2016-06-30
In his introduction to "The Book of Miracles," author Kenneth Woodward surveys the place of miracles in a changing world of faith and science.

The Book of Miracles is not another anthology. Anthologists collect texts by removing them from the contexts in which they find their meaning. This is questionable enough when what is being anthologized is isolated sayings, or sound-bite wisdom of the spiritually advanced. But miracles are by definition stories that make sense only within larger narratives. What I offer here is a guide to miracles as they unfold within the sacred scriptures of each tradition and are amplified in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters. My aim has been to show how those stories function within each tradition and what they reveal about those who perform them.

For example, when the Buddha walks on water, that story discloses to a Buddhist (or should) something quite different from what a Christian sees (or should) in the similar story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. But when the apostle Peter raises a dead man to life, his miracle echoes not only what Jesus did, but also what the prophet Elijah did several centuries before. And when the Prophet Muhammad ascends to heaven, it is both like the Ascension of Jesus and something very different. In other words, to understand the meaning of a miracle, one must know the tradition out of which it comes. One must also know what earlier tradition is being challenged or superseded. Thus, to read a miracle story literally is-inevitably-to miss the point. To ignore the literal meaning, however, is to fail to understand why the miracle story was told in the first place. Why should a story told of Jesus or the Buddha be less complicated than a story by Kafka or Joyce?

On the other hand, the reader might well ask why he should bother with religions not his own. The answer, I suggest, is because we must. We live in an age of convergence. In small towns now as well as urban centers, mosques and shrines and ashrams appear where once only churches and synagogues could be seen. The people Christian missionaries once went abroad to convert are now their children's playmates in the school yard back home. Diversity, in other words, has moved well beyond the categories of race, class, and gender to include the richer, more challenging, and more comprehensive category of religion. Religions are powerful symbol systems that define reality for those who live in their embrace. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus all share the same experiences; what makes them differ one from the other is the insight into the meaning of those experiences. We cannot afford ignorance of what our next-door neighbors, or even the Bombay sales manager just an e-mail away, may believe about the nature and destiny of humankind.

Moreover, in an age of convergence, it is not at all surprising that we see the young embarking on a spiritual search. But the search is almost never confined within a single tradition. On the contrary, one often finds within the classroom setting, where searches by the young typically begin, a presumption that all religions are at bottom (or alternatively, at top) essentially the same: the same basic morality, the same perennial wisdom, or the same higher consciousness packaged under different labels. If you are dissatisfied with the package you inherited, just migrate.

In some ways, all religions are the same, though not in the ways that the young assume when they take spiritual flight. All religions have saints. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus no less than Christians venerate relics. Only Jews do not; nor do they, like others, venerate images. But all religions do have martyrs. And in all religions (save, again, Judaism) saints are far more likely to be celibates who renounce marriage and family life.

Imagine, then, a Jew bent on leaving a demanding Hebrew God behind, only to find more than one avenging deity in Hinduism. Imagine a Christian who is looking for a religion without the threat of hell discovering that Buddhism has five or six of them. Imagine a Hindu who admires the soothing, therapeutic Jesus now offered in many Christian venues discovering a Christ who demands of his disciples that they follow him to the cross. The integrity of religions is violated, therefore, when they are not presented entire.

An engagement with miracles in other religions is one way to discover how different religions really are. Because they speak of the uncommon, miracle stories are sharp reminders that to move from one religious world to another is to cross real boundaries. As Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, has reminded me-and others-so often, sympathetic understanding of another religion is important for the peoples of the planet. Indeed, serious engagement with another religion is the best way to discover the uniqueness of one's own. But to call one's self a Buddhist Christian (or, for that matter, a Hindu Jew), says the Dalai Lama, is like putting "a yak's head on a sheep's body."

The Book of Miracles is addressed to two audiences: those who believe in miracles and those who don't. Opinion polls routinely show that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and nearly as many (82 percent) believe that "even today, God continues to work miracles." At first glance, this is no surprise. Eight out of ten Americans also identify themselves as Christians, and of all the world religions, Christianity is the one that has most stressed miracles. (Hinduism, however, has more "living saints," and therefore more miracle workers.) But two-thirds of U.S. Christians identify themselves as Protestants, and since the Reformation, Protestant tradition has denied that any miracles have occurred since those of Jesus' apostles recorded in the book of Acts.

Among liberal theologians, however, even the Biblical miracles have long been dismissed as pious fictions. Seventy years ago German theologian Rudolph Bultmann spoke for most Protestant "demythologizers" of the Bible when he declared: "It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of...miracles."

Skepticism, of course, is the air that academics breathe, some more heavily than others. But outside academic subcultures American religion has always emphasized personal experience. "Born-again" Christians, especially, have stressed the experience of God acting in and on their lives. What they mean by miracles, apart from personal promptings of the Holy Spirit, the polls do not tell us. Nor do they tell us much about the God that believers believe in. New Age religions, to cite another current phenomenon, are notoriously profuse in the number of available higher beings and powers to call upon. In his last book, The Demon-Haunted World, the late cosmologist Carl Sagan took note of polls showing that most Americans believe the earth has been visited by aliens. America in the middle 1990s, he felt, was living in a new Dark Age of pseudoscience and superstition-thereby proving G. K. Chesterton's axiom that when people stop believing in God, they begin to believe in everything. The book market's most popular volumes on miracles contain testimonials from people who see the miraculous where others might well see coincidence or chance. And if some books that sell in the millions are to be believed, angels are more apt to respond to prayer for help than God. Almost anything, it would appear, can be called a miracle.

If many believers are merely credulous, many nonbelievers are merely consistent. Since there is no God, so the argument runs, there are no miracles. If, as sometimes happens, medical science is presented with a complete, instantaneous, and scientifically inexplicable cure...the skeptic has a ready if dogmatic answer: what is inexplicable now will someday be understood because there can be no such thing as a miracle. In this respect, the contemporary culture of disbelief is not much different from that of the eighteenth-century deists. To the deists, God as Creator was tolerable so long as He was also willing to leave well enough alone. "It is impossible that the infinitely wise Being has made laws in order to violate them," Voltaire wrote in his Philosophic Dictionary. "He has made this machine [of the universe] as good as he could."

Voltaire imagined God from the regularity he saw in the universe. Contemporary science, however, offers very different descriptions of how the universe works. Observable laws still operate, but they are activated by chance. Thus, in the emerging picture offered by contemporary science there is a dynamic of structured randomness both in the activity of subatomic particles and in the macro world of evolving stars and planets. In evolutionary perspective, the world appears to be self-creating. It may be a purposeless process, in which case the emergence of human beings is a fortuitous accident. Or it may have purpose, rooted in a Divine Intelligence Who fashioned human beings for Himself. In any case, science no longer corresponds to anyone's common sense. Whether there is room in such an evolving universe for God-and therefore the kinds of divine action assumed by miracles-is a legitimate, even pressing issue, which contemporary philosophers, theologians, and scientists are pursuing with considerable intellectual vigor.

This is not the place, nor is it my intention, to argue the existence of God, or of gods, or of miracles. Belief in miracles, in any event, has never been a substitute for religious faith. But it is the place to remind readers that the great face-off between science and religion is a relic of nineteenth-century Western culture. Today, many scientists are also people of religious faith, and some theologians are also scientists. No science, of course, can proceed in any calculation or experiment with God as a factor and still claim to be a science. Saints, on the other hand, may, and often do, "experiment with God" as Gandhi experimented with "truth." This presupposes a God who is neither withdrawn from His creation nor uninterested in how it turns out. Indeed, in an evolutionary world where everything is related to everything else, it is not hard to imagine a God who, in Himself, is relationship.



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