Monday, June 22, 2015

miracle blindness

so, four and a half years later, the conversation resumes...
in fact, it never concluded- i just stopped writing about it.

but in town for a visit, i slot some time to sit down with a dear friend to enjoy the kind of conversation that i don't seem to get into much anymore. the fact that this kind of dialogue is missing from my usual comings and goings is a problem, but that's probably the subject of a whole nother whole nother blogpost.

anyway, today we get going on miracles...
what are they?
how do we recognize them?
can we explain them?
if we can explain them, do they stop being miraculous?

it really starts there- with the 'stop being miraculous' part. my friend pushes the word miracle forward like it is a stone carving or some such artifact from a simpler, more naive time...

"miracle of childbirth? how is it miraculous? it happens everyday- lots! every seventh grader knows the basic biology and can roughly describe where everything goes and what happens when everything goes there. a real miracle would be if i were to wake up in the morning and find my artificial hip on the bed beside me, replaced by a brand new human hip inside. if God did that, i'd pay attention..."

(note: a more logically direct example might be a foray into what a miraculous birth might be- perhaps one where everything didn't go where its biologically supposed to go and yet a child is born. however we both know better than to sit down and try to arm-wrestle over the virgin birth. this dramatic healing example is probably a tidier one! ha ha) 

sure. it's typical to hold that a miracle is 'an event not explicable by nature or scientific laws. such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (God or gods), a miracle worker, saint or religious leader...' and if pressed, we might word our own definition differently than the good people at wikipedia have. however, it would probably still include something about an unexplainable happening being attributed to an omnipotent being or the spokesperson for one.

but why, exactly, does something need to be unexplainable or supernatural in order to be considered miraculous? perhaps if we understood the scope of the miraculous differently we'd see more of it.

it's already in some of the language we use anyway. as my friend points out, we speak of the 'miracle of childbirth' and the 'miracle of spring'. we speak of complete healing or quick recovery as miraculous. we even claim that random events occurring simultaneously are beyond coincidence- that they are traceable to blessings or curses or superstitious notions like fortune or luck.

and yet, as rational people, our default position is that once an understandable explanation can be offered for an event, the wonder of that event is somehow cracked open and all the miracle fizz leaks out. this default may be distilling for us an increasingly flat cosmos, effectively closing us to wonder rather than opening us to it.

i get it. it's hard to patiently read the sacred texts of any faith without a common question emerging: "why are the gods so ready to intervene then and so resistant to doing it now?"

a rational response comes fairly quickly from my friend: "because people observed natural phenomena then and had no education or experience that fit, nor language that described these observations, so they attributed these things to the supernatural."

and, as the unexplainable shrank, so did the realm of God.

but what if we have just become increasingly blind to miracles? i mean, what if miracles are happening all the time and we're missing them because we either don't know what to look for or we have stopped looking altogether? what if our understanding of miracles is too limiting? what if, in addition to the things that just happen and for which there seems to be no reasonable explanation, the miraculous also consists of the very things that we no longer attribute to God because we have, with all of our development, come to understandings that satisfy our drive for answers? what if wonder need not simply be a response to the impossible or the incredibly unlikely, but might have more in common with awe- with the taking stock of what is and acknowledging its greatness or its majesty or its detail or its resolution? does this challenge what we currently identify as miraculous? maybe a little.

perhaps a large part of the miracle blindness problem is not with our observation, study and description of the world around us, but with the use of the word miracle itself.

to turn to the Bible here is to invite all sorts of pushback with labels like confirmational bias and whatnot. however, being that much of our western thought on the jurisdiction of the miraculous originates there, tracing the thought even just one step back past the usage of the word miracles in today's english translations of the Bible to the original hebrew or greek words used to imply this might further our understanding, perhaps even correct it a bit.

in the Old Testament, the hebrew word for miracle- mowpheth [mO-fAth]- shows up many times, but most often describing the 'signs and wonders' in Israel's defining story: the exodus from egypt- in particular, the plagues that are intentional, systematic, epic demonstrations of the power of israel's God, intended to convince egyptians and hebrews alike that this YHWH person is sovereign, worthy of worship, able to save and willing to intervene in the squabbles of people.  the phrase 'that [they/you] would know that I am God...' appears again and again in conjunction with these wondrous happenings.

that people would recognize that God is God.
miracles of the mowpheth kind and the wonder that accompany them seem to be a call to worship.

in the New Testament, two words show up in the original greek text which are translated as 'miracle': dynamis [dU-na-mis], which means 'demonstration of strength', and the more interesting semeion [sA-mY-on] meaning 'sign' or 'attention getter.' The latter gets used more in keeping with the kinds of things we usually call miraculous: changing water into wine, feeding the multitudes, healing the crippled etc. however, whether it is a sign of strength or a demonstration of the Holy Spirit's power through Christ and, (particularly in Acts), his followers, the New Testament words for miracle don't connote the supernatural ('beyond or outside the natural') or the impossible so much as they serve a purpose: to indicate that God is sovereign, worthy of worship, able to save and willing to intervene through Jesus Christ.

again, that people would recognize that God is God.
and, in this testament, that God is present/ incarnate in Christ.

so in the Bible- the place where our cultural understanding of this whole notion of miracles finds some significant foundation, if that which is miraculous is meant to indicate that Jesus/God is God and is worthy or worship, then why exactly do miracles have to be these impossible things that contravene the laws that hold all of the physical universe together? do not the arguments for intelligent design pursue a similar goal using scientifically observed natural glories like the 'specified information content in DNA [or] the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe', that people would recognize an 'intelligent cause' as opposed to ascribing the formation of the physical realm to an undirected natural process?

with this broader, more specifically biblical understanding of what it means for something to be miraculous, unexplainable phenomena continue to inspire awe. however, so also do common glories like childbirth and rainbows, for the wonder need not be lost simply because we have some understanding of how the mechanism works. appreciation derived from this understanding might simply be a different kind of awe.

and this understanding-based awe can lead us back to a God of ongoing revelation, one who is not threatened by our development but delights in it, letting us peak behind the curtain from time to time, knowing that to behold him is to ascribe to him all power, glory, and detail with wonder and thanksgiving...

as the scales fall from our eyes.

(Disclaimer: my awesome friend's thoughts and arguments inspired this little rant, sure. i love that about the dialogue we continue to engage in. his journey is forged by asking good questions and it's not my intention to misrepresent his perspective in my framing of our little story. the point here is to get into writing what i've been doing with our conversation since it went down.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"all my tubes and wires and careful notes"

so we are eating some delicious food at a place that specializes in providing that during the luncheon hour, and my friend leans back in his chair and posits something that has obviously been growing within him for awhile.

"i think science is crowding out God." he says

then he proceeds to make a case for it. the things that have been traditionally attributed to God are being explained, one by one, by science. examples flow like sweet wine as he paints a picture of this God person being effectively relegated to superintending little bits of almost completely irrelevant void.

it's funny how two people can draw entirely different conclusions from the same observational data... factor faith and theology into things and the polarity increases.

in this case, as in most, i think science is used best to somehow reinforce what we already suspect to be true. so whereas, my friend embraces the void and is quite comfortable with the incredible shrinking god, i embrace the presence and am quite comfortable with the increasingly revealed God. scientifically speaking, in the end it's all theory and one theory is as good as the next, right? we can't prove God any more than we can disprove God... especially if we have room in our theology for ongoing revelation.

what i mean is this: in my view, God doesn't cease to be involved in things simply because we come to understand a bit more about how they fit into the large 3D jigsaw puzzle called 'physical reality.' the fact that we can see a connection between this and that event only threatens the theology of the man who expects God and God's actions to be completely mysterious, completely invisible, completely unexplainable... but where is that written down?

if one holds to the idea that God is involved, whether actively manipulating objects or simply setting wheels in motion, then the explanation of the movements of those objects or the rate and rotation of the wheels and how they fit with others in a giant clocklike construction of mindblowingly intricate cogs is really cause to marvel and exult.

the psalmist speaks of ascribing to God all glory and honour due his name. through even unpardonably sloppy science, my own humble words of praise are simply a bit more informed.

and i like that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

chance- get out of jail free card

on another blog i keep, a good conversation on justice developed from a post about a TV show. in my view, it's well worth reading.

a question was raised at the end that caught me by surprise, however. it challenged me to examine the chasm that exists between the man i am and the one i seek to become.

"Question is, is there such a thing as being too merciful/gracious?" (sVs)

i don't know about this...

my old sense of crime and punishment says 'yes'
my growing sense of embraceable ideal says 'no.'

what to do?

i think that i have been raised in an environment so prone to pronouncements that it is an ongoing struggle to default beyond this. in most cases, it's fairly common to see a black hat on one guy and a white hat on the other. as a matter of fact, i have even noticed, upon looking deeply into my own relational world, that if i can identify one 'villain' in the group i am more ready to extend grace to everybody else in the room.

i believe the word for this is 'scapegoating'
not good.

it bugs me that it is so easy to focus all my negative energy, presumption, cold officiousness, harsh scrutiny, suspicion and even expectation upon one person, while granting everyone else in the game the 'chance- get out of jail free' card. it's a twisted redemption game where the lamb to be sacrificed is not the most perfect, but the one with the greatest observable flaws.

marilyn manson, mass-media manipulator extraordinaire, reflected upon this once: People tend to associate anyone who looks and behaves differently with illegal or immoral activity.

there has got to be a better way.

you'd think that, with all the preaching about unconditional love and the unmerited favour of God that i do, the best of it would either come from a deeper place or, through my preparation process, sink in a little deeper and ultimately become the new default setting. working on that.

whatever the case, here's a thought that is emerging:
if it is possible that one's capacity for mercy plays a key role in increasing the readiness to extend grace- what then?

what i mean is this: if one can be taught to see the other indescriminately- to remove the hats, both black and white- and see people's apparent inability to live to realization the best things about themselves as lamentable rather than indictable, then perhaps one can find the grace needed to extend to them, even against the pain that they seem to be inflicting upon others. there might be hope there.

oh, to be more merciful, more gracious,
more ready to give the other a chance.

see, somehow God affords the breaker of natural law opportunity to be redeemed. neither the most nor the least unrighteous of us is struck down where he stands because God has just had it with him. the yet-to-be-realized good in a person may be the only thing that God sees in his infinite mercy and patience. the ability to see in our limited capacity for the same is what's needed for the rest of us who aren't God, for this is integral in bearing his image, recognizing and responding to it in others.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

for chris and richard

Thursday, June 24, 2010


recently on another blog, my friend hineini left a question in the comment box that got me going:

what would our theologies gain/lose
if we were to jettison the idea of original sin?

now, i LOVE the idea of jettisoning original sin. really i do. the problem is that i and all the 'good' people i know have this capacity to do 'bad' things.

bad: self destructive. disunitive. exploitive, self-absorbed and self-serving at the expense of others, ... all that.

somehow we have to deal with this because we are called to something existentially higher than the 'survival of the fittest/ fight or flight' defaults of the animal kingdom. seems that the stakes are higher for us.

what i mean is that, in being exalted above an instinct-driven state of being, we are afforded both the luxury and the responsibility of not only contemplating morality, faith, and a spiritual realm, but engaging in the expression or at least the exploration of these things. in being raised up to this higher level of awareness, we are pressed to do something useful with it.

but all that botching up... all that hurting and being hurt. all that violence. without the doctrine of original sin, these things become even more confounding than they already are with it.

the question is a pretty intriguing one though:
what would our THEOLOGIES gain/lose if we were to jettison the idea of original sin?

if theology is the
science/knowledge of God and so much of our picture of things turns around our picture of the creator of these things, then the change we're talking about here is something fairly all-encompassing: our picture of God would change drastically if we were to do away with this idea, even just in speculation. i mean, all that business of grace and hope and redemption would be moot. i think we'd lose a great deal in our picture of God if we decided that somehow we should be able to just raise ourselves above the current state of 'fallenness' simply because there would be aspects of God that are inherently positive and comely which would disappear from our perspective. we would have no reason or context through which to encounter them... could it be that, with the fall of man came an exaltation of God, as certain things about God's nature became apparent for the first time?

(NOTE- tangent: ...much like the way radio waves are invisible to our eyes. radio waves are 'real' within our physical realm, yet are imperceptible to us because we have no natural way to engage with them. the best we can do is develop a theory, then develop a technology to try to meaningfully bridge the gap between our theory and our experience. turns out we know radio waves are real because in small measure they can be used to communicate information relatively cleanly and efficiently- provided we have a network of transmitters and receivers in place. we know that they are real because, in large measure they can be used to either fuel our greatest exploits or kill one another... yet whether we're dealing with a little or a lot, to our senses radio waves remain undetectable. in a quirky, but mildly interesting curio called Radio KAOS, roger waters, conceptual mastermind of the band pink floyd, explores some of these ideas... found a vid on youtube circa 1987: mullets and mall hair abound!)

so anyway, our knowledge of God is very heavily affected by the ways that we are permitted to encounter, explore and interact with him- the ways God chooses to reveal himself to those created in his image. all this kinda makes me wonder what other aspects of God are also true but have not found expression within our reality.

what aspects of the image of God are yet unrealized amongst those who bear it?

and what aspects of God are interfered with or otherwise distorted because of the doctrines we've constructed in our attempts to arrive at some kind of reasonable agreement with one another about some of the most troublesome aspects of our own existence? somehow our knowledge of God seems to be contingent upon our knowledge of self in community with others, and vice versa.

perhaps, without all this business of fallenness and original sin we'd also be able to embrace at face value the invitation of God to participate in the ongoing celebration of life and love within the cosmos. perhaps our relationship with God would also be freed of all that self-interested, soul-saving stuff and, in being freed of it, be released to one of loving God for God's sake, rather than our own?

like LSD in the 60's which promised to unlock the real potential of human consciousness but instead just left, in its wake, a generation of seekers whose minds had been so opened that they struggled to discern the difference between the real and the surreal, is our doctrine of original sin a version of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that we have become addicted to because no one has passed a law against it yet?


but what to do with all that other negative stuff that we carry within and express so easily? pretend it's not there?

hmm... hmm...
and again i say hmm...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

playing bongos at the opera house (a rant)

It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different plants, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil- which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama (Richard Feynman)

this heterodoxious quote flew from the face of feynman as part of a television interview in 1959, six years before the 'distinguished young theoretical physicist' (as he was introduced on the early-morning eisenhower-era broadcast) would win the nobel prize "for (his) fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles."

it is picked up by herman wouk and placed, with no initial explanation, as the forward of wouk's book on science and religion The Language God Talks (the title of which is also taken from a feynman soundbyte.) that's where i read it.

what i find exciting is how one person can speak a thought into being, and that thought can be preserved and shared back and forth for decades, centuries and even millenia, continuing to challenge people to discover the truths contained within it that have yet to be revealed. it is not just scripture or other epic pieces of literature that engage and exalt us in this way.

in this case, a brilliant scientist makes a mildly scandalous cosmological remark on a 'good morning, pleasantville' tv show that is faithfully transcribed and later discovered by one of the scientist's contemporaries to life-changing effect and to be explored in a book written by this contemporary a half century later and sold at superstore to a preacher who is wandering around looking for things to do while he waits for his son to get off work... but who also happens to be planning to speak to the little flock assembled the following sunday about how the Holy Spirit of God draws people into ongoing dialogue with himself and each other in ways that are sometimes 'unconventional.'

in any event, feynman was probably intending to communicate something very different in the articulation of his thought than the meaning that i took from it.

what can you do, though?
as i used to tell my students ad nausium:

"the moment you release an aesthetic piece into the physical realm, you forfeit all rights to its real meaning. It will mean whatever the person engaging with the art decides it means, which is perfect because what we really want to accomplish here is the engagement of other people in what we're doing together..."

yeah, those poor kids had to endure more preaching than the sunday morning crowd because they had me once a day, every day for an entire term or more...

anyway, feynman's words lead me not away from God,
but towards God.

words of doubt always lead me there- not in a glib, faith beyond reason, hard right-wing-push-back-attempt-at-maintaining-defaults-in-order-to-resist-change-and-ultimately-growth kinda way, but simply by inviting me to consider possibilities about God rather than impossibilities about 'the Old One.' (wouk's term of endearment)

i agree that the stage is far too massive to support this relatively small and self-contained little show about good and evil. that's because in any opera (derived from latin opus meaning 'work', but decidedly more... a 'large, multifaceted, composite work') of significance, every aspect of the production is part of the intended purpose: set, properties, costuming, lighting, visual and sonic effects, stage management, direction, blocking, choreo, harmony, score and orchestra all move together with the story and the songs, but do not come to complete realization until the show closes and the audience, cast and crew disperse, having been collectively moved and individually touched by the experience, afforded stories to tell in reflection.

in God's universe- comprised of all of those rich dynamics: the sound and silence, the beauty and horror, the darkness and light- the scripturally stated purpose is God's glory and this purpose is only completely realized when the show closes.

so in my view, a large part of our roles in this piece of cosmic performance art is to explore our beingness, not be preoccupied with explaining it. if our place in the big show is to be, say, the bongo-player, then let's get on with playing the bongos rather than go on and on about whether these bongos and the ability to play them is ordained by God or not.

Friday, April 30, 2010

epifony [sic]

we had been talking about epiphanies and i found myself seated reflectively in one of those ridiculous plastic chairs at tim horton's caught up in a moment of internal conflict over what to make of that fairly deep and pointed online discussion, and what to do with what i was making...

syd barrett's tortured voice from 1968 broke through my own inner din:

and what exactly is a dream?
and what exactly is a joke?

luckily, i had a pencil.

epiphanies are very personal things.

one will say that
too many can be painful
another will counter that
too few can leave us feeling rather alone in it all.

the thing about one person's moment of discovery or clarity is that
it's one person's moment
and in so being is limited by this person's perspective...

  • perspective: the gestalt of his/her experiences to date synthesized with all learnings heretofore gathered;

  • perspective: the summative who what where when and how the person is today;

  • perspective: the id and superego engaged in their seductive dancing, each beckoning the other to cross the great divide of the ego

and is, therefore
subjective observation at best,
high treason of the heart at worst.

so with all this illogical clutter
unsubstantiated allegation and
crazy emotion-driven inkling, what makes it an epiphany at all?

simply the preceding search for one?