Saturday, September 01, 2012

Unbelievable Miracles

The Radio show 'Unbelievable?' had two shows looking at miracles earlier in the year - the first show looked at miracles in the bible and the second one looked at miracles today. OK, I'm a bit late in commenting.

The guests on the show were:
  • Craig Keener, a theologian who has just written a huge book on miracles and miracle claims, which concludes that miracles happen today and therefore it is legitimate to believe the biblical miracle accounts. And
  • Geoff Lillis, an atheist who is a regular contributor to the Unbelievable forum, Facebook page, etc. I must say, he presented himself and his case very well.
Keener did a good job of demonstrating, with examples, that miracle claims are made within a Christian context all over the world today. And that many of these miracle claims are made by reliable witnesses. And that, in some instances, the miracle claims can be supported by medical evidence.

Lillis did a reasonably good job of questioning the evidence and suggesting non-miraculous explanations for some of the alleged miracles.

What I found frustrating, listening to the show, was that all of the contemporary miracle claims which were discussed involved medical healings or resuscitations from apparent death-states. I don't mean to dismiss these as irrelevant, and I'll get back to these below, but what about other kinds of miracles? Biblical miracles include the multiplication of food (feeding of 5000, etc.), turning water into wine, walking on water, cursing fig trees, and so on. No contemporary claims of anything like these were discussed - does nobody claim anything miraculous like this anymore?

Faith healers do what it says on the tin - apparently heal people using 'faith'. There's no point in denying this, it happens all over the world, to many people, in many different faith contexts. And I suppose that is the point. Christian faith healers certainly seem to be able to heal some medical complaints. But Hindu faith healers also do. And so do some African 'Witchdoctors', and so on.

Is there any evidence that proportionately more faith healings are successful in Christian faith contexts than in those of other religions? If the healing was due to the actions of the one, true God, who is only found in Christianity, then you would expect that you would only find healings in Christian contexts, and not in others. The fact (and I'll admit I haven't done much research on this matter beyond a quick Google search) that faith healings occur in all faith contexts actually serves to underline the non-special nature of Christian faith healing. Or, to put it more bluntly, to emphasise the fact that the apparent healing does not come from any particular God, but rather from 'faith' itself.

Believing that there is a God who can and will heal you is, in many cases, the source of enough hope, or whatever, to effect healing. Which is why claims of faith healing are generally limited to non-visible ailments, from back pain through to cancer. Faith healers cannot make limbs grow back, although, there still is the issue of the leg-lengthening thing, maybe that has more to do with muscle relaxation than bone growth, I don't know.

But what about the non-medical miracles? Has anyone multiplied food miraculously in recent years? Turned water into something alcoholic? Walked on water? Parted seas or rivers? Miraculous catches of fish? People carried up to heaven in fiery chariots? This is a serious question, I want to know if anyone claims these things today. Because if not, then why should we even entertain the notion that any of the biblical miracle claims are anything other than myths?


KWRegan said...

Among the miracles you list of the kind you wish to see:
- multiplying food
- water into wine
- walking on water
- cursing the fig tree
- suddenly-filled fishnets
- parting a sea or river
- chariots of fire,
all but the last two are reserved to Jesus, and none of these kinds are reported in Acts, mainly healings and resurrections and the opposite. The last also is an act of God not channeled through a human in the manner of the water-partings and healings.

To add to my comment in your "Both sides now" post, note that the same author who reported the miracles in Acts has Jesus saying "no sign other than that of Jonah" in Luke.

Per J. Owens' review in the Amazon link you gave, the book by Keener evidently includes accounts of "body parts re-growing" (including limbs?).

The reviews also note the top-level distinction between miracles that ostensibly flout the laws of nature and ones that are "merely" statistical unlikelihoods. How many of the former are "really" the latter? Note also my point here that even the discovery of the Higgs Boson devolved upon statistical (un)likelihood---especially per the Mark Twain update at the end which I quoted from a Harvard physicist.

Ricky Carvel said...

Elisha (or Elijah, I never remember which) also multiplied food - the unending supply of flour and oil.

But the main points were that contemporary examples of statistical unlikelihoods aren't limited to only Christian contexts, and contemporary examples of statistical unlikelihoods cannot say anything about whether or not nature-violating miracles did ever happen.

KWRegan said...

Regarding "faith healings in other religions" as you say, it doesn't take me aback that God could be so "ecumenical"---personally because the pledge I felt a fillip to make here was expressly interfaith. I can elaborate privately. On your first main point, though, I'll be impressed if studies show that this works just as well ;->. Or healings identified as New Age "energy" and nothing more.

Your second point is an even wider topic---have you mentioned C.S. Lewis' Miracles on this blog?---but the drift I'm raising with the Higgs is furthered by Frank Tipler in a chapter on miracles that's IMHO the most grounded part of his book The Physics of Christianity. It is that "natural law-violating" ones can be regarded as statistical. My own major point, however, is that it was already recorded by the author of Luke-Acts, who believed in these miracles, that we shouldn't expect to see that kind of sign. (Bleeding paintings, hmmm... Also note the Banach-Tarski paradox in maths.)

The larger issue is how we can reasonably expect God to reveal Himself, and let's see if we can discuss this subject apart from God. Do you know of science-fiction stories that address aliens choosing not to reveal themselves directly to a younger civilization on grounds of not crushing its spirit and of wishing to be loved abstractly first? I read this motive into the tales surrounding the "Majestic 12" documents.

Ricky Carvel said...

While I accept the reasoning that, if there is a God, he might probably heal in an 'ecumenical' manner. The problem with this is that it amounts to God effectively trying to hide himself and promote the alternative belief systems.

Your Star Trek 'Prime Directive' parallel is a bit odd, because the bible seems to make quite clear that God had no problem at all revealing himself to 'more primitive' peoples in the past, and it is only as we 'advanced' to the state of being able to accept and understand 'alien' beings, that he has apparently started to hide himself. Sorry, don't buy that.

And I have never mentioned CS Lewis's "Miracles" because I have never read it. Maybe some day, but the 'to read' pile in my bedroom (and virtual pile on my Kindle) is kind of big without it...

KWRegan said...

Ah, I quite forgot about the Prime Directive. I looked at the list of related novels on its Wikipedia page and found a couple that might have the psychological focus I seek---while my personal sci-fi experts didn't know one. My own view grows from involvement with one of the Millennium Prize Problems of maths, and my recorded feeling is that I would not wish to learn the answers from aliens.

Putting God back in, the best I can refer is this. I disagree with the "amounts to...promote" inference in your comment, both from human views and human concepts of God's view.

Your point about God's old-time revelation is good, but calls to mind Tim Rice's lines "...Why'd you pick such a backwards time...Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication!"---to which I add, little concept of 'zero' either. My best try at a common thread is that God may act appropriately to maximize loyalty over fealty as discussed (secularly) here.

In any event, I hold to my main point about the change in the nature of the reported miracles before and after Pentecost. Just by-the-book, your gift is the "still small voice", not the wind, earthquake, or fire---as already explained to Elijah in 1 Kings 19. (The food+oil mult. was via both him and Elisha, by the way.:-)