An Embarrassment of Miracles
Miracles have become more and more of a burden to the lukewarm Christian – something that embarrasses him in front of his more secular friends
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created an abridged version of the New Testament, literally with a razor and glue, which he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” In essence, he stripped the New Testament of supernatural events and reduced it to a moral philosophy.
Ever since the Enlightenment, miracles have become more and more of a burden to the lukewarm Christian – something that embarrasses him in front of his more secular friends. This reflects a complete misunderstanding of who we are – and who God is.
To be a Christian worthy of the name, surely one must accept the Bible at face value at least as far as its very first verse, Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Here, in the plainest possible language, we have a bold assertion – that God didn’t just happen upon the universe already formed by parties unknown or by some dead process of nature, but actually created it. That is a miracle. Beyond the creation itself, any further miracles must pale by comparison. It makes no sense to believe that God could bring the universe into being but could not have had the power to save Jonah from the heart of the sea by the means of a great fish, nor have had the power to raise the dead. If one is going to deny the existence of relatively minor miracles on the grounds that they are odd and inexplicable, one should have the rational consistency to deny the greatest, most astounding miracle at all.
Let’s consider Jonah’s fishy miracle in a bit more detail. It makes an enlightening example. Suppose that a modern, technologically capable group of people wanted, for whatever reason, to keep a human being alive inside a whale or a large shark for three days. Would it be possible? Although we have never done such a thing to my knowledge, it is by no means unimaginable. We know what the physiological requirements of human beings are and can make a reasonable guess at whether or not a particular aquatic animal might tolerate an enclosed life support system large enough to accomplish the task. Surely we could make a capsule that would keep a man alive for 72 hours and yet be sufficiently small to fit within the body of a whale or even the largest of the sharks. But people scoff at the Jonah story as so much nonsense. Why?
Something can be true in a meaningful sense without being a historical narrative.
We would like to think we can choose our own destinies and bend the world according to our explanations.
People have absorbed the popular notion that everything around us has a humanly knowable scientific explanation, so they become uncomfortable with the idea that God hasn’t limited His means to those processes that we ourselves can understand. We think we know most of what there is to know about whales and large sharks, so we pride ourselves on understanding that an ordinary animal, upon swallowing a man, would immediately start to digest him. In biblical references involving things we know, we tend to expect God to play by the rules we observe in nature. However, when it comes to grander miracles like the creation itself, that science either can’t explain at all or can explain only poorly, we are more likely to accept the divine explanation.
Miracles are, by definition, supernatural. This to say that they are “beyond nature” – or, in a word, “unknowable.” However, they are unknowable only to us. From God’s perspective, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural cannot exist, the whole of the universe being not only knowable to Him, but fully and completely known. As I said earlier, to reject miracles out of hand is to understand neither who we are nor who God is.
The rejection of miracles is widespread among people who still consider themselves Christians. I recall watching a popular documentary purporting to explain the twelve plagues of Egypt in entirely natural terms. There is a whole series of programs of this sort. Real Christians should beware. Such explanations are not benign attempts to reveal God’s means, but instead attempts to render God unnecessary. Our faith isn’t compatible with believing that the Bible’s human authors were merely remarkable predictors or chroniclers of unplanned natural phenomena. Rather, the Christian knows from the inside out that the universe around us is itself miraculous – the physical expression of the mind of God.
I do not want to be seen as advocating an absolute and rigid fundamentalism. To say something is possible is not the same as saying it is known. Something can be true in a meaningful sense without being a historical narrative. Christ’s parables are true, but plainly, they are not the record of historical events. The prodigal son was a metaphor, not a flesh-and-blood historical person. Likewise, we do not know with absolute certainty whether Christ was speaking metaphorically or not when he referred to the Book of Jonah in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Nor do we know with absolute certainty whether or not the Book of Jonah was itself an extended metaphor. To assume that it was a metaphor is to grant ourselves knowledge we do not actually have. To assume that it was not a metaphor is, however, just as arrogant. The safest course is not to make assumptions of either kind.
Neither the higher critical method nor our own lamentable vanity qualifies us to parse through Holy Scripture with Thomas Jefferson’s razor – nor to impart to it a childish factuality that undermines God’s message. The point of Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare is rather lost if you fixate on the novelty of tortoises and hares organizing interspecies sporting events. While much of the Bible is undoubtedly historically accurate, it is not the primary purpose of the Bible to chronicle the literal history of the ancient world. Whether or not Jonah lived three days and nights inside the belly of a whale is not, I believe, the heart of the lesson God intended to give us. That Jonah’s attempts to avoid God’s call were futile is a more important matter than the problem of the story’s historicity. That God is sovereign over everything, using us as he chooses, appears to be the point. However, the literal interpretation of the Jonah story would not have been beyond God’s means. Let no one scoff.
We human beings don’t like acknowledging our own limitations. Aristotle said: “All men by nature desire knowledge.” While I’ve met a few who seemed content to wallow in their own ignorance, I don’t think Aristotle was completely off the mark. We are prideful creatures, after all. We would like to think we can choose our own destinies and bend the world according to our explanations. In fact, we can do neither. Like Jonah, we are shepherded by forces greater than ourselves. We reject the idea of miracles not because we are wise, but because we would like the world to be comfortably predictable. The unexpected and unknowable frighten us – and we rebel.
Did the Founding Fathers want American society to be religious or secular?
SOMETHING I WROTE 7 YEARS AGO:
This time of year there are many “religious issues.” Bill O’Reilly will tell you that there is a War on Christmas. So the Lexington Libertarian will bring out of moth balls from its archives a post on misinterpretation of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
In Christine O’Donnell’s debate with Chris Coons, she was almost laughed off the stage for challenging that the phrase “separation of church and state,” or “a wall of separation between church and state,” appeared in the Constitution.
The first amendment has two religious clauses.
(1) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which is the Establishment Clause.
(2) “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the Free Exercise Clause.
Neither of these is called the Separation Clause because separation of church and state is never mentioned in those terms in the Constitution. Now those at the O’Donnell-Coons debate and other elitists in academia try to tell us that not establishing a religion is the same thing as separating religion and state into separate corners, to borrow a fight game analogy. This is just gobbeldy gook and those in their smugness who haughtily try to shower any who say otherwise with scorn are trying to interpret their own agenda into something where the meaning and intent is entirely different.
WHERE DID THE PHRASE “SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE”
The origin of the phrase “separation of church and state’”comes from correspondence between the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists and Thomas Jefferson. The Danbury Baptists were concerned that if a Connecticut state religion was instituted by law that their freedom to worship would be compromised. They sought reassurance that this would not happen. You might remember that much earlier the Puritans had fled Europe, because of religious persecution in countries that had a state endorsed religion, to set up shop in Massachusetts. There they put in place in essence a state Puritan religion prompting Roger Williams and the Baptists to flee to Rhode Island in order to freely practice their religion.
So the Danbury, Baptists in 1801 wrote in their letter to Jefferson:
“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty; that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals; that no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions; that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”
Jefferson replied on January 1, 1802.
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” (emphasis added)
Often times the Supreme Court will take under advisement the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the historical context in which statues were written as well as the actual wording of the Constitution itself. It is only fair then to do the same here, to probe just what the framers had in mind and just what situations the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause were aimed at.
James Madison, often called the author of the Constitution, had a slightly different wording in the original draft of the First amendment Religious Clauses. In the first draft Madison wrote:
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”(emphasis added)
This draft was hotly debated and eventually through compromise we ended up with what we have now. But during that debate Madison made it plainly clear what motivated him and what his purpose was in crafting the First amendment.
He said, “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”
So we see the framers, whose context was that they came from European monarchies with state religions, were determined that there would be no national church and that everybody would have the religious freedom to worship as they pleased.
That is a far cry from the modern application of this amendment. We have gone from a “hands off” attitude to removing all religion from the government. That was never the intent of those who wrote the rules. Today we interpret the first amendment to remove all religion from the marketplace. The 10th Amendment cannot be displayed on government buildings, crosses are yanked out of remote areas and prayer while school is in session, even a moment of silence is not allowed.
In that school prayer case, Wallace versus Jaffree, 1985, Justice Rhenquist in the dissenting opinion said, “It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history, but unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years.”
The Liberal Left who disregard the Constitution whenever it gets in their way now are seen to be championing a strict interpretation of our sacred document while in the process adding words and meanings that are not there. All this to create a secular society that is religious neutral. But neutrality was never the design of the framers nor was free expression of religion in the marketplace deemed either offensive or illegal.
ONLY RELIGION INITIATED BY THE STATE WAS CONSIDERED TO BE DETRIMENTAL AND OUT OF BOUNDS. RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION INITIATED BY INDIVIDUALS WAS CONSIDERED TO BE MORAL AND LEGAL.
There is no national religious endorsement of any religion by the government and there hasn’t been such for centuries. Today all the application of the First Amendment Religious Clauses has been geared to stifling the religious expression of individuals. The framers were never concerned with what individuals were doing; they were concerned with what government might do.
In the process the Left has hurdled America from freedom of religion to freedom from religion. The result has been the state, our government, taking an antagonistic attitude to any religious expression.
……………The Lexington Libertarian, October 2010