Wednesday, May 02, 2007

'real' christianity and miracles

"Real Christianity" has nothing to do with whether Elijah miraculously provided enough oil for the widow at Zarephath to make it through the famine. "Real Christianity" has nothing do with whether the sun went backward 10 steps for Hezekiah. "Real Christianity" has nothing to do with whether God created the world in six days, flooded it in 40, and scattered everyone across the earth when they built the first skyscraper.

Being a real Christian does not require believing that God turned the Nile to actual blood and that the moon one day will turn to actual blood; nor does it mean believing that the author of Exodus was describing a periodic saturation of the Nile with red algae that would drive all the frogs out of the river, or that Revelation is describing a lunar eclipse.

All believers -- mainline, Catholic, evangelical, Coptic, fundamentalist, Orthodox, Pentecostal and other -- make up a bunch of junk, hang it on the Cross, and say "This is real Christianity. Believe it or go to hell." We're all guilty of that, because not one of us has understood. But thankfully, God isn't nearly as narrow as the people who follow him.

Paul gave the church its first creed -- "By this gospel, you are saved: that Christ died for your sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and on the third day he rose again." And James unequivocally spells out what true religion is: caring for the needy and the oppressed. Everything else is just straw, and maybe if we as a church stopped worrying about the straw, both church and society would be a lot healthier.

I gotta admit, I'm puzzled by the reaction some people have had to my comments of late, off-blog. The contention appears to be that my faith is diminished by being less literal than theirs, and that I require being rescued both from it and the very serious doubts I'm having about the faith in general. Isn't doubt good, because it motivates us to seek a more definitive Truth? I've always thought so.

It's best to remember that the Hebrew Bible comes from a Hebraic storytelling tradition that we lack the cultural context to properly understand in the West. Still, we can draw a parallel between that storytelling tradition and the one we have here in America, which includes stuff like George Washington either willfully engaging in deforestation or chopping down invasive species to safeguard America's native woodlands, depending on your political bent; it includes tales of Casey Jones and John Henry, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan; and it includes other stories about people from a wide sampling of America's ethnic traditions.

In the long run, to us as a nation, it doesn't matter that George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree and then owned up to it, because it's more important to our culture to believe that Washington was a virtuous man who never told a lie. It also is unimportant that while Casey Jones was a real train engineer who died in a train wreck, John Henry probably didn't tunnel into a mountain faster than a steam drill and then die of a heart attack, because both Casey Jones and John Henry say something about our progress as an industrialized nation and the power of the human spirit.

And of course, while children might believe these stories, by adulthood, most of us come to accept that folklore has historical value even if the stories themselves aren't historical, because of the details they preserve about our nation's past, the nuggets they pass on about the conflicts and struggles of those bygone eras, and because of the richness they add to our language. If I say George Washington was a regular Paul Bunyan in that cherry tree episode, it doesn't mean I believe Bunyan ever walked the frozen lands of Minnesota.

As for the miracles, they have never been the point of faith. Would Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be any less the heroes of the faith if they had been consumed by the fire of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace? Would Daniel, had the lions eaten him?

Would Elijah's authority to confront Ahab have been any less if he hadn't brought a dead boy back to life, or if he took up a part time job to keep the widow from running out of flour?

Would Moses have been less a deliverer for Israel if he had helped them dig a well to get water instead of striking a rock?

Of course not. The goal of faith isn't (or shouldn't be) to see miracles, or even to see prayer "answered" (though we always pray with the expectation that it will be). The goal of faith is simply this: to know God better. He is the reward we seek, not the gifts he litters our way with.

Nor does viewing some or all of the biblical accounts as nonhistorical constitute believing that God is incapable of performing or unwilling to perform them. Anyway, our belief in miracles in any event is a prerequisite for them only when dealing with the Force and while learning at the feet of Master Yoda. Where God is concerned, it is willingness to to do what he asks of us that leads to miracles happening.

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