reverse, secularity’s epistemological overreach.

In the process, Christians must remind themselves and each other of the proper (i.e., not derogatory) sense of myth as language that seeks to express what cannot otherwise adequately be expressed. Mythic language, in this understanding, is necessary simply to speak of intrinsically human realities. Science and technology are unable to express fear and loathing, desire and love, alienation and reconciliation. They cannot comprehend, much less create, the art and music and poetry and drama that liberate and elevate human lives. How much more is myth necessary for the expression of the experience of God’s presence and power in creation! Myth is the proper language of the miraculous, and believers above all must remind themselves and each other that the truths by which they live cannot be expressed by the etiolated language of the Enlightenment. If Christians concur when Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” then they embrace a statement that is thoroughly and profoundly mythic in character, for no single element within the statement is empirically verifiable—and by implication, they agree that the truth of the good news cannot be adequately expressed except by mythic language. Christians can embrace myth not as a form of falsehood, but as a uniquely valuable way of expressing life’s most important truths.

When believers admit and even celebrate the fact that Scripture, the Creed, sacraments and prayers, as both religious and mythic, are not thereby doubly false but rather doubly capable of expressing truth unavailable to the epistemologically impoverished children of modernity—then, when it is pointed out that stories relating miracles are mythic, they can say, “yes, we know,” and smile.

 

What, finally, should we hope for from such a sustained effort at epistemological conversion? I see three things. First, we can hope that believers gain confidence in the legitimacy and importance of the language of faith in the things most pertinent to human existence. Believers can then dare to imagine the world that Scripture imagines and work to realize it; they can celebrate the always new creative activity of the Living God; they can listen attentively to the stories of the experience of God’s activity in their own lives and the lives of others; and they can embrace and celebrate mythic language as the distinctive mode of expressing how divine power is present within creation. Second, we can hope that believers will view the signs and wonders in Scripture as invitations to perceive God’s presence and power in their own lives, and will view the signs and wonders in their own lives as an interpretive entry into understanding the signs and wonders of Scripture, for it is the same Living God at work in both. Third, we can hope that the teaching and preaching of miracles will finally escape the epistemological prison of modernity, and become not a matter of anxious apologetics, but a celebration of the presence and power of God within creation—or in more properly Scriptural language, the perception and celebration of God’s glory among God’s people.

Published in the February 22, 2019 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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