Whirr2006-07-06
Random thoughts about miracles.

I've been reading this history of religion (Karen Armstrong, more on this later) and it got me thinking about any number of things. Here's one of them:

Armstrong talks dismissivly about Enlightenment era Christian apologists who try to explain Christ's miracles purely rationally. For example, she scoffs at the idea that "loaves and fishes" was merely a case of people being shamed into "producing the picnics that they surreptitiously brought with them".

Theologically I have no problem with the miraculous production of loaves--I mean, you have to believe what you believe, and plenty of people believe worse. Spiritually / aesthetically, however, I much prefer the rationalist version (and no, it isn't just because of my own atheistic tendencies).

Look at it this way--magically producing fish is really not very impressive. I'm sure Penn and Teller could do it while lip-synching Bon Jovi tunes. More to the point, an incarnation of god who manifests foodstuffs is profoundly old hat. Are there any religions whose deities couldn't manufacture stuff on demand? Usually it's stuff that's a lot cooler than fish, too.

How about this scenario instead: a whole shitload of people turn out to see the latest mad Jew. Many of the richer attendees bring along a hefty snack to eat while they make fun of the "prophet". Instead, of railing against Rome exclusively, however, this guy talks about love and community and compassion, and he is so unbelievably moving that no one can bear to stand there eating fish while other people in the crowd are clearly hungry. Maybe some people go back home to get more fish, or maybe some rich guy gets so carried away that he buys out a bakery! Softening the hearts of the wealthy and inspiring real concern for humanity is really a much better miracle, all concerned, than acting as a divine catering company.

And speaking of catering, the wedding at Cana is another lame miracle. If that's all it takes to establish divinity, David Copperfied should have a pretty major cult by now. Surely that Statue of Liberty bit is more impressive than converting water into wine just because someone forgot to plan ahead.

I find my rationalist explanation quite uplifting, however. Imagine a typical wedding in Cana (which, as I understand it, is one the poor side of the tracks).

Initially everyone is nervous as hell. The bride's father is worried about how big a chunk the dowry will take out of his finances, and the groom's mother is convinced that they're getting ripped off. The ceremony goes on forever, and Jesus Christ it's hot! The only consolation is that at least there's plenty of wine. But by the end of the day everyone is pretty well toasted, and things don't seem so bad. Through the haze of alcohol new familial alliances are formed, and people start to mellow out.

But now imagine that wedding without the wine! Disaster! Maybe the fathers-in-law get into a brawl, or maybe the whole ceremony is simply conducted as quickly as possible so that everyone can get out of the heat.

And yet that doesn't happen here. Instead this rabbi shows up, and he is so much damn fun that everyone forgets that they're only drinking water. By the time everyone is ready to go he's got them all feeling great, the parents are dancing together, and uncle Joe is actually talking to uncle Solomon, after five years of antagonistic silence!

Now on some levels that sort of a miracle is much less impressive than firing off lightning bolts or raining down brimstone. On the other hand, as a humanist, I find the idea of a god who becomes human and who genuinely cares about petty human concerns quite touching. Especially if his super powers mostly involve helping people really enjoy their life and the people around them.

I won't say much about the Resurrection but that again, as a matter of religious fact it's either something you believe or you don't, nothing wrong with that. However, I do think that the there are two interpretations, again. On the one hand, Jesus returns from the grave in order to "prove" to the ten or eleven people around that they'll go to heaven. On the other hand, a nobody nothing Jewish carpenter has such a good message, so much personal charisma, and such great ideas that two millennia later he's still current. How many Roman senators, Roman emperors, high-priests, world rulers and potentates have turned to dust, their names and their achievements completely lost to history, while this fellow's "Treat everyone well, &c." still lives on? From a practical point of view, the latter miracle seems much, much cooler.

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