Faith & Reason: Calling cards left as a sign of hope: Our series on the implication of belief in miracles, and whether they prove anything, is resumed by Clive Calver, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, UK
Saturday 20 November 1993
A freelance journalist not known for flights of fancy or hallucinogenic drug-taking, she remains unyielding in her conviction that on a specific night in south London God stepped forward and spectacularly left his calling card.
I am prepared to believe her remarkable interpretation of events because I am persuaded of a divine ordering of the world which permits such a mysterious happening. An atheist might snigger at such a fanciful explanation of a 'lucky escape' because of a philosophy which prohibits the supernatural. A liberal, whose God may be more spiritual force than person, might take offence at the notion of a deity playing heavenly backstop.
It is virtually impossible to approach the topic of miracles impartially. The beams of presupposition in our eyes distort our views about Jesus and the miracles he performed. My conviction is that religion which depicts Jesus as little more than an ethically minded do-gooder has robbed Christianity of its transcendent power and its purpose. To strike out or explain away the 35 specific New Testament miracles performed by Jesus is like demanding that butchers sell only vegetarian goods. Christ's supernatural acts are as much a manifestation of God incarnate as are his more palatable teachings about loving our neighbours.
It is too easy to seek refuge in the rationalist arguments of the Enlightenment - that we live in a closed-circuit, mechanistic universe governed solely by natural laws. To espouse a God who has abandoned his creation leaves no potential for divine intervention and leaves us with a remote deity, a pale shadow of 'God Almighty'.
The cosmic loneliness which invades those whose God has departed the planet demands the alternative explanation of a loving creator, who, like a responsible parent, does not desert his offspring. And certainly not when his omniscience informs him of the perils and disasters to befall us in his absence.
Miracles happen, not primarily as sensational physical acts, but as part of God's continuing revelation of himself. They are not cheap paranormal stunts. They represent the activity of a supernatural God unwilling to be the absentee landlord of his creation.
Miracles supremely possess spiritual significance. They authenticate God's logical divine relationship with human beings and they liberate us from the slavery of our own inherited myths. A familiar 'miracle myth' dictates that supernatural interventions are forbidden because they transgress the sacrosanct laws of science and nature. Yet many miracles could be described as God intervening within nature in ways comparable to our own.
A billiard ball rolling along a table is responding according to Natural Law. If someone places their hand in the way of the moving ball the Natural Law is interfered with - but only in a way that also conforms with the Natural Law. The person behind the intervention may well have a purpose whose significance is outside the 'realm of billiards'. For instance, a father may be insisting that the game of billiards stop.
In the same way, God can be said to intervene within our higher forms of science. The parting of the Red Sea did not transgress Natural Law and was no less disruptive to the process of cause and effect than the spoiling of a billiard ball's progress. In any event, miracles by their very definition are not recurrent happenings around which it is possible to construct scientific theory.
Christ's feeding of the 5,000 is but a microcosm of God's large- scale action in creation over billions of years. Every day God enables the production of corn seed and the other ingredients which together become bread. God has also stocked the oceans with spawning fish. So, in multiplying the available food, Christ was operating within the Natural Law, albeit at a much faster rate and on a small scale. A short-cut, yes. Breaking Natural Law, no.
Christianity's essence is that God desires to reveal his personal identity and character to humans. Miracles become not just possible but predictable for such a God. In fact, it would be outrageous for God to remain hidden and his absence would contradict the Incarnation and Resurrection.
Of course many claims to miracle-working are spurious - from the apocryphal story of Jesus as a boy breathing life into birds of clay, absurd because of its absence of purpose - to the peculiarly large number of leg-lengthening deeds professed by some modern-day healers. Charlatans and tricksters should not throw us off the trail. After all, Jesus's contemporary opponents did not disbelieve his miracle-working, only the source of his power which they supposed was 'Beelzebub'.
Sceptics today find the concept of a miracle-working God crass and unsophisticated. Those of us who are conservative in our theology can be accused of a vested interest in believing in miracles to buttress our own Christian world- view. Equally, those who wish God to be more manageable have a profound stake in the notion of a non-interventionist God.
As in first-century Palestine, people today are still drawn to Jesus as a sign of hope. Their response to him can be strengthened by reports of miracles, old and new, which demonstrate that the Kingdom had arrived. Miracles challenge us with the good news of a supernatural salvation which is received through faith. Few people would dare question the belief that Julius Caesar set foot on Britain's shores. Yet this fact rests on the flimsy historical evidence of 10 manuscripts. Immeasurably more evidence exists to support the miraculous resurrection of Christ. Not that either event can be 'proved'; faith is required for both events. Perhaps popular reluctance to concede Jesus's rising from the dead while being convinced of Caesar's invasion, is due to the fact that the latter demands no response. If miracles do occur, then Christ has indeed risen, God is alive after all and we face implications for the way we live our lives.
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