Miracles

A talk given to City of Edinburgh Methodist Church on Sunday 27 April 2014

This is a talk that I gave to the evening meeting at City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (CEMC) on Sunday 27 April 2014. The talk was accompanied by a slide show which does not add any further material.

Opening prayer

Let us open with prayer.

O Lord our God, guide our thoughts this evening as we explore miracle.

Make us aware of your awesome power over your created cosmos.

Show us how little we can do by ourselves and how much we can do with your help.

Come to us through your only Son our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom you have worked so many miracles.

We ask it in his name. Amen.

The miracles of Jesus

I will start by briefly listing the recorded miracles of Jesus, to remind you of how widespread and diverse they are.

It is not possible to give an exact count of the number of recorded miracles, because different Gospels often give similar accounts which may or may not relate to the same event.

The miracles of Jesus are traditionally classified into four categories: healing, exorcism, physical, and resurrection.

The Gospels tell us of the healing of:

In the traditional classification of exorcism, we have:

Some of these exorcisms may alternatively be classified as miracles of healing, as the Gospels do not always draw a clear distinction between healing and exorcism.

The Gospels describe at least 7 physical miracles. These are:

Finally we have three miracles of resurrection or resuscitation:

The resurrection of Jesus is in a class by itself and is not generally regarded as a miracle of Jesus. Jesus did not raise himself, even with God’s power. God raised him.

Traditional Christian teaching

The Church traditionally teaches that:

Modernist Christianity

“Modernist Christianity” is a loose term covering a number of trends in Christian theology from the mid‐18th Century onwards. Modernist Christianity is also called Liberal Christianity (but it has nothing to do with Liberal politics).

Modernist Christianity interprets the Bible from the perspective of modern philosophy and modern science, and avoids preconceived notions of the authority of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma.

Modernist Christians tend to be sceptical about the miracles of Jesus, for reasons that were first clearly expressed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his essay An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748):

  1. The world view of science since the Enlightenment (late 17th Century onwards) is that the Universe is amenable to rational explanation and that miracles do not happen;

  2. Only very strong evidence for miracles would outweigh that;

  3. The Biblical evidence is not strong enough because it comes from a pre‐scientific, superstitious society, and because the early Church had a vested interest in spreading miracle stories.

Break for discussion

Purely on the material presented so far, how good a case do you think there is for accepting the miracles of Jesus as historical events?

It is easy to say “We must have faith”, but can faith in miracles be justified if it runs counter to reason? Is not that the “blind faith” so aptly ridiculed by atheists?

Is it possible to be a real Christian without accepting the miracles of Jesus as historical events?

And does the same go for the resurrection of Jesus?

Developments since Hume

I now hope to show you that times they are a‐changing, and that the case for accepting the miracles of Jesus as historical events is vastly stronger today than it was in David Hume’s time.

I regard myself as a scientist. I have never been a scientist by profession, but I am a scientist both by nature and by education. The rest of this talk is idiosyncratic: it does not follow well‐trodden Christian paths, but it is my own effort to explain why I think there is good reason, in today’s scientific society, to accept the miracles of Jesus as historical fact.

The power of the mind

Jesus taught that miracles need faith and prayer. Faith and prayer are aspects of mind. And the mind has enormous powers.

I’m going to tell you a true story told to me by a member here at CEMC. I’m not going to name the member because, while she has told me that she doesn’t mind this incident being known, I haven’t had the chance to ask her if she would feel comfortable being named in the context of this talk.

It may be that some of you, on first hearing of this incident, may be inclined to dismiss it as trivial and of no relevance to the miracles of Jesus. I would ask you to bear with me as I recount the incident, and I’ll explain afterwards why I believe that incidents like this are actually of great relevance to the question of whether we should believe the miracles of Jesus.

This member of CEMC has a daughter who, when she was five years old, was watching Uri Geller on TV. Uri Geller is an entertainer and self‐proclaimed psychic famous for spoon bending, and it doesn’t matter for our purposes whether his claimed psychic powers are genuine or not. Anyway, this member’s little girl was watching him, and held a spoon in her own hands, and was copying what Uri Geller did. Suddenly she ran to the kitchen, exclaiming, “Look at this spoon, Mummy!” And the spoon was drooping before their eyes. It was floppy, and it bent under its own weight through a right angle before becoming stiff again. And this member of CEMC still has the spoon, bent, at home as a souvenir of what happened.

In case you’re apt to dismiss that account as something that couldn’t possibly have happened, let me quote from a recent book by Dean Radin. Dean Radin has been Senior Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California since 2001. He has spent his life researching paranormal phenomena and is a highly respected academic. He is not the kind of person who would bear false witness. This is a quote from a book that he published last year:

Here’s what happened: I was attending a PK party with the intention of carefully watching a woman who claimed to have previously bent the bowl of a soup spoon. I too was holding a large, heavy soup spoon, mimicking her hand movements to get a better feel for what she might have been doing.

While watching her intensely, I heard someone shout, “Look what you’ve done!” I looked up to see what the commotion was about, and someone said, no, look at what I had done. I had somehow bent the bowl of the spoon I was holding about 90 degrees. I immediately checked my fingers to see if I had unconsciously used force, because it would have taken an enormous effort to create that bend and the effort would have left clear indentations on my fingers. There were no signs of force.

Then someone shouted, “Bend it all the way!”

To my surprise the bowl felt soft, like putty, so I pinched it with a thumb and forefinger. After the bowl folded over, it stiffened, and within a few seconds it became as hard as steel. The spoon felt cold to the touch, the bent portion was shiny smooth, and there were no signs of metal fatigue. I still have that spoon sitting on my shelf; it mocks me every time I glance at it, and it reminds me about a peculiar experience that I might otherwise have suppressed.

Now these stories can be multiplied a hundred‐fold. There is abundant testimony that these things happen. They happen very occasionally, and very unpredictably. But they do happen. There is no known physical mechanism by which they could happen, and all the evidence points to their happening as a direct result of the influence of mind over matter.

Why have I told you of those incidents? What possible relevance could they have to the miracles of Christ? Surely those incidents are trivial, and have no significance in God’s plan, and are not to be compared to the great signs of love and mercy performed to the glory of God by his only Son? That is true, but let me explain to you why they nevertheless have great relevance to our topic this evening. It is the thesis of modernism that these things do not happen: that the physical world always operates through physical laws of the type familiar to present‐day scientists, and that mind has no effect whatsoever on the physical world. Modernist Christianity relies totally on that thesis when it asserts that miracles are vanishingly unlikely and that the miracle stories of the New Testament cannot therefore be taken at face value. But if in fact mind can have an effect on the physical world – and spoon‐bending incidents such as I have related show that it can – then the whole of the modernist objection to miracles collapses. The mind has enormous powers, and modern physical science doesn’t know the first thing about them.

An enormous hole

There is, in fact, an enormous mind‐shaped hole at the heart of modern physical science.

We must distinguish mind from brain. We know a great deal about brain: that lump of meaty jelly between the ears. Brain is physical, mind is not. Brain is objective, mind is subjective. My brain could be exposed in an operating theatre for all to see: by contrast, I have privileged access to my mind, and I experience it in ways that other people, in principle, cannot.

Plainly the mind is related in some way to the brain, for there are pervasive and systematic correlations between the two. Brain damage may cause psychological symptoms. General anaesthetics acting on the brain cause loss of consciousness. Thousands of psychoactive substances are known: drugs which act on the brain to affect the mind. Touching individual brain neurons with a probe in locally‐anaesthetised subjects can elicit particular memories. Modern fMRI scans show that when a subject thinks about a face, or tries to solve a problem, or composes a piece of music, activity is increased in particular parts of the brain. Scientists know an enormous amount of detail of those kinds.

And yet, at the centre, there is a mystery, for scientists have no idea whatsoever of how brain creates conscious experience. That is known as the “hard problem” of consciousness. Philosophers use the word quale, plural qualia, for an element of conscious experience: the redness of a rose, the taste of a glass of wine, the pain of a broken ankle. It is preposterous that we have no idea of how brain creates qualia – creates conscious experience – because the only way we know anything at all about the physical world is through conscious experience. That is what I mean by saying that there is an enormous mind‐shaped hole at the heart of modern physical science.

The ancients recognised the importance of the subjective as well as the objective in any account of the universe. In modern times, physical scientists have studied the objective, and the subjective has been systematically excluded. Many physical scientists and philosophers say that that must now be remedied. It is time to put mind back where it belongs: at the centre of our experience.

So how can we expect to fill the mind‐shaped hole at the heart of modern physical science? We can expect, I think, that the hole will be filled with the help of material from many fields of experience. Let us now look briefly at three of these fields. They are:

Faith healing

Faith healing is commonly practised in many Christian denominations. In general it can be difficult to validate any supposed instance of faith healing as a miracle. But there is one context in which faith healing goes through a rigorous validation process.

In the Roman Catholic Church, canonisation is the process of making a deceased person a Saint. There are several essential steps to canonisation, but in particular at least two miracles must have been performed through the candidate’s intercession after his or her death. The Roman Catholic Church takes enormous care to validate these miracles. In particular, a healing from an ailment cannot be declared a miracle if there is any chance that the ailment may have been psychosomatic. It is only unambiguously physical ailments that count.

This very afternoon, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were canonised in Rome. Pope John Paul II died in 2005 having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 4 years, and it seems fitting that one of the two miracles now attributed to him is the curing of a nun from Parkinson’s disease. The nun is Sister Marie Simon‐Pierre and this is a report by ITN:

A French nun who was miraculously cured of Parkinson’s disease by Pope John Paul II has spoken out about her experience. Marie Simon‐Pierre suffered from the disease for four years before she made a sudden recovery one night. The 49‐year‐old says her illness inexplicably disappeared two months after she and her fellow nuns had prayed [to] him.

[Translator’s voice] I woke up at 4.30 in the morning and just leapt out of bed. People suffering from Parkinson’s know how long it takes one to get ready: we need a lot of time. But then I just leapt out of bed, and what was extraordinary was that I felt I had been completely transformed. I wasn’t the same any more. For me he is a saint: he has shown it all over his life, from his childhood I would say to his death. For me he is a saint.

After a full investigation the experience was officially declared a miracle last year, and as a result Pope Benedict has announced that he would beatify his predecessor, the first step towards sainthood.

Now it might be possible to argue over whether this was a genuine miracle: but the Roman Catholic Church examined the case thoroughly and they are convinced. And this is not a “pre‐scientific, superstitious society” of the kind that David Hume criticised.

Evidence from eastern religion

Eastern religions also provide us with evidence of miracle. A Siddah or Sadhu is an ascetic who has achieved enlightenment. A Siddhi is a paranormal power achieved by a Siddah. Some alleged cases of Siddhi have been investigated by scientists and medics. Here is an example.

Prahlad Jani is an Indian Sadhu, born in 1929. He describes a religious experience at age 11 when the Hindu goddess Amba appeared to him and told him that he would no longer have to eat food. He is said to have lived in a cave since the 1970s, and to have not eaten anything for most of his 84 years.

Jani was tested in 2003 and again in 2010 at Sterling Hospital in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, by Dr Sudhir Shah and his team. In the 2003 test, Jani was monitored round the clock for ten days by hospital staff and video cameras. The results of the test seemed to confirm Jani’s claim that he did not eat or drink anything, and there were no drastic changes observed in his physiological condition. In the second test, from 22 April to 6 May 2010, Jani was observed by a team of 35 researchers from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, and other organisations. The results of both tests were announced as intriguing, with no deleterious effects observed in Jani’s physical condition.

So far, neither of these observational tests has been published in medical journals, and the studies have, of course, generated criticism. Sceptics have proposed that perhaps Jani escaped scrutiny of the hospital staff and video cameras through the assistance of his disciples, and that he did eat or drink something. The hospital claims no, he was monitored continuously as they reported. In any case, if he did eat or drink surreptitiously, he would have had eventually to use the toilet, and again the hospital reports that he didn’t. In sum, with the evidence at hand it appears that Jani’s claim is valid. And it does correspond to one of the traditional Siddhis.

The relevance of cases such as this to our discussion is again that they demonstrate the enormous power of the mind, and refute the modernist view that the physical world always operates through physical laws of the type familiar to present‐day scientists. The teachings of ascetics of Buddhist and Hindu religions are totally independent of Christian tradition and yet they assert much that is in common with Christian teaching about the possibility of miraculous happenings. These Eastern teachings reinforce the evidence from Christianity that the modernist view is mistaken, and thus lend credence to the miracles of Jesus. I say again, that the mind has enormous powers, and science doesn’t know the first thing about them.

Paranormal research

Further evidence of the enormous powers of the mind comes from modern paranormal research. In recent years, paranormal research has matured into a rigorous science. Time precludes me from giving any detail here, but I will just say that telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis have all been demonstrated many times to standards which would be regarded as conclusive in any less controversial field.

Again, my point is that not that these phenomena necessarily have much in common with miracles, but that they refute the modernist view of how the Universe works and thus make the Biblical accounts of miracles much more believable.

A new paradigm

Many modern scientists and philosophers insist that it is now time to fill the mind‐shaped hole at the heart of modern physics, and to put mind back where it belongs: at the centre of our experience.

Mind intertwines with the physical universe in 3 ways:

  1. Mind has evolved in our species along with our bodies;
  2. Quantum physics teaches that mind plays a part in establishing physical reality;
  3. It is through our minds that we understand the universe.

Science must now develop in ways that explain and unify these connections. Until it does so, scientists are in no position to tell us what the mind cannot do. And until it does so, the modernist objections to the Biblical testimony on miracles carry no weight: there is no logical reason why we should not accept the Biblical testimony that the miracles of Jesus are historical events.

Discussion

What experiences have you had, that tell you that there is more in life than the physical? To what extent do those experiences support your belief in miracles?

Closing prayer

As our closing prayer I should like to use the words of a hymn that is in Hymns and Psalms, but which I have never sung. It refers to the miracle of the Transfiguration. Let us pray.

Once on a mountain top there stood three startled men;
They watched the wheels of nature stop and heaven break in.
Their friend of every day, the face they knew for his,
They saw, for one half‐hour, the way He always is.

Yet many lived and died who found of him no trace.
‘Thou art a God’ (the prophet cried) ‘who hidest thy face.’
The earth lies all explored, the heavens are ours to climb,
And still no man has seen his God at any time.

And minds that learn to scan Creation like a book
Know nothing lies outside their plan, so never look.
O Lord of hidden light, forgive us who despise
The things which lie beyond our sight, and give us eyes.

Amen.

Footnote

After the talk I invited questions. One member was concerned that I appeared to be saying that the miracles of Jesus were achieved by Jesus’s own mental powers. Could I be persuaded to attribute them instead to the power of God?

The following is my considered answer to that question, hopefully expressed more coherently than I managed on the night.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, and I confess Jesus Christ as his only Son. I made that clear in the first part of my talk. The second part of my talk – the idiosyncratic part – does not assume that theistic background. But neither does it deny it. Instead I explained why I think we can accept the miracles of Jesus, reasoning purely from the standpoint of modern science and modern philosophy. It is my hope that whatever merit there may be in my reasoning would be seen equally by an open‐minded atheist and by an open‐minded theist.

In the second part of my talk, I needed a general and value‐neutral adjective to describe things that happen otherwise than through physical laws of the type familiar to present‐day scientists. I chose the adjective paranormal; that is my attempt at generality and value‐neutrality. I am conscious that there are some people for whom the word paranormal is not value‐neutral, but I cannot find any better alternative. I would use the word paranormal to cover all the happenings that I have described: spoon bending, faith healing, Siddhis, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. I would use the same word to cover the miracles of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. In using that word I am not assuming that these happenings are the result of specific interventions by God, but equally I am not assuming that they are not. Conceivably it could be that some of them are and some of them are not. I tend towards the belief that all these happenings are within nature, but my reasoning does not depend on that belief. Neither am I assuming that they all have comparable spiritual significance. On the contrary, I believe that the resurrection of Jesus has enormous spiritual significance and that spoon bending has little or none. I chose spoon bending as my first example of a paranormal event for which there is modern evidence, not because it is profound, but precisely because it is trivial.

I think it is clear that Jesus’s miracles owe much to his mental powers. He himself said that faith and prayer are essential to miracles, and these are applications of mind. When the woman touched the hem of his garment and was healed, he said he felt power go out of him. In the wilderness he was tempted to turn stones into bread, and while I believe that it would not have been in his nature to do so, I think it is nevertheless clear that he thought he had the power to do so if he had so chosen. Simon Magus’s acts of magic are not attributed to God, and it seems unlikely that Simon Magus had mental powers that Jesus lacked.

Within theism, I don’t think that there is any contradiction in saying that Jesus worked his miracles by the power of his mind and simultaneously saying that they were worked by the power of God. I believe that all our talents are God‐given. I also believe that, whenever we do good, our acts are the acts of God working through us. Jesus’s miracles were the good workings of a God‐given talent and so of course they were works of God.

But the purpose of my talk is to explain why we can, with intellectual integrity, accept the miracles of Jesus as historical events, and my reasoning does not depend on those theistic beliefs. Yes, speaking as a Christian to Christians I would call them works of God. If you believe that they are works of God in a stronger sense than I have expressed – if for example you believe that they are specific divine interventions that run contrary to the laws of nature – then far be it from me to argue against you. On the contrary, I have no work to do; I am preaching to the converted; you already believe a stronger version of what I have been trying to show.