by David Taylor
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006
Consider the following passage from Exodus:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from before Israel; for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians." (Exodus xiv.21-25)
A miracle? If you examine the passage carefully, we can't be totally sure.
"The LORD", we are told, "drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided." But when the account goes on to tell us that the waters were a wall to the Israelites on their right hand and on their left, we are now certainly confronted by a miracle. Also the idea of two walls of water collapsing onto the Egyptians does not look like the earliest version of the story. If we assume that unusual weather conditions created a fordable passage, which seems to be the earliest version of the story, then the Egyptian disaster becomes equally plausible. Although they were in chariots and the fleeing Israelites on foot, the sea bed was soft ground - which little hindered the Israelites on foot, but made it impossible for the Egyptian chariots to proceed; so that when the weather changed and the sea returned, the Egyptians were unable to go forward or back. Hence the calamity.
Probably most of us here in our school days were told in connection with the biblical miracles that what 'really' happened was something unmiraculous in itself, and may even have been reminded of Shaw's (to me utterly implausible) dictum that a miracle is an event which creates faith; one has to insist that is not what the word miracle has ever meant, nor does it carry any conviction. All of us recognize a miracle from our perception that the event can never really have happened - which, to the believer is proof it was God that did it, to the rest of us that a perfervid imagination has been at work.
The same point could be illustrated with another detail from Exodus the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. Here is its first mention:
And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (Exodus xiii.21-22)
If we had only this account, we would have no difficulty with it. The Israelites set out towards an erupting volcano in the distance, seen as a column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night. So where's the miracle in that? Quite! said the priests to themselves, and immediately remedied the deficiency:
Then the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness; and the night passed without one coming near the other all night. (Exodus xiv.19-20)
And now we have a real miracle.
It is tempting to think that belief in miracles as contrary to nature is characteristic of primitive thought, while the more sophisticated (like, for instance, Shaw) would prefer to see them as purely natural processes; but the evidence points the opposite way. The primitive mind sees the hand of God in what are simply very lucky, or very unlucky incidents that to us have a natural explanation; it is, on the contrary the sophisticate who insists that, if God's activity is to be discerned there must be a radical discontinuity between natural events - which are therefore not miraculous - and those events which cannot be explained as natural and therefore truly are miraculous.
I agree probably with most of you that such miraculous events cannot possibly be true; at the same time - perhaps even to the anger of some of you - I confess I have no time for a religion that does not contain miracles, not merely as an element, but as the most important element in (for want of a better word) its mythology.
Other times, other customs. I was brought up to believe, as I suspect were most you, that the worth of an idea was established by its ability to stand up to scrutiny. Since our day a generation has grown up which has no time for this idea at all. To this generation the worth of an idea, like that of any other commodity, is gauged by its ability to perform in the market place. Belief in miracles performs very well in the market place; scepticism on the other hand, and particularly religions which encourage it, do not. So belief in miracles is a worthwhile idea, while scepticism about them is not; and this seems to be true even for unbelievers, who seem to be saying to themselves, "Even though I am not a believer, and for now have no use for religion, should the day come when I need it, I would plump for a real religion that has miracles in it rather for than for this wishy-washy liberalism."
I presume we all take it for granted the stories I have quoted above are untrue; it is because they are untrue, and we note the connection with religion, that we conclude they are miracles. Traditionalists, arriving at this same conclusion by much the same means, nevertheless insist that they believe them. I am bound to note they use the word 'believe' in a very different way than I do. If I say I believe something, and I meet someone who says they don't, I will set out the reasons why I do believe. He may well not be convinced; but once again, that does not worry me; but with the traditional believer, the aim of his response is not to convince you of the truth, but to make you ashamed of doubting it: "If you don't believe that, you're not a Christian." Or, if that seems feeble, then to frighten you to silence: "If you don't believe it, you will burn in hell." What this agony tells us is that, when it comes to miracles, believers are just as aware of the improbability of their beliefs as are the rest of us. His determination to suppress in himself those doubts which the rest of us freely acknowledge, and find no difficulty with, is precisely what he calls his faith.
Those looking for traditional faith are looking for something most of us here dismiss as an impossibility: certainty. We take it for granted there is no such thing, that those who think they have found it are deceiving themselves, that many of those claiming to offer it are charlatans. We preach the word in vain: those who agree with us dismiss religion altogether; those who want religion can see no point unless it offers certainty; and they recognize that certainty precisely in belief in or, even better, performance of miracles. "O set me up upon a rock that is higher than I", cries the Psalmist; that is precisely what miracles do for those who believe in them.
There remains one loose end that needs tying up before I leave the theme. You remember I earlier said I had no time for any religion that did not have miracles as an important element in its mythology. Throughout this talk I have insisted that no miracle story can ever be true. This may now seem to you a perverse stance to adopt; so let me explain it. The educated mind is conscious of living life principally in two spheres: (a) that of the world of nature and (b) that of the forces of history. Christianity, here basing itself closely on the Bible, insists that both these things are manifestations of a divine providence: nature as the consequence of God's initial act of creation, history as the sphere in which he operates to bring about man's obedience to his will. It would be overbold to insist that all scientists reject that view of nature; I will simply say I accept the view of those scientists who make that rejection, acknowledging I am relying on their expertise, since I have none to call on of my own. In the sphere of history I believe I can state there are no serious historians willing to accept the traditional Christian view; and it seems to me that Bible study goes a long way to vindicate them. There is a great deal of apparently historical writing in the Bible, but all of it obviously and seriously distorted, the reason for the distortion being precisely this insistence that history is the sphere of God's activity; thus we have many stories which we judge cannot be true, many explanations of events which do not convince, and can often enough actually detect the authors making comments, or altering details which they do not care for, in order to maintain this orthodoxy of God's direct control over human history. It is for reasons such as these I take it for granted we live in a world which, in itself, has no detectable purpose or meaning.
But we, on the contrary, are essentially creatures of purpose and meaning, and we simply cannot live in such a world. The task of religion - and this is what all religions seem to me to be about - is to reinterpret the world, so that it now appears to have purpose and meaning. Religion therefore has to be unreal; if it were real, it would itself be a part of the meaningless and purposeless world we are hoping it will deliver us from. The radical discontinuity between the real world and the religious view of it, which (as we have seen) has always been a feature of it almost to our own day, is of its very essence; when we try to dispense with it, we find ourselves dispensing with religion altogether. My guess is this is the most important factor in the catastrophic decline in religion in our day.