Saturday, July 31, 2010

David L. Weddle's "Miracles"

David L. Weddle is the David and Lucile Packard Professor at Colorado College and the author of The Law as Gospel: Revival and Reform in the Theology of Charles G. Finney.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions, and reported the following:
Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions retells stories of wondrous events in five religious traditions and reflects on the meanings assigned to them. Accounts of levitation, healing, resurrection, and clairvoyance appear in these traditions as expressions of the refusal to accept human existence as determined by a closed system of pitiless material forces. Belief in miracles persists in all these traditions, despite scientific claims and philosophical criticisms to the contrary. In fact, belief in supernatural (or “transcendent”) events is on the rise among resurgent forms of religion across the globe. My thesis is that hope for miracles is everywhere sustained by popular enthusiasm, restrained by official regulation (like the rigorous tests for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church), and—here is the distinctive emphasis of the book demonstrated on page 99—opposed by faithful dissenters within each tradition who object to reliance on miracles as undercutting moral responsibility and the order of nature.

Within Jewish tradition one of the most powerful critics of miracles was Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), whose challenge to the literal reading of the Bible earned him excommunication from his synagogue in Amsterdam. Spinoza insisted that God created the world as a seamless unity according to his unchanging will. Thus, a miracle would be a symptom of divine dissociation, an internal contradiction that would violate God’s covenant to maintain the world in “fixed and immutable order.” On page 99 of the book you will find my assessment of Spinoza’s religious objection to miracles and his own love for God:
Spinoza was unusual among modern thinkers in retaining his love of God while accepting the hard fact that God would not reciprocate his interest with any personal gesture. The God who is Nature exists in supreme indifference to human need. In its practical effects, Spinoza’s theology required adult believers willing to assume responsibility for seeking justice and charity for their own sake without promises of supernatural intervention now or reward beyond the grave. In short, Spinoza offered theism without supernaturalism, ethics without transcendence, and love of God without emotion. To worship Spinoza’s God is consistently and exclusively to pursue moral virtue, unaided by supernatural assistance. For Spinoza the claim to miraculous power by religious leaders was a dishonest attempt to control uneducated believers, while the popular desire for miracles was the result of scientific ignorance and religious immaturity.
Spinoza belonged to the age of European Enlightenment, but a more recent critic also appears on page 99: Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan taught that Judaism is a “civilization” that must take its place in the modern world by accepting the primacy of science and abandoning claims of supernatural intervention. He was a faithful dissenter.
Kaplan believed his conception of God would inspire modern Jews to pursue traditional values—justice, mercy, and peace—that enhance the world as a whole. The evidence that the human spirit is not determined by blind material forces is our capacity to rise above the demands of natural order by answering brutality with compassion and nurturing hope that the world can be different than it is. The catalog of horrors created by authoritarian regimes—war, persecution, genocide—were not inevitable. The problem is that supernaturalism requires loyalty to a fictional being and its abstract ideals for which humans are moved to kill each other. Kaplan insisted that the ennobling values symbolized by his reconstructed idea of God could motivate humans to surpass selfish interests and pretensions of absolute authority.
Read the introduction to Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue