REALizing the Miraculous
I grieve for those who imagine faith primarily in terms of what is unnatural, rather than what is undeniable. Untold suffering in the world results from individuals, families, and groups valuing a mythic, otherworldly AFTERlife over a measurably real THIS life. What follows is Appendix B in my book, Thank God for Evolution: “REALizing the Miraculous”.
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“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” —ALBERT EINSTEIN
PROPHETIC INQUIRY: What life-serving meaning can we take from (or make of) miraculous stories that seem to exist in every religious tradition, including Christianity, but which are seldom honored or supported by any respected scientific approach?
I have relegated discussion of biblical miracle stories to Appendix B for two reasons. First, the miracle stories appear to many as irrelevant, outdated, misleading, and perhaps embarrassing aspects of scripture-based religions. Second, for those readers who do find such stories inspiring and faith-enhancing, or who are curious as to how the evolutionary perspective might interpret the miraculous, I wanted to ensure that they first had a chance to read Richard Dawkins’s poignant letter to his daughter on this topic (Appendix A: “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing“).
Miracles Through the Ages
“It feels unacceptable to many people even to think of having a cosmology based on science. They misinterpret freedom of thought as requiring a refusal to believe anything. They see fanciful origin stories as spicing up the culture. The problem is, however, that spices, even in the most artful mixture, cannot compensate for the fact that there is no food—no data, no evidence; such stories are not actually about anything beyond themselves. We are not arguing to throw away the spices but to start with some food and then only use those spices that improve the food at hand. Scientific reality is the food. Aspects of many origin stories can enrich our understanding of the scientific picture, but they cannot take its place.” —JOEL R. PRIMACK AND NANCY ELLEN ABRAMS
When we look carefully at religion in the context of history and from a global perspective, a curious fact begs our attention. The further back in recorded history we peer, the more miracles we encounter and the more fantastic they generally are. Few claims of alleged supernatural occurrences of a decade or so ago have carried forward into the written records that are consulted today. Writings born of a century or more ago do contain some miraculous claims (for example, the golden tablets that launched the Mormon faith), but still, the miracles are not prolific. When we look back thousands of years, however, the written records that have survived document supernatural events and miracles galore. Indeed, the miraculous seems to have been what was often deemed worthy of passing on.
One need spend only a little time in a library or online to discover that the world’s ancient religious texts are full of so-called miraculous tales. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories, on every continent and within every tradition, of animals talking, of gods and goddesses profoundly aff ecting the lives of ordinary humans and the course of human history, of stars making one-time appearances and heralding world-changing events, of heroes accomplishing superhuman feats, of individuals living for hundreds of years, of angels encouraging and devils tempting, and of the blind seeing, the lame walking, and the demonically possessed made whole. There are stories of virgin births, resurrections from the dead, ascensions into heaven.
One may choose to believe or disbelieve any of these miracle stories. However, that these stories exist is beyond argument. Undeniable, too, is that miracle stories abound in many different traditions and that the older they are, the more extraordinary the claims tend to be. Not surprisingly, as a number of authors have noted, many parallels exist between the stories of Jesus recorded in the early Christian scriptures and stories that predate Christianity:
Born of a virgin: Dionysus, Horus, Tammuz, Krishna, Zarathustra, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Attis, Heracles
Son of the Supreme God: Dionysus, Krishna, Mithras, Heracles
Death or torture by crucifixion (including bound to or embedded within a tree or stone): Dionysus, Osiris, Krishna, Prometheus
Resurrection and ascension: Osiris, Tummuz, Krishna, Mithras, Adonis
How shall we interpret similarities between the Christian story and those of other faiths and times? This was not a problem for earlier peoples when cultures did not intermingle, when there was no mass communication—no public libraries, no television, no Internet. Until recently, individuals throughout the world have mostly lived their lives unaware of the content of any creation story or religious vista other than their own. But now that we are exposed to other worldviews and religious stories (even when our parents and churches try to shield us from alternatives), this is what happens: We tend to regard the miraculous tales of our tradition as true, historical, and real—and the miraculous claims of other religions as fanciful stories. Sadly, for many of us, creation myths are “the crazy stories those people over there tell about how everything came to be. Our story is the truth!”
Perhaps another way to make sense of the similarities (though not one I recommend) is to conclude that most, if not all, of these ancient sacred stories are literally, historically true. Back then animals spoke, gods and goddesses blessed and cursed, supernova explosions were timed to coincide with important religious events, angels encouraged, devils tempted, and so forth, and that such supernatural events, for whatever reason, rarely if ever happen today.
A third interpretation—the one I find sensible and inspiring—is to regard each of these stories as an engaging and meaningful ‘night language’ (dreamlike) expression of something important about the nature of Reality and our relationship to It/Him/Her, as experienced by a particular culture in one part of the world at a particular time in history. This interpretation includes claims that the origins of some miraculous stories have a basis in a scientifically verifiable event. For example, geological and archeological evidence suggests that a wall of water from the Mediterranean Sea poured through the Bosporus into the Black Sea (which was freshwater until then) about 7,000 years ago, owing to rising sea levels as Ice Age glaciers melted. Creating meaning out of a devastating event is human nature. It does not follow, though, that the event itself was punishment unleashed by a supernatural being. If we start here, we may discover that it is possible to “believe in” the miraculous stories of scripture and also to “know” that a literal interpretation of them is the least lifegiving of all. As a parishioner of mine once remarked, “I take the Bible far too seriously to interpret it literally.”
From a developmental perspective grounded in deep time, nothing is lost and everything is gained by believing in the core meaning and teachings of miraculous stories, rather than in their literal truth. The Bible as sacred scripture is preserved and the Universe Story as sacred, updatable scripture becomes available to us, one and all. We can have both:
- I believe that God is creator and ruler of the Universe. And I know that this statement is metaphorical, not literal, in what it says about the nature of reality.
- I know that God has been communicating faithfully, and clearly, for hundreds of years to the entire human community through the full range of sciences. And I believe that this has everything to do with fulfi llment of the Gospel and realizing Christ’s return.
Let us now turn to miracle stories in the Bible. In light of the distinctions between public and private revelation, and between day and night language, (both discussed in Part II of TGFE: “Reality Is Speaking”) how can some of the central miracles of the early Christian scriptures be realized from a creatheistic perspective?
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” —CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
From Born Again Believer to Born Again Knower
Connie and I visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (a short drive from Cincinnati), soon after it opened in 2007. We enjoyed the visual splendor of its many exhibits, especially the life-size and animated models of humans and dinosaurs, the latter benignly coexisting with humans before the Fall, fearsome thereafter. Most impressive was the brilliant use of value laden narrative to structure the experience: a single and memorable storyline that explained why we suffer and die—and how we can be saved. Connie and I were moved, too, by the respectful and forthright presentation of the evolutionary worldview. “Human Reason” was thus contrasted to the worldview showcased throughout the museum and labeled “God’s Word.”
Driving toward Chicago that same afternoon, I felt a glow from having mingled with hundreds of young families sharing the same adventure. How would the lives of those children unfold? I reflected on my own spiritual journey from traditional evangelical to evolutionary evangelical. Far from losing my faith, I had transited from born again believer to born again knower.
How many years will pass before children of all faiths have a chance to encounter in exciting ways the evolutionary story—not just as science but as their creation story, a story that addresses their own biggest questions? In my reverie on the freeway, I foresaw a time when evolutionary evangelicals would include a full spectrum of the devoutly religious: from those who believe in miracles, supernatural entities, and otherworldly concepts to those who believe in no such things. Uniting them all would be a shared religious knowing and experience of heavenly freedom. They would be born again knowers, incarnating Christ-like integrity and shining with joy.
They would be distinguished, too, by an unshakable faith that God’s Word encompasses the accumulated and ongoing public revelations delivered via scientific discovery—revelations that transcend differences of belief. Evolutionary evangelicals will continue to find great value in—but they will not be constrained by—the religious metaphors and understandings recorded by humans in generations past. Their faith will enable them to accept what is real, to appreciate ancestral instincts in themselves and others, while committing to practical action and support for channeling those instincts in ways that bless their communities—and thus honor God.
REALizing “the Virgin Birth”
“Birth narratives tell us nothing about the birth of the person who is featured in those narratives. They do tell us a great deal, however, about the adult life of the one whose birth is being narrated. No one waits outside a hospital room for a great person to be born. This is not the way human life works. A person becomes great in his or her adult years, and the significance of that life is celebrated in tales that gather around the moment in which that powerful adult figure entered history.” —JOHN SHELBY SPONG
PROPHETIC INQUIRY: What meaning might be made of the story of Jesus’ virgin birth that would resonate with and inspire those of us grounded in a science-based evolutionary perspective?
The choice one makes to believe or not to believe, as a literal scientific fact, the miraculous stories of Jesus being born of a virgin (as reported in the gospels of Matthew and Luke) is unimportant from an evolutionary religious perspective.
Some devout Christians do believe this; some do not. As well, we may or may not choose to ponder the suggestions by scholars of cultural history that many people in the ancient Mediterranean world would not have taken seriously the claims of Jesus’ divinity had he not been born of a virgin. Consider the plethora of other such stories of virgin birth that preceded the birth story of Jesus:
Alcmene, virgin mother of Heracles
Amphictione, virgin mother of Plato
Anahita, virgin mother of Mithra (born on December 25th)
Antiope, virgin mother of Amphion and Zethus
Athena, virgin mother of Erichthnonius
Atia, virgin mother of Augustus (Roman emperor: 27 bce – 14 ce)
Ceres, virgin mother of Proserpina
Chimalman, virgin mother of Kukulcan
Danae, virgin mother of Perseus
Devaki, virgin mother of Krishna (born on December 25th)
Ishtar, virgin mother of Tammuz (born on December 25th)
Isis, virgin mother of Horus (born on December 25th)
Juno, virgin mother of Mars
Maia, virgin mother of Hermes
Maya, virgin mother of Buddha
Mut-em-ua, virgin mother of Pharaoh Amenophis III
Myrrha, virgin mother of Adonis
Nama (Nana), virgin mother of Attis
Net (Neit, Neith), virgin mother of Ra
Olympias, virgin mother of Alexander the Great
Persephone, virgin mother of Dionysus (born on December 25th)
Rhea Silvia, virgin mother of Romulus and Remus
Semele, virgin mother of Bacchus
Semiramis, virgin mother of Nimrod
Shin-Moo, virgin mother of Somonocodom
Xochiquetzal, virgin mother of Quetzalcoatl
Scholarly and scientific quests to distinguish fact from fancy with respect to the actual life of Jesus hold little attraction for me religiously. Rather, I am compelled to ask whether spiritual guidance can be gleaned from the virgin birth story that is deeply relevant for me as an evolutionary Christian today, regardless of the outcome of biographical research. My personal inquiry is this:
How might “the virgin birth” be REALized—that is, understood in a way that (a) validates the heart of earlier interpretations, (b) makes sense naturally and scientifically, (c) is universally, experientially true, and (d) inspires and empowers people across the theological spectrum, including non-Christians?
Pondering the possible interpretations of Jesus’ virgin birth that could be universally, experientially true, I come to this: Each and every human being who has ever brought anything of beauty, value, or importance into the world has done so only because that individual has been impregnated or in-spirited by some aspect of Beauty, Truth, Love, or other attributes of God. This divine co-creative spirit is beyond comprehension, beyond what we can call forth and direct by force of sheer will. When each of us reflects back on our own episodes of peak creativity, surely it feels as if some power greater than ourselves was at work. (The writing of this book has been such an experience for me.) There is a sense of having served, like Mary, as a vessel for something to emerge that is substantially greater than our own capacities. Truly, these peak experiences are religious moments. The story of Jesus’ conception can remind us of such miracles in our own lives.
I also find it fruitful to imagine the reverse—how each of us is like a “father god” and “holy spirit” (spirit of wholeness). Who among us has not planted seeds of new life, new hope, new possibilities, within another simply by loving and cherishing them exactly as they are and exactly as they’re not? Surely, this is the way most of us, most of the time, love our children. And when we stop to think about it, many of us discover there are others we have loved in this way, too. How much we have given them all! That which may have seemed to us as small gestures did in fact gestate, eventually birthing goodness in the lives we touched.
Finally, when we imagine how every human being is like the divine babe within Mary’s womb, new insights emerge. From the perspective of the Whole, each one of us, especially as we are “born anew” into a life of trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service to God, becomes a divine gift , a Christ-ian for our world.
These are but a few REALzed interpretations of the virgin birth that grow out of the richness of biblical stories. They are just a start. I know they will be improved upon by others who, like me, thank God for evolution.
REALizing “Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven”
“What if we were to understand the resurrection and ascension not as the bodily translation of some individuals to another world—a mythology no longer credible to us—but as the promise of God to be permanently present, ‘bodily’ present to us, in all places and times in our world? In what ways would we think of the relationship between God and the world were we to experiment with the metaphor of the Universe as God’s ‘body,’ God’s palpable presence in all space and time?” —SALLIE MCFAGUE
PROPHETIC INQUIRY: For many non-Christians and proponents of scientific revelation, Christ’s resurrection and ascent into heaven are unbelievable—and thus assumed to be irrelevant for their own spirituality and day-to-day life. Is that the end of the story? Can an evolutionary context help even nonbelievers find meaning and spiritual guidance in these stories of otherworldly events?
Given the not uncommon personification in ancient stories of the “life-death-rebirth” motif evident in the natural world, it is likely that 1st century Greeks, Romans, and Africans who became the early Christians might not otherwise have been convinced of the divinity of Jesus had stories of him excluded resurrection and ascension. Sacred stories of deities living, dying, descending to the underworld, and coming back to life abound throughout the ancient world. Mythical characters of this class include Osiris in Egyptian mythology, Adonis and Persephone in Greek mythology, Baldur and Odin in Norse mythology, Mithras in Persian mythology, and Inanna in Sumerian mythology.
Whether one interprets Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as literal, historic occurrences (as many conservative Christians do), or as meaningful ‘night language’ expressions of experiential insight (as many liberals do) makes little difference in the ability of these stories to transform people’s lives and relationships. What Christians at both ends of the theological spectrum, and many non-Christians as well, should be able to agree on about the end of Jesus’ life is what I submit is the most important lesson of all. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong says it well:
“Obviously something happened after the death of Jesus that had startling and enormous power. Its power was sufficient to reconstitute a scattered and demoralized band of disciples. Its reality was profound enough to turn a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, and to turn disciples who fled for their lives into heroes willing to die for their Lord. Easter was so intense that it created a new holy day, the first day of the week, and in turn a new liturgical act, the breaking of bread, turning both into a weekly celebration of the presence of the living Lord in their midst. Easter was of such power that Jewish disciples taught from the time of their cradle that God alone was holy, that God alone was to be venerated, prayed to, and worshipped now could no longer conceive of God apart from Jesus of Nazareth. They could also no longer look at Jesus of Nazareth without seeing God. Whatever Easter was literally for the disciples, it meant that Jesus had been taken into God and vindicated by God. It also meant that Jesus had transcended death and was therefore ever present to the disciples as the animating Spirit. That was what the word Easter came to stand for in this faith community.”
When I reflect on how the resurrection and ascension stories found in the Bible might be REALized today, I imagine a new Pentecost—an evolutionarily transformative revival of passion and purpose in service to Life in all its glorious diversity, beauty, and pain. Whatever else the resurrection of Jesus may mean to others, for me it means the following:
- Pain and suffering can be redemptive.
- Death is not the final word; new life for God is.
- Just because I am in deep integrity, have a right relationship with God, and am fulfilling my life purpose does not mean that everything is necessarily going to go well for me. And when things don’t go well, I can trust God is up to something big!
- I can resurrect virtually any troubled relationship via the same path that Jesus incarnated: humble myself and take on the experience of the other, die to my own perspective as “the truth,” take responsibility for doing the reconciling, be generous and compassionate in my communication, act with a grateful and faithful heart, and harbor no attachment that my effort should yield any particular outcome.
- I participate in the transformation of humankind’s social structures along just and sustainable lines when I follow in Jesus’ footsteps: knowing I’m a child of God, honoring my past, befriending the marginalized, loving my neighbor as self, courageously speaking my truth, and being the change I wish to see in the world.
Devout religious believers will surely continue to find inspiration and truth in diverse interpretations of the miracle stories of old. Nonetheless, we are each in a position to choose how we regard the stories unfolding in our own times and even in our own neighborhoods. Is the blossoming of a tiny flower in the crack of a sidewalk an ordinary event, or is it too a miracle? What about the way that the low-angle sun of autumn transforms brown leaves into chips of shimmering gold? Might the intense gaze of a toddler be a miracle too, as is the voice of a beloved that bounces off a satellite and then is channeled to our ear? I can send an entire book full of pictures and text through the air, using broadband wireless access, to friends and colleagues around the world, and at the same time. Now if that’s not a miracle, nothing is!
What would it mean for me if, from time to time, I were to look at everything around me afresh, through childlike eyes of wonder, awe, gratitude, and curiosity? What would it mean if I knew and felt in my bones that everything is a miracle?
When I was in Sunday school
We learned about the times
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
Now I can’t keep track
Because everything’s a miracle
Everything, everything’s a miracle
—PETER MAYER, Holy Now
“The new cosmic story emerging into human awareness overwhelms all previous conceptions of the universe for the simple reason that it draws them all into its comprehensive fullness. Who can learn what this means and remain calm?” —BRIAN SWIMME