Sunday, July 18, 2010

Miracles and Progressive Christianity -- (Dwight Welch)

I have invited Dwight Welch, a Disciples of Christ seminary student and occasional blogger to offer his sense of the Christian faith from a liberal/progressive position.  In service to my own denominational tradition I have been making these pages available to people who, like me, are seeking opportunities to explore and share their faith with the broader public.  This should be the first of at least two pieces.  I invite you to engage Dwight in conversation.

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A Progressive Christian
Take on Miracles

Over the last month or so there have been a number of articles on the question of miracles, the resurrection, and healing. This has spurred my own thought on these questions and I appreciate the opportunity Bob Cornwall has given me to try to put down some of these thoughts in the form of a post. My hope is to raise some questions, both for myself, and others in a way which can advance the discussion.

As a liberal protestant what does one do with supernatural interventions? Bruce Epperly and others have suggested that it is possible that we’re not dealing with the supernatural at all. That, instead, there may be features of our natural world, which can account for and open us up to these miraculous stories of the past as well as their present happenings. The indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, for instance, is lifted up to break down the old mechanistic accounts favored by the natural sciences. The energestic accounts make a universe far more personally responsive than the old atomistic ones.

But I still think some caution is needed in this front. Whatever happens at the quantum level is not so varied as to make the macro level operate under a new set of rules. And in the macro world, we still do not see things like physical resurrection occurring. There is nothing we know about biology nor do we have experiences that we can point to that indicates such occurrences today. That does not mean that the door is closed on such things. Epistemic humility requires as much.

But it does suggest that we may be facing the limits of what theology can talk about. In other words, given that God is far more than we can describe, we can presume our theologies will not exhaust God’s doings in the world. But there may be limits, given our knowledge of the world, which theology is in a position to say. In that the only response may be a holy silence when it surpasses that knowledge.

But if God is the God of this world then knowledge of the world should give us clues about God. When some Christians dismiss evolution, or other areas of consensus in the sciences, a distorted picture of the world and of God emerges. So getting it right or at least getting as close as one can get given the circumstances has theological implications. In that, I get nervous about some miracle stories or descriptions of resurrection which seem to be at odds with the consensus of the sciences or the kind of world they describe.

Even if we remove the category of the supernatural, the sense of the scriptures, is that miracles are extraordinary occasions. In the Second Testament, such stories are usually followed by the people being in “awe” after the miracle. But if we agree with Whitehead that God should exemplify the categories of our world, not be an exception to them, then maybe looking for God in the extraordinary should be suspect; or at least not necessary. In principle, one should likely find that how God operates in the ordinary or the extraordinary follows much the same lines.

Again that doesn’t close off the extraordinary. But it does suggest a kind of continuity in experience and in the character of God and God’s doings that can make any occasion a possible source of divine disclosure, even if some moments are more dramatic or profound in their impact on us then others. In that sense, we’re back to the old definition of miracles from Friedrich Schleiermacher. Any occasion which points to God and God’s doings, God’s purposes, God’s character in the world can be properly understood as a miracle. A smile or a calm sea both suggests much of the same thing. And it should if we’re on to something in our analysis.

In that case, the way that we might appropriate miracle stories today would be to discern the character of God as it its being told in the story of healings, for instance, to see if it has continuity with the kind of God we understand ourselves to serve. That may go outside of the question of did it happen or would it happen. But one can imagine how the character of God in such and such a story might be translated to our time. What brings healing today? What opens our eyes today? What acts in our lives so we can be included in the community as opposed to being cast out to the edges of town? When can new life happen even when some sought to kill it?

The hope is to engage those resources of scripture which can illuminate our experiences, of God, of one another, and so on. Some of the language of scripture does just that. But some do not. I had a high school student in my church liken faith in God to faith in Santa Claus. While only one has reindeer, both were equally fantastic in his mind, based on something that was wish fulfillment and not evidence based. I think as much inside the church as outside of it, we face a credibility crisis in the claims our faith tradition has made. To the degree that we can relate to the resources of our faith tradition and the world as we know it, we may be able to confront that problem. I think that has been the charge and the motivation for religious progressives in general and this discussion in particular.


Dwight Welch is finishing his final year at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis as a MDiv student with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as a student pastor at First Christian in Sheridan Indiana. Previously Dwight did graduate work in philosophy while serving as a campus minister at University Christian Ministries at Southern Illinois University.  Although not blogging as often as before, Dwight's blog is entitled the Religious Liberal.   

12 comments:

Doug Sloan said...

(The following is an excerpt from the article "Reclaiming Miracles" which will be posted Thursday, July 22, 2010 on the [D]mergent blog at dmergent.org)

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Miracles are prohibitively expensive. The cost of living in a universe that includes miracles requires a God who is capricious. Miracles require a Zeus or a Jupiter. Miracles require 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 pagan god. This is not a theology that expands or promotes human understanding or raises the human condition. It is not a theology that enriches or informs the human experience. With a capricious God, our lives are a constant gamble and the universe is one big craps table.

Anonymous said...

7-11, prohibitively expensive.

David Mc said...

Thanks Dwight,

that was a very thoughtful piece. The obvious miracles all around us today appear to be miracles of potential. We choose peace or war. We choose food or ethanol (for burning, not drinking). We choose a better cell phone or a better solar cell. We still can choose freedom or slavery, or something in-between.

Gary said...

God is capricious? God is petty and arrogant?

The unregenerated, natural human mind is often a cesspool of blasphemy and stupidity. To think that an uneducated, arrogant, self-important mere mortal would have the gall to bring such unfounded charges against Almighty God proves the depths to which people will sink, when left to their own devices!

Dwight said...

Appreciating the comments. My goal is to write a part two to this, with a bit less minimalism :) Gary, it should be noted that Doug is saying that God is *not* capricious or petty. which is why he rejects protrayals of God he believes paints God in such a light.

David Mc said...

Gary is quick to bite anything that resembles bait. He's a real knee "jerk".

Gary said...

I never said that Doug said it. But somebody did.

John said...

Gary,

Actually it was God who accused the gods of being capricious, petty, and arrogant. Psalm 82.

John

David Mc said...

God told reporters that he wasn't "going anywhere just yet" and that, in any case, the universe was largely self-sustaining these days.

http://www.theonion.com/articles/god-hinting-at-retirement,17747/

Doug Sloan said...

Some other ideas about God:

GOD IS...
http://dmergent.org/2010/07/02/god-is-3/

RECLAIMING GOD
http://dmergent.org/2010/07/15/reclaiming-god/

David Mc said...

Thanks Doug,

I just sent those to one of my 4 brothers. He recently expressed interest in God and His healing. A huge step in his painful life I hope. I think he would be open to considering your definitions (as I have been). Now, praying for the other 3...

David Mc said...

Don't get me started on the 5 sisters!