Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Why I Believe in Miracles

I got in a little trouble the other day. I got in trouble because I said that I believe in miracles.

We were talking about a specific miracle, the miracle of Jesus' walking on water. I said that I believed it, not because we have some irrefutable evidence, but because I would rather live in a world where Jesus is a man who is recognisable to his followers, but who is also God incarnate and the Lord of all things. I would rather believe, than not believe.

The response was, "people don't just walk on water. So how can we believe Jesus did?"

This line of reasoning is troubling to me, despite the fact that the conversation was with a retired seminary professor. This is a criteria that's been around for a while; if I can't recognise it from my own experience, then I have no way of knowing if the story under scrutiny happened or not. So, because I don't have enough evidence at hand, I cannot believe that Jesus walked on the water.

But we have very little evidence of Jesus' miracles, apart from the testimony of the writers of the gospel. For many of us this is pretty good evidence, especially if you can allow that the evangelists were neither dumber than us or liars. All four evangelists tell the story of Jesus walking on the water. They thought this was a pretty important event.

But we have no evidence that is unquestionable. We have no police tape, we have no surveillance footage. Geraldo wasn't there shooting for Fox News. We have no personal experience of seeing anyone walking on water. Like my critic said, we've just never seen it before.

But this is not a good enough solution to this particular problem, the problem of believability. Very little of what we read in the gospels is believable, really. And if we have trouble believing in the walking on water episode, try the incarnation. Or the resurrection. These are infinitely more difficult doctrines. And, like walking on the water, we have no tangible evidence of these events, either.

The search for irrefutable evidence is simply wrong-headed. We'll never find it. So is calling these stories myths, where, as the argument goes, veracity is beside the point. So is searching for some strange meteorological, physiological, or psychological event that explains everything. These last two are another way of saying that there was no miracle, and that Jesus probably never did walk on the water in a miraculous way.

The question at hand is not about tangible evidence. Nor is the solution to say, one way or another, that nothing special really happened. The question is rather this; what kind of a world do we live in if these events, incarnation, miracles, and resurrection did take place? If this is the question, about what these events might say about the world we live in, then the stories are much more compelling. If God did enter into the world, and take on all flesh in the incarnation, then there is hope for us. Because I am not offered a psychological solution to an embodied problem. I am offered an embodied solution to the problems of living in a body that sins. The promise of the miracles is not just amazement, but that Jesus is Lord of the creation that I live in each day. The promise of the resurrection is not that I will feel better about suffering, but that this suffering will be transformed into glory, and that eternal life is real, in this real body, that I really live in every day.

This world, the world of our redemption and glorification through the God-man, is the world that the gospels are telling me I am living in. Why would I want to believe anything else?

6 Comments:

Blogger Kim said...

Wow. This is something I never really questioned. Walking on water seems so easy compared to raising people from the dead ;)!

In all fairness, I think that my experience with Jesus -- His interaction with me -- my spiritual walk, I guess you'd say -- this experience has been so profound, so miraculous, that His walking on water is utterly believable to me. So maybe I'm not that different from the line of reasoning you are describing after all? Maybe it is because of the miraculous in my life, that I completely believe the miraculous in His. Because I have seen, I believe. Blessed are those who believe without seeing...

Thursday, July 21, 2005 5:06:00 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

I've never questioned it either. If Jesus is God, then why couldn't he walk on water if he wanted to?

Your anecdote reminds of how discouragingly rationalist our seminary education can be. No miracles, no mystery. Sigh.

Friday, July 22, 2005 3:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Julie said...

Preston, thanks for this reflection. The story of Jesus walking on water is one of my favorites, especially so in Matthew's telling where the truly beautiful miracle occurs when Peter trusts Jesus enough to answer the invitation venture out on the water himself. Even though he falters after a few steps, he does it--Peter takes steps on the water.

This story has particular poignancy for me this week. I've just returned from a women's backpacking trip in the Eastern High Sierra. In the course of our travels, our group, which ranged in age from 40 to 72, had to trust one another to cross raging rain and snow-melt swollen creeks, to scramble over boulders, snow-fields and scree to reach hidden alpine lakes, and to persist amidst the wonder of swarms of well-fed mosquitoes.

Yes, I believe that Jesus walked on the water. Even more importantly, I believe he regularly extends the invitation to us to get out of the boat and be transformed by faith and trust.

Thanks for another fine theological reflection.

Saturday, July 23, 2005 8:54:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Kim, I think you have found the heart of the story here. Our experience, as Christians, is not just about whether we have seen particular phenomena or not. Is is about our experience of the risen Lord in our lives.

This is what you are pointing to, not phenomena that are strctly observable; but phenomena that you can witness to, as a person who walks with Jesus.

Thanks.

Saturday, July 23, 2005 11:44:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Karen - I hope you had a chance to read my post on St. Augustine. This is part of what St. Augustine is getting at, I think. If we remain in what is rational, we shrink the Holy Trinity to fit inside our own heads. Call me a neo-platonist if needs be, but I think that the promise of reflection on God should not leave us within our strictly rational categories. These are a way to approach "the place where the light of reason is kindled," but if we remain within that kind of reflection, we deprive ourselves of seeing that "great sea of being," (as St. Gregory the Theologian puts it), the experience of the God that shatters the boundaries of our rational faculties.

Saturday, July 23, 2005 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Julie, you're right. We are regularily saked to reach out in trust and faith. Our own experiences of trusting others is an excellent way to learn how to trust God.

Your post made me think of all the canoe trips I led as a younger man. This was exactly what we were trying to do; build a small community of trust as a way to learn to trust God.

What made me sad then, and sad now, is how many people grow up without being able to trust those closest to them. In these situations it can be difficult to even begin to form trusting relationships, because there is no referent. It just re-inforces, to my mind, how important it is for us to be people that can be trusted. Admittedly it is Christ that pulls us out of the water, not us - but we are called to be Chrit-like, all of us.

I hope we not only are trustworthy, but also remember from where our strength comes from, and be witnesses to that too.

Sunday, July 24, 2005 5:34:00 PM  

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