This paper is a critique of supernaturalist thinking in general and the way it is used within traditional Christianity. It also explores the way most people think and the sort of fuzzy underlying world-view they adopt. This has, it seems, changed remarkably little since the time we were hunter-gatherers despite apparent secularisation and the fall in Christian church attendance in Europe. This underlying world -view I label as seeing reality having three main aspects, Theistic/Spiritual, Magic/Supernatural/Miraculous and the Predictable/Explainable or TMP for short.
Influencing my thinking as regards this underlying fuzzy TMP world view (my own perhaps irritating label) has been reading Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday for quite the best analysis of the nature of religion I have ever come across, tied in with his insightful comparisons between traditional societies and modern Americans. (see The Search for Causal Explanations p336-339) I have also been influenced and impressed by many points made by Karen Armstrong in The Case for God
With regard to New Testament study I have recently read Geza Vermes, The Resurrection. This Jewish scholar not only gives a meticulous analysis of the Christian scriptures regarding the Resurrection of Jesus, informed by his a deep knowledge of Second Temple Judaism, but quietly demolishes the supernaturalist work of N.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham as expressed in his massive The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vermes’ conclusion “Resurrection in the Hearts of Men” is as I read it very much the same as the way I find myself thinking.
The Human Need for Religion Goes Beyond Belief in God
My starting point here is that I think (as Diamond has demonstrated from an evolutionary biologist’s perspective), that human nature is such that we need to be able to place ourselves in a narrative or story in order to explain and make sense of our lives and give our lives meaning. We need a story which tells us where we have come from, where we are going and how we should live. Sharing this story with others also meets our need as social beings to participate in and feel part of a community. Doing these things I see as the essential function of religion and of all religions. I think we also need a religion to provide us with opportunities to reflect upon, open ourselves up to and experience to some degree what I would call the awesome, unexpected and transcendent nature of reality.
It seems to me that in being confronted with this reality to say one “believes in God” is to be fundamentally comfortable with using the language of theism and to read the cosmos (be it universe or multiverse) and all that is in it as somehow the expression of an ultimate self-aware mind, a mind which is best apprehended or glimpsed by reflecting on the nature of the most mysterious and extraordinary reality we know and encounter, that is our own self-aware minds.
A Transcendent Atheist or Agnostic
I though am fairly comfortable with the Buddhist tradition which requires no belief in or worship of a deity or ultimate self-aware mind and I would describe myself as a transcendent atheist or agnostic. By this I mean I see us as being, following Darwin, the products of the awesome evolution of dust into self-awareness while seeing no sufficient evidence that the process is driven by some such ultimate designing, self-aware mind, but rather that what can appear to be the product of conscious design is in reality the result of the way natural selection works.
Universal Darwinism, the Evolutionary Algorithm
That is it works impersonally to produce patterns which we perceive as having been designed when they are not. (See Susan Blackmore TED lecture the Evolutionary Algorithm – If you have creatures that vary and if there is a struggle for life so that nearly all creatures die, and if the survivors pass on to their offspring what helps them to survive, then those offspring will be better adapted than their parents were. i.e. if you have variation, selection and heredity you must have evolution without the aid of mind.)
This means I see no-one to blame, praise or worship for the weird twists and turns evolution has taken or the erratic path human history has taken beyond natural selection and human agency operating within a mathematically consistent but practically unpredictable cosmos. (We will never have the perfect weather forecast however well we understand how the weather works) This means for me there is no “problem of suffering” to be explained in the Christian/Jewish sense, (How could a good God cause or allow such innocent and unmerited suffering ) because there is no “someone,” no planning, designing mind to blame.
Why transcendent atheism or agnosticism? Because I find the wonder, beauty, mystery, complexity, sheer scale and unexpectedness of nature, the universe and human life never “mundane” but a constant source of amazement, joy, sorrow and awe. I have also found Buddhist mindfulness or awareness meditation as an aid to contemplating this, a revelation.
The Great Divide Between a Scientifically Consistent World-View and Supernaturalism
The point I wish to emphasise is that I think between an atheist/agnostic like me and a theist who sees the cosmos as a mathematically consistent, scientifically predictable and knowable entity there is no argument about what counts as evidence as to how the world works, what is possible, likely and reasonable to believe.
This is in stark contrast to those Christians and members of other religions who consider that we live in a world in which magical or inexplicable miracles take place and that these are an expression of the will of God or of other good or malign “spiritual” forces. For them then a supernatural realm is regarded as part of reality. They are also quick to argue that people who are “unbelievers” and “without faith” are blind to, or refuse to recognise, this and are “over sceptical” or “guilty of reductionism”, and “a readiness to oversimplify” when they look at what happens in themselves and in the world. It is this way of thinking which this paper challenges, not the question, “Is it is rational to believe in God.?”
The Value of Religion
Why then do I challenge this point of view? Because I respect and admire many Christians and other religious people who may well be more rational, intelligent and moral than me and because I think, unlike Marx, that the record shows human achievement across the board cannot be separated from the religions. The religions have not only triggered or inspired the creation of stunning works of art, architecture, music and other creative and life-enhancing cultural phenomena, but they can inspire personal and social compassion, education and health care, the promotion of humane values, an awareness of our interdependence and need for community and sensitive moral living. What is more the religions often contain within their traditions valuable examples and insights about what it means to be human that an anti-religious approach that ignores or scorns religion can too easily overlook.
Identity, Consciousness and Religion
I also recognise that human beings are essentially social. By that I mean we can now see that our awareness of ourselves, our reflective consciousness, is a social product. (We are not born self-aware. We can only become self-aware by being treated as being self-aware by other self-aware persons, usually our parents.) Self-awareness is then caught from others before it can grow in ourselves, again in a process of interaction with others. This means we have a deep need to link ourselves to an identifiable community of other persons through some sharing of a common story relating to the meaning we give to our lives, and participate in some ceremonies, symbols and moral rules which exemplify and communicate our shared values. Again this is something all religions provide so I see that all the great religious traditions – such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism – can be “skilfully used” as Buddhists would say, (as can the “primal” religions of the hunter-gatherers) to promote lives of quality and meaning.
Religion and False Consciousness
Sadly, as Marx also saw, all the religions can easily be misused when irrational, intolerant and authoritarian thinking, teaching and practice comes to dominate and a hard line is drawn between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” That is when religions are used to justify acts of the most extreme violence, cruelty and the dehumanisation of others as we are seeing again so graphically in the appalling growth of religious intolerance and fundamentalism.
TMP Click on this for a vital diagram,
The Theistic Magic Predictable Pre-Scientific World View
In the cultural evolution from hunter-gather through to modern urban humanity, while it is fascinating to explore the way religions and cultures that have developed and changed, it is also surprising to note the range of common features which have been shared across or underlie different cultures, religions and communities to make up a common world-view which for the sake of keeping things simple we will call the TMP world-view. This trans-cultural and trans-religious world-view has remained almost unchallenged until the advent of modern scientific thinking. So just how might it be defined? What are the markers of this word-view? (see diagram)
The Predictable and Rational.
People in all cultures are aware that much of life is predictable and rational, that cause and effect operates and that much can be learnt about ourselves and the world around us which will give us more control over ourselves and what we are doing.
People in all cultures are also aware that much of life is completely unpredictable and irrational and cannot be explained in a straightforward rational way. Scary and destructive storms, floods and droughts, unexpected disasters and weird, painful diseases just seem to erupt. Inexplicable events happen, including strange and compelling dreams, visions and nightmares and amazing co-incidences come about that seem to be telling us something. In short we come up against what is seen as being magical, miraculous and supernatural.
The Spiritual and Theistic.
As self-aware beings who see ourselves as having choice our default position is to anthropomorphise reality and see everything, both the predictable and reasonable, as well as the magical and inexplicable as being under the control of someone or a group of someones. This could be a deva, spirit, dead ancestor or deity. These spirits, devas, angels or demons can be seen as benevolent or malevolent and with the development of monotheism as in the three great Abrahamic monotheistic religions, they can be seen being directly or indirectly under the control of the One God, the Father Almighty, YHWH, Allah.
Seeing TMP as Reality
These three elements then, first the rational and predictable, second the magical, supernatural and inexplicable, and third the spiritual and theistic are seen as together making up reality – not in the “ironic” way in which the contemporary magic realist novelists speak, but as a description of the way the world actually is and works These elements constitute the TMP world-view.
NB as the diagram attempts to express this is a FUZZY world view. Ordinary people do not draw sharp lines between the three elements and the importance of each varies for societies and for individuals. In particular in some societies the presence and operation of the spiritual, miraculous and supernatural is seen as a constant intruding presence (as much hunter-gatherer and tribal life shows) while both modern Muslims and traditional Evangelical Christians may see miracle and supernatural events as being confined to the times when their scriptures were written, or many moderns when they avoid walking under a ladder, read a horoscope or resort to some “health” therapies.
As is fairly obvious, this world-view was common and respected not just by hunter-gatherers but by sophisticated people right across the Greco-Roman Empire, but it also applied to the Jews, ancient Egypt, Syria, India, China, Japan and Korea, not to mention pre-Christian pagans here in England. It then continued underpinning Western Christendom and when it arose, Islam. It remained virtually without challenge until the growth of Science and Maths in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century and in the “onward march” of Science.
Is the TMP World-View Our Default World-View?
Surely the answer is yes. Seeing theistic/spiritual magic as real still continues and is so universal and widespread that it appears to be pretty much the default position for most human beings across religions, cultures and time. Not only is it taken for granted across the whole of Africa, underlying Christian, Muslim and traditional tribal religious practice and thinking, but it dominates both North and South America. Recent BBC radio and TV broadcasts on religion in Brazil for example showed how the TMP world-view applies, starting with the morphing of Yoruba tribal gods from Africa into new sects and into Catholicism in the form of saints. It is also communicated through the music and dancing of Africa, This also affects Pentecostal worship and widespread popular devotion to healers, saints and shrines. All this means there is a general acceptance of contemporary miracles, demon possession and an enthusiasm for exorcisms and “faith healing” which goes on right across the sometimes competing and mutually antagonistic religions.
The Failure of Marxism to Promote Atheism
Set against the continuing resilience of the TMP world-view has been the generally failing attempts of aggressive Marxist regimes to promote atheism. This was done in the USSR, Eastern Block, Peoples Republic of China and continues in North Korea where draconian actions have been taken to suppress it wherever it raised its siren head. Problem was in all these countries their religions and an underlying acceptance of the TMR world view never went away and is again on the rise be it under the guise of Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal or Evangelical Christianity, Zionist Judaism, Falun Gong or resurgent Islam.
The Fitful March of Secularisation
In contrast in the UK and Western Europe and among the cultural and educated elite of the US there has been a steady growth in “secularisation”, a questioning of religious authority and an abandoning of church attendance, both Protestant and Catholic and – following the lead of Richard Dawkins – atheists and Humanists have become much more publicly assertive, denouncing the TMP world-view wherever it manifests itself and especially in its Evangelical/Pentecostal Christian forms as gross superstition. Here the target has been all forms of magic and the reality of spirits, souls and God.
The Muslim “Exception”
Against this the millions of Muslims who have settled in the UK, France and the rest of Europe have shown an increasing tendency to reject secularisation, atheism and elements of what they see as “corrupt western values” in favour of Muslim religious practice and belief. This emphasises the total sovereignty of Allah and the revelation of his will in the Koran. However while emphasising the worship of Allah, Islam rejects any practice of magic or focus on miracle except the inerrant transmission of the Koran to the Prophet, so as an example of being based on the underlying TMR world-view Islam may seem different. However a rejection of the practice of magic is not the same as a rejection of belief in the existence and power of “angels, jinn and devils” malign and benign spiritual forces, what is more based on some texts in the Koran and far more in the Hadith, there is a Muslim apocalyptic world view with a belief in a coming end to the world after the establishment of a pure, world-wide Muslim state (Caliphate) when Jesus/Isa will defeat the Antichrist. Such, literal yet culturally influenced interpretations of the Koran can lead as we have seen to a range of teachings and practices being promoted in the name of Islam of which the Islamic State headed by Dr Ibrahim Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph is the new and most extreme example.
The Case Against Supernaturalism
In the West the TMP world-view has been seen as being under attack as the growth of the 18th Century Enlightenment took root and Maths and the Sciences flourished. Since then argument has raged between Christians and a new breed of questioners and “unbelievers” involved in the development of scientific and mathematical thinking over the credibility and claims of the Jewish and Christian sacred writings. On the one side the “believers” argued that it is reasonable, necessary or both to accept “supernatural miracles” as an expression of divine activity and the “unbelievers” that it is not. What is more they have taken it for granted that the same arguments between belief and unbelief must be central when it comes to judging the claims of other religions, in particular Judaism and Islam, but also to judging Hinduism, Buddhism and the primal traditional religions. I suggest this is a strange state of affairs and is based on the exclusive way in which until very, very recently Christian theology has been studied, that is on its own, and simply in relation to the western and classical philosophical tradition – without taking into account the wider phenomena of religious systems and crucially without taking into account the world-views prevalent when the scriptures were written.
Aquinas and Hume
How things have changed can be seen by contrasting Aquinas with Hume. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 CE) for example said, (Summa Contra Gentiles, 111) “those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature.” Aquinas was one of the most brilliant of medieval theologians, famous for clear and consistent thinking and his capacity to relate Christianity to Aristotelian philosophy. In the world in which he lived where understanding of how the world worked and what the world was like was often fantastical and speculative in the extreme, he had little choice but to have as his starting point the world-view common to his time. This took for granted belief in God and angelic beings, the Devil and demonic beings, magic and sorcery.
By 1748 however when the philosopher David Hume took issue with Aquinas in his “Of Miracles” he said, “A miracle may accurately be defined a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” He also says “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”
Aquinas argued that acceptance of miracle (and thus of what I would call theistic magic) was an essential component of Christian faith and that this was reasonable – no doubt on account of what appeared to be the case in the way he and those around him saw the world at his time. Hume on the other hand argued that “the proof against miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” (Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding p 114) Essentially what divides them is Hume’s confidence that nature operates in a consistent and mathematically predictable way and by studying it scientists are increasingly able to discover the unbreakable “laws of nature” that underpin it.
What seemed obvious to a sharp, well-informed mind like Hume in 1748 certainly did not seem obvious to equally sharp Aquinas in 1270 CE. Nor would it have seemed obvious in 100 BCE to a sharp, educated, Greek, Roman, Hindu, Buddhist or Jew all of whom would have included in their understanding of reality the existence of a god or gods, good and evil spirits, other realms of existence, (before and after lives) and the potency of dreams and magic to reveal and control. In other words we can see them all as sharing a theistic, magic realist TMP world-view. Sadly today that conflict between Aquinas and Hume continues to be cast in this way by those who see themselves, be they Roman Catholic, Anglican or Evangelical as “traditional orthodox Christians” and those who see themselves as championing science and reason – like Professor Richard Dawkins.
While fundamentally rejecting the TMP world-view as no longer sustainable for an educated and critical minority, I also hope to show that this is a fairly sterile debate because those on both sides end up treating religious texts which describe “miracles” as if the most important thing about them is that they claim to be accurate descriptions of real inexplicable and magical historical events, events which if only the technology had been around at the time could have been captured on video. I suggest such an approach inevitably leads “believers” into asserting what sound to those “outside” as irrational nonsense. It also leads to believers and unbelievers alike misunderstanding the basic purpose and meaning of many such texts.
The Resurrection of Jesus
To illustrate what I mean let us go straight to look at what all Christians would agree is the most important of all the “miracles”, the “Resurrection of Jesus.”
The four gospels of the Christian Scriptures, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all contain vivid, easily imagined stories in TMP style telling of the “resurrection,” of Jesus. How after he had been crucified, (dead and buried) he “rose again” from the dead and “appeared” to various groups of his disciples who inspired by this experience set about spreading this “good news” so founding what has proved to be an amazingly dynamic world religion.
The “appearance” of Jesus to Paul
Interestingly though, biblical scholars from a variety of backgrounds are all agreed that the oldest Christian records are not the four gospels, but the letters of the Apostle (special messenger) Paul who they conclude died in the sixties of the first century CE. Paul, originally the Jewish rabbi Saul of Tarsus, it seems never knew or met Jesus during his life-time, yet he says frequently in his writings that “Christ is risen from the dead” and that he was a “witness” to the resurrection in that Jesus had “appeared” to him. Paul regarded this “appearance” as a powerful experience which changed him from persecutor of those like Stephen who followed Jesus and who Luke says in Acts he saw stoned to death, to apostle of Jesus who he came to see as the Christ, (the anointed one) the Son of God, the universal Saviour of mankind.
The exact nature of the experience which brought about this radical change in Paul and his new understanding of who he saw Jesus to be is however obscure. Paul does not describe it. (See 1 Corinthians 15.5-8, Galatians 1.16) (There is a description written some years later in Luke’s book of the Acts of the Apostles (ch.9) which claims that Paul had set out to attack the teaching of the followers of Jesus in Damascus when on the road there he was blinded by a light invisible to his colleagues, but that he and they heard a voice say “Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”). He was then taken in by followers of “the Way”, his sight returned and he was baptised into the Christian community, the Ecclesia.
Interestingly nowhere does Paul link his experience of an “appearance” of Jesus to the TMP accounts in the gospel stories that after burial Jesus’ tomb was not only found to be empty, but that Jesus himself was seen to be alive and in the company of angelic beings. What he emphasises is that Jesus had “appeared” to a string of his disciples, and that the last of these “appearances” was to himself. The consequence of this is that Paul becomes completely convinced that Jesus is “alive” in a special spiritual sense and in his writings Paul constantly emphasises that his experience of an “appearance” of Jesus has lead him to see the Christian community, the ecclesia, as being “the Body of Christ”.
Paul repeatedly emphasises that the “appearance” he received is no different in kind or importance to that of other disciples and apostles, and is the grounds for him claiming to be an apostle – one chosen by Jesus himself. This raises a simple if crude question for those who would assert that only a TMP understanding of what Paul says will do. If Paul had been equipped with a video could he have filmed the “appearance” to him of Jesus to prove his credentials – or was it something we might describe as being only visible “to his mind’s eye” – and was it any the less “real” for being that?
The Empty Tomb. The TMP World-View in the Gospels.
Paul it seems was dead before any of the gospels or the Book of Acts in their present form were written. The scholarly consensus is that this was between 75 and 100 CE. In contrast to Paul the four Christian Gospels all tell stories of the discovery by (different) disciples of an empty tomb and all except Mark describe subsequent meetings with a resurrected Jesus. Mark tells of Jesus’ tomb being found empty on the morning of the third day after his crucifixion, and Matthew, Luke and John add to this accounts of “angels” or young men appearing at the tomb and before women disciples. An earthquake is described, and the rising from the dead of other Jews in Jerusalem, of a strange darkness falling during the crucifixion, of the veil before the Holy of Holies being torn open and of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his death on the cross on a variety of occasions. In one he speaks to a woman named Mary, two are connected with a meal which seems to echo in some way his last ceremonial supper with his disciples and in one he presides over a catch of fish, (ixthus) which became and remains a Christian acrostic for Jesus Christ Son of God and Saviour. In addition the body’ of Jesus is described as being visible to a group, to be able to be touched and able to disappear. Finally Jesus is described by Luke as “ascending” before the coming of “the Holy Spirit” upon the Christian community, the Church. Certainly the gospel accounts are vivid and dramatic and have over the centuries inspired great works of art in a variety of media. Does this though make them accurate and historical?
Authorship and Dating
The actual authorship and dating of these Gospels cause a bit more controversy among serious Biblical scholars than the letters of Paul, yet there is a broad consensus. Mark is generally considered to be the oldest gospel and to have been used as the basis for the work of Matthew and Luke, while John also shows a knowledge of Mark. He however chooses to write in a very different style, though equally vivid, and describes events in a different sequence from Mark. All serious scholars agree it is impossible to collate all four gospels into one neat account. Each contains elements which are unique and the details just do not add up in that way. The gospels however do show that stories of the resurrection and appearance of Jesus after his death were very important for those Christian communities for whom they were written.
Most scholars have also agreed that the evidence against any of the gospels being themselves the work of eye-witnesses is strong, though some such as Bauckman have argued from the number of disciples named in the gospels and letters and in the writings of the early fathers of the Ecclesia, that there would have been many giving their testimony to the teachings and actions of Jesus who were still around when they were writing. Basically though what we have are edited and worked over documents based on Mark and earlier oral traditions and testimonies, each written for use in public worship by a particular Christian community and each reflecting significantly different perspectives, such as Hellenistic Christian and Jewish Christian. This leaves Paul’s account of his own conversion in his first letter to the Corinthians as the only “eye-witness account” of a resurrection “appearance”. that we have. It has nothing to do with an empty tomb and I would argue does not describe anything magical other than a profound internal change, a “change of heart” within Paul.
Ways of Looking at the Stories and Teaching
It might be thought that this is essentially a question of linguistic and documentary study, of attempting to understand which documents are chronologically closest to the events they describe, and what the words appear to mean in their own context. The problem is however, that this cannot be done by scholars or anyone else without their own presuppositions, their own world-views or mind sets, influencing the outcome. Examining commonly held presuppositions is therefore the vital first step in any attempt to make sense of writing about the resurrection stories and it is this we now focus on.
As I see it in contemporary discussion by people trying to make sense of the Christian Story (or stories) be they Christian, secular humanist, adherent of another religion, scholar or agnostic “general reader”, arguments range between three main ways of looking at things.
The Options. A. Supernaturalist, scientifically inexplicable.
C. A symbolic, metaphoric approach.
A. Miracles and Supernaturalism in a World Where Theistic Magic is Seen as Real
In its Christian form as we have seen from Aquinas TMP is the belief that we live in a world under the control of a divine power, described as a “personal God”, who is creator and maintainer of the universe. This god is considered to be capable, able and willing, particularly in order to make an important point, to over-ride the “normal workings of the natural order” to perform “miracles”. As a result those who accept supernaturalist TMR thinking see the Christian teaching about the resurrection as being centred on a unique and inexplicable historical event (scientifically inexplicable that is) They see it as an assertion that something happened to the dead body of Jesus to bring it alive again and that this is a “supernatural miracle” — in fact the crucial, pivotal miracle which “demonstrates” that Jesus was (and is) the “Son of God”. What is more both Catholic and Evangelical Christians often believe that God has continued to work scientifically inexplicable “miracles” throughout history and right up to the present day (though they seldom agree over the same miracles)
B. Naturalism – A World Without Magic
This is the view that whether or not there is some transcendent or imminent divine force or God, there are no good reasons – philosophically or based on evidence – to justify assertions that there are any inexplicable as opposed to unexplained events, or that if there is a god he would abrogate the mathematical consistency of the systems in operation. The chains of logic, cause and effect, are seen as being inexorable. Naturalists can thus be both atheists and theists.
Naturalism is the basic way of thinking upon which all forms of science are built
Scientific theories are based upon measurement and observation and mathematical calculations and lead to predictions as to what will or will not happen as a consequence. Scientific thinking develops paradigms or mental models of the world which are used to predict and explain. For centuries astronomy was based on the paradigm that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun and the planets circled around it. It seemed common-sense, observable and reasonable. Famously Galileo put forward a different paradigm, arguing that predictions about the movements of the planetary bodies could be more easily made on the assumption that the earth and the planets circled the sun. It was not that the view of Galileo was scientific and the view of Copernicus before him was not. Both were scientific in that both paradigms took for granted that the way the universe worked was consistent and predictable. Galileo came to be seen as “right” and superseded Copernicus who came to be seen as “wrong” and redundant because Galileo’s theory fitted in with the observations of astronomers more elegantly and economically, and his sums were simpler. Hence the “march of science”. All scientific theories are approximations open to revision on the basis of new and more accurate measurements, observations and the creation of simpler and more elegant mathematical models for prediction and explanation. Newton’s theory of gravity – while brilliant – was superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and that has been or may be overtaken by quantum theory or string theory. What remains unchallenged is the assumption that the universe and all that is in it operates in a consistent, logical way. In no circumstances does logic or mathematics cease to function, and in no circumstances does the world behave in an inherently illogical and unintelligible way.
When this way of thinking is applied to the resurrection stories basically several types of explanation are often adopted.
The Naturalism of Anti-religious Atheists and Conspiracy Theorists
These are those like professor Richard Dawkins who argue that the resurrection stories are a pack of ignorant superstitions or deliberate lies. This view sees the aim of the Christian Scriptures as being to deliberately mislead people into accepting a magical, supernaturalist world-view on the basis of fraudulent, concocted evidence. (both Jews and Muslims have argued against Christianity in this way while at the same time reserving for JHWH and Allah the capacity to carry out magical, inexplicable actions which back their respective cases)
In defence of this negative attitude we should remember that from the beginning Christianity was regarded by cultivated and religiously sceptical Romans and Greeks as a “new superstition” and it is easy to forget in serious debate that all religions, ancient and modern, Christianity included, attract and cater for, among others, the desperate, the neurotic, the alienated, the marginalised, the suggestible and the gullible. It attracts many who not surprisingly are grasping for help, certainty and comfort in what they experience (as most of us do at some times) as a chaotic and hostile world and whose attitudes are highly superstitious. Probably there are more who are self-deluding and suggestible than there are scheming frauds – though it is often very difficult to separate them. What such people do though in all religions is to claim they or others have received dreams, visions, healings, auguries of the future etc., etc. to convince themselves that they have “irrefutable” evidence of magical, supernatural help and guidance and can claim a certainty for their choices which is always illusory..
Within Christianity the thousands of followers of contemporary American tele-evangelists, and healers such as “Dr” Morris Cerullo are sad examples of this, but they are nothing new. Parallels are to be found in all traditions of Christianity, and in all religions. Thus it is not surprising that there are those who see the Christian resurrection stories as being works of religious credulity and wish fulfilment.
For myself I would argue that although it would be strange and unique in the history of religions if this tendency were not to have had some influence on the Christian scriptures, particularly in the work of Luke (who in comparison to Mark often likes to hype up the wonderful and amazing,) it would be a great mistake to simply dismiss the resurrection stories in this way.
Naturalism and Natural Explanations
Naturalism can also be used in two other rather different positive ways. The first is to assert that behind resurrection there must lie some “perfectly natural” explanation. What I am referring to are all those elaborate theories which claim that after the crucifixion Jesus was not dead, but in a coma and the body spirited away by disciples – so that behind the resurrection stories lies some usually quite complicated naturalistic explanation involving his subsequent death or even emigration to India.
Jesus the Healer
The second way naturalism has some plausibility is when applied to many of the Gospel accounts of Jesus (and in Acts Peter and other disciples) carrying out miracles of healing and the casting out of demons. “Leprosy” covered a variety of skin conditions, some stress related, and much illness, physical and mental, epilepsy, coma and forms of physical disability were regarded as the result of demon possession and malign magic and in many cultures still are. We still have only a limited understanding of the “placebo effect” on healing beyond recognising that it plays an important role in both traditional, alternative and modern medical practice, sometimes quite unintentionally.
The problem with such theories being applied to the resurrection stories though is the lack of evidence, documentary or otherwise to support them and the excessive speculative theorising they entail. (This might have happened, so it is not impossible that then this could have happened, and then perhaps that – etc., etc.)
For this reason I do not consider such theories as regards the resurrection being worth pursuing further here, except to note that their variety, sometimes works of amazing ingenuity, underlines that clear historical conclusions about what happened to the body of Jesus are impossible to draw. We simply do not know what became of the body of Jesus or to the bodies of most of the other inhabitants of Palestine at the time and (short of significant archaeological finds) we never will.
C. The Symbolic/Metaphoric Approach
This Symbolic/Metaphoric approach unlike the other two, is not based at its heart on an attempt to communicate an external reality, but to trigger and confirm an essentially personal and compelling intuition or insight which is felt. This means exploring the resurrection stories not as “evidence” for the taking place of a scientifically inexplicable “magical” event, but as stories laden with symbol and metaphor to be used in liturgical drama, religious and devotional practice in order to trigger or re-enforce an intuition that here is a deeper truth. In asserting this I am very aware that there is little or nothing I say which has not be been said before, either by Christian theologians, or by scholars in the area of Religious Studies, still this particular mix of arguments is mine.
What may make my contribution a little different has been a personal involvement with Theravada Buddhist practice and the teaching of the Buddhist monk the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho. Through his teaching I came to understand how the Buddhist tradition has always described itself as a system of spiritual training to be practised rather than a system of belief to be accepted on faith. This is a very different definition from the definition of religion as a system of beliefs that is taken for granted by Christians and one they should remember is much older. I have seen the Ajahn (A title meaning respected teacher given to experienced monastics in the Thai tradition) demonstrate how Buddhist teachings, stories, scriptures and ceremonies should be used as objects for reflection, examination, inspiration and spiritual practice, that is as ways of affecting the mind, emotions and habits of acting, and not as doctrines, stories or accounts of events which have to be believed in as necessarily either literally or historically true.
This has lead me to explore a similar approach to the use of the stories and teachings of the Christian tradition, and to ask how far such an approach may well have been what was originally intended by the Gospel writers and practised by many early Christians for centuries.
Stories to Move and Inspire
My conclusion is to assert that TMP applied crudely as an assertion of supernaturalism can simply lead to their meaning and purpose being misunderstood. My reading of them is that while they were written in a context where TMP was taken for granted, they were never meant to be regarded in the modern sense as accurate historical documents, and as such as serious evidence proving the occurrence of supernatural events. Rather they were written from the start to be used as moving and inspiring stories for the new Christian Ecclesia, documents intended to be read in the sacred drama of worship, as tools for inspiring awe, wonder, dedication and insight in following the Way of Jesus.
It seems to me that if you look at how religious stories and scriptures have and are used in many ancient traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, Mesopotamian and Jewish, and compare this with the devotional use of Christian scripture, both ancient and contemporary, a common theme emerges. This is that all of them were written to move and inspire, to be used in public and private worship and reflection.
Who the Stories Were For and How They Were Used
Although at this distance in time it is not possible to know unambiguously how all the stories and their symbolism were understood ( for example why were there 153 fish mentioned in John) still a great deal is clear. First who were these texts for? The Gospels are obviously books for members of the Ecclesia and initially for Jews and Gentile goy “god-fearers”. However they presuppose a basic TMP outlook which was both generally accepted within the contemporary Jewish communities and from the speed it spread among the Hellenistic and Roman population, widely known among them also. This was a familiarity and acceptance of an apocalyptic world view which saw them as living in a time when the forces of good, YHWH and his angels, were doing battle with Satan and his demons, where the Jewish Scriptures were accepted and alluded to as being “prophetic” of the coming end of the world and the coming of a special Messiah. This is done either by the use of direct quotation or just as commonly by the use of typology, (the practice of mirroring or developing words, phrases, events or images from them — for example the story of Joseph taking the infant Jesus into Egypt to escape the massacre of the babies of Bethlehem is seen as echoing elements of the story of Moses.) Commitment to the Way of the Torah on the part of the listener is assumed to be already there, at least to some extent, and to be in need of strengthening. The Gospel stories are not designed to be read to the philosophically sceptical members of the ancient world, but those who , whatever their “religion” Jew, Pagan or Gnostic operated within a TMP worl-view.
Memorisation, Preaching, Readings and Sacraments
As to their use, this started by building on Jewish thought and practice. As with the teaching of the Rabbis, Jesus’ teaching and the stories about him were carefully memorised and repeated in worship. This process continued once they were written down and they were used, as the Torah writings are, as a guide to the practice of everyday life. There then developed the more particularly Christian use of scriptures in the liturgy and ceremonies of the Christian sacraments. In these the words, stories, concepts and images of the old Jewish scriptures and the new Christian scriptures were expressed in sacred story, dramatic ceremony and symbol as in Baptism, the weekly celebration of the Eucharist and the annual Easter celebrations. In these a common theme is liturgically re-enacted, a death to sin, evil and selfishness and a rebirth to new life, a resurrection, to a life lived “in the Spirit” of Jesus and as a “member of his body,” the Church or Christian community.
Inner Practice. Meditation and Asceticism
Of course the communal and ceremonial side of scripture use was also part of a more individual meditative, reflective and ascetic tradition of spiritual training or practice which involved periods of solitude, fasting and silence in which the scriptural stories could be visualised, meditated upon, thought and prayed about as a means of enabling Christian disciples not only to live a Christian moral life, but also to develop a Christian way of thinking, feeling and imagining, a Christian spirituality.
The resurrection stories then were (and are) used as part of Christian practice in order to inspire people to see that the pattern of Jesus’ Way could be reborn in them as they sought to live in harmony with “the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Christ.”
Packed with Drama, Character and Incident
If one compares the Koran, Hindu or Buddhist scriptures with the Gospels what is really striking is just how packed with drama, character and incident these Christian sacred writings are. Small wonder, and not unconnected, that they have been the inspiration of so much creativity in the arts.
Many Christians think it denigrating to hear it said that the gospels are inspiring in ways not unlike the way great literature, drama or poetry inspires. This is understandable because texts and stories developed for spiritual practice are not the same as literature, drama or poetry written to communicate and entertain, still the overlap is considerable and undeniable for the roots of all arts, drama and music go back to cultic practice. The vividness of the stories must also go back to Jesus’ own ability as a master storyteller and to the inspiration his example gave to those who told and then wrote the Christian narratives.
TMP and a Focus on Symbolism and Religious Practice Contrasted
Those who today stress TMP in interpreting the resurrection stories see the most important point being that at its heart there lies a naturally inexplicable series of events whereby after his execution Jesus was met by his disciples in a tangible resuscitated form as a sign of God’s power and endorsement of him. In contrast those like me who would stress the place of dramatic symbols in religious practice of course accept the naturalist arguments in considering that there are no good reasons for believing that inherently inexplicable events have in the past or currently take place. (which of course is not the same as acknowledging that there are many events which are or will remain unexplained)
Unlike some naturalists and those who think in TMP terms however, I would argue that what actually happened to Jesus’ body is spiritually and religiously irrelevant. The value of the resurrection stories lies not in the historical accuracy of what they say about what happened to the body of Jesus after death, but the power they have to move and inspire people to accept that Jesus has appeared also to them so they might “take up their cross” and follow Jesus’ Way.
Of course biblical scholars of a TMP persuasion usually recognise that the resurrection stories are rich in symbolism and are key sources for Christian devotion and meditation, but they are quick to argue that ultimately they are dependent for their power and authority upon the occurrence within history of a “supernatural series of events”. Everything else is seen by them as being of secondary importance. From a religious practice perspective however, the power and effectiveness of the resurrection stories in making the death of Jesus a symbol of hope and inspiration is quite independent of the existence of supernatural events.
The difference between the two points of view can be starkly put by pointing out that those who hold the TMP view are of the opinion that if archaeologists were to discover the authenticated skeleton of Jesus, then they would have to conclude that their Christian faith was based on a delusion. (Of course those who hold this view are quick to add that they believe that such a find will never be made – however that does not affect the argument.)
On the other hand I would argue that the discovery of such a skeleton would make no difference at all to the truth (or falsity ) of Jesus’ teachings and the basic reasons for following him, (or of not following him.)
Two Approaches to Historical Evidence
Another way of emphasising the difference is to note that between a Christian who sees the primary purpose of Christian Scriptures as being to facilitate faith and trust in Jesus and his teaching and a non – Christian historian investigating what can be known about Jesus and the manner of his death there would be no argument about what constitutes good historical evidence. (that of course is not to deny the very different conclusions which different historians might reasonably draw when working with the same sources) The difference between Christian and non-Christian historian would rather centre on whether or not they attached a particular personal significance for themselves to the stories of Jesus and used them “devotionally” as part of their own religious practice.
Inerrant and Inspired?
Those who hold the magic supernaturalist TMP view on the other hand usually also affirm that their view is based on the treatment of Christian and Jewish scriptures as being uniquely authoritative. For them this also means seeing them as being documents which should he treated as having an historical reliability of a quite different order from that of other ancient documents. Their claim is that these documents are divinely authenticated, and as such in some way or other preserved from any, or at the least from any serious error, and this is taken as including any historical error. This means of course that they apply their magic supernaturalism to the very documents they see as evidence for it. This is a position they share with Muslims in their veneration of the Koran as the final, unique and authoritative revelation of the will of Allah. I wonder how happy they are with that.
This approach is shared by both those Catholics and Protestants who are inclined to describe themselves and their views as being “Orthodox”, “Traditional” or “Evangelical”. (Outside Christianity many Orthodox Jews also adopt a similar style of thinking with regard to the historicity and authority of their scriptures.) Scholars who adopt this approach are inclined to ignore or dismiss out of hand the conclusions of biblical scholars and historians who attempt to rely simply on the normative academic methodology of secular historians and students of religion – or they take refuge in the rather doubtful assertion that “no evidence has been discovered to prove that ( their theistic magic supernaturalist reading of) the Biblical accounts is wrong.”
In addition to this rather hard-line minority there are many other Christians whose views on the authority and historical accuracy of the Christian scriptures are not so clear cut, but who nevertheless feel that they do or should accept in some sense a theistic magic supernaturalist position when it comes to the resurrection stories at least if they are to remain practising Christians. Those like me who would argue against this are thus faced with the problem of explaining how it is that those who consider themselves to be the most conservative and thus authentic defenders of the faith have come to adopt flawed magic supernaturalist positions if not as regards all of the miracles in the Bible, then certainly as regards the resurrection.
How TMP Supernaturalist Thinking is Sustained and Grows Today.
As we shall see this is a complex issue, but as regards Christians the place to start is again not with texts, but with the way people think and interpret their religious experience in the context of their basic world-view. I would thus ask TMR Christians to think back on just how it was that they came as individuals to adopt their way of understanding the resurrection stories. My comments are based upon a large number of discussions with supernaturalist Christians from different backgrounds, particularly Evangelicals, but also Catholics about how they came to have faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
What I see is that people become Christians (be they Catholics, Anglicans or Evangelicals) when Jesus “comes alive” for them and they commit themselves to following his Way. How this happens may be deeply influenced by family relationships, denominational tradition and the world-view implicit or explicit in their cultural milieu. It may grow from hearing Jesus’ life story and teaching well expounded by good teachers or preachers who are able to bring the stories alive and show how they relate to everyday life. It may be by reading the gospels themselves, which are narrative documents of great dramatic power and vividness. It may be by taking part in Christian worship and devotional acts such as praying and singing and “bible study”, participating in retreats, youth camps, conferences and quiet days, taking part in ceremonies, pilgrimages, rallies or processions, by being moved by participation in such richly symbolic acts as the Christian sacraments, and being inspired by the example and influence of Christians they respect and admire.
The process of coming to Christian discipleship is generally a gradual one, though there are often key events and experiences in it. In particular this happens when people come to see the rightness for themselves of the moral teaching of Jesus about the fundamental importance of compassion and integrity and what this means for living. Often this takes place in the context where the person has come to reflect on the past with a strong sense of regret over actions and attitudes which increasingly are seen as unworthy or sinful, as causing suffering to others and as separating one from living “in the spirit of Christ”.
Once this has happened and the Gospel story of the life, teaching , death and resurrection of Jesus has come to be seen as striking many chords and as providing the individual with help in making sense of life as a whole and their own life in particular, and when as a result of reflection the person of Jesus becomes increasingly vivid to heart and imagination, then there is a natural tendency to give the words of the story a normative authority, and often to accept them more or less literally as true in the context of religious practice. In doing so almost inevitably there is a blurring of the distinction between what rings true in an emotional and personal sense and what is regarded as historically reliable and likely to be the case. Why? Because in a community religious context the stories feel so believable and true. A similar process can be seen taking place in all other religions in the attitudes that develop towards sacred scriptures and the stories they tell. (I have seen this happening with Buddhists despite the explicit teaching of the Buddha that teaching should not be accepted because it is contained in a “sacred writing” or taught by a religious authority, but only if each person sees the truth of it for themselves.)
Evangelical Conversion: “Resurrected” and “Born Again”
Among Christians who are happy to describe themselves as Evangelicals, this process of moving from religious practice and “devotional” thinking to a hard TMR literalist style of thinking often happens in a particularly clear cut way. For them a central place is given to the experience of conversion or re-orientation, which is described as being “born again”. Usually this is identified with a particular religious experience when the person concerned has an overwhelming sense of the presence of Jesus as a living reality, of personal sinfulness and unworthiness, and of a sense of joy, relief and acceptance when a commitment to follow Jesus is made and more or less publicly declared.
So central is this experience of conversion seen to be by many Evangelical Christians, that they doubt if people who call themselves Christian and yet cannot point to a similar experience, can really claim to be Christians at all. Certainly it is common practice among Evangelicals to date their Christian life as having started on the day when they were “born again.”
Now once Evangelical Christians have come to their faith from a “lukewarm conventional religion” or from right outside as from another religion or from agnosticism, and have had their conversion experience, then, and only then, are they inclined to treat the Christian and Jewish scriptures (the “Old Testament”) as being the “inspired and infallible words of God”. What is more they will often in addition insist on as TMP interpretation of everything they find in the scriptures as they possibly can. This of course includes holding a supernaturalist view of the resurrection.
I would hope that any Evangelical reading this would find this to be an accurate description, though of necessity generalised, of what is the common Evangelical Christian experience. The central point to note is this. The order in which things happen. The experience of conversion is not brought about as a result of a careful analysis of the evidence for and against a physical resurrection Jesus as if one were investigating the evidence for the Battle of Hastings, but upon an experience of Jesus as a “living” or powerful presence – of a sense of having been convicted, forgiven and accepted, – on a strong sense of “God” being present and powerful. Often this takes place in or shortly after attendance at an evangelistic meeting or service, or even – as in the US – a TV broadcast in which the preaching builds up to a climax where the inadequacy and futility of life without Jesus is emphasised and the ultimate consequences of sin spelt out! A way out is then offered. Turn to Jesus. Have faith. Accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Once they have experienced this then they become part of a community consisting of those who have had a similar experience and who accept the Christian and Jewish scriptures as normative – as their guide to religious practice, belief and action – as the Word of God. Within this context, this milieu, they quickly become “convinced” of the truth of them and learn to interpret them in the same way as others in that Church community.
How TMR Becomes Non- Negotiable
In fact very quickly the new convert finds that to question a theistic magic supernatural understanding of the truth of the resurrection, miracles or prophecies concerning a Second Coming of Jesus, or to express doubt that the Jewish scriptures really predict in any literal way the coming, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his Second Coming, is to find that the reality of one’s conversion would be questioned. Thus a magic supernaturalist belief in the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus, and often of “Old Testament” miracles, and even an acceptance of the Genesis creation story as being “historical”, becomes part of a non-negotiable package of beliefs that the convert must accept to be regarded as a ‘sound” and safe Evangelical Christian. Doubt in such matters in fact becomes regarded as evidence of sin, of a failure to submit the heart to God. Not only is doubt itself seen as sin, but it is argued that where Scripture and Reason may appear to conflict, Scripture is to be trusted because the reason of fallible, sinful people is not to be trusted, but is corrupt and self-serving, and in the face of the infinite majesty of God, a pathetic and broken tool to be discarded in favour of “faith”.
The point we are noting here is that a careful look at Evangelical conversions today provides us with a good example of how belief in a supernatural magical scientifically inexplicable resurrection arises and is sustained, and provides clear evidence of how the growth of such beliefs has nothing to do with the careful analysis of historical evidence or philosophical argument, or even with having actually experienced a “miraculous” event. The crowds of newly “born again” coming away from large revivalist meetings have done none of these things. Their concerns have been quite different. They have been deeply moved and personally challenged, they have faced a turning-point in their lives, and certainly the evidence is that for many they will never be the same again. They have tasted the possibility of a new life, a new start, yes, a “resurrection”. (“My son who was dead is alive again”) If that is the case now, why should it have ever been any different?
What the Effectiveness of Evangelical Conversion Shows
I would thus argue that the very success of Evangelical religious practice in influencing some people and bringing about in them a substantial change in their thinking and actions – far from being a vindication of magic supernaturalism, is a particularly telling example of how the use of a particular set of religious and devotional practices can work. Of course most religions have scriptures which are studied, memorised, visualised, meditated and reflected on in order to bring about changes in thinking and behaviour. (Think of the Muslims, Jews and Buddhist monks who consider memorising huge quantities of their scriptures to be a valuable religious training of their minds and attitudes.)
This does not mean that historical accuracy is or was ever intended to be the strong point of these scriptures. In fact we should remember that the concept of writing accurate secular history while explored by some Greco-Roman writers, was almost unknown to the biblical writers. They were writing religious documents for the early church and the Jewish community to be used for teaching, preaching, imagining and reflecting on in order to inspire Jews to live by the Torah and Christians better to follow the way of Christ.
Supernaturalism and TMP amongst Evangelicals and Catholics
My reading of the Christian story is that the Evangelicals in the Church have held to the central core of the Way of Jesus in that they have always emphasised that following Jesus is about embarking on a path of spiritual transformation, of salvation, (seeking healing and wholeness) of putting aside a self-centred life, of death to the egotistical self and of rebirth into the “Spirit of Christ.” They have recognised how a religion of form and convention can become a betrayal of the challenge which the Gospel story presents if forms and conventions are separated from the heart or inner intention.
Sadly, in maintaining this in the face of what they have often seen as a complacent and luke-warm religion of convention, they, together with many other Christians who consider their opinions to be “orthodox”, have blinded themselves to the objections there are to a supernatural TMP view of the resurrection and of other miracle stories. In the process they have fundamentally misunderstood and twisted the meaning of their own Christian faith. Paul said that the cross was to the Jews a scandal, and to the Greeks foolishness. By this he meant that Jews could not conceive of a Messiah who would end up crucified if he were truly sent from God, and the Greeks thought that a man who ended up executed must be a failure. Both failed to see that for Paul Jesus’ death was a victory which showed what it means to live out the meaning of Love, agape and exposes the emptiness of those who seek happiness through selfish behaviour and the accumulation of pleasures and possessions. So many modern Christians have instead come to see the Resurrection (understood in magic supernatural terms) not the cross, as the stumbling block, and in so doing have replaced a moral and spiritual challenge with a call to the “Jew and the Greek” to believe in the unbelievable.
The Catholic Church has also emphasised the centrality of spiritual transformation if one is to follow the way of Christ with its emphasis on the possibility of achieving “sainthood” and unlike Protestant Evangelicals has a tradition which has always consciously used and valued stories, ceremonies, symbols (the Mass, other sacraments and sacramentals) and the arts in the service of developing a public and private Christian spirituality. It also has (abandoned by Protestants) the monastic tradition of celibate communities devoting themselves to sustained discipline, prayer, meditation and spiritual training. It is thus particularly sad that ever since the Catholic reaction to Modernism the Church has adopted an uncompromisingly literal magic supernaturalist (TMR) approach to miracles and the stories of the resurrection.
Two examples of how things could have been different. Ever since the young Bernadette had a vision of Mary at the cave in Lourdes millions have gone there on pilgrimage seeking healing and spiritual comfort in facing suffering, but the Church stipulates that healings may only be regarded as genuine miracles if doctors confirm them naturally inexplicable and in no sense psychosomatic. This devalues the practice and experience of the millions who visit the shrine and derive considerable benefit, both psychological and physical. In fact for many there is real healing derived through their experience of visiting the shrine, reaffirming religious commitment and participating in worship. If the essence of miracle was to be seen not as an inexplicable event, but as in the case of Paul, as an outer sign of an experience of transformation, re-orientation, new beginning, a rebirth, then the search for the “inexplicable” could be abandoned.
Canonisation and Miracle
Another strange ruling of the Church is the criteria which has been used until now in the process of Canonisation, the process by which the Roman Church comes to recognise someone as being a saint. It has been expected that proof be provided that the candidate performed or was closely associated with a magical, supernaturally defined TMP “miracle”. This it would seem is supposed to increase their spiritual and moral authority. Would Mother Theresa of Calcutta be more or less of a saint if an unexplained healing happened in her hospice compared to her dedication to serve “the poorest of the poor?” The move to remove the need for “proven supernatural miracles “ by Pope Francis this year (14) is to be commended.
The Credibility Problems of Taking TMP Seriously
Let us remind ourselves just what the credibility problems of supernaturalism are. Those who hold to supernaturalism at the very least would have us accept as historical fact that the body of Jesus vanished from the tomb after his death, that Jesus subsequently re-appeared in a variety of settings when he was recognised and touched by some of his closest disciples, and that he ate food before again disappearing.
Such events, to take place in the real world, as opposed to in the imagination, entail us believing that a massive abrogation of natural processes took place. To accept it is to regard the scientific approach to the world as being logically and mathematically consistent, as fundamentally wrong, and that “the real world” is in fact subject to having its consistency overridden by unpredictable and inherently inexplicable “acts of God.”
This is asking us to accept a rejection of the accumulated principles theories and methods of modern science, built as they are upon observation, the development of mathematics, hypotheses, testing and the evaluation of degrees of probability. In real life common sense and scientific thinking agree that bodies do not and cannot behave in the way described in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection (not to mention a great number of the other miracle stories)
The TMP view is then to argue that this was a scientifically inexplicable, unique event, and unique events by definition cannot be investigated by scientific method, because they are non-repeatable.
The answer to that has to be that of course one must be prepared to accept that unexplained events happen. The starting point however, must always be credible evidence that the unexplained and unexpected event has actually happened. Theories have to accommodate themselves to that. In fact that is how science works. A new phenomenon is observed and theories have then to be revised to take account of it.
Many things have remained without adequate scientific explanation for a very long time, ( e.g. gravity, radiation, the nature of fundamental particles ) and new discoveries usually uncover even more that needs to be explained, and sometimes scientific and historical theories have to be revised or discarded when they no longer correspond to known facts. The point is has an event been observed which cannot be explained?
Parapsychology: Telepathy, Psychokinesis and Findhorn
For example for many years there was a running battle in the British Psychological Association over Parapsychology, about whether or not such phenomena as telepathy and psychokinesis have in fact been observed. If there is good evidence for the phenomena then this needs to be investigated further and money spent on research. If however, reports of such phenomena are the result of either fraud or wishful thinking on the part of the scientist reporting them, then there is no event to be investigated, and no phenomenon that scientific theory needs to explain. It follows that those who behave as if there is are basing any further research they do on a misperception, on error, and are wasting their time. This is the conclusion which Dr Susan Blackmore came to after many years of chasing up and trying to pin down the existence of such phenomena.
An example which raised these issues some time in the seventies was the Findhorn Community in Scotland a semi-religious New Age operation which is still going strong. Some of its members claimed that there has been a quite remarkable growth of plants in the rather infertile conditions there, and that this is because attention has been paid to the local spiritual presences, devas or fairies. Faced with such a claim should the Biology Department from Edinburgh University send a research fellow to spend months investigating this?, They would first need to see if there is on the face of it a case to answer, that there are significant unexplained phenomena worth investigating. Is there actual evidence of abnormal plant growth etc. or is there really nothing to see? Is the report possibly the result of an enthusiastic misperception on the part of individuals who believe in devas/fairies for no objective reason, but who find the idea of helpful local spirits in trees and plants to be a satisfying way of thinking which helps them relate better to nature and better able to cope with their lives? Only in the face of some clear evidence of say abnormal growth with no obvious cause would it become an issue worth investigating further from a natural science point of view. Of course from a Religious Studies of Social Anthropological point of view it would still be well worth investigating why refugees from modern urban life should adopt such a mode of thinking.
20. The Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud is a linen cloth kept in Turin Cathedral. It bears the marks in negative of a crucified body taken to be that of Jesus and is another interesting example of the issues raised. Work by American space scientists from NASA using all the latest high tech gear came up with apparent discoveries which seemed to point to the shroud being that in which the body of Jesus was wrapped, according to the Gospels, before he was laid in a tomb. Much was also made of the “inexplicable” nature of the marking upon it as only being consistent with a searing of the linen by the body becoming momentarily very hot and then presumably evaporating. For a time then it seemed that the shroud was providing the only photographic image of a person of the first century, and that the image was Jesus himself! What is more here was evidence of a scientifically inexplicable” disappearance of his physical body.
This all provoked great interest, including among some highly reputable New Testament scholars (John Robinson) In an investigative programme made for the BBC however, a research student from the Royal College of Art specialising in faking techniques was able to make a replica of the shroud and by using very simple ageing techniques was able to demonstrate how the image was made (it was simply painted) and its age. His judgement was that it was a straightforward medieval religious artefact. Since then after a lot of coyness from the Vatican a triple blind test involving three separate laboratories using the latest radio-carbon dating system showed that the Shroud is medieval.
This conclusion has been challenged by an Italian professor in 2013 who has re-asserted its authenticity sparking what a visit to Google looks like a rather partisan attempt to promote it which Oxford scientists question. Wikipedia has this to say, “In 1978, a detailed examination carried out by a team of American scientists, called the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), found no reliable evidence of how the image was produced. In 1988 a radiocarbon dating test was performed on small samples of the shroud. The laboratories at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology concurred that the samples they tested dated from the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1390. The validity and the interpretation of the 1988 tests are still contested by some statisticians, chemists and historians. According to professor Christopher Ramsey of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in 2011, “There are various hypotheses as to why the dates might not be correct, but none of them stack up.” (In other words he considers the 88 examinations got it right.)
According to former Nature editor Philip Ball, “it’s fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever. Not least, the nature of the image and how it was fixed on the cloth remain deeply puzzling”. The shroud continues to remain one of the most studied and controversial objects in human history.
On 30 March 2013, as part of the Easter celebrations, there was an extraordinary exposition of the shroud in the Cathedral of Turin. Pope Francis recorded a video message for the occasion, in which he described the image on the shroud as “this Icon of a man”, and stated that “the Man of the Shroud invites us to contemplate Jesus of Nazareth.” In his carefully worded statement Pope Francis urged the faithful to contemplate the shroud with awe, but “stopped firmly short of asserting its authenticity.” More wise behaviour on the part of Pope Francis.
Supernaturalism and Evidence
Looking at the case of Findhorn and the Turin Shroud we get a good idea of what would count as plausible, serious evidence for the existence of an unexplainable or really baffling event. Of course the TMR supernaturalist Christians who still accept that the Turin Shroud is a first century artefact that could have wrapped up the body of Yeshua will be quick to assert that yes they now have good evidence that a mysterious unexplained event did take place. Now of course I might find it very difficult indeed, perhaps impossible, to prove that there are not fairy devas at work in the Findhorn gardens, or that flying saucers have not landed, or that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is not able to get people to levitate etc.. etc. The point is that if an assertion about the occurrence of an unexplained event cannot be disproved, it is not sensible or rational to regard it as worth taking seriously in an historical, or scientific sense, unless there is good evidence to support its existence.
Gullibility. The Need to Believe
These cases however, and a much publicised and hysterical healing campaign carried out by such figures as the Pentecostal evangelist “Dr” Cerillo in London, when he came over on a “healing mission” from the US illustrate another important point, which is how gullible many people are and how badly many want to believe that wondrous events have in fact taken place. The proliferation of books and accounts about such events which make their writers rich, but which turn out to be based on forged, misleading or fanciful evidence is legion. It is also a fact that there is money to be made writing such books (von Daniken, Lyall Watson) which purport to support supernaturalism, and very little or nothing to be earned by performing an honest careful job exposing them.
The Christian Scriptures as Evidence
It is now time to look again at the Christian records. What we have are ancient and carefully copied writings which the study of manuscripts shows have survived virtually unchanged since they were written. In the case of Paul’s letters, in particular Galatians and 1 Corinthians, we have no description of what the “appearance” to him of Jesus was. His is the only ‘eye-witness” account. He never refers to an empty tomb and there is no reason whatsoever to assert that Paul understood the resurrection appearance to him of Jesus to have been other than spiritual, psychological, interior, essentially subjective. We may speculate that he had a vision, or simply an overwhelming sense that Jesus was alive and with him, but just what he experienced we will never know.
Luke, the writer of Acts, does describe what happened to Paul, and it is interesting that someone as keen on writing quite a visual narrative richly filled with wonderful TMR occurrences throughout his book, describes the event ambiguously. Paul, he says, saw a light, those with him heard a voice. Really? or did Luke simply wish they had? Again his account is written many years after the event and Paul’s death, and cannot be regarded as constituting strong historical evidence for the occurrence of an inexplicable event.
When we turn to the Gospels unlike Paul, there is a great deal about the life, teaching, final week, death and resurrection of Jesus. However all four documents bear the marks of being written after a considerable period of oral tradition by unknown writers using now uncheckable sources. In fact modern biblical scholarship makes it abundantly clear just what remarkable and extremely carefully composed documents these are. Each has its own style and “theology”and while three of them show that they were written with the earliest, Mark, to refer to, the way they amend, rearrange (sometimes radically) and re-interpret their common source is very instructive. They employ every device such as quotation and typology from the Jewish scriptures to make it clear that they intend to continue and “fulfil” that tradition, and they are clearly designed to be used in the contexts of Christian liturgical worship and religious practice.
Throughout all four of them continuously use wondrous and strange events and activities, visions, dreams, transformations, healings, exorcisms, and foreseeing to put across their claim that healing and wholeness, forgiveness, a new beginning, a second birth, a resurrection is made possible by following the way of Christ. What is more in addition to the stories of Jesus rising from the dead they all have stories of others rising from the dead, a little girl, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, and the almost casual mention in Matthew that many rose from the dead in Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified.
What then do all these accounts add up to? Are they evidence for the existence of theistic magic as real or are they simply evidence that TMP was for the NT writers as for most people in the Romano-Greek world the default way of thinking and expressing oneself. If it is then claimed, as Baukman has attempted to do and it appears Bp Wright has done, that the writers of these meticulously constructed documents intended from the beginning that they should be read as accurate history (like their contemporary the Roman Suetonious’account of the reign of twelve emperors or the work of Josephus). and that they intended to make assertions that supernatural events have taken place in history and that the coming alive of Jesus in visible, objective (video-recordable?) form after death by crucifixion is the chief of them, then it has to be recognised that the accounts we have do not amount to more than hearsay evidence at the most.
To be blunt, the gospels – treated as historical evidence for supernatural unexplained phenomena – amount to no more than second or third-hand assertions, assertions which cannot be checked, corroborated, proved or disproved. As Professor Houlden says in his chapter on the resurrection in his book Connections, written after a life-time of academic biblical study “The historical evidence is then, complex, diverse, indirect and essentially obscure. No amount of faith or church authority can, as we now see, alter its character or increase its force None of the evidence takes us close enough to the origins for a historian to say with assurance what happened.” (Connections p143 SCM Press ‘86)
In saying this I am not arguing, as some would, that the gospels do not provide us with sufficient evidence to claim that quite a bit can be said about the life, teaching and death of the historical Rabbi Yeshua which carries reasonable historical credibility. When however it comes to judging claims about the occurrence of supernatural events – which even the most ardent supernaturalist would agree are comparatively rare and special, and everyone else would argue are intrinsically far from probable – then as our examination of modern examples shows, much better evidence is needed for the acceptance of such claims to amount to anything more, from an historical or scientific point of view, than unsubstantiated assertions. In other words the Gospels cannot legitimately be used as evidence to substantiate the existence of supernatural miracles.
How Supernaturalist TMP Misses the Point
Reflecting on how scriptures are intended to be used in devotional and religious practice should lead one to see that because stories are not based on sound evidence in the literal and scientific sense, it does not mean they are fraudulent or meaningless, particularly when they are used in a context which shows they are part of a system of values and symbols through which people make sense of their lives.
The people of Findhorn clearly have believed in spiritual presences and have found their belief useful to them. Their stories are not simply nonsense or fraudulent, but express a deeply felt conviction about the sacredness of the earth and life on it. It is very similar to the Australian Aboriginal stories about their land and their elaborate “totem” systems. They too were not simply nonsense but an alternative set of symbols much older than the scientific for understanding the working of nature, part of a cultural system with ethical, social and ecological implications which we have every reason to treat with respect.
Even the artists and craftsmen who created the Turin Shroud may not have been setting out to perpetrate a fraud, so much as produce a religious artefact that would be a powerful devotional aid and symbol of Jesus’ suffering.
Similarly, I would argue that the resurrection stories were not originally told or written down to mislead or con people into faith in the supernatural, but express through a TMR world view that as members of the Ecclesia Jesus was alive in them. “Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty.” (Jn 15-5) They were and are stories to engender a sense of awe and wonder, to be visualised and imagined as part of the process of letting go of an unsatisfying old way of life and a turning of the mind and heart to follow the Jesus Way, to “Take up your cross and follow me”.
The real meaning of the stories is to do with a profound sense of the continuing presence and influence of the pattern of Yeshua’s personality upon those who follow him, a presence which transcends his death and gives meaning to their lives as they embody something of his values in their responses and actions.. It is the acceptance of a re-orientation of one’s life which is the heart of the Way of Jesus. This involves dying to the old life, a letting go of self-centredness, dishonesty, greed and hatred and a rebirth and resurrection through practising a way of life based on honesty, unselfishness, compassion and integrity. In fact I would go further and say that those who assert. that the heart of the resurrection is to be seen as depending upon the supernatural re-appearance of a dead body are in danger of demeaning, cheapening and radically misrepresenting Jesus and the Gospel writers who sought to witness to him.
It is strange to me how many intelligent and sensitive people fail to see this. Is the Sermon on the Mount any the less true if Jesus did not literally rise from the dead and instead his body lies mislaid or dismembered in some lost Palestinian burial pit? Would it then become right to hate your enemy, to lie, to cheat, be a hypocrite, be intolerant, exploit people, value possessions above people, show no concern or compassion for others just because Jesus’ bones were found tomorrow?
It hardly needs to be said, surely, that to live in tune with the structure of the way things are, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of Heaven”, remains as it is and always has been. If we are to live as aware and responsible human beings i.e. we will see for ourselves that to follow the Way that Jesus advocated (which is not that different from the spiritual way other great religious teachers have advocated (Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and yes many secular humanists) is equally relevant to good times as to bad, to living in suburbia, monastery, on the farm or in prison, in the first century of the present era, or the twenty-first.
It can also be seen and experienced that the reward of so doing is immediate and deep. Any talk of the “joys of heaven” or anything else (“the pains of Hell!”) which is external to acting with an open and honest heart in a way that avoids deliberately causing suffering to others, is surely no more than metaphor.
What if the Supernaturalist TMP World-View Really Were True?
What happens if you assume the opposite to be the case and the supernaturalists to be right? What if the Turin Shroud turned out to be genuine, if it had indeed appeared to offer the possibility of providing clear, visible objective evidence of the existence, appearance and manner of death of Jesus, and possibly also some evidence of the existence of an inexplicable event concerning his body after it was placed in the tomb? Or what would happen if a volume of authenticated eye-witness accounts to the physical resurrection were to be dug up with it?
Would such strong evidence of the likely occurrence of inexplicable supernatural or even of just “wondrous” events make the Christian religion or the perceived character and teaching of Jesus/Yeshua more credible or impressive and worthy of respect, or less so? Would it make Christians more compassionate, more Christ-like or simply more arrogant? Would it bring about the mass “conversions” of atheists, secular unbelievers or of Hindus, Jews and Muslims to Christianity, and if it did what sort of “conversions” would these be? Or would not many be honest and consistent to persist in seeing such evidence as fraud, forgery, the work of the Great Satan or the CIA? Would people become more or less gullible when new claims for supernatural events were made, and would people become more or less prepared to assume responsibility for their actions?
We only have to think about the possibility of living in a world in which supernatural events were an established reality to realise that everything would have changed in our expectations and understanding of life. It would be like stepping into some sort of Science Fiction nightmare where people suddenly learn that they are not in control of themselves, but that they and the whole earth are under the subtle and at times not so subtle domination of an alien power convinced that all it caused to happen to you was benign – only it did not feel that way.
The longer one thinks about such potential scenarios the more insane and ludicrous does a literal, acceptance of the TMP world-view become and the further is it from life as we actually experience it. .In fact of course it is one of the most obvious marks of the mentally ill and insane that such people do inhabit without any choice their own idiosyncratic supernaturalist worlds – worlds complete with angels, demons, disembodied voices, nightmarish figures, persecutors, visions, and special appearances from Jesus and his blessed Mother telling them to do strange things.
Despite all this being quite obvious the enthusiastic supernaturalism of the insecure and neurotic remains remarkably persistent in our high tech world. The purveyors of astrology, Tarot, I Ching, palmistry etc. continue to do well catering as shamans and medicine men have done before them to the continuing need of so many for some special way of making decisions about the future which will give them a sense of certainty that they are making the right choices in a confusing and threatening world. (Remember Nancy Reagan rescheduling the summit with Gorbachev))
Supernaturalism and TMP in the Arts and Popular Culture
At a time of the rapid globalisation of mass culture and all the books, films and videos which saturate the world, it is fascinating to notice the persistence and continued recycling of all the mythic magical stories and symbols which humanity has used since pre-history. Supernatural events and fantasy worlds inhabited by good and bad magicians locked in battle or alternative Science Fiction worlds which do much the same are dominating themes in contemporary mass culture to an extraordinary and surely unforeseen extent.
In an increasingly industrialised and interdependent world where everywhere the grip of traditional religions (despite the clamour of “fundamentalists” ) is slipping and morphing, this is quite strange and seems to show that the authors of all these things are responding to a very deep and continuing human need, and a persistent pattern of thinking. A need which in the past was certainly being catered for in the magic supernatural elements of the Christian scriptures.
Play and Fantasy
At the same time this use of supernaturalism in horror films, cartoons, science fiction and particularly in children’s literature is everywhere recognised as inhabiting the world of play and fantasy, as being part of a temporary suspension of disbelief. It does not, nor is it intended, to induce in those who use it any acceptance that the supernaturalist modes may be “true” outside the context where the suspension of disbelief is meant to operate, be it book, cinema, theatre or TV screen. Is the function of such supernaturalism simply to provide escape, time out from the pressures of life? I suspect not. I suspect its use is deeply wired into our brains, is part of the way we communicate, and is linked to our hunger for satisfying and stirring stories, ceremonies and symbols and for the arts. At the same time the fantasy nature of such supernaturalist material of course is something even the youngest child can quickly recognise as being just that. When a small child brings me a toy “cup of tea” I am expected to drink it, but the child also knows there is really no tea there. The campaign lead by some Evangelical Christians against dice, video games and children’s literature which incorporate supernaturalism in their story lines as well as their attack on children dressing up as witches for Halloween typically fail to appreciate this distinction.
Sometimes, either by design or as a by-product some fictional stories incorporating the supernatural (like for example Macbeth) reach the level of significant myth, metaphor or parable with something deeply resonant to say about the human condition. When this happens great literature, art, film, theatre, or music can result which goes beyond entertainment and becomes spiritually significant – a vehicle of insight and wisdom. This is the point at which the arts come closest to religion. They may also overlap in another way we often forget.
Religion and Entertainment
Today we think of religion and religious practice as taking place in one area of life, and entertainment in another. Religion and worship is serious, not entertaining. This is rather Puritan and was not of course how it was seen in medieval times. Nor is it always seen as such today. Religion can and always has incorporated colour and music, dance and procession, drama and ritual, display, celebration and fun. It is where the arts originated
References to Magic. A Tool to Capture Attention
With regard to the resurrection and miracle stories in the Gospels and in Acts this does however raise the possibility that the incorporation of supernatural elements in all of them, is there to heighten interest, grab attention, incite, engage and emphasise to the listener that here is something much more than a mundane story or a dry moral message, and that above all what it has to say is gripping, not boring.
Using TMP to Sustain Sub-Groups and Societies
Using the TMP world view with its Supernaturalism can also be attractive as a sort of fantasy or wish fulfilment mechanism, as something people can pretend to themselves is true, or hope that it might be true, or act as though it were true in certain circumscribed and safe areas of life and with a restricted circle of people who share a special TMP version with them – while taking some care to make sure such actions do not impinge upon the working of the “real world”, in particular the areas of work, economics, politics, science and technology. This is because they recognise that in reality the world is not like that and if it was, as the ancient story of Midas’s touch illustrates so well, life would be a nightmare.
26. The Confusing Question of Faith
Many Christians are quick to say that their belief in Jesus and his supernatural powers is a matter of faith not reason as if they have said something significant by this. They compare “having faith” with being “faithless.” In so doing I think they miss the point. Surely it is better simply to speak of having faith as having trust. For example I trust in the integrity or the love of certain people in my life. This trust is not blind, but is based on past and present experience, and as such is quite reasonable, if strictly speaking unprovable. Similarly I trust in much of the teaching of Jesus as the gospels describe it, such as “love your neighbour as yourself”, not out of blind faith, but as a result of personal experience and sustained reflection. If I try to act on that teaching I am not being irrational or unreasonable, but neither is it inevitable that I do so. Many consider they will be better off if they put their trust in simply “looking after number one”.
As I see it then, one can trust particular people, one can trust in a set of teachings about the nature of the world and of ourselves, one can trust in a series of moral values, and one can trust in a community and a tradition as embodying and exhibiting some of these values. Having faith in this sense, is not irrational, though at times it can be sorely tested to the point where the individual may have to choose between the truth as they see it, feel it, and think it, and what the trusted persons, set of rules or community asserts.
Having such faith or reasonable trust of course should also involve us in a recognition that what appears reasonable to me, may appear significantly less so or different to someone else who has had different experiences, formation and background. The faith or trust of a Muslim in Islam may be just as reasonable as the faith or trust of a Christian in the Way of Christ, or the trust of a Buddhist in the Noble Eightfold Path, or of a Humanist in fundamental human rights, or of a Jew in the Torah.
To confuse this sort of trust (in a person or persons, set of teachings, moral values and cultural traditions) with faith in the sense of asserting that one accepts as a matter of religious duty that a series of naturally unexplainable events took place as signs to humanity of the superiority and divine authentication of one’s chosen path, is to compound one error upon another. To believe an unexplainable event happened without good evidence that it actually took place, but simply as “an act of faith” is simply to be gullible and credulous. To then declare to those outside and inside the community that what you accept “by faith” is a reason why you or others should regard your path as the ultimate truth is to turn credulity into bombastic intolerance or something far worse. What is more to regard unexplained events as having any bearing on the truth or moral authority of a teaching, the integrity of a person or the value of a tradition is simply to miss the point as to what gives any person, teaching or community moral or spiritual authority.
The Ultimate Religious Irrelevance of TMP, Yeshua Tempted
Supernaturalist thinking which denies or forgets the special nature of theistic magical stories and attempts to intrude them into “the real world” is always with us. The point of the story of Yeshua’s’ three temptations illustrates this well and does seem to have been to emphasise the irrelevance of supernaturalism (and belief in the Devil) to his mission. If Yeshua did have the power to turn stones into bread or to throw himself from the top of the Temple and then float down unharmed, it would not improve or clarify his teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God one bit. In fact it would mislead and confuse. What he had to do was the straightforward but difficult bit, simply “serve God” and practice what he knew to be true with integrity.
This story is similar to one told of the Buddha who heard that one of his monks was practising levitation and attracting great crowds to see him. The Buddha sent word to the monk rebuking him for being distracting and telling him only to teach “the cause and cure of Suffering (dhukkha)”.
TMP and Superstition
The desire for supernatural miracle and inexplicable event, not as symbol or metaphor, not as drama, but as actual fact is the desire for sensation and an easy way out. It is the path of superstition, magic, and at its worst insanity. It leads to crude and unworthy views of both human beings and any God they might claim to worship. It is the path of the charlatan, the escapist and the seriously neurotic – of whom there are and always have been many. This has been recognised by mature and perceptive teachers in all the major religious traditions who have been quick to warn against the dangers of superstition, for in the end that is what it is.
Surely when we think about it we can see that “supernatural miracles” or “inexplicable events”, even if they were to occur, can never demonstrate that Yeshua was the Christ, that Gotama was a Buddha, a Fully Enlightened Being, or that Muhammad was in truth the Seal of the Prophets. As metaphors and visualisations supernatural stories have their important place, but regarded as “proofs” or “evidence” such stories add absolutely nothing to the spiritual and moral authority of a religious teacher – or anyone else. The words of the centurion in Mark’s gospel are much more to the point. Seeing how Yeshua endured the horrors of crucifixion he said, “Truly, this man was a son of God.”
It is seeing courage, integrity, compassion, insight and wisdom which inspire in a lasting way.