Miracles Are Great, But They’re Always Also Tragic

I don’t think I have any reason to not believe in miracles. I believe in God; I might as well believe in miracles. My metaphysics might not be super tidy as a result, but tidy metaphysics aren’t a goal in and of themselves.

I think miracles happen. I think prayers are answered. I think people get healed of illnesses. I think circumstances change and re-align. I think people are protected. I think people beat unbeatable odds. I think people receive strength and hope in hopeless situations. I think water changes into wine, seas part, waves are walked upon, corpses revive, food multiplies and fishing nets are filled.

Without diving too deeply into the theological rabbit hole, I understand miracles eschatologically. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and when he healed and performed other miracles, he gave many of those he encountered a foretaste of what was to come when that kingdom was fully realised. Miracles are they in-breaking into what is of what is to come. There are two worlds, in other words. Two universes. There’s this one and there’s the one to come. To a full extent in the supreme miracle – the resurrection – and to lesser extents in all the other miracles Jesus performed, the two world overlap, momentarily, in space and in time. Christians ground their hope in those miracles, and in the miracles some of them experience today. Miracles are, quite literally, a glimpse into the resurrected, recreated order that is to come.

Which is to say, miracles are great.

But it’s precisely because they’re great that they’re also really tragic. Because by providing us with this brief glimpse into the future world to come, miracles throw this present world into painfully sharp relief. Miracles are the exception. Most do not encounter them directly, at least not particularly often. Most of the time, life plods along in its tedious indifference and sporadic cruelty. Everyone experiences hardships. Some are born with them hardcoded into their DNA, others have nature or other people or social structures serve it to them, free of charge. Others screw everything up for themselves. A lucky few get to experience miracles. But for them, too, life resumes. People healed of illnesses get sick again sooner or later. Maybe their illness returns or some other disease digs its claws into their backs. Every single person who was healed by Jesus died eventually.

Miracles don’t last. They are fleeting. Which is kind of what makes them great. But also really bad at the same time. The deeper the darkness, the more vivid the light. And vice versa. So while I believe in miracles and think they have happened and do happen, they always feel really ambiguous to me. I understand that a miracle can sustain a person through extremely dire circumstances and that even a relatively small miracle can have big consequences. Miracles have a way of being life-changing. But they are also undeniably tragic.

I think this has implications for those expressions of Christianity that give miracles a central place in their doctrine and practice. Go to some of these churches and listen to some of these preachers, you get the impression that miracles are not only unquestionably good, but absolutely central to what Christianity is about. The individual believer’s relationship with God is characterised in such a way that a constant stream of miracles is almost mandatory and definitional, and in some cases it is conceived of in more or less mechanistic terms. Faith becomes a magic formula in this understanding and, when said right with the right amount of conviction, it yields – and cannot fail to yield – miraculous results. There are a lot of problems with this, but most fundamental is the problem of how it characterises God. God, according to this understanding, is not Immanuel, the God of suffering solidarity, the crucified God. This is the God of success. God is only with successful people and those people who are with God are successful. God, then, only resides in a tiny sliver of human existence. An understanding of miracles that allows for their intrinsic ambiguity opens the door and lets God out, inviting him to live in all of life’s many facets.

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Some Thoughts on “Evolution Vs. God”

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I must admit I’ve been putting this off for a couple of weeks. It’s been almost a month since Ray Comfort’s new anti-evolution film, Evolution Vs. God, came out and I’ve been dreading the moment where I had to endure a sit through it. But this morning I sat down on the sofa, took a deep breath and pressed play.

Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the film is quite well made. The graphics are nice and the editing is effective. Manipulative (we’ll get to that later), but effective. Ray Comfort deserves recognition too, because, agree with him or not, he has an abundant amount of charisma and charm. You don’t even see him on screen until the last minutes of the film, but he has you captivated all the way through. So he’s certainly good at his job.

But that’s where the praise must stop, I’m afraid.

As a Christian and as an evolutionist, I’m stuck right in the middle of dichotomy assumed by the film between evolution and God. I’m convinced that there’s nothing anti-God about evolution, nor is there anything anti-evolution about God. Certainly, evolution can be interpreted in ways that exclude God, just as well as God and the doctrine of creation specifically can be interpreted in ways that make the acceptance of evolution impossible. But neither of these interpretations are necessary nor are they, in my opinion, correct. The Christian doctrine of creation grants ontological integrity to nature and so demands that science, as the study of nature, be taken very seriously indeed. Theology and science, therefore, must be integrated. They cannot be pitted against each other, as everyone in this film seems to be doing.

(Which raises a minor point in regards to the chosen protagonists of the Evolution Vs. God story: Where were the Christian evolutionists?)

As someone who takes science very seriously (because I take theology very seriously), I was disturbed by the fundamental disregard the film had for science and scientists. Throughout the entire film, the scientific method is undermined, the results of a century and a half of scientific research dismissed and the integrity, intelligence and motives of evolutionary scientists called in to question. In the second half of the film Comfort claims that not only do those who accept evolution, scientists and lay people alike, do so despite their intuitive knowledge that God created the world, but they do so in order to justify their own sinful lifestyles. “Evolution gets rid of moral accountability,” he claims. Attributing such ulterior motives to strangers and assuming such a position of superiority over them is both uncharitable and offensive.

But Ray Comfort has never been afraid of offence, has he? As anyone familiar with his previous work, especially with The Way of the Master, might expect, his ten commandments witnessing spiel inevitably makes its way into the film. I admire Comfort’s zeal and he seems genuinely concerned about people’s souls. But rhetorically cornering people into the Kingdom of God? That makes me very uneasy. It might work every once in a while, but mostly it’ll just confirm the widely held prejudice that Christians are hypocritical assholes who jump through hoops to avoid their so-called master’s command of love. The thing they call love is just condescending rudeness.

While we’re on the subject of Comfort’s interview technique, I must say that the longer I watched the film, the more disturbed I was by how manipulative his use of street interviews was. His use of apparently stumped experts is one, somewhat dishonest thing. But using regular folk off the street as mere props, asking them leading questions and selectively editing their responses in order to further your agenda – that’s not nice. It’s not charitable. It takes neither people nor the task of telling the truth seriously. And I really think it fails to live up to the love for one’s neighbour Christians are supposed to have.

Here’s another thing I don’t understand. Say you’re a creationist. Say you want to argue against evolution. How might you go about it? You know that certain evolutionists, like Richard Dawkins, hate religion. Why, calling evolution a religion – that’s a clever idea! “Do you believe in evolution?”, you ask your friendly neighbourhood evolutionist. “Yes, I do,” he replies. “Hah! You have faith! You’re just as clueless as I am!”

Right? Because isn’t that the logical implication of the evolution-as-religion critique so often levelled by anti-evolutionists? That evolutionists believe something just as baselessly as religious people and are thus just as stupid?

And here I thought faith was a virtue.

The problem with this rhetorical apologetic device, beyond the obvious foot-shooting, is that it plays into the hands of those atheists who portray faith as nothing but the cognitive acceptance of propositions without evidence (or, perhaps, despite the evidence). That is not what faith is – according to Christianity, at least. Believing is not the same as accepting something as factually correct. Faith is not the same as trust in experts. Saving faith in Christ is the deep existential orientation of your whole person towards the God witnessed to in the Bible and proclaimed by the church. The acceptance of a number of proposition is part of that, but arguably a relatively small part. Loving God and neighbour is infinitely more important (see 1st Corinthians 13, for example).

So, not only does this characterisation of faith quite unhelpfully play into the hands of atheological apologists, but it shortchanges true Christian faith as well.

Stop doing that, creationists. Please!

In conclusion, Evolution Vs. God is not a serious documentary film. It doesn’t attempt to weigh the evidence for evolution fairly and objectively. It doesn’t even mention any alleged evidence against evolution! It’s simply a highly problematic piece of creationist propaganda. It equivocates, it manipulates and it fails to live up to a basic standard of truth-telling. The choir will undoubtedly love what it preaches, but fair-minded viewers will be put off by its dishonest tactics.

Watch the film for free here.

 

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Calvinism From A Drunk Teenage Girl

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Church on the open ocean – Photo: Edith Johannesen

Over the weekend, in my home town of Gøta, the G! Festival happened. G! is arguably the high point of the Faroese musical calendar, with scores of bands, both home-grown and foreign, converging on our humble town of about 1000 people. (My favourite acts this year included Faroese Byrta, Swedish Alina Devecerski and Icelandic Ásgeir Trausti.) Around 5000 people, give or take, attend the festival, many of them bringing tents and sleeping bags to the nearby camping grounds. The bigger acts perform on the beach, in front of a steady stream of bathers skipping back and forth between a sauna and firewood-heated hot tubs and the freezing Atlantic Ocean. There’s a film festival too, Faroese sushi abounds and so does the locally brewed beer and cider. Among many other more or less exotic curiosities. As you can probably imagine, it’s quite a party.

I was involved in outreach at the festival. The festival church, we called it. I’ll tell you more about it in an upcoming post, but basically we decorated an old barn with chair, tables, candles and Christian art and invited people in to hang out and, if they felt like it, chat. We also washed festival goers’ feet and did a traditional Lutheran service on Norðlýsið, an old schooner, on the open sea (communion with the waves and sea birds providing the music was profoundly beautiful!). We were very happy with the outreach and so were many of the people we talked to at the festival.

Like the drunk teenage girl I ran into early Saturday morning on my way home.

I’ve seen her around and I know her family. Her background is in the church. Church, though – if I may be so bold – doesn’t seem to play a large part in her life. At the moment at least. But as is often the case, faith lingers. Often at the margins and edges of daily experience, but it’s there and in certain circumstances, one bumps up against it.

“I really liked your church,” the young lady told me. “It was cool.”

Barely acknowledging my thanking her, she looked into my eyes and continued, “I lit a candle there for my uncle and his wife. Their baby boy just died, right after he was born.”

“That’s horrible,” I said.

“Yeah, it feels horrible,” she replied. “But it was what God wanted, so it can’t be horrible really.”

I could have said something, but refrained. We parted ways there, abruptly, as seems to be the preferred manner of seperation for pre-stupor drunk people. I had to overtake her when I was driving home a while later. She was walking along the lines on the road.

I’ve been thinking about what she said since. Calvinism has its eloquent and learned defenders – and she certainly won’t be counted among them. But something about her words made my basic problem with Calvinism stand out in stark relief. (I refer to the Calvinistic doctrine of divine sovereignity and predetination.)

What I have a hard time understanding is how, if God predestines everything that happens, can anything be deemed truly horrible? The girl seemed to understand this, however partially. Yeah, we may feel bad, but that’s an inappropriate emotion because it doesn’t match the true nature of the event, which is actually good, not horrible. I understand the desire for control in times of chaos and foothold in raging storms. The belief that God intended things to happen as they did gives painful events a meaning that people find comforting. But I wonder if that’s not too high a price to pay for comfort. Because while superficially predestination confers meaning to painful states of affairs, in reality robs them of their meaning. Because if God directly predestines a horrible event like te death of a newborn boy, how can that event truly be horrible? How can something God does be anything less than wholly good? And if God predestines everything how can anything be less tan wholly good? Taken to its logical conclusion a Calvinistic understanding of sovereignity and predetination not only denies te existence of evil, but makes God himself the author of evil.

We have theologically sound reasons to reject such a view of God. The ontological integrity of genuine evil is necessary in order to undertand the Christian story of salvation. Evil must be other than God if God is to be other than evil, if God is to be good. Why worship a God who is the author of evil and its discrete instances? There’s other stuff to do, like fighting evil. A drunk teenage girl could tell you that.

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