C.S. Lewis said that the miracles of Jesus are the very heart of Christianity. However, for the people of the 21st century, miracles sit uncomfortably in their minds, so deeply conditioned they are by the formidable domination of materialism and empiricism as the fundamentals of science.
For many of our contemporaries, educated exclusively in the light of scientific principles, the miracles of the Bible are inconceivable, a true impossibility. The stories scripture tells where Jesus heals a blind man (John 9), causes a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11), or rids a possessed man of dozens of evil spirits (Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39) beggar belief. No one puts it more bluntly than the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin: “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Even some Christians encounter difficulties when they read about the time Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11), let alone the time Jesus raises Lazarus, one of His close friends, from the dead (John 1:38-44), something He replicated with a man named Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43), and the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17). Miracles are so far from us, they mostly happened in such a different cultural environment than ours and reflect such a foreign image of the world, that it’s difficult to see their relevance. We do not really think about walking on water, nor do many of us have any reference for what the Sea of Galilee (where this miracle took place) looks like, either in calm or in a storm. We have our own means of getting where we want to go, and some sports (like surfing) give us the illusion that we too can defy the laws of nature. Most of us do not need to multiply bread (on the contrary, some might need to diminish it), nor do we think about supernatural healing, the kind of which Jesus displayed when healing His disciple Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum (Luke 4:38-40)—at least, not as long as doctors give us hope and still tinker successfully with our bodies.
On the other hand, many of us are so used to stories of miracles that we do not feel the need to argue for or against them more than we would need to for the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or other legendary tales. They are simply there, well-isolated from our daily lives. We might sometimes hope that the supernatural would makes its way into the reality we experience, but not too often, because it would seriously mess with our customs, regulations, social stratifications, and habits.
We would probably not be very different from the opponents encountered by Jesus Christ in His time: “Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath” (Mark 3:1-2). Do you realize this? For them, Jesus being in close proximity to this man with a withered hand was a highly risky situation. They later went from astonishment to concrete action, when Jesus raised a dead man, Lazarus, back to life: “So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:53).
The liberties that Jesus took were, of course, not limited to the manifestation of His sovereignty over the laws of nature. Even more disturbing was the way in which He treated the laws governing morality and maintaining social order. After centuries of efforts by the Jewish leaders, Pharisees and high priests to crystallize norms and customs, He trod on them with scandalous nonchalance. Many of His radical statements do not bother us because we live in a very different world—a world His statements helped to create.
We can easily deal with the following statement: “Eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matthew 15:20). However, when He addresses respectable believers saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17), we no longer feel so at ease when it comes to the faith of the church and society. Sinners must be kept elsewhere, not placed on the same level—or even a higher one—as nice people. When He assures the dying thief that He is granting him eternal life, even if we are moved, our value judgments and justice criteria are uneasily diluted.
Purposes that broaden the perspective
What is stopping us from letting Jesus into our daily lives? The message of His supernatural acts is one we greatly need, because, when He sets the laws of nature aside—laws that He Himself put in place—He neither does it for the show nor because He wants us to ignore them, but because by doing so, He is actually telling us that we matter more to God than the orderly, impersonal course of nature. When He fed the 5,000 listeners, He rose above the law according to which nothing is created and nothing disappears.
Here matter is created, and this happens because God really cares for the poor, the hungry, those who have been deprived of life’s essential things. When He comes to His desperate disciples, on the raging sea, Jesus tells them that their lives mean more to Him than the pattern of a lake’s waves, and even gravity.
When, standing alone against the current, He defends and uplifts the “sinful” woman, Jesus does not intend to relativize morality or normalize promiscuity. He generates a new love in her heart, uses His supernatural capacity to recognise it, and does away with all the social and even religious obstacles, because He wants this new creation to triumph: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown” (Luke 7:47).
These purposes are life-changing
How many times we’ve missed or rejected God’s desire to manifest Himself through His supernatural power, especially in the area of moral discernment! The legislation of nations fill entire libraries, but how many sins are forgiven, how many lives redeemed? Christians took the same road and multiplied the rules, studying the canonical right rather than divine grace, leaving the saving mission of the church given by the Son of God with almost no room to unfold itself.
Perhaps, owning up to this failure is what opens up the way to radical transformation. Because this is what is needed, not a natural adaptation process. Thomas Kuhn, the author of the famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, quotes Max Planck, the pioneer of quantum physics: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”. A spiritual revolution does not happen this way.
In the case of Christianity and our fellow humans who now need to be received with grace and regarded as God’s redeemed people, there is no time to wait for a new generation. This generation would, we believe, not think any differently from us anyway. The change must begin now, it must start with me. As Paul says, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
God promises an experience that surpasses the predictable, measurable results of education—a personal encounter with forgiveness: “‘No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 31:34). The most essential thing we need to know about God is not His power to create laws of nature, nor the power to rise above them when He wants to, but the conviction He uses to pronounce the moral law and to still welcome us in despite of the judgement it places on us: “Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God… They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days” (Hosea 3:5).
Let’s reflect on the paradox expressed by the psalmist: “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Psalms 130:3-4). While we wait for the transformational revelation, “you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12).
Adrian Bocăneanu ponders upon the reasons behind Jesus’ interactions with His contemporaries, in order to discover what is relevant for us, today, in an attempt to understand God’s actions. A version of this article first appeared on ST.Network, and is republished here with permission.