Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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. 

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Miracles without Supernaturalism

Bruce Epperly



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.


  1. 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/)

7 comments:

Keith Watkins said...

I have read very little about the resurrection from a progressive perspective. The notes in this posting remind me of D. M. Baillie's insistence in his book "God Was in Christ" that if we take incarnation seriously then we have to say that everything Jesus did is, in principle, possible for any Christian to do. Healing is one of the illustrations that Baillie gives. I do not remember that he discussed resurrection, but the logic of his position is that even resurrection has to be understood this way. This essay seems to do that.

Tahoe Mom said...

Reminds me of two things: Jesus reminding us that we are so closely related to the divine that he is the vine and we are the branches and the same divine juices flow through us both. And Wayne Dyer has a wonderful example of this divine connection: he shows a huge apple pie (the Divine, the Source, God), cuts a slice out of it (us) and moves it away and asks, "Did it become pecan? Did it become chocolate?" No, we are of and from the Divine ~ we just need to claim it.

marion said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Lucy

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jinjanblog said...

Bob,
Thanks for posting this. I know little about the progressive perspective, but I do believe we do have the power to heal.

dcsloan said...

We love miracles - or at least the idea of miracles. Each of us wants to be touched or rescued by God in a way that is tangible, directly personal, and inexplicably wonderful. We know that not everyone gets to experience a miracle. We know people who are deserving, people who would benefit so much from a miracle, people who suffer so much without a miracle. Miracles seem so rare. Rarity seems to be part of what constitutes a miracle.

Miracles are expensive, prohibitively expensive. The cost of living in a universe that includes miracles requires a God who is capricious. It would require a Zeus or Jupiter – a God who is unpredictably either angry and onerous or calm and benevolent. It requires a God who is petty and arrogant and who has no qualms about interfering in, controlling, or playfully dabbling in the course of human events. This is a god of pagans. This is not a theology that expands or uplifts human understanding. It is not a theology that enriches the human experience. With a capricious God, our lives are a constant gamble and the universe is one big craps table.

This is not the God we worship. We do not worship a capricious God. We worship a God who is consistent – consistently and constantly loving, present, and inviting. A God who is consistent (who is not capricious) does not engage in miracles – and, similarly, does not engage in acts of retribution. God neither intervenes nor punishes, neither saves nor condemns.

Have you ever been in the presence of an excellent person? Someone who has a gift and who excels in the use of that gift? A trained gifted singer can raise the performance level of an entire choir. Just one knowledgeable competent person can raise the performance level of an entire office. Not by their sole efforts, but by their influence of excellence on the others, inspiring and enabling others to excel in their gifts.

That is how God works. God is a presence – an influential guiding presence. God is not intrusive or manipulative, demanding or passive/aggressive. God is an influential guiding presence only to the extent that we make ourselves aware of it and learn to be sensitive to it. God imbues our being – our thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions – only through our invitation and practice.

In that context, in the presence and influence and guidance of God, there can be a miracle – the resurrection and transformation of the human spirit to a life of Good News. Such a change deserves the respect and wonder and contemplation that have always been reserved for the miraculous.

Anonymous said...

"as one of the few progressives believing in a historical resurrection".... WOW.. is that a predominant thought of progressives that the resurrection didn't happen??? That takes the whole teeth out of the Gospel message and as Paul said "all of this is for naught.. might as well eat, drink, and be merry".

Sorry to digress.. its funny how reading the original write up and following comments that the Law of Nature is given higher authority than God. As though those laws create the box God must work in vs the other way around. I believe in a God of order and that is why things work in similar fashion year after year. I also believe miracles do happen, but in Western society, we have some many "things" in our life, it crowds out even the opportunity for a miracle. The default prayer request is always for health issues. While this is important, if our ultimate goal is to be with Jesus, does is make sense to keep slapping away his hand?

My prayer is always to take more risks with God. Take a chance on finances through crazy giving, maybe accept Jesus mission instructions by going out to give and taking "nothing with you". I know for me, I tend to keep Jesus too "safe" rather than letting him reveal himself more while I trust him.

Chuck

bepperly said...

thanks for your comments....I appreciate yours, Chuck....the laws of nature don't put god in a box but reflect God's faithfulness...if God is omnipresent and faithful, then the laws of nature as the evolve reflect God's care....arbitrary changing of the laws, like arbitrary parenting, would be harmful for the children and the world...however, as CS Lewis notes, there may be deeper laws than we are aware of...as the parents of Christian doctrine noted, miracles are not contrary to nature, but what we know of nature...