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“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty”
Analyzing the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Bishop John Spong
When most people think of the miracles included in the gospels, they usually think of a broad series of apparently supernatural acts. They tend not to be familiar with the intimate details of the biblical narrative. When those details are revealed, questions are inevitably raised as to the purpose the gospel writer had in mind when he was writing, and the possibility that these stories were never meant to be taken literally rises substantially. Allow me to illustrate that with some easily discovered biblical data. I begin with the most miraculous of the biblical claims.
Did Jesus literally raise people from the dead? A search of the gospel texts reveals these biblical facts. The gospels suggest that three different people are called by Jesus from death into life, but only one of those stories occurs in more than one of the gospels. That is the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. It makes its first appearance in Mark (5:21-24, 35-43), a book written in the early seventies. The details in this original narrative tell us that Jairus was a “ruler of the synagogue,” who comes to Jesus beseeching him to heal his daughter “who is at the point of death.” Jesus begins to move toward Jairus’ home. As he does so, there is another healing miracle, the story of the woman with an issue of blood, inserted by Mark to take up the time during which they were on the way to Jairus’ house. Having completed that episode the journey continues only to be interrupted by Jairus’ servants coming to inform the synagogue ruler that the child has died and he is not to trouble the “teacher” any longer.
Jesus, apparently unmoved by this report, speaks to Jairus telling him not to be fearful, but to believe and so the journey continues. Arriving at the house, Jesus is greeted by a host of mourners, who are weeping and wailing. He asks them why they are mourning, informing them that the child “is not dead but sleeping.” The mourners laugh at him. Closing the door on the mourners, Jesus goes with the child’s parents and his disciples into the child’s room. He takes the child’s hand and commands her to rise. She does. Mark then tells us that she is twelve-years-old. Jesus orders them to give her food and departs leaving behind him a trail of wonder and amazement.
That same story is told next with only slight variations by Matthew (9:18-26) writing in the mid-eighties and then once again by Luke (8:40-56) writing in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Both Matthew and Luke incorporated substantial portions of Mark into their gospels and so we are not surprised to find the story not only repeated in each, but in exactly the same context of events, that is the message of the child’s sickness, the journey, the healing of another on the way and then word of the child’s death. It is obvious that in these three accounts we have a single story in three slightly different versions.
For help in understanding this story we turn to a remarkably similar episode that was said to have occurred in the life of the prophet Elisha recorded in the book of II Kings (4:8-36). In that story, Elisha raises a child of about twelve from the sleep of death. The only difference is that for Elisha the child is a boy not a girl. In each story, there is a message sent to the “healer” while he is a long distance away. In both stories, the healer continues to the child’s house, goes directly into the room where the child is lying on the bed. Elisha is said to have done mouth to mouth resuscitation, stretching himself on the body of the child.
Jesus is portrayed as taking her hand and speaking the word of healing. In each story, the child is restored to health. Could it be that this Jesus story was originally nothing more than a re-telling of an Elisha story as if it had occurred in Jesus’ life as a way of relating Jesus to the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and claiming for him the status of being a new Elisha? I think that is highly likely.
The only other raising from the dead story that occurs in the synoptic gospels is told in Luke (7:11-17). In this miracle account the only son of a widow is restored to life by Jesus in the village of Nain. There is little doubt that this man is dead, for his body is on the funeral bier in a procession toward his place of burial. Yet once again by looking at an older Elijah story (I Kings 17:24), we find remarkable similarities. There we discover that Elijah was also said to have raised the only son of a widow from the dead. We also know that Luke will draw on more than one occasion from the Elijah stories to relate his understanding of Jesus. Is that what this raising of the dead story, found only in Luke, is all about? I believe it is.
There is only one other raising from the dead story in the gospels and it is the very dramatic account of the raising of Lazarus recorded only in the Fourth Gospel, a work that is generally dated at the end of the first century, ca. 95-100 or 65-70 years after the crucifixion. The details are these: It is a public not a private act. Jesus’ disciples, his friends and even his enemies are present. The person, who is to be raised, is not only dead, but he has been buried for four days. John’s text even warns Jesus that there will be an odor if the tomb is opened. Jesus, nevertheless, orders the stone covering the mouth of the cave to be removed and then he literally calls Lazarus out of the grave.
Lazarus comes like a walking mummy, bound by the grave cloths in which he has been wrapped and from which he must be freed. If such a credibility-stretching episode had really occurred, ask yourself whether it is likely that no one in that public gathering would mention it for more than three generations before John writes it down. I will return to this story in this series next week, but suffice it now to say that no biblical scholar today regards the account of the raising of Lazarus as history.
So this brief analysis reveals that the three gospel stories of Jesus raising someone from the dead might mean something quite different from that arrived at by reading them as literal history, an insight confirmed again and again as we look at the miracles of Jesus more closely.
The next category of miracles, attributed to Jesus, is what we call “nature” miracles: Jesus walking on water, stilling the storm and feeding the multitude with loaves and fishes. A close look at these narratives also yields new possibilities for non-literal interpretation. Most people are not aware, for example, that there are six separate versions of the feeding of the multitude story in the four gospels. There are two in Mark, two in Matthew, one in Luke and one in John. Since Mark and Matthew are older than Luke and John, it looks like the multiple accounts of the feeding stories are the earlier tradition. So we look first at Mark and Matthew. The symbols present in these narratives then begin to pop out of the text. In Mark, Jesus, on the Jewish side of the lake, feeds 5000 men (plus women and children) with five loaves and two fish. Afterwards twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up so that “nothing is lost.”
Then Jesus moves to the Gentile side of the lake and proceeds to replicate the experience, but this time he feeds 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish and afterwards seven baskets of fragments are collected. The numbers employed: five loaves, 5000 people and twelve baskets of fragments on the Jewish side of the lake and seven loaves, 4000 people and seven baskets of fragments on the Gentile side of the lake scream at us not to read these narratives as literal history, but as symbolic feedings, perhaps as early Eucharists. By the time we get to John’s gospel those eucharistic connections are clear since John has Jesus liken his flesh to the manna that fell on the starving Israelites in the wilderness, making it clear that these stories are related to the Moses accounts in which God feeds the children of Israel with heavenly bread. Thus it becomes apparent that these feeding stories are not to be understood as literal happenings, but as interpretive narratives being retold about Jesus, the “New Moses.” I wonder how many people who sit in the pews have ever been invited to view miracles from this non-literal perspective.
Moving on to the miracles of healing, let me illustrate this same non-literal approach by looking at just one narrative, the restoration of sight to a blind man from Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). This miracle story is unique because the first application of the hands of Jesus on the eyes of this blind man was not successful, at least not completely. After Jesus anointed this man’s eyes with clay and spittle the blind man can see only “trees walking.”
Only with the second laying on of hands was his sight fully restored. If this is really a miracle story then why was Jesus’ power inadequate the first time? The literal mindset is buffeted by these questions, but a look at the context in which this story appears in Mark offers a powerful clue. Mark places this story just before the account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. In Peter’s confession he says the right words “You are the Christ,” but he clearly does not know what they mean. When Jesus begins to tell him what the Christ role is to be – suffering, rejection and death — Peter objects eliciting from Jesus the stern rebuke: “Get thee behind me Satan, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Peter is surely portrayed as a blind man who begins to see, but not clearly, and a second experience must precede his full entry into both faith and sight. It should not come as a surprise when we discover Peter hails from Bethsaida.
Is this then really a miracle story, the account of a supernatural healing of a blind man? I do not think so, nor do I think that this is what Mark intended us to understand as we read his gospel. Mark is rather writing a parable about the conversion of Peter, a blind man who has to be led to seeing and thus to faith in stages.
There are many more things that I can say about the miracle stories of the gospels, but I will devote only one more column to this subject to allow me to deal more fully with the fascinating story of the raising of Lazarus. For now let me say bluntly that I no longer think that the miracles of the gospels have anything to do with what we once called the miraculous.
“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty” Part XIII: Miracles As Signs to Be Interpreted
Today, as a part of the overall series entitled “Think Different–Accept Uncertainty,” I want to begin to press this mini-unit on the miracle stories of the gospels toward a conclusion. My concern has been to show modern readers that these miraculous narratives found in the gospels were always symbolic, interpretive stories rather than supernatural accounts arising out of the lack of knowledge present in that pre-modern world, filled as it was with fear and superstition. The first thing we noted was that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament fell into three distinct categories: nature miracles, raising of the dead miracles and making people whole miracles.
Our next insight came from looking at the miracle stories found in earlier traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. There we noted that, for the most part, miracles in the Bible were centered in three cycles of stories. First, there was the Moses-Joshua cycle where the miracle stories all seemed to involve power over the forces of nature. Here we found such things as the plagues on Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea to allow safe passage across the water for the fleeing slaves and the raining down of heavenly bread called manna. These “natural miracles” dominate the Moses cycle of stories. When we arrived at the Joshua cycle we found additional feats of natural power that included the splitting of the waters of the Jordan River, the collapsing of the walls of Jericho and the stopping of the sun in the sky in its journey around the earth to allow more daylight for Joshua’s troops to massacre more of his enemy’s soldiers on the battlefield. Then looking at the nature miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels we saw in them echoes of these Moses-Joshua stories. Jesus also was said to have had power over water. He did not split seas and rivers, but he could calm the storm and walk on the water. Like Moses, Jesus could also feed the multitude in the wilderness with finite amounts of food, which could expand to any needed dimensions and the supply never be exhausted just like manna in the wilderness. The power of nature was thus depicted in the gospels as subservient to the power of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus could command the forces of nature to do his will.
The second cycle of miracle stories in the Bible was found in the accounts that gathered around the persons of Elijah and Elisha, who were thought of as those who started the prophetic movement. Here most of the miracles were once again nature miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha could part the waters of the Jordan River and they could both expand the food supply so that it did not give out. They could also control the weather and even call down fire from heaven to serve their purposes. Two dramatically new miraculous powers, however, were added to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha. Both were said to have been able to raise the dead. Elijah raised from the dead the only son of a widow. Elisha raised from the dead the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy woman who had befriended him. Elisha was also the first person in the Bible who was said to have performed a healing miracle. He healed the leprosy of a foreigner, a man named Naaman the Syrian. We looked earlier in this series at the relationship between these Elijah-Elisha stories and the gospel narratives and began to see the close connections. Jesus, like Elijah, raised from the dead a widow’s only son, a story told only in Luke. Jesus, like Elisha, raised from the dead a child in a narrative recorded in Mark, Matthew and Luke. I might also add that Luke alone told the story of Jesus cleansing the leprosy of ten people, but that story turned on the fact that one of them was a foreigner, a Samaritan, and he, like Naaman the Syrian, was the only one to recognize the source of healing power. The Elijah-Elisha stories appear to have shaped these gospel narratives dramatically.
Most of the best-known miracle stories in the gospels that surround Jesus, however, had to do with healing individuals or making them whole. Jesus was portrayed with some frequency as being able to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to leap and walk to those with lame or withered limbs, and to enable the mute to speak or sing. What do we make of these stories? Well, the fact is that they too grow out of the Hebrew Scriptures and were presented in the gospels as signs that Jesus was the appointed messiah.
For this analysis, we have to go to I Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Someone must have asked this eighth century BCE prophet how people would recognize and know just when the Kingdom of God on earth was beginning. In Jewish mythology to inaugurate the Kingdom was the primary role assigned to the figure they called the messiah. I Isaiah wrote his response to this question in the 35th chapter of his book in beautiful and poetic language. You will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that the messianic age is beginning, he said, when these things occur: First, water will begin to flow in the desert enabling the crocuses to bloom there and the gift of life will be celebrated from Mt. Carmel to Sharon. The second sign will be just as dramatic: Human wholeness will begin to replace human brokenness. “The eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6).
That specific messianic tradition was lifted out of I Isaiah quite intentionally by the interpreters of Jesus and its content placed into the gospel tradition by the authors of both Matthew and Luke when they re-introduced John the Baptist into their narratives. According to this story, John had been imprisoned by Herod for his preaching against Herod’s illegal marriage. While John was in prison, these two gospel writers tell us, John’s confidence began to waver as to whether or not Jesus really was “the one who was to come,” that is, the expected messiah, or whether John and his followers must begin to look for another. With these doubts motivating him, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him to clarify his messianic status.
Jesus did not answer John’s question directly. Instead he told the messengers to return to John and tell him what they had seen and heard and let him draw his own conclusions. Then, he referred them quite specifically to this Isaiah text. The blind that came in touch with Jesus were enabled to see; the deaf were enabled to hear; the lame could walk and leap, and the mute could talk and sing. The signs of the messianic age were in fact breaking out all around Jesus. In this narrative, Matthew and Luke were making specific claims about Jesus as messiah and they were quoting this passage from Isaiah to demonstrate that Jesus indeed was the expected one, “the one who was to come.”
If healing were to accompany the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and if Jesus was believed to have been that promised one, then he had to be portrayed as the bringer of wholeness. This means that miracle stories had to be attached to the memory of Jesus in all three of the Old Testament categories: Moses stories, Elijah- Elisha stories and messianic expectation stories. Jesus was messiah was their claim and for supporting data for this claim they cited stories that demonstrated that he commanded the forces of nature, he raised the dead and he was the one who could and did bring wholeness to the brokenness of human life.
That is what those miracle stories were employed to communicate and that is why they need to be read as interpretive symbols, not as supernatural acts. That was also why no miracles were connected with the memory of Jesus until the eighth decade. It took that long for this interpretive process to get established. That is why Paul seems to know nothing of Jesus as a miracle worker. Miracles were an eighth decade addition to the Jesus story, introduced first by Mark, then copied within a decade or so with no additions by Matthew. By the time Luke wrote in the late 80’s to early 90’s, more Elijah-Elisha stories were added to the memory of Jesus. That is why only in Luke did Jesus like Elisha, heal not one, but ten lepers. Only in Luke did Jesus raise from the dead the only son of a widow just as Elijah did. When Luke arrived at the climax of his gospel he once again adapted an Elijah story, magnified it and then retold it as a Jesus story. That is why, only in Luke, did Jesus ascend into heaven, just as Elijah did, except that Luke says that Jesus did it without the help that Elijah received from a magical, fiery chariot drawn by magical fiery horses and propelled by a divine whirlwind. Jesus, as the new Elijah, could ascend without any supernatural aids. After Elijah ascended, he was said to have poured out a double portion of his powerful, but still human spirit on his single disciple, Elisha. In Luke’s climactic narrative, Jesus, the “new Elijah, poured out the enormous gift of God’s Holy Spirit in sufficient quantities to transform the entire community and to last throughout the centuries. In the telling of these Ascension and Pentecost stories, Luke tipped his hat overtly to the Elijah source from which he was drawing his material. He even took the whirlwind that propelled Elijah’s chariot heavenward and he turned it into the mighty rushing wind that filled the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He took the fire from the magical chariot and horses and turned it into tongues of fire that were said to have lighted on the heads of the disciples as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A close examination of the miracle stories of the New Testament thus reveals that they were not written as the memory of literal events. They were, rather, created as interpretive narratives presenting Jesus as the new Moses, the new Elijah and the expected messiah. They are to be read not as supernatural tales, but as interpretive symbols. Suddenly the miracles begin to look very different and we are able to read the gospels in a new manner. To see this, however, we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”
We will continue this series next week.
~John Shelby Spong
My Way into an Interfaith Future
June 27, 2012
Last week I introduced you, my readers, to an interfaith “think tank” in which I shared recently at a conference center known as the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. Some fifty leaders from among all the major religious systems of the world gathered there to explore the common ground that might lead to deeper interfaith cooperation and appreciation. The goal seemed desirable and all of the participants came with hope and excitement. The need for interfaith cooperation is apparent all over the world. Where divergent religious systems confront each other, violence almost always ensues. One has only to look for documentation at the Jewish-Moslem conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu-Moslem conflict between Pakistan and India, the Christian-Islamic violence that cuts across Africa, the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Ireland or the Sunni-Shia conflict that keeps Islam divided in the Middle East. One could also look at Christian history to see the anti-Semitism of the ages, the violence of the Crusades directed against Islam, or the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that followed the Reformation as both Protestant Europe and Catholic Europe sought to impose its faith on the other.
This reality forces us to ask what there is about religion in most of its forms that makes violence all but inevitable as it appears to be in religious history. At the Chautauqua conference it did not take long for this flaw to be revealed. Indeed, it became present and visible in the first presentation.
This presentation was given by Dr. John Cavadini, a Roman Catholic Professor of Theology from Notre Dame. The Roman Catholic Church articulates its claim to supremacy quite overtly. The current pope has reiterated a position taken by his predecessor that there is but one true religion and that is Christianity and that there is only one true version of Christianity and that is the Roman Catholic Church! He went on to warn those Catholics engaged in ecumenical relations that they should never refer to other Christian traditions as “sister churches,” since that implies some legitimacy. When that point of view is publicly articulated there is a genuine embarrassment in the listening audience. Such an attitude makes any significant conversation aimed at unity a rather worthless activity. Professor Cavalini tried at our gathering, unsuccessfully I believe, to navigate these troubled waters by making a distinction between revealed truth and our understanding of this truth. The central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was not subject to debate, he said, but the way we understand that doctrine is always unfolding.
Lest the blame for interfaith failure be placed too heavily on Roman Catholic shoulders, let me hasten to say that almost every religious tradition makes similar claims to be the exclusive possessor of revealed and “saving” truth. Protestant fundamentalists assert that the Bible is the literal “word of God” and those denying that claim are either to be condemned or subjected to conversion pressure. Protestant evangelicals believe that the prerequisite for salvation is that one must be “born again” or “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” Muslims make the Islamic claim that in the Koran the Word of God was dictated directly to the prophet Muhammad. Within Islam itself both the Sunnis and the Shia claim that theirs is the only true expression of that faith tradition. Other sacred writings from the religions of the East are similarly invested with claims of being vessels through which the absolute truth of God has come into human possession. These claims that ultimate truth is the possession of a particular religious system are what make interfaith conversation all but impossible. The attempt to be open, to understand or to appreciate another faith perspective is thus deeply threatening to every religious system.
One of the things that every religious system seeks to do is to offer religious certainty and for that to be possible that religion must escape the quicksand of relativity. Relativity, at the same time, is almost always impossible to escape without falling into religious triumphalism. At the Chautauqua “think tank” these problems were quickly identified and named. We could not start without finding a new way into the interfaith issue. As I thought about this over the next few days I tried to discover that illusive new path. Let me try to outline it briefly.
The first step in any interfaith process is to be conscious of the fact that these exclusive claims exist and that we must begin where people are, not with where we wish they were. No one speaks in a vacuum and no one listens in a vacuum. We need to listen to each other closely, the same way we want others to listen to us. Let me then begin this process autobiographically.
I am a Christian. Any interfaith activity in which I am engaged must start with that fact. I am not apologetic about this self-identification, nor am I willing to jettison this definition of myself for the sake of interfaith unity. The deepest commitment of my life is my commitment to walk the Christ path as my doorway into the mystery of God. Christianity is of absolute importance to me. I want to explore its wonders as deeply as I possibly can. Yet, I do not think that God is a Christian, certainly not in any creedal way, and that insight opens me up to all kinds of new possibilities. Christianity, like every other religious system in history is clearly a human creation that has evolved over the centuries. The virgin birth, for example, did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Christian era. It was certainly not a part of primitive Christianity. Neither Paul nor Mark appears ever to have heard about such an idea. The ascension was a tenth decade addition. Surely a quick reading of Paul would reveal that Paul was not a Trinitarian. The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity were not worked out until the third and fourth centuries. Doctrines are always attempts to put rational forms onto a transformative experience. Doctrines, therefore, can never be ultimate, but the experience that made the development of the doctrine seem proper might well be. Can we then separate the God experience that we Christians believe we have met in Jesus from the explanations of that experience which form the content of our faith tradition? That is a crucial distinction. The Jesus experience might well offer me a doorway into that which is ultimate, but Christianity itself cannot be ultimate and it thus cannot be the final revelation of God. God can never be contained inside any human form or bound by any human words. This means that neither my understanding of God nor my Church’s understanding of God can ever be ultimate. This realization does not, however, invalidate the truth of my experience.
As a Christian, I walk the Christ path. My deepest hope is that if I walk the Christ path long enough and faithfully enough, I will discover that I inevitably will transcend the boundaries of my own religion. That reality thus becomes a religious inevitability. When I articulate the fact that this is true for me I discover that it also seems to be true for people in all other religious systems. The Muslim must walk the Islamic path; the Jews must walk the Jewish path; the Hindus and Buddhists must walk the Hindu or Buddhist path. All walk with the realization, however, that God is not a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist. All religious systems are designed by human beings to help its adherents walk into the mystery of an unbounded God. If any of us walks our own faith path long enough and faithfully enough, we will discover that our walk carries us beyond the boundaries of our own religious systems, since God can never be limited by or exhausted in any thing that is a human creation, whether it be scripture, creeds, doctrines or dogmas. To say it boldly the God experience may well be ultimate, but the religious system through which we walk into the God experience can never be.
The next realization comes when we discover that while we are walking our separate paths, we are also taking into ourselves the values and the treasures found in our own tradition. We hold these treasures close to our hearts; we do not want to lose them. I grasp joyfully the pearl of great price that Christianity gives me. Then I realize that my brothers and sisters in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are doing exactly the same. They must embrace the treasures of their religion and cling to the pearl of great price that they have received from their religious system. So perhaps the deepest and the common religious call to each of us is not to affirm our unique creeds so much as it is to explore our faith so deeply that we each transcend its boundaries and escape fear-laden limits. Then beyond the boundaries and the limits of the faith system that has nurtured each of us, but without sacrificing the pearl of great price that our own tradition has given us, we can turn and face in a new way our brothers and sisters who have walked a path different from our own. In that setting I can speak to them and say: “This is the essence of my faith. This is the treasure that I have received as I walked the Christ path and now I want to share this treasure with you.” Each of my interfaith pilgrims will in turn do the same. They will say to me: “This is the essence of Judaism, of Islam, of Hinduism, of Buddhism. This is the treasure, the pearl of great price that I have received by walking faithfully and deeply the path of my religion and I want to share it with you.” We each receive the treasure of the other. No one has to sacrifice the treasure of the system which has nurtured him or her. We all become enriched. We no longer have to protect our truth or play the familiar religious games of supremacy that we have so often played in the past. No one loses, everyone gains.
The alternative to genuine interfaith cooperation may well be genocide. While we can assert that there is no relativity in the God experience, there can also be no triumphalism in the various explanations of that experience. No religion is therefore ultimate, but God is and God is met on many paths and our call is to walk our path faithfully. In that realization, the beauty of an interfaith future is born.
~John Shelby Spong
Is an Interfaith Future a Possibility in Our World?
John Shelby Spong June 20, 202
Recently I was part of an intensive two-day “think tank” experience on “The Future of Interfaith Cooperation,” which asked the question as to whether the religious violence that marks so much of our world can ever be overcome and be replaced with interfaith understanding and cooperation. This “think tank” was sponsored by the Chautauqua Institution located in Western New York about an hour south of Buffalo. For those of you not familiar with this institution, let me give you some background that will reveal their interest in this particular subject.
The Chautauqua Institution is a vacation community made up of both owners and renters that draws into its planned programs some 170,000 people each summer. Chautauqua began in 1874 as a Methodist training camp, but it has grown since then into being one of the most impressive intellectual and interdisciplinary centers in America. Over the years to its grounds have come speakers drawn from the ranks of American presidents and presidential candidates, U.S. senators, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, novelists, scientists, poets and even entertainment celebrities. Every morning there is a public lecture in the amphitheatre by someone at the top of his or her field followed by questions from the assembled audience that numbers as many as 5,000 a day. In years past, I have attended lectures here given by the poet John Ciardi, the scientist Buckminster Fuller of geodesic dome fame, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the best known commentator on world religion in our generation, Karen Armstrong, as well as a host of best-selling novelists, noted historians and top tier scientists. The conversation at meals and on the campus is rich because new ground is always being broken and lives are always processing and interacting with new ideas.
At 2:00 pm each day in an open space called the Hall of Philosophy, which with special chairs added across the spacious lawn can accommodate over 2000 people, there is a “religion” lecture given by top theologians, biblical scholars and even critics of religion. Frequently the religion lecture will interact with the lecture given in the morning, making the dialogue rich indeed. Though this center began with quite specifically Christian roots, over the years a significant Jewish population has come as both owners and renters, giving the community a quality that is always missing in a monochromatic world. Recently, Muslem, Hindu and Buddhist people have begun to discover this place. During the nine individual weeks of the summer program, as many as 7,500 people will be on the grounds at a time.
To complete the daily experience, in the evening, once again in the large amphitheatre, there is an event that will draw people not just from the Chautauqua community but from a wide orbit of Western New York and Western Pennsylvania. This event might be a Broadway play, a symphony, an opera or a ballet. It might feature famous acrobats, popular vocalists and even Country and Western stars. I have met there entertainers like the flutist James Galway and Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the “Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland. I have also met Alan Alda, the star of M.A.S.H., who played Hawkeye, Jim Lehrer the long time anchor of the PBS news hour and many others. It is a very rich intellectual diet.
The religious aspect of Chautauqua life has always been central, but it has also been directed by those willing to walk the frontier of religious thought, drawn by the intellectual power of this community. The pressure to explore the interfaith area comes from the increasing religious pluralism that already marks this community and from the anticipation that this trend is not likely to diminish any time soon. How various religious traditions can live together in mutual respect is a question that is also increasingly being asked in world at large. It is driven by the fact that the vast distances that once marked our world are shrinking rapidly caused by such things as increasing air travel, by the instant communications of the Internet and quite frankly by the fact of the destructive tensions that always seem to mark those places where competing religious convictions have collided in the past and still collide today. One thinks of the violent anti-Semitism that has been part of the Christian West since the first century of Christian history. Reaching a crescendo in the Holocaust of 20th century Germany, it was presaged and predicted by such historical events as the Inquisition and the expulsion from or the ghettorization of the Jews in almost every nation in Christian Europe. It was present in the call for the burning of synagogues by no less a Christian figure than the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, and by the acquiescence to the Nazi agenda by both Pope Pius XII and the German Lutheran Church in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, collisions between Christianity and Islam shaped world history and created the Crusades. Led by the Vatican, the Crusades were aimed at the destruction of the Muslims and their removal from Christian holy places. Islam was defined by Christians as evil and its members as “infidels.” In the first years of the 21st century, that hostility was reversed. The anger, long brewing in the victims of the Crusades, has helped to fuel the fury of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Members of a branch of this movement known as Al Qaeda, saw themselves as vindicating Islam and its “one true God, Allah” against the “infidels” of the West in their attacks on September 11, 2001.
Interfaith awareness was enhanced for most Americans during the Vietnam War when this nation found itself confronting a Buddhist culture and we watched as Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the war. Later in the two wars in Iraq, the people of the West suddenly confronted the heretofore little known division of the Sunnis and the Shia in Islam that added a dimension of civil war to those conflicts. Why that was such a shocking surprise is hard to understand since for 400 years we have watched Ireland being torn apart by violent, hate-filled and destructive religious bitterness between Protestants and Catholics.
For these reasons the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation has been growing for some time. This is what motivated the leaders at Chautauqua to convene this “think tank.” They are aware of the bitter history of religious wars and religious hatred. They are also aware that the seeds of intolerance are present in every religious tradition. They began to ask whether an interfaith future for our world was possible if it were intentionally encouraged. The leaders of the Chautauqua community, specifically Thomas Becker, president, and Joan Brown Campbell, the head of the Department of Religion, decided to assemble the “think tank” to see if the Chautauqua Institution could make a contribution to an era of genuine religious peace and good will in an increasingly interrelated and deeply pluralistic religious world.
To this interfaith gathering were invited Catholic and Protestant professors and pastors, Muslims imams and academics, national interfaith leaders, Buddhist monks and nuns, Hindu scholars, rabbis and Jewish academics, as well as representatives from the National Council of Churches of Christ in America. They also tapped the resources present in various colleges and universities that already deal with multi-faith realities. Some journalists were also in attendance. The gathering opened with great hope, but it did not take long to see that good will, high hopes and even cross-cultural friendships are not enough to bridge the religion gap.
Interfaith dialogue cannot occur as long as any single religious perspective claims for itself a corner on ultimate truth. No one can say or think “My religion is the only true religion,” “My church is the only true church” or assert that one religion alone controls the access to God. Yet at some point, no matter how camouflaged or perfumed, in some form those claims are made by almost every religious system, and it is powerfully present in the thinking of almost all forms of Christianity. These attitudes were certainly articulated at this meeting.
Those advocating this point of view felt this discomfort, but found themselves caught between the twin terrors of total relativity and triumphalism. They tried to remove the offense with pious words, calling for love and forgiveness and even suggesting that while ultimate truth is claimed in their faith tradition, that truth is never fully understood. So flexibility in understanding is allowed, but only to the degree that the ultimate truth they claim for themselves has not yet been fully worked out. This provided a facade of openness that attempted to escape relativity on one side and triumphalism on the other. It was an argument that represented a stretch for those who presented it, but it also showed how difficult developing interfaith cooperation really is. If the doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, is the lynchpin that protects Christianity from meaningless relativity, there is no way that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus will ever be more than tolerated partners in a meaningless interfaith dialogue, while the secret agenda will remain to convert everyone else to another’s religious “truth.”
Until these difficulties are recognized and dealt with, no progress toward an interfaith future seems possible. We are left to enjoy friendships and to articulate unrealistic hopes. Unless we find a new way to relate to the world’s religious pluralism we will have only the two choices of the acceptance of continuing religious violence or of watching benignly as all religious systems as we now know them die. Unity might be found in our common humanity, but that does not appear to be possible unless we can develop a common religious understanding.
I think there is another possibility to these two fairly dreadful and certainly stark options. This possibility will, however, require that religious people think differently from the way we have been taught to think before. I will try to spell that possibility out next week in this column.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” Part XI: Beginning a Probe of the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Deconstruction is always easier to do than reconstruction, but it is not nearly so important. It is never enough to say who or what Christ is not, but we must move on to say who or what Christ is. The task is complicated, however, by the very fact that the Jesus story, as related in the gospels, has been literalized for so long that breaking through the literal window to establish some new possibilities is quite difficult. This is especially true when we realize that the old mindset, no matter how dated or nonsensical it is, is nonetheless reasserted in the hymns we sing, in the prayers we pray in our liturgies and in the sermons we hear in church every Sunday. All of these activities assume a pre-modern frame of reference that most educated men and women today simply can no longer affirm. So I have to approach this task piecemeal, week by week, in order to lay the groundwork for a radically different perspective. There is no silver bullet of understanding that can be fired to create in us this new point of view. So, today I will begin a unit in the series “Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” that will look at the miracle stories in the gospel narratives. Did the miracles really happen? If they did, do they still happen? If they did once, but no longer happen why did they cease? As one person tried to explain, “Perhaps ‘the age of miracles’ is over.” To which I need to respond, “Perhaps there never was an ‘age of miracles’ and the things we once called miracles are now understood in a very different way.” Those are the possibilities.
I begin this unit by probing the level of reality that still remains among my readers in regard to the miracles recorded in the New Testament. I ask each of you to do a test just with yourself, aimed at discovering whether or not you really believe that miracles can or did happen?
Here are the questions:
- Can a star really wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it?
- Can that star really stop in its journey, first over the palace of King Herod for the wise men to get additional directions and then over the house in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus lives with his mother?
- Can a virgin conceive?
- Are there really angels that can break through the midnight sky to sing, presumably in Aramaic, the only language that the shepherds understood, about the birth of Jesus? Could these angels really send these shepherds in search of this child, armed with only two clues: he would be “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and he would be “lying in a manger?”
- Do you think that anyone can literally walk on water?
- Do you believe that anyone can feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish?
- Can one curse a fig tree and cause that tree to wither down to its roots and die?
- Can one still a storm by speaking to it and commanding it to cease its fury?
- Can one raise from the dead a man named Lazarus, who has not only been dead for four days, but who has also already been buried?
- Can a blind man be made to see by the laying on of hands or the anointing of the eyes with clay? Why did this procedure not work in one gospel episode until there were two applications? Is it any harder to bring sight to a blind man if he was born blind?
- Can the mentally ill or those suffering from epilepsy be cured by casting out the demons that cause them to be other than “normal”?
- Can the mute be enabled to hear and to speak if the healer can only get Satan to stop binding the tongue of the victim?
- Can a withered hand be restored to fullness of operation or a man crippled for 38 years be enabled to walk by another’s command?
- Can water be turned into wine to keep a wedding party going? Why was it necessary, as the Bible states, to create on that occasion 150 gallons of wine?
All of these are questions that arise from actual stories that are included in the gospels and all of them are attributed to Jesus. Did any of them literally happen?
If you are convinced that all of them happened, can you explain how those feats were accomplished? If they did not literally happen, what does that do to our understanding of Jesus? Is the concept of God as an invasive, supernatural force necessary to the maintenance and certainty of the Christian story?
Does Christianity really live or die, as many claim, on the one supreme, supernatural event that all the gospels record as the climax of their narratives, namely, that a man dead from sundown on Friday, is restored to physical life by Sunday morning in such a way that he could walk out of his tomb and invite his followers to handle his flesh and even to finger his wounds?
Many people cannot imagine Christianity surviving without these things being literally true. Many other people cannot imagine any of these things ever being literally true. That is the dilemma facing Christianity today. Believers become more and more literal and fundamentalist, while those who cannot and do not believe any of these things can find no place in the life of the church for them and have no desire to continue as part of a worshiping community that pretends that these things really happened. So how can we understand miracles and how can we understand the role they played in the original telling the Christian story? That will be our task in this series over the next few weeks.
First, some biblical observations. There is no unanimity in the New Testament about most of these miracle accounts. For example, there are only two miraculous events that all four gospels record. Gospel unanimity exists only on the resurrection of Jesus and the expansion of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. Yet when one looks at the texts of each of the gospels the details surrounding both of these narratives vary enormously.
In regard to the resurrection, Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, has a messenger instruct the women at the tomb to tell the disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. None of the women ever sees Jesus in this first gospel and Mark records no account of Jesus ever meeting with the disciples in Galilee. So in Mark no one ever actually sees the risen Christ. In Matthew the women are said to have seen the risen Christ quite literally in the garden on Easter morning and the disciples, or at least eleven of them, were said to have seen him on a mountain top in Galilee. In Luke the women do not see him at the tomb on Easter morning and no disciple ever sees him in Galilee. Then Luke says that two disciples, but not members of the twelve, see him in Emmaus, but he disappears into thin air. Later the twelve do see but only in Jerusalem. When we turn to John we read that Mary Magdalene alone sees the risen Christ at dawn on the first Easter and then the disciples, minus Judas and Thomas, see him in the upper room in Jerusalem at the time of the evening meal. In both instances, this gospel tells us that they conversed with him. A week later, John writes that the disciples see him again this time with Thomas. Finally, months later, John says seven of the disciples see him in Galilee, but not on top of a mountain as Matthew claimed, but beside the Sea of Galilee. There is no consistency in the details of these sightings.
In regard to the stories of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Mark and Matthew give us two versions. The first one has 5,000 people fed with five loaves and two fish, the second has 4,000 people fed with seven loaves and a few fish. Each feeding takes place on a different side of the lake. Luke and John reduce the feedings to one. There is, thus, no gospel unanimity in this episode either. Then to complicate the picture still further, Luke alone has Jesus raise a widow’s only son from the dead. John alone has Jesus turn water into wine. The witness of the gospels to the reality of miracles is thus far more confused and ambivalent than most Christians realize and more than most of them can believe when it is spelled out for them.
We add to that complex analysis the fact that as far as we are able to discover or to read no miracle was ever associated with Jesus before the 8th decade when Mark’s gospel came to be written in the early seventies. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, never mentions a miracle in association with Jesus. The Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, which some, but not all, scholars believe might be pre-Marcan sources, do not mention a miracle being associated with Jesus. The Virgin Birth does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Christian era or some 55-60 years after his death. The physical resuscitation of the deceased body of Jesus as the way resurrection is to be understood does not enter the tradition until the 10th decade or some 60-70 years after his crucifixion. These are the factual data about the miracles of the New Testament. It is not the stable picture that believers claim and that skeptics reject. It is also not a simple study. This is enough, however, to raise the subject to our consciousness, to allow it to play upon our minds and our imaginations, to stimulate our interest. I also hope it is enough to bring you back to this column in succeeding weeks when we begin to unravel this material. So stay tuned! Same time, same place!
~John Shelby Spong