"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Continuing with miracles
Of course, the problem with kids today is that they live in the age of instant media and expect to be entertained at every turn. This is the teacher’s dilemma. Long gone are the days when you could write a few lines on the board and have a discussion with a bit of reading round from the text book.
In my introduction to miracles I have scoured YouTube for extracts from film and T.V. for examples.
“Couldn’t you find any real ones Sir?”
Could be missing the point there Jolene. Could be missing the point.
I manage one reasonable CGI for Moses parting the Red Sea and spend a disproportionate amount of time searching for Jesus and the feeding of the multitude from “Jesus of Nazareth.” This inevitably raises the issue that there’s nothing much more up-to-date.
“That’s because there aren’t any.”
You don’t know that Josh.
“Well I’ve never heard about any.”
Why do you think that is?
“Because there aren’t any.”
Circular argument. Think outside the box. How do we mainly hear about anything unusual or dramatic?
Exactly, and the media, in general, doesn’t know how to report on religion. If it’s not about scandal they leave it alone.
“I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a miracle.”
Neither have I but then we don’t know everyone in the world. What would you do if someone you’d never met before told you that they’d been cured of cancer through a miraculous healing?
“I wouldn’t believe them. Why would I? I don’t know them.”
O.K. What if it was someone you knew well and trusted?
“I’d probably believe them.”
How would that conversation go? Can you imagine how difficult it would be to convince someone?
We move into a conversation about the difference between subjective and objective.
“I’d only believe it if I saw it or if it happened to me.”
There you go. And that’s the problem. Most of us feel like that. It wouldn’t matter how many times the papers reported a miracle: if it didn’t happen to us why should we believe it? Then it gets more complicated. I can’t convince you that something I believed had happened to me was real. O.K. Can you convince me it wasn’t?
There is much animated conversation but in the end we conclude that this is likely to be a dialogue of the deaf.
It’s also deeply disrespectful to tell someone that they are wrong, especially if you weren’t there when it happened, just because you don’t believe in the supernatural on principle.
We mull this over for a while and I‘m fairly pleased because they are thinking and evaluating – O.K. they don’t want to abandon their deeply held atheistic principles but that’s fine. I suggest that if God exists, which I know is a big if for many of them, then surely anything must be possible. They agree which is a start.
When we continue the discussion to include the possibility of modern miracles they remain cynical and so we watch an extract of a film which deals with the case of a local boy from Wakefield. Simon Teece was about eight when, following an optical appointment he was shopping with his parents. They were at the entrance to the multi-story car-park at the Ridings Centre when a youth dropped a three foot scaffolding pole from the top floor. It landed on Simon’s head and broke his skull. On admission to hospital the medical team felt that any recovery was unlikely. Simon, they believed would die. Simon’s family were regular churchgoers and through their church a prayer chain was set up which attracted a lot of attention in the city. Simon made a full recovery.
Simon is interviewed in the film as are his parents, his vicar, members of his church and his consultant. All but the consultant are convinced that a miracle had taken place and the consultant, showing understandable medical reserve, merely expresses his feeling that Simon would have needed to have been 100% perfect for a miracle to have happened and he retained some vision problems.
Was it a dramatic and unusual event?
Did it go against the laws of nature?
"Yes. Yes it did."
"Because the doctors said he would die."
"But it was the doctors who saved him. It wasn't a miracle. It was good medicine."
Was it caused by God or one of his agents?
"Yes because they prayed."
"No. It's a coincidence. He would have got better anyway."
“It’s all a set up. They’re lying.”
This is a common view and I am constantly surprised by this level of cynicism.
What would their motive be?
You think they got rich on the back of this story?
“How do we know it’s true?” And we are back to the conversation about media reporting of religious events. I do a quick web-search and find a court report relating to the youth who dropped the scaffolding pole. We have evidence and have a brief conversation about secondary sources.
Well, we know the family name. We know they're from Wakefield. We know the name of the vicar. We know the name of the consultant. If we were in doubt at least we have the option of asking the people involved.
“Ah but he’s not fully recovered.”
Where was he before he had the pole dropped on his head?
There you go then.
“But it’s not clear-cut.”
And that’s the problem. What’s that F word? The religious F word, that is?
And there you have it.
“But they will believe it was a miracle. They’re religious.”
So religious people are predisposed to believe in miracles? Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that all religious people believe every report of a miracle without weighing up the evidence, the reliability of the claimant and so on. Some might believe in miracles on the basis that with God anything is possible but never accept any contemporary report. Some believe that miracles only happened with Jesus and don’t happen today. All religious people don’t believe the same thing.
To illustrate the point I show them some video material of Benny Hinn, the American Tele-evangelist. The kids are incredulous at what they see is the gullibility of the people in the arena, particularly when we are told that attempts to follow up the medical histories of the “healed” came to nothing. They are very keen to ascertain my view.
Personally I think the man’s a con-man but that only tells us about my views on Benny Hinn. It tells us nothing about God. There’s no reason at all why God couldn’t work in that environment if he chose, after all the faith is there in bucketfuls.
“But they’re obviously attention seekers.”
“I bet he paid them.”
“I bet he didn’t.”
“Well, if he had and they fell out, they could expose him.”
“But the people in the audience, though? They believe it right?
Most of them. Maybe all of them.
Why doesn’t that sort of religious meeting work here?
“We don’t do religion like that.”
“There aren’t as many religious people here.”
“We don’t go in for that sort of emotional stuff in religion.”
“Sir, why don’t all those people see he’s a con man?”
Many people, not just Americans, read their Bibles and see the stories of miracles. They believe – and are taught – that God performs miracles. If you are the sort of Christian who believes that the Bible is literally true, you are more likely to expect the miraculous. It’s about the sort of Christianity you are brought up with.
“So, not all religious people believe in miracles?”
“Buddhists don’t believe in God and so they can’t accept the definition because it says that God or one of his agents is responsible.”
Well done. But some Buddhists still believe in the miraculous – only God didn’t do it. Apparently, the Buddha could fly.
“How can you believe in miracles if you don’t believe in God?”
They have two possible answers: firstly we don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of nature and secondly we only use a fraction of the power of the human brain and we only know a fraction of what the brain can do.
“So the laws of nature aren’t what we think they are? How?”
Give me an example of a law of nature.
What is gravity?
“That man found it when an apple landed on his head.”
That’s the one. And ….?
“Well gravity is the invisible force that holds us down to the surface of the planet.”
“But Sir, it always has and it always will.”
You can’t know that.
How do scientists develop a theory? Come on Richard, you’re good at science. Tell us.
“Observation, speculation and testing. You observe how things behave or react; you speculate how they will behave or react in the future and you devise a test to prove your theory.
So gravity has always held us down, right? Richard, what would a scientist say if tomorrow we were released from the effects of gravity?
“That it was part of the natural law, part of its cycle that we hadn’t yet observed and we’d have to observe and record for the same length of time to see if it did it again and then we could revise the law of gravity.”
So because nature hasn’t yet done something doesn’t mean it won’t. That’s how Buddhists think when something “miraculous” happens.
“And we could tap into the power of the human brain and do stuff that we currently think is impossible.”
“I like the sound of Buddhism.”
So, back to Christianity. Do all Christians believe in miracles?
“Er … No?”
Because not everyone looks at the Bible in the same way; because some people, even though they are religious, wonder why God would behave in that way; because some Christians don’t believe God does work in that way; because some Christians think that miracles aren’t fair. There are loads of reasons. The idea of miracles is problematic for religious people.
I show them a YouTube extract dealing with the emergency landing of a plane on the Hudson River. The images clearly show all the passengers and crew standing on the wings awaiting rescue.
They lost their luggage and got their feet wet. I bet the word miracle was used by everyone of their families within the next twenty four hours. Was it a dramatic and unusual event?
Did it go against the laws of nature?
“No it didn’t.”
“Planes land safely, even on water, especially if they’ve not achieved high altitude and haven’t exploded.”
Was it caused by God or one of his agents?
Then I show them a short clip of a sunny beach. There is an awful noise and a plane plummets into the sea to the amazement and consternation of the people on the beach.
No survivors. Why the first plane and not the second?
Shrugs and shaking heads.
Do you think anyone talked about a miracle there?
No reply needed.
Why would God save the people on the first plane and not the people on the second?
“The people on the second plane were bad people.”
What? All of them? Even the babies?
“So all the people on the first plane were good people?”
“God could’ve fixed it that way.”
He could have. If God exists God can do anything but why would he?
“He was rewarding the first lot and punishing the second lot.”
“So there were no bad people on the first plane?”
“God could’ve fixed it that way.”
It doesn’t take long does it to default to ideas of God which should be alien to Christians? God is the cosmic punisher and is capricious and random depending on his indigestion that day. He zaps one lot of random people but saves another lot.
The problem of miracles for many religious people is their seeming unfairness. An elderly lady is miraculously cured from terminal cancer but a baby dies. Both families had been praying. If a miracle is a signpost to God what sort of God is it pointing at? Not the God most Christians have come to understand. Instead we have a tribal God who is easy to upset and whose behavior is inconsistent.
The bell rings.