Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Is Finding Your Keys a Miracle?

For the Christian community as a whole, the matter of miracles cannot be ignored. What are miracles? Do they happen? How do they happen? But in certain segments of the Christian community, miracles play a particularly important role. I am thinking of those who, upon losing their keys, pray to God that they will be found and pronounce it a miracle when they are. My question is whether such a moment is properly named a "miracle."

I have both reaped the spiritual benefits of this sort of pious mindset and seen the damage it can do by making Christians look silly. But the consequences of such pronouncements are insufficient evidence toward answering this question. Rather, we must proceed from a proper definition of a miracle to ascertain its appropriateness to this case.

What is a miracle?

One common answer is that a miracle is a divine action that suspends the laws of nature. This is the kind of definition one finds in David Hume, and I suspect is the most common view of miracles "on the street" today. The strength of such a view is that it acknowledges the "specialness" of miracles. If miracles aren't special, then they are irrelevant. To matter, miracles must be unique. The weakness of such a view is that divine action is linked to an idea of divine intervention that implies the absence of divine agency in non-miraculous situations. In other words, God is only acting when he acts miraculously. God and nature are in an irreconcilable opposition.

On the other extreme, one might define a miracle as any divine action whatsoever. This view is particularly common among Christians of an evangelical temper (to use an archaic phrase). But it also finds its way into a new age forms of spirituality. The benefit of this view is that is sees God at work in everything. All we have to do is open our eyes to see what God is doing. The problem with such a view is that the designation "miracle" becomes meaningless. If everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle. Miracle simply becomes synonymous with divine agency, and is thus emptied of any relevant content.

Is there a third option? Is there a way to affirm the special uniqueness of miracles without slipping into an interventionist model? I believe there is, but in order to uncover it, let us return to the question of finding your keys after praying about it. The crucial aspect in such a story is the act of prayer. If you hadn't prayed, you would not have called it a miracle if you found your keys. So the defining feature of a miracle (at least in this case) is human perception, not divine action.

The significance of perception leads us to the third view: a miracle is a divine action intended for revelation. Of course God is at work throughout the world. God is not only the creator of the universe, but its providential governor. So in some sense all actions can be attributed to God (the ancients called this primary causality, but the terms are not important). But there are some actions within the created order that God has specifically ordained to reveal himself to us. These revelatory actions are called miracles. The Johannine term “miraculous signs” is helpful here, because it indicates the revelatory purpose of miracles.

According to this view, the power of God is behind the rotation of the planets, but the power of God is revealed in the healing of the paralytic. Both are actions of God in some sense. Both are based on the power of God. But we take for granted the former, whereas the latter catches us by surprise. Either one might prompt us to worship God, but the latter is specifically ordained by God to do so because he knows that we tend to forget him without jolting reminders.

Thus, if you prayed that God would help you find your keys, and you find them, God may have intended such a providential action to reveal his power to you. If finding your keys encourages your faith in him, then it is likely that God intended such an action as a revelation. So it is appropriate to call it a miracle, not because it was a divine intervention, and not because everything is a miracle, but because of God’s intention to reveal himself.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Darwin and Christianity: Duel, Duet, or Draw?

The long-running conflict between anti- and pro-Darwin elements within the Christian community entered the new sphere of liturgical celebration this week. This past Sunday, hundreds of churches celebrated Darwin’s birthday. The expressed purpose of the celebration was to communicate to the culture that one need not choose between Christianity and Darwin. Faith and science are compatible.

Now the basic message that faith and science are compatible (or at least not incompatible) is one I am happy to proclaim. But does Darwin really belong on the Church’s calendar of worship? Such advocacy increased my dissatification with both sides of the current debate. Is there not a third way?

On the one side, you have the duel view. Darwin and Christianity are in a fight to the finish. The claims of Darwinian evolution conflict with the Bible and Christian theology. One must choose between them. Christianity must ally itself with scientific schools that challenge evolutionary theory and offer alternative explanations. The integrity of faith and science are at stake. Despite my misgivings toward such an approach, this perspective should be commended for taking seriously the genuine cognitive dissonance created by attempts to simultaneously hold a theological and evolutionary anthropology.

On the other side, you have the duet view. Christianity and Darwin are not in conflict. Moreover, they will together reveal a holistic view of the world and humanity. Evolutionary theory not only tells us about the world in itself, but reveals to us how God creates and interacts with the world. Christianity and Darwinism are mutually illuminating fields that together can work toward positive social change in the world. Despite my misgivings toward this approach, those who hold the duet view have the courage to develop their theology in light of contemporary science with a genuine concern for the integrity of the believer.

Is there another way? Although for some it will prove even more dissatisfying than the first two, I have been persuaded toward the draw view. The Christian believer encounters the apparently problematic claims of contemporary science right in the eye and says, “Let’s call it a draw.” This view has the confidence to say that if Darwin is right, then surely Christian faith can accommodate it (or at least the mind of God can). But it also has the confidence that the Gospel need not accommodate it to be effective. Furthermore, this view wisely takes the long-term perspective that scientific theories come and go. Who knows, maybe Darwin will just go away. And if not, this view calmly remembers that those theories that stay will eventually be assimilated by the Christian community without the need for aggressive maneuvers either for or against. We certainly don’t need to hold seminars or celebrate Darwin’s birthday.

So the next time someone asks me about Christianity and Darwinism, I’m going shrug and reply, “What, me worry?” Then I’ll mention something about preaching Christ alone and him crucified.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Faith w/ and w/o Works

Although it is an age-old problem repeatedly tackled by the great masters, I continue to bump into the question of faith and works. The question is put best in hermeneutical terms:

Paul says, "We are justified by faith, not by works lest any one should boast."

James says, "Faith without works is dead."

How do we reconcile these two statements?

As I see it, there are three alternative ways to tackle this problem.

1. Balance

The first is to assume that the differences between Paul and James are irreconcilable. We are thus in a position to choose between them or, better still, try to keep them in balance by our own theological ingenuity. This is just another "paradox of the faith" that we keep in tension. Although I am quite comfortable with acknowledging diversity and even divergence among the apostolic witnesses, I am suspicious of any solution that places all the weight on our own hermeneutical prowess. Yes, we must synthesize the canon. But we must be careful to not jump the gun. Perhaps the two statements will bear further analysis, rendering such a synthesis moot. This approach is just too easy for my taste. Such a balancing act glosses over the real problem by a lazy appeal to mystery. There must be a better way to lead us into the mystery of our faith, not just around it.

2. Emphasis

Another way to tackle the problem is to give pride of place to one statement over the other. Both are affirmed, but one as the primary statement and the other as a supplemental point. For instance, one might emphasize the Pauline "faith without works" formula, considering the Jacobean "dead faith" formula to block an antinomian misapplication of sola fide. Alternately, one might emphasize James' "faith plus works" formula, introducing Paul's concept of faith without works as a warning against a legalistic misunderstanding of the Christian life of good deeds. This is certainly a more subtle approach. It certainly attends to the differences while including the whole canon. The only problem is how to decide who gets pride of place. Certain traditions will obviously lean toward one or the other. But which way should we lean? There seems to be no Biblical warrant to prefer one over the other. So, once again we find ourselves back in the drivers' seat.

3. Analysis

Thankfully, there is a third way. Rather than balancing the difference or emphasizing one over the other, we can ask the analytical question: "What does each author mean by the word faith?" Although such an analysis does not always save the day, here it does. Why? Because the Greek word pistis, translated in both texts as "faith," has a wider range of meaning than any one English word can bear. Pistis can mean either (1) belief, (2) trust, or (3) faithfulness. Although it can mean any of these, it seldom means more than one at the same time. With this range of meaning in mind, let's look again at the two apparently contradictory statements, plugging in the definition most appropriate to the context:

Paul says, "We are justified by trust, not by works that any one should boast."

James says, "Belief without works is dead."

Despite the differences in their portrayals of the Christian life, Paul and James are not incompatible at this point. They are making two different claims about two very different matters. Paul is pushing us to trust in God for our justification, not our own works, which leads to a prideful attitude. James is telling us that simply believing God exists is not enough (even the demons do that!); we must pursue a life a good works. Both of these principles are true and good. They do not contradict because they are responding to different problems. Neither rules the other out, but both tell us much about how we are to live: trust God for our salvation, and live a life pleasing to him.

Thus by an analysis of the meaning of the faith, the two principles can be held together without irrational juxtaposition or arbitrary preference.

Any thoughts?
Do these seem to be the logical alternatives to dealing with this sort of problem?
Are there others?
Did I misrepresent any of the options?
Is my account of faith's range of meaning accurate?
What other matters might faith's range of meaning illuminate?
Where else might this approach to apparent contradictions be used?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What does it mean to "struggle" with something?

In recent years I've noticed a sharp increase in the language of "struggle." We don't say that we have "sinned" in a particular area; we say we are "struggling" with it. Whether the increase is actual or just my perception is a question I will leave aside for the time being. What interests me is identifying what this word actually means in religious discourse.

I suggest that the meaning of "struggling" lies somewhere between "sinning" and "suffering."

To struggle is not the same as to sin. That should be obvious. But what is confusing about the two terms is that "struggle" is often used in conjunction with particular "sins." For instance, it is not uncommon for someone to say they are struggling with pornography. Assuming pornography-use is a sin in some sense, what could it possibly mean to struggle with pornography? Does this mean someone is using pornography? If so, would that action not be a sin to confess? But to say one is struggling with pornography lessens the blow. This way one is not confessing a sin to be forgiven; rather, he is sharing of an aspect of his journey.

To struggle is not the same as to suffer. That too should be obvious. But it is confusing again because the term "struggle" often refers to situations of suffering. Following the same example, someone says they are struggling with pornography in the sense of an addiction. Sure, they may be using pornography. But the focus is not on the behavior in this case. The focus is on the fact that they are trapped in an addiction and trying to work their way out of it. But it is easier to say one is struggling because "suffering" sounds so weak and helpless. This way one is not admitting to suffer at the hands of another; rather, he is sharing problem which he is in the process of overcoming.

The alternative category of "struggling" is certainly helpful, especially because it makes it easier for people to be open to one another. We proud folk prefer to not admit that we are sinning or suffering. We don't want to look bad or weak. More importantly, such a category creates space for certain behaviors which fall short of the ideal Christian life but may be permissible as stages along life's way. Addictions in particular are good candidates for this kind of alternative category. Whether the example of pornography should be placed in this category is another matter. What can be affirmed is that "struggle" is at least a logically plausible alternative category to "sin."

The problem is that the language of struggle threatens to overextend its use so that sin and suffering language disappear altogether (or at least are relegated to extreme cases). Without both the language of sin and suffering, we will be left to ourselves as "strugglers." Why? Because sinners and sufferers need salvation. Sin and suffering imply a dependency on someone else to solve the problem. Not so for strugglers. Strugglers do not need saved. Strugglers do it on their own. Even when they ask for help, they are in control of the situation. Struggling is ultimately about me, my problems, and my solution to those problems.

So I conclude that the language of "struggling" can be a useful category between sin and suffering, but should not be allowed to swallow up these other two indispensable terms.

Any thoughts?
How do you use the language of struggling, sinning and suffering?
Would you differ with my description?
Do you see any additional advantages to the language of struggle?
Do you see any additional disadvantages to the language of struggle?
What else is lost by the decreased use of sin and suffering language?