Finding the truth behind every miracle
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight concludes his series on miracles by showing how miracles can actually help us make sense of the world.
Truth is a fundamental part of Christianity, where Christ Himself claims to be the embodiment of truth, filtrating into the system the teachings that ought to be adopted by every single person, irrespective of culture or race or nationality. If the words of Christ are to be taken as words spoken by God then they are truths worth following – but how are we to accept them as absolute when as we saw last week so much of our world is based on transition and progression and degrees of relativism? Firstly I think we must not confuse these absolute truths with our own constructions after all, if there are absolute truths, be they moral or intellectual truths, clearly in most cases our anthropology, our evolution and our scientific paradigms only allows access in subjective and contextual frameworks. Any tapping into the absolute that we do requires awareness that the emotional routes or the logic trails that we take are not one system of common measure – the truths we hold to and the convictions we foster are based on a wealth of experience, theory-making, ideological and methodological attitudes, influences and social conditioning – thus any truths that we sift out of these things are arrived at by a form of ‘deconstruction’ where meanings and ideas are rigorously pursued until they are either falsified (which doesn’t happen that often) or made to fit a worldview which one wouldn’t support as being for the greater good. Christians claim that what is left over once the clouds of confusion clear are the perfect principles for the greater good, and that while there will always be troubles, Christ has overcome a world of troubles to offer the highest alternative possible.
Others have tried the ‘destruction’ technique but in rather different ways; most notably Freud whose attempts to deconstruct ‘mind’ into a reservoir of subconscious hierarchies was a complete failure, although it did usher in a whole new set of psychological analyses which changed 20th century thinking forever. The other notable ‘deconstruction’ proponent was Nietzsche whose singular approach to philosophy had us being ‘our own experiments’ in an attempt to be so far away from sheep-like that we would soar as autonomous eagles. The trouble is, while it may be attractive to avoid being controlled, if we become too free we quarantine ourselves from the strong textures that have held humanity together since the dawn of man, thus Nietzsche’s view that there are no educators only the self is teetering on the brink of a nihilism or solipsism which can cause people to behave very cruelly to one another (as we saw in the first half of the 20th century).
Thus in one sense the strongest moral principles and depths of human love and kindness that weave us together are in a sense metaphysical in that the logic, emotions and language with which these truths are conveyed are signifiers which signify that which is beyond them. Where Aristotle's metaphysics signified the reassessment of Plato’s theory of forms with a synthesis of the naturalism of empirical science and the mysticism of the transcendent, the teachings of Christ are signifiers of a set of absolute values and qualities that can steer humanity towards the absolute truth that He embodies. So while the philosopher Derrida was probably right that as far as human knowledge goes "there is nothing outside context" and thus the ‘texts’ of our world cannot be interpreted properly unless seen in the contexts of the broadness of the historical, ideological, sociological and emotional frameworks, and the transitional contexts of the scientific framework, this doesn’t mean that there are not high moral goals for us to work towards.
Therefore, given the complexity of the world and the seemingly contextual and subjective moral positions taken by so many people from so many different cultures it shouldn’t be all that difficult for a man to take his heart into the gospels and recognise that in Jesus Christ we see someone whose teachings really seem to be signifiers of something altogether wonderful – a set of moral vistas and behavioural horizons that fly in the face of solipsistic and nihilistic philosophies, and even ordinary humanistic philosophies, and call forth with great power the coming together of humankind into a world of love, grace, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, charity, and many other successes for a human race that has gone so wrong.
Thus even if one cannot find it in his heart to believe that Jesus is God, I believe that any attempts to work towards improving oneself and being a person who loves others and treats them with as much kindness and grace as possible will find himself recognising more and more ‘Divine’ things in goodness. Even the scientific models that zoom in on physical interactions between man and the outside world suggest that our partly deterministic world calls out for our love and forgiveness at all times; for a man is after all susceptible to nature’s conflicts and her vicissitudes, and at a quantum level has her interacting with consciousness in ways that are probably beyond the materialistically-oriented test/refute science.
I believe that Jesus had two things in mind when He called for a compassion and forgiveness that seems to beggar belief when we think about some of the worst crimes committed by men and women. In the first place, the fact that both the physics and the biochemistry of nature play out in such random and often uncontrollable ways means that it ought to be easy to find empathy; and in the second place, our knowledge of the true extent of any (un)consciously constructed idea, thought or desire is limited to the extent that we only know things about one another to the degree that a complex nature makes them accessible. Thus along with our tapping into what we believe to be the absolutes, our best endeavours are underlain with a subjectivism and a relativism and a contextualism and a scepticism - all of which form a fundamental part of who we are. Christ’s ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ may well be as much about a mandatory compassion towards the human condition as it is anything else – a compassion that recognises how utterly dwarfed we are by nature’s vicissitudes and conflicts and that although we know right from wrong, our predicaments are to some extent a reflection of how nature, and more locally, our culture and social influences act upon us. Thus our attempts at turning our own conceptions of good into something that relates to Christ’s perfect teachings involve our attaining the best type of objectivity in a largely subjective swamp which tends to define us not so much by what is ‘out there’ as a viable beacon for our moral attentions, but instead by how man views himself in relation to the universe. Clearly the post-Reformation changes that have occurred and have led us to advancements in every field of science and reason are at least in some way connected to how we view ourselves in the cosmos, and to some extent human beings have done quite a poor job of carrying their faith and their theology into the new dawns of post-Enlightenment world. Of course, many will decree that it is our advancement in science and reason that has gradually expunged theism from the picture, but this is a very naive view based on strawman caricatures of God and a banal counterfactual theism that completely misunderstands the world that Christ said we should work towards – a world which was never in conflict with science and reason, but in fact, a world of increasing population that was going to have depend on science and reason to see that His plans came to pass.
It would seem that when it comes to miracles Hume’s moral relativism left him rather ill-equipped to deal with the subject; his view that moral judgments consisted of matters of value rather than objective truths about human attainment and what we should work towards rather meant that the subject of the miraculous ought to have been seen as similarly value-laden – that is, value in the eye of the beholder – after all if morals are subject to matters of judgment why not miracles too? Given what I’ve said earlier about science and our need for epistemic humility the most we may ever get to conceive of miracles is as matters of personal judgment against the backdrop of our surroundings. If the same power that raised Christ from the dead lives in us then perhaps our own personal perspectives as matters of ‘value’ with regard to our own selfhood and personal relationship with Christ are signifiers of that absolute truth, yet played out in a way that repels against any methods of controlling one another. In that sense the Nietzschian ‘sheep’ and ‘eagle’ metaphor is just another way of protecting the self against the tyranny and dominance and control of the world which naturally acts on sheep-like credulity more than eagle-like autonomy.
Thus the “anchorite and eagle courage, which not even a God any longer beholdeth” is an understandable reaction to something bad but is in reality just another piece of counterfactual theism in which Nietzsche fails to see the true value of being free in Christ and that His shepherding is not about restricting our freedom but about giving us a relationship with the Creator of the universe to the point that any attempts to free ourselves from that would be rather like freeing oneself from all the best values that signify an attachment to something greater than the whole world. St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that it is for ‘freedom’ that Christ has set us free, but that it is a freedom that involves living towards the best and most Christ-like values. Of course, this has nothing to do with missing out on any science or philosophy – and being a sheep isn’t about being controlled, it is the very opposite; it is about being free to pursue the joys of living for Christ. And thus, to some extent, the miraculous is as much about the power of God working in us as it is our observing healings and other types of miracle.
Therefore defining the miraculous may, as I said, be as much about defining those qualities that every human mind seems at times to wish for and aspire to, and putting those wishes and aspirations into action. That is where one is most likely to find evidence of the miraculous in the Holy Spirit using the power of God to act in our lives and affect our thoughts and our emotions in ways that we could never have imagined beforehand. The man who exchanges some of his badness for a life of goodness in Christ may be the biggest miracle that many of us see – but I’m as certain as I can be that the real proof of that miracle will only likely be found once one seeks the power of God Himself, and that only usually comes when in Christ a man rescognises something stupendous to work towards, and the more he reads of Christ’s words the more he will reach for that goal.
Empiricism: putting it to the test
Some sceptics claim that the methodology of science is incompatible with Christianity, and that our explanations are invalid because they cannot be checked empirically. While it may be true that there are events and activities that fall outside of the category of scientific empiricism, we are only observing the case of the nuanced differences with variations in data and different layers of empiricism. That is to say, the method of investigation in order to conclude that these events and activities are actually happening isn't very different at all. In fact, too often the general atheistic consensus is that science can deal with everything except metaphysics, therefore checking human behaviour, epiphantic moments and post-salvation improvement (as per my pill analogy) falls into branches of empiricism and studies of behaviour/consistent patterning. But it ought to be noted that whether you believe them to be true or false, you are using the empirical model for methods of determination, just as in psychological testing one checks observed behaviour against an initial hypothesis, and this is in principle testable against our predictions.
Take Christ's two principal commandments; I know lots of people who do not adhere to them very well (and to some extent, we all fall short) but I do not know anyone who has dedicated their life to these two commandments and been mindful and assiduous in carrying them through who on a year by year basis is not smarter, wiser, more moral, kinder, more generous, more confident, more positive, more active with others, and better all round in experiencing the wonders of a relationship with Christ.
Equally I do not know anybody (save for the occurrence of illness or disease) who adhered to the two principal instructions for health (good food intake and physical exercise) who and did not become fitter and healthier. Now as a measurement the former is not easily tractable by scientific methods, but one doesn’t use scientific methods for very much at all when it comes to those around us - we observe, and formulate philosophies through empirical and rational means. But one thing we don’t do is expect everything to be hand delivered to us a plate by men in labs with white coats. This is a sloppy caricature of what science is and how its diffusion and dissemination works with regard to the man on the street.
Science is so successful because it works; no problem there. But it is a great error to suggest that when Christianity is considered the results are different – they are not. With Christianity we can observe the results and see the effect that Christ is having on any individual that lives for Him – it is a 100% success rate. With those who follow the two principal commandments we observe exactly what Christ promised we would observe, and this can be checked empirically by getting out and engaging with people.
In fact, I am certain that if we were to go to any number of large church congregations, conduct Q and A sessions to check their understanding of Christ's edicts and ascertain levels of consistency, we would not be able to deny the evidence of His success. Find any number of people who best demonstrate an understanding of the two principal commandments, and diligence and commitment in living by them, and you'll find the most evident improvements. You can confirm by this by repeatedly soliciting second opinions from a great number of their friends and family (both Christian and on-Christian), and again you will see the evidence in the resultant opinions. Seeing is believing; and in the lives of Christians it is easy to see God at work in their lives.
Of course to the ultimate sceptic that may only confirm that Christ was a man who said superbly moral things, but then one would have to square that with His other teachings which for a mere man would have been hugely arrogant and megalomaniacal. At the very least one can say that when it comes to rather astounding human improvements Christ’s two principal commandments demonstrate an extraordinary success rate not just in one's moral behaviour, but in areas of intelligence, wisdom, kindness and generosity too.
Having said all that, there remains a huge potential to experience God in our lives, but where nature may only permit statistical descriptions that are too parsimonious for genuine effects of the miraculous to be identified scientifically, the sociological aspects of life may add further complications. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, and the denominationalism that resulted from the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the secularisation of the Western world through modernist and postmodernist sensibilities, there has been huge selection pressures on both Christians and atheists, leading to a chasm that is as wide as ever before. This makes communication a lot more difficult, and reconciliation a more complex task, because every movement or ideology that has departed from the gospel has engendered a whole bunch of fuzzy methodologies and solipsistic new wave attitudes that rivet on new set of selection pressures, and thus what was once a fairly straightforward choice between choosing God or choosing the self has been obfuscated by a myriad of intervening alternatives and a gross disfiguring of what Christianity actually is, leaving most atheists rejecting a God that most Christians do not believe in, and, as a consequence, leaving the typical atheist largely unable to engage in the real issues. He thus only has a strawman caricature of Christianity, and tenders a rejection that is only supported by weak counterfactual theism and sloppy quasi-analytical thinking.
The Christian church (the church being the people of course) has always had a big challenge keeping the authentic qualities but at the same time being able to move with times. Too much of the former without the latter and we have a church that is significantly out of touch with the world with which it needs to engage, causing it to be sterile in growth and somewhat quarantined from the outer sociological climates. Too much of the latter without the former and the church can become debased and diluted of many of the original doctrines that preserve its authentic richness of love, grace and the power of God working through the ecclesia. Various selection pressures at various times throughout the church’s history have brought about noticeable changes; equally where there have been fewer selection pressures Christianity has been healthier and more wholesome. In other words, I think many of the movements against Christianity have contributed to some of the unhealthier aspects of the faith, and this has been exacerbated by the horsemen movement that has emerged unexpectedly in recent years.
There is a Tasmanian shrub called King's Lomatia which consists of shiny green leaves and pink flowers, but yields neither fruit nor seeds. There is only one colony of King's Lomatia known to be alive, and this colony is extremely unusual because all of the remaining plants are genetically identical. The reason is it genetically identical is because as a species it has continued to exist without needing to evolve changing conditions, as there are no biological threats to give rise to selection pressure. The plant grown in a small isolated area, so the opportunity for a hostile organism to evolve and bring about selection pressure is remote – it is protected by its rarity, whereas more ubiquitous plants have a higher probability of needing to adapt to new changes is high because greater ubiquity increases hostile threats to the species, and a greater pressure for change. Similarly one notices the same pattern with Christianity, where hostile threats occur changes occur too, and today we have constructed a great many things that have made us hostile to the truth – in a sense a world of increasing complexity has made us as much architects of our own downfall as we are constructors of better standards of living.
Before Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and laws of electrolysis, and Maxwell's equations from which we could identify the interrelationship between electric fields, magnetic fields, electric charges, and electric currents, and his unification of light, fields, and charge as an essential precursor to more advanced theoretical physics, we had insufficient means to predict or anticipate what would follow once we produced endeavours such as electric currents from the voltaic pile experiment, and developed the model to store energy chemically, much less anticipate the much more involved endeavours such as electro-mechanical generators, and our innovations in fossil fuel combustion engines, or nuclear reactors; or kinetic wind energy generators, plus the many other technologies that rely on electromagnetic principles. If one takes something like the evolution of car technology, where once cars were largely unaffected by electromagnetic interference, nowadays, with so many electrical accessories on cars (cruise control, anti-lock brakes, door locks, power steering, engine control modules, electronic throttle control, etc) there is much more electromagnetic interference causing temporary operational paralysis – as the more complex our systems the more liable they are to wrong.
The practical relevance ought to be clear; with greater advancement comes greater responsibility and a great many more things to think about. Of course, advancing technologies are mostly a good sign of progression, but only if one doesn’t get caught up in the current zeitgeists and loses focus on what the ultimate questions and truths really are. Greater advancement brings huge changes in the way we behave – an aggressive man only needs to switch on the computer in the morning to engage with people and vent his anger to hundreds of people. Impersonal forms of interaction (texts and emails and social networking sites) have been a handy communication utility, but they have deprived us of something very special about human-human contact, and have shortened our attention span and taken our mind off the real qualities of communication. In this modern age with so much background noise and tumult, it is much easier to subliminally create an avatar to capture one’s social self, to the point where the pressures of the modern world and the plethora of complex data available to absorb causes one to foster multiple identities and lose the real sense of the self that God created you to be.
Thus if a miracle is most likely to occur when the self seeks personal revelation from God the background noise and tumult is likely to impair this conceptual vision, just as when gazing into distant space one can see galaxy clusters that subtend a much large angle in the sky than say traces of man ever setting foot on the moon. With a telescope, the size of the smallest object it can see at any given distance is inversely proportional to the diameter of the telescope lens, so naturally to see a small object from a long distance away one needs a telescope with a very large lens. Equally I think one needs a certain size cognitive lens to see the subtle truths of how Christianity is still as essential a force as ever before – it takes a focus and a lucidity beyond the headlights of day to day thinking for one to grasp the truths of Christianity and apply them to one’s own life.
We are the biggest miracle
Perhaps the best way to see the extraordinary fecundity of the human mind and why it seems to give the appearance of being too miraculous for a naturalistic world is to consider the enormous leap that one must take if we go from relatively simple natural selection right up to the mind’s fantastic ability to do something that shocked even Einstein, to comprehend something that should be incomprehensible, the mathematical interworkings of the cosmos itself. After all, we know from scientific studies that the human brain is the most complex set of substances in the entire universe.
The brain’s remarkable ability for comprehending the deep mathematical potential of the cosmos shows something remarkable - it shows us that human beings, via natural selection, are able to carry out this incredible logical perceptivity necessary for unlocking the door to nature’s secrets. And if this doesn’t sound strange to you, you are seriously underestimating the reality here, for we see that it is as though nature’s mathematical secrets are attuned to human capabilities, far transcendent of anything that naturalism’s ‘selection’ could conjure up (particularly bearing in mind that in almost every sense - barring a few geometrical examples - mathematics does not aid survival or reproduction, and neither the biological nor the cultural nor the social are captured by mathematics). What we see is that the two biggest hints that nature is a miracle involve the fecundity of human minds and how they are attuned to capturing the mathematical whole (see Part V of my Blog article here for a fuller analysis of this). Considering the Bible says that the universe was specially created for us, it certainly seems that God fixed in our minds the capacity to understand our special position in creation and, in the second place, the knowledge that the universe was created for us seems to be mathematically instantiated in cognition itself.
Of course, a sceptic could attempt to argue against this by saying that the laws of nature seem mathematical because we define laws as mathematical, but that poses two difficulties. 1) It still leaves unexplained why we evolved this mathematical ability in the first place, and 2) Nature’s message seems to be encrypted in a very specific way and that way seems to have very little correlation with evolution.
Given the simple searching method that Christ encourages us to use, one shouldn’t be surprised to find that our cognition consists of all the elements necessary for salvation; that is to say, the human mind and the emotional auxiliaries and appendages is, since the first time God put a little bit of Himself in man (Genesis 1:27), the most complex and miraculous part of nature. And this, of course, is perfectly consistent with the notion that the universe was created especially for us. Every time a new born baby arrives we see another example of a little miracle made ‘in God’s image’ – the self and God are interrelated first by creation and then by love, grace and, in the case of those who know His Son, they become related by relationship.
Knowledge of the risen Christ is certainly a miracle, but it is not a departure from cognition itself; that is, Christ uses our own cognisance to impart thoughts, visions, wisdom and knowledge - it is all part of the same selfhood rationality that we use for everything else - that is why a man needs to ask God for revelation before he realises the truth. If we define rationality in terms of only what has proprietary accountability in relation to our own selfhood, then on this definition, cross-personal relations will automatically classify as intuitive.
But we know from the number of atheists out there that our intuitive notions become intertwined with empirical reality and worldviews are formed that are not harmonious with the above. Bound up in that analysis is a whole host of other partisan-factors swaying people’s decisions, and thus when asked to believe in miracles or even the existence of God, many people choose, or have forced on them, alterative worldviews. To the man who sees life as a relatively simple daily routine, facts about Christianity and facts about ordinary reality may well seem to him to be inconsistent.
This, of course, goes some way to explaining people’s inherent resistance to faith-based belief systems, and it also causes one to become rather distracted by things that are readily accessible to conscious cognition, what one might call the '‘easily-manageable things'’, and thus their disregarding of the deeper mysteries of life is understandable. The point is not about levels of complexity in identifying the efficacy of varying worldviews and the accessibility by which one reaches such views, rather it is about realising that very often other people’s claims of a relationship with God or of a miraculous experience cannot be rejected by intuition, nor by explicit rationality (although many things can be rejected by explicit rationality), nor by diligent inspection.
I will conclude by saying that the fundamental difference between those who understand the miracles as category distinctions within the grand miracle of creation, and those who see the whole interlocking system of nature as ‘natural’, is not rationality or intuition as such, but the difference between the explicit and implicit nature of rationality, both of which will, in the case of this subject, differ in terms of whether or not one’s mind is readily accessible to the experiential protocols that Christ’s activity provides. For those whose minds are attuned to Christ’s activity, not only will miracles be an integral part of their daily living – the whole of daily living will itself be seen as a miracle; and that is when the world really does begin to make sense, as one sees with stupendous wonder, God working in people’s lives in a multitude of ways. Such is this clarity that once you get a grip on it, it becomes a bit like seeing the answer to a riddle that had bugged you for some time - you wonder how the solution was ever missed in the first place.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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