Sunday, 8 July 2012

Miracles Part 2

Speaking of reading ancient texts through modern eyes, that's the subject of my second post on miracles.

For the past two centuries, people in Western countries have primarily seen the world through a "scientific" mindset strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.  We see the things that take place around us as products of impersonal natural forces, and when something takes place our first reaction is to seek a natural cause.  This makes it very difficult for us to believe in miracles, because we believe that they are not a "normal" part of the cosmos.  The natural is everyday, the supernatural is extraordinary.

This mindset was behind the blossoming of the "rationalist" lives of Jesus which began to be written in the 18th and 19th centures, and which are still influential today.  These sought to explain Jesus' miracles in rational, scientific terms.  The feeding of the 5,000 was explained as an event in which Jesus shamed the rich into sharing their food with the poor.  Jesus' healings were seen as illustrations of psychosomatic action or as uses of little known Egyptian medicine, his casting out demons as creative psychiatric interventions.

These are genuine attempts to reconcile the stories of the gospels with a scientific view of the world.  Unfortunately they require huge leaps of the imagination.  You have to interpolate events and motives into the gospel text which are simply not there. 

Yet the bigger problem with this approach is that you lose most of the meaning of the events themselves.  To illustrate what I mean, let me start with the most straightforward example I can think of - Jesus' ascension.  Here is how the story is told in Acts 1.

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus had been with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection, and this is the final event of his life on earth.  Both the story and its meaning are quite unambiguous - he has been taken up into the sky right in front of their eyes, eventually disappearing into a cloud.  The exchange with the two men dressed in white (presumably angels) makes it clear that he has gone into heaven.

It is difficult to make sense of this story in the light of modern science.  We know that the universe, while not infinite, is so vast that it may as well be.  We also know that our planet is one of billions, located in the outer reaches of an ordinary galaxy surrounded by unimaginable distances of empty space.  Where could Jesus possibly be going?  The harder you try for  rationalistic, modern explanation of this story, the more absurd it will become.

This problem did not exist for first century readers.  People in the first century (and up until the 16th) mostly saw the earth as the centre of the universe, surrounded by varying numbers of concentric spheres on which rotated the various heavenly bodies - the moon, sun, stars and planets.  One common view held that there were seven of these spheres, the seventh and highest of which was the home of God or the gods - that is, Heaven as we tend to think of it.  In between this were other levels which could be seen in various ways - for instance in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about being taken up into the "third heaven", which he also refers to as "paradise", where he "heard inexpressible things".

Within this worldview it is easy to see where Jesus is going - up to heaven to be with his Father.  It is not far away and he will certainly get there if he keeps going.  A first century reader would have had no trouble reading the story literally.  For a 21st century reader to do so, we either need to turn it into nonsense, or to overturn everything we have learned about the nature of the universe.

Now to something a little more subtle, which affects almost all of the miracle stories.  Our understanding of the universe means we see phenomena such as illness or the weather as a result of natural, scientifically explicable processes.  Illnesses are caused by microbes, the weather by changes in air pressure and moisture content.  For Jesus to interfere in these is to go against the processes of nature, to intervene in and disrupt the natural order.  Hence the rationalists' desire to explain the miracles within the scheme of natural causes.

To understand these stories in their first century context you need forget all this.  Intervention from God, angels or spirits was normal and natural.  To understand the first century mental world you need to see spirits everywhere and in everything.  If you were ill, it was most likely that you were being oppressed by an evil spirit, perhaps because some sin in your life had allowed it entry.  Even the weather was controlled by spirits, angels stationed at the four points of the compass responsible for controlling the four winds.

Hence Jesus' miracles can be seen as exercising control over this spirit world.  This makes sense of many stories that seem strange to us.  For instance, in Mark 2 we have the story of the lame man lowered through the ceiling in front of Jesus.  Instead of healing him, Jesus says "your sins are forgiven".  When the teachers of the law complain, Jesus then orders the man to get up and walk, saying "I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins."  We typically see this simply as a demonstration of power, but the connection is more intimate and logical than that.  For the man to be healed, his sins have to be forgiven so that the evil influence can be removed and he can walk again.  His ability to walk is a direct result of Jesus' act in forgiving his sins.

I have previously written about the healing of the Centurion's servant in Luke 7.  Here a direct link is drawn between the Centurion's ability to command soldiers and Jesus' ability to command the spirits which cause illness.  Even the story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 can be seen from this point of view.  When Jesus says "Quiet! Be still!" he is not speaking to empty air, he is addressing the powerful spirits which control the winds - and even they have to obey him.

I need not pile up examples - I'm sure you get the point.  The difficulty here is that as people of the 21st century, if we want to read these as literal historical events, we have to give up a lot of their meaning.  Their full meaning is only revealed when we enter into the first century mindset, when we forget what we know about medicine, cosmology, climatology, psychology and any other area of knowledge, and see the world through first century eyes.  This is the task of hermeneutics - we need to take two jouneys through time - one back to the first century, then another back to the 21st bearing the first century meaning of the story so we can see what it says to us now.

(The story continues here and here.)

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