Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Sloppy Theology Of Henry Poole Is Here: Part 1

For we walk by faith, not by sight. (II Corinthians 5:7 RSV)

Two weeks before last we watched Henry Poole Is Here in our Wed. night group, but since I had a cold I had to rent the movie the week before last in order to finish it for last week's discussion. Anyways, the main theme of the movie is miracles and in that regard I felt the theology was rather sloppy. It seemed the whole of the movie was focused on having faith in this "supposed miracle" rather than the Risen Lord whom we've never seen yet believe. Don't get me wrong---God was a pervasive presence throughout the film, but God seemed overshadowed by the "supposed miracle." Anyways, Vick brought up the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano which is interesting in that it's mysterious. Also, the Shroud of Turin was mentioned (which has been proven to be a hoax over and over again) in our discussion. The problem with these sorts of things are the reason Luther wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Indulgences, anyone? In Luther's time the abuse of indulgences included the sell of religious relics with supposedly miraculous properties. A lot of these so-called "relics" were forged.

A second problem with the film is people see what they want to see. Take these supposed "Islamic miracles" for example: Allah Written in Arabic on Tsunami Wave — Miracles of ALLAH !, A Miracle: The Splitting of the Moon, Islam’s “Miracles”, Miracle of Islam, In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful or
Miracles can be subjective and relative to the individual.

Next I would like to say an individual's definition of miracles shapes their view. Here is a detailed definition of miracles by Harry Emerson Fosdick which has help shaped my view of miracles:

You are right, however, in feeling, as your letter reveals, that the prescientific world view which is the matrix in which the Bible’s treasures are set, does pose some difficult problems -- miracles, for example. A letter offers no adequate space for the treatment of that problem, but I venture some homely advice.

First, remember that the ancient world took what we would call miracles for granted. Not having even the idea of natural law in their heads, "signs and wonders," as the New Testament calls them, did not bother the ancients intellectually at all. Almost anything could happen. The records of Buddhism and Islam are full of miracle stories. A contemporary of Jesus, a man named Apollonius, had his biography written, and the miracles ascribed to him are so like those attributed to Jesus that some at first supposed the biography to be a deliberate attempt to discredit the Gospels. No! That whole ancient world thought in terms of miracles, and one often feels that they represent real events, looked at and thought about in a way utterly different from ours. Mohammed, for example, was credited with having made the sun stand still, with having obtained water from a flinty rock, with having fed thousands with a little food.

Second, consider the fact that some miracle stories in the Bible are more easy to believe now than they were a generation ago. This is especially true about miracles of healing. How many bodily ills, which in my youth were supposed to be physically caused, are now known to be caused or complicated by mental and emotional disorders! If you know anything about the development of psychosomatic medicine, you will understand this. When one considers that over half the beds in all the hospitals in the United States are filled with mental patients, and that many more are filled with patients whose physical ills are emotionally caused, so that cure must come rather from the spiritual than from the bodily end, Jesus’ healings become much more credible than they used to be.

Third, don’t suppose that a miracle means the breaking of natural law. I do not think that natural laws are ever broken. Ask nature the same question in the same way and it will always give you the same answer. But our knowledge of nature’s laws is limited. When I consider how many new regularities in nature have been discovered in my lifetime, I am sure that there are infinitely more yet to be discovered. Indeed, if we are tempted to look back two thousand years and condescend to the writers of the Bible because our science is so superior to theirs, we had better watch our step. Imagine the science of two thousand years ahead! How will men then think about us? They will be doing many things then that are absolutely incredible now. So a marvelous occurrence, then or now or in the ancient world, could conceivably be not a rupture of nature’s laws but a fulfillment of laws beyond our ken. Every time we learn a new law we get our hands on a new law-abiding force and can do a new thing. Cannot God do at least that?

Fourth, don’t suppose that you have to believe every miracle story just because it is in the Bible. Dr. W. E. Orchard was orthodox enough -- he ended in the Roman Catholic priesthood -- but he said once, "If I saw someone walking on the sea, I would not say, ‘This man is Divine’: I would say, ‘Excuse me, do you mind doing that again? I didn’t see how you did it.’" That is the typical modern-minded attitude, and you are in good Christian company if you feel the same way about some miracle stories in the Bible. Moses is said to have cast a stick on the ground and it became a snake, and to have seized the snake by its tail and it became a stick. Well, I wonder! Certainly my Christian faith does not depend on believing things like that.

Fifth, don’t complicate your problem by being a wooden headed literalist. The way many Western Christians think about the Book of Jonah, for example, is a tragedy. That book is one of the most magnificent affirmations of God’s universal care for all mankind, across all boundaries of race and nation, that ever was written in the ancient world. Some scholars call the book fiction with an ethical purpose, others call it a parable or an allegory, but no competent scholar that I know of thinks that the book was intended to be taken as historical fact. Of course it wasn’t. At the time the book was written -- probably somewhere around 300 B.C.-- there was developing in Israel an embittered hatred of the Gentiles. Israel was God’s chosen people, and he would destroy the others, who so often had mistreated Israel. Well, Jonah is Israel, refusing God’s commission to be a missionary to Nineveh, the Gentile city, and fleeing across the Mediterranean to escape. But God proves himself omnipresent: he sends a deadly storm; Jonah, spotted by lot as the guilty man, is thrown overboard; a great fish swallows him and three days later disgorges him. I wonder whether that is not an allegory of the exile in Babylon and the return. At any rate postexilic Israel still begrudged any help from God to Nineveh, and when, in response to Jonah’s reluctant preaching, the city repented, "it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry." Read the book and see how it ends, with God rebuking the surly Jonah and saying, "Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" How utterly ridiculous to interpret this moving and prophetic affirmation of God’s universal care for all mankind as a literal miracle story about a whale swallowing a man!

Sixth, don’t be afraid to doubt certain miracles which some Christians consider essential to their faith. If, for example, you doubt the virgin birth of Jesus, you have plenty of good Christian company. I am not trying to tell you what you should think about the virgin birth; I am simply indicating that personally I cannot believe it. Paul apparently never heard of it; Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not mention it; John in his first chapter seems deliberately to bypass it. Only twice in the New Testament is it mentioned -- in Matthew and Luke -- and even there it seems to be a late addition, because the two genealogies of Jesus both come down to Joseph, not to Mary. In the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai I have myself seen a Syriac translation of Matthew --evidently from an earlier Greek version than the one we now have -- in which the genealogy of our Lord ends as it must logically have ended: "Joseph begat Jesus." Moreover, so many Christians seem to think that the story of the virgin birth confers uniqueness on Jesus, whereas the fact is that miraculous birth, without human fatherhood, was a familiar explanation of distinguished persons in all the ancient world. Such miraculous birth, in one form or another, was ascribed to Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao-tse, and Mahavira in the religious realm, and to personalities like Persius and Augustus Caesar in the secular realm. A familiar argument among early Christian apologists was that, if the Romans and Greeks believed that so many other people were born of a virgin, why could they not believe that Jesus was so born. Anyway, whatever conclusion you come to, don’t treat that kind of miracle story as basic to your Christian faith. Jesus’ divinity surely was not physical -- what could that mean? His divinity lay in his spiritual quality.

Finally, never forget that, despite modern science, this is still a miraculous world. As Walt Whitman said,

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles. . . .
To me every hour of light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.

Imagine yourself back millions of years ago, when earthquakes and volcanoes ruled the uninhabited earth, and along the ocean’s edge the first microscopic forms of cellular life were emerging --on which would you have placed your bet, volcanoes or cells? How utterly unpredictable the future of life on earth then was! So modern science has not reduced this universe and us within it to dull, monotonous, predictable uniformity. Something marvelously creative and unforeseeable is going on here. And, as for the New Testament, think as honestly and intelligently as you can about miracles attributed to Christ, but don’t forget the major fact: he is the miracle. Who ever could have foreseen a life like that?

See also: Harry Emerson Fosdick, What Keeps Religion Going and Miracles, Mormons, and Harry Emerson Fosdick: the challenge of inoculation. I shall continue my analysis of Henry Poole Is Here in my next post.

No comments: