Faith and Reason: Something grand and mysterious: A further article in our series on the implications of belief in miracles and whether they prove anything is by Andrew Walker, author of Charismatic Renewal: the search for a theology.

Andrew Walker
Saturday 04 December 1993 00:02 GMT

TOO often we confuse the miraculous with the merely odd. During a dramatised documentary of the life of Edward Irving, who brought glossolalia (the gift of tongues) to respectable Victorian London, Professor T. F. Torrance made the telling remark that Irving confused the spiritual with the phenomenal. Now there are two ways to read this. Either we can say that the spiritual will have no demonstrable phenomenal effect, or we can say that remarkable phenomena in themselves do not entail anything of spiritual significance.

I prefer the second view, for I find the first possibility anti-materialist. It seems to me logical that spiritual activity will sometimes have an observable physical effect. So, for example, during the Great Awakening in North America in the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards was able both to be in the thick of the revival and to stand back and scientifically analyse his wife's 'religious affections'.

The Wimber thesis, that natural physical predispositions will play a part in 'signs and wonders', also seems to me to be a right and proper response to spiritual realities. This is a two-edged sword, however, because shaking, sighing, barking, screaming, falling over, going into a trance, feelings of ecstasy and 'transports of delight' do not in themselves indicate anything miraculous. Charismatic meetings are replete with these phenomena. Admittedly, they are also augmented by tongues, prophecies, words of knowledge, etc. These in themselves, for many believers, are evidence of the Spirit's power.

In an article I co-authored 20 years ago, I talked of what I called a time of blessing, when the very fact that God was experienced as present in the tongues and the prophecies seemed to be more important to the believers than the actual messages decoded from the glossolalia or heard through the natural language of prophetic utterance. In other words, what seemed to be of crucial significance to the congregation was that God spoke, not what he actually said.

What we often call supernatural events may sometimes be psychic (natural) phenomena that may or may not be of God's Spirit. This sensible approach avoids both psychological reductionism and over- spiritualising the natural world.

Sometimes physical phenomena are neither miraculous nor natural forces: they are psycho-social constructions. When, for example, you have a large audience together under the direction of charismatic personalities (using charismatic in the popular, secular sense), you are involved in what we might call the group dynamics of the crowd. This is not to make odious comparisons between the rallies of Billy Graham and of Hitler - or a Michael Jackson pop concert, for that matter - but it is to point out that large audiences are receptive to platform cues and crowd happenings. What is so very different, phenomenologically, between the audience response to the evangelist of being slain in the Spirit, and the responses in the suggestions of mass hypnotists on a Blackpool pier in the summer


The power of suggestion in an atmosphere of excitement is stronger than one might suppose. Doing what other people are doing is contagious in crowds. Not only does crowd behaviour follow an inner dynamic of its own, it is subject to the dominance of the partisan. Witness the antics of football supporters with their ritualistic gestures of defiance and disdain. Watch the lifted arms and swaying torsos of joyous believers at Spring Harvest. Hear the rattle of spears on shields as tribal warriors prepare for battle.

Crowds also capitulate to fashion. Once girls started to throw their knickers at the singer Tom Jones it became a regular feature of his shows. In 1991 the Mexican wave arrived on the centre court at Wimbledon. Once words of knowledge appeared on the charismatic scene, they became de rigueur in the renewal and the so-called new churches. There are other issues, which go beyond the dynamics of crowd behaviour. Are words of knowledge really direct massages from God, statistical probabilities (given the large numbers of people present), or, more loosely, simply hit-and-miss affairs?

Who checks the correlation between words of knowledge, which in the case of healings are taken to as an accurate form of diagnosis, and successful healing rates in a huge congregation? Where excitable behavioural patterns are set and expectations that God will heal are high the chances are slim that there will be a careful assessment of results.

All these observations and inquiries may seem to be negative and cynical; but in upholding a belief in miracles nothing short of total integrity in dealing with them will do. Fervently to believe in them surely entails the moral imperative to protect them from fraudulence or from frivolity and shoddiness. This is, in my opinion, more than an empirical issue: it is a question of holiness.

The presence of God provokes wonder. We think of Moses and the burning bush, and how in the face of God's manifesting Himself the great leader was compelled to remove his shoes. The miracle was not the phenomenon of the unconsumed bush per se: it was the visible reality of God's marvellous presence - a presence that was so overwhelming that the very ground was hallowed. On the Mount of transfiguration the disciples were, in a way reminiscent of Moses, overcome by the glory, the uncreated light of God, 'and they were greatly afraid'. These stories indicate to us that God is not the author of party tricks or shamanistic shenanigans: he is the holy one, the Ancient of Days.

If this sounds rather grand and mysterious, so much the better, for a miracle is either God with us in a remarkable and marvellous way, or it is nothing at all. An understanding of the miraculous as holy will not lead to a denial of gifts, but it will probably lead to a noticeable drop in the number of reported healings and a discarding of the many trivial pursuits that clutter our worship. For, when the Holy Spirit comes, he will lead us into all truth and separate the wheat of divine grace from the chaff of human folly.

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