Miracles without Supernaturalism (Bruce Epperly)
We continue our Tuesday series of essays by Dr. Bruce Epperly. Bruce has been gracious to provide for this blog insightful and challenging essays that help define what it means to be progressive and spiritually centered. Last week's post focused on the difference prayer makes. This week Bruce extends that conversation by thinking through the tricky question of the miraculous. That is, in what way is God truly active in the world? I think you'll find this an intriguing message.
Miracles without Supernaturalism
Walt Whitman once noted that all is miracle. As a spirit-centered Christian of a progressive bent, I agree with Whitman – life is miraculous, God-filled, and adventurous. Last week, I reflected on the difference that prayer makes in our lives from a progressive Christian perspective. I suggested that in an interdependent universe, our prayers support the well-being of others and create a field of force that enables God to be more active in achieving God’s vision of Shalom for the lives of others, ourselves, and the world. In this essay, I will consider the question of prayer in terms of the contrasting perspectives of naturalistic and supernaturalistic theism. I want to reflect on the questions, “Can we have miracles without supernaturalism, that is, without unilateral divine interventions temporarily nullifying the laws of nature?” and “Can we appropriately speak of naturalistic miracles, that is, dynamic expressions of God’s presence that transform our lives and the world, congruent with the laws of nature?”
I take prayer seriously: I pray for persons in need, participate in liturgical healing services, prayerfully lay hands on anyone who wishes prayer, and practice a form of energy healing, known as reiki healing touch. I believe in life-transforming answers to prayer and have experienced them. I have written three books on healing, focusing on how we can embody Jesus’ healing ministry in our lives today.1 Though I affirm the insights of biblical scholarship and appreciate the work of Crossan and Spong, I believe that the New Testament healing stories reflect the life-transforming love present in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus healed persons, body, mind, spirit, and relationship, and we can participate in that same healing energy today.
But, still the question of supernaturalism remains open both biblically and theologically. The term supernatural is of relatively recent origin in theological discourse and seems to have gained popularity in the wake of Newtonian physics. If the universe is basically material and God works from the outside, it is reasonable to speak of divine action in our lives as supernatural in nature. Since nature, including our bodies, is essentially unfeeling and self-contained, God must act from outside the normal cause and effect relationships to achieve God’s goals.
My own understanding of divine activity is based on a very different understanding of the God-world relationship, in which God is present within each moment of experience, working within the world and our lives, mind, body, and spirit. Further, God is not an outsider – all things “live, move, and have their being in God” and thus are touched by God. In a world described by Isaiah – “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory” – God works within causal relationships and creaturely freedom and creativity to bring about God’s vision. Acts of power, transformations of body, mind, spirit, and relationships, accordingly, are not contrary to the laws of nature, but these evolving God-inspired laws are constantly influenced by Divine Creative Wisdom, such that God’s prevenient grace and healing presence is at work in every situation. While there are limits to what God can do in an interdependent and creative universe, God can choose to be more present in some moments than others, such as the incarnation, the healings of Jesus, the resurrection, and our own mystical and life-changing experiences. These are not contrary to nature, but reveal the deepest intentionality energies of a God-influenced universe in which every event, to greater or lesser degree, reflects Divine Wisdom.
As one of the few progressive Christian theologians open to claiming the resurrection story as a historical occurrence, I suggest that the resurrection reveals what can happen in the interplay of divine vision and creaturely (Jesus) openness in terms of the emergence of unexpected bursts of healing energy. While no one can fully describe the mechanics of resurrection – in the same way that the origins of the big bang will always be somewhat mysterious - Morton Kelsey, one of the leading figures in the revival of healing in mainstream Christianity, saw Jesus’ resurrection body in terms of a leap of quantum energy, evidenced in a lighter, livelier physical body, able to go through walls and appear and disappear at will. From this perspective, the resurrection reflects God’s initiative working through deeper laws of cause and effect.
Supernaturalism, as unilateral divine activity, does appear in scripture, even though the biblical worldview sees all events reflecting divine activity in some degree. However, naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic divine actions are affirmed in scripture. For example, the majority of Jesus’ healings, as I suggest in God’s Touch, were relational in nature and, thus, could be described as naturalistic – God’s prevenient or prior grace elicits the response of faith, which opens the door to Jesus’ healing activity. Mark’s gospel suggests that Jesus could do no great work because of peoples’ unbelief, but was enabled to do great things when people (the woman with the flow of blood, Jairus and the disciples) were open to new possibilities for personal transformation. In a God-filled universe, in which grace shapes each moment, even when we turn away from God, there is a God-orientation which enables human freedom and divine initiative to join in personal transformation.
In scripture, descriptions of divine unilateral (supernatural) activity are often morally ambiguous – a flood that destroys the human and non-human population, the killing of the Egyptian first born children, the projected divine destruction of the earth (popularized by the Left Behind series). Ironically, such bursts of divine unilateral power reflect divine failure, rather than divine power, in which God – like an exasperated parent at the supermarket – punishes creation severely because of God’s lack of patience or persuasive power. In much of the Hebraic scriptures and New Testament, in contrast, God’s relationship with the Hebraic people seems to be dialogical, rather than unilateral. When miracles, or acts of divine power, occur, there usually is a human openness to divine initiative.
In summary, in a living universe, in which God is moving within all things, providing possibilities and the energy to achieve them, acts of life-changing power are congruent with the relative stability of nature and our physical bodies, and the causal relationships which make life somewhat dependable. God is not an outsider trying to get in as supernaturalism suggests, but an insider working from within. Creaturely creativity and freedom are real, and can thwart God’s vision in the present moment, as scripture suggests. But, creaturely creativity and freedom can never overcome God’s patient and ongoing aim at wholeness. God constantly works within our lives, seeking reconciliation, repentance, a change of heart, and openness to healing, even when we don’t notice it. God touches each of us personally, moment by moment, bidding us to wake up to the reality that healing, salvation, and beauty are within and all around us. God has a vision and can choose to be more active in achieving that vision in certain contexts, just as some moments reflect who we are and our character more than others. When God’s energetic and empowering vision is met with openness then great things happen – not contrary to the laws of nature – that reflect God’s vision of divine-human partnership. Lives are changed, bodies transformed, hearts opened.
We can expect great things of God and ourselves. We can “expect miracles,” lively naturalistic events that transform the world. Perhaps, when we – as one bumper sticker says – “accept miracles,” we will discover that “all is miracle,” that life is wonderful, that loaves can be multiplied when we let go our possessiveness and open to generosity, and that we can be God’s partners in healing the world. In conclusion, I believe that divine-creaturely synergy presents a more worshipful, hopeful, and more dynamic of God than images of supernatural and unilateral divine intervention.
- God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus (Westminster/John Knox); Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice (Pilgrim); and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus (Northstone, with Kate Epperly).
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary; pastor at Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA; theologian and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)