Saturday, January 30, 2016

Just the ‘facts’

When I was a boy I heard this classic argument between believers and non-believers. (What exactly they believed or didn’t believe, I’m not quite sure.)

They say that God worked miracles in the past, such as revealing the Burning Bush to Moses, punishing Egypt by Ten Plagues, parting the Red Sea at the Exodus of the Hebrews, writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, as well as trumpeting His Laws from smoke-shrouded Sinai. Those were some of the Old Testament miracles, and there were more. Then, in the New Testament, another succession of miracles, one group centering on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, His Birth of a Virgin, His Resurrection from the dead, and all the miracles He performed between, His disappearance in the Ascension, and then, another group centering on His followers, the miracles performed by them or for them, in the book of Acts, for example.

Some said, all the miracles were fabrications, myths. Some said, God did perform miracles in the past, but He did them only for as long as necessary to establish the Church, and He doesn’t do them now. Finally, there were those who said, God does miracles all the time, and we can, and should, expect Him to do them today, that miracles were not just for the establishment of true religion, but for all time.

As I was growing up, even to the present day, I passed through many stages of belief and doubt. As a boy growing up in Chicago surrounded by ethnic East European piety, I heard and accepted the Bible stories, with or without miracles, without asking any questions. I had what I call ‘the children’s version of Christianity.’ Education up through my college years left me still unquestioning. I still accepted the miraculous as intrinsically possible, but I had no interest in it. That is, until my mother was diagnosed as terminally ill when I was in high school. At that point, having watched a television evangelist with a healing ministry, I sent him a few dollars and asked him to pray for my mother to be healed. I meant, really healed. Of course, she wasn’t, and for the time being, I was finished with ‘miracles,’ but she did continue living, as a perpetual invalid, till I was married with children.

My thoughts are not about miracles, whether they happen or not, as I have nothing to add to what C. S. Lewis writes, systematically and convincingly, in his book Miracles. I am a Narnian (what else to call a follower of Lewis?) and I try to live (and believe) like one, even when the world says that I’m only imagining it all. But I do have some thoughts about the miraculous that tend, I hope, not to argument, but to reconciliation.

To continue the line of my own understanding, when I became an adult Christian, when I was ‘born again’ and had an experience of God, I latched on to the Jesus Freak creed, ‘God says it! I believe it! That settles it!’ Yes, for a few years I too literally believed that God created the world in six 24-hour days, made Adam out of clay and Eve out of his rib. I felt obligated to believe the miraculous in this way as a testimony of my salvation. I had seen that believing in nothing miraculous didn’t save anyone, so the opposite must be true. I think I had to go through this stage of false ‘blind faith’ to eventually arrive at real ‘blind faith,’ that is, unconditional trust in God to provide.

Ironically, however, it was that real blind faith which opened the possibility, through freedom, of rational doubt. Doubt in what? God? Christ? the Church? salvation? No, none of these, but the question cannot be answered, because ‘the questions are the answers.’

This is what I believe from my life experience. The world as it is today, and every day, is exactly what it was at every point in the historical timeline. God is no less present, working miracles, here and now than He was in the times and places reported in the Bible. Having said that, I have to also say, I doubt that most of the miracles recorded in the Bible happened in the way they are described, or in the way that we have come to believe in them. That goes for the Old Testament, certainly, and for the New Testament, perhaps in a different way, as well.

I began to ‘peel back’ the traditional beliefs labeling the miraculous, and as I did so, I asked myself, ‘Do I still believe in the God of the Bible?’ that is, in the living God of Israel, Yahweh?

I had long since understood the place of Divine myth in the account of the Creation, and the place of Divine folklore in the account of the Flood. Without doubting one iota of holy and divine Scripture, I laughed at those struggling to prove by pseudo-science and amateur archaeology that the Bible was to be accepted as true science and true history. In my own thought, I reconciled myself to the apparent disparity between science and religion by the fact/act dichotomy: Science is concerned with studying the ‘facts’ of God, what He makes (from Latin facere, to make). Theology is concerned with studying the ‘acts’ of God, what He does (from Latin agere, to do).

The Biblical accounts of the Creation of the world, the creation of Man and Woman, the Temptation of Eve, the universal Flood, the Tower of Babel, are full of the knowledge of the ‘acts’ of God. They are stories, or myths, that describe events and realities that could be explained in no other way, so briefly, iconically, and permanently. What they tell of includes material that is often studied by scientists and historians, but only incidentally, as frames of reference, giving us perspective vis-à-vis our daily life. In a similar way, the ‘facts’ of God, the physical universe that scientists study, includes material that is often studied by theologians and philosophers, but only incidentally, by way of analogy, showing us the incredible unity and rationality of all that is.

Scientists who are also philosophers recognize Design in the order of the universe. Theologians who are also historians recognize Deity in every event in the flow of time.

Back to the miracles reported in the Bible, and for that matter, all through human memory. One thing that differentiates miraculous ‘acts’ of God in the Bible from miracles in other religious contexts, is that the ‘Christian’ miracles always do small and close what God does large and far away (a concept taught by C. S. Lewis), and also, that they lead to something. They have no meaning as isolated events. I’m not sure that these ideas really touch upon what I am trying to get at.

Can Christian faith exist undiminished in the soul, if the miracles of the Bible are doubted as ‘facts’?

When it comes to everything in the Old Testament, my own faith continues undiminished, even were the existence of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt shown to be unhistorical. They say that even the existence of King David is not testified anywhere other than in the Bible, and, having heard this (and believing ‘on faith’ in his historicity), I still read and pray the Psalms with him as a historical person and one who is still alive. For me, the reality of the ‘acts’ of God revealed in the whole of the Old Testament would deliver me at least to the Jewish faith, were it not for knowing the Messiah, Jesus.

When it comes to everything in the New Testament, my own faith continues undiminished, even were all the reported miracles shown to be unhistorical—except one: the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. Well, of course, this one Miracle (or perhaps these three) is predicated on the ‘fact’ that there was a Jesus of Nazareth at all, even though He is reported almost nowhere else but in the Bible. Other ‘Christian’ miracles, such as the Virgin Birth, the Annunciation to Mary (both in the Bible) and the Dormition of Mary (her death, only in the Tradition), are useful constructs in teaching spiritual truths, revealing the ‘acts’ of God, but need not be subjected to investigation as if they were ‘facts.’

Going one step further, one can perhaps understand the ‘doubt’ of the Jews in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah as an equal reaction to the ‘faith’ of the Christians expressed by what Jews, and anyone else but Christians, might consider myths or pious fabrications. I wonder what a religious ‘faith’ would look like that could accept Jesus for what He strictly says about Himself, what He declares to be the ‘facts’ about Himself. Who would we find, then, numbered among His flock, the Church?

I am the bread of life.
John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world.
John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am.
John 8: 58
I am the door.
John 10:9
I am the good shepherd.
John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life.
John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
John 14:6
I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
John 14:11
I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
John 14:20
I am the true vine.
John 15:1
I am with you each and every day until the end of time.
Matthew 28:20

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