Two Religious Essays For an Inspiring Lurker
There are two ways to look at this, I suppose. The first is to assert that all stories of miracles are just that: we see what we want to see, there's confirmation bias (only the answered prayers get noticed, which is sort of a heads-I-win-tails-don't-count phenomenon), and a lot of times the things we pray for weren't that implausible in the first place. (This is why people often find their prayers answered when they get a job they want, but never get their prayers answered when they ask for limbs to regrow. There's an entire website called God Hates Amputees dedicated to this rather silly question.) This would be the more dedicated materialist view: it's all hearsay, it's all in our heads, and there never were any miracles ever.
The other way to look at it--and the one I'm more cautiously in favor of, though I couldn't prove it in a lab--is that the world in general is suffused with miraculous energy. That God--if you will--is at work everywhere, and you don't need to be a member of any particular club to partake in his workings. The proof of this is ridiculously easy to find: any reasonably proselytizing religion (Islam, certain forms of Hinduism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) will have websites dedicated to the miracles God is performing in the name of Joseph Smith or Mohammed or whatever guru you happen to flip to. These all tend to be about as plausible and well-attested as Christian miracles (which is to say, not strongly, but they're good stories), and there's no particular reason, outside of special pleading, to discount "other" miracle stories and still believe the Christian ones.
I actually believe something of a mix of these two. I'm staunchly materialist these days, but I'm also convinced that our own brains, with their hunger for narrative and constant searching for patterns and meaning, are capable of affecting the world in some subtle ways: optimists have good luck; pessimists look for a shitty world and find it. Whether God is at work behind the reasons why the hopeful tend to prosper and the untrusting don't is, I guess, a matter of what you're comfortable believing. But if you take a really hard look at the Christian reports of miracles, you'll find that they tend to vanish under scrutiny, just like reports of ESP and UFOs, and a brutally honest person will either believe it all or develop a general skepticism.
By the way, I went to my share of evangelical services, and I actually saw the usual miracle that they tend to trot out at such times: "Someone here has one leg shorter than the other." In retrospect, there's no miracle to "healings" that subtle: the people were walking fine before, they notice a difference in length when they're sitting down (i.e., when their hips are free to swivel and tile things unconsciously), and the heat and energy created by people laying on hands is exactly what you'd expect when ten people all lay hands on someone and really WILL something to happen. One person wiggles, another picks it up, and soon there's an amazing rocking motion that no one person is in control of. It's exactly the same phenomenon that powers the planchette on your average ouija board.
Another bubble: Although Pentecostals in particular are proud of speaking in tongues as a miraculous sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the fact is that speaking in tongues has existed throughout the world in a number of different religions--just look up "ecstatic utterance" or "glossolalia." No one has ever been proven to actually speak another language while engaging in glossolalia. Either they're all speaking the language of angels, or they're all making it up, whether intentionally or not.
The Lurker responded, in part, with the following comment:
I also wonder why it seems that the majority of really 'big" miracles you hear about seem to happen in developing countries, and I don't think it's necessarily because people are less educated or more susceptible to be conned. Perhaps some cultures tend to be more spiritually inclined or in-tune with 'miraculous energy'? Hm. Also thanks for the tip on glossololia. I used to spend large amounts of time worrying about why I could never speak in tongues, but also resented feeling like a second-class Christian :)
To which I replied as follows:
I'm just hardheaded enough to think that the reason miracles get reported in more "primitive" countries has less to do with their spirituality and more their lack of access to movie cameras and other testing technology. It's the same reason that UFOs only appear in the backwoods and not over New York City. If they appeared over New York City, either everyone would see them, or everyone would know the guy talking about them was lying. In the backwoods, you literally have one or two guys telling the story and that's all the proof anyone can reasonably expect. Even overseas, the big miracle stories (like pentecostal healing revivals) rarely occur in even so-called "second-world" metropolises like Mexico City or New Delhi, but (again) in some outlying area or in a controlled environment where no one skeptical even bothered to show up. In paranormal studies, this is sometimes called a "jealous phenomenon" ("I can't do my ESP if there are doubters in the room"), and it's always cause for suspicion.
By the way, your comment about "second-class" Christians is another thing that sort of drew me out of conservatism. If grace is available to all, and salvation is basically equal for everyone, every idea I was ever taught about some people having more joy in heaven than others (or more peace down here because of the gift of tongues or as a reward for saving souls) never made any sense to me. Either works matter or they don't, and it seems absolutely obvious to me that any model of salvation that actually saves people generously could possibly have any such thing as "levels" of salvation that might pit one believer as superior to another. The moment you posit that--that I'm sort of saved "better" than you--you're really exposing the ugly side of your faith: that perhaps its appeal is not that you get to save people, but that you get to be more holy than the unsaved. Which is why the real humble Christian churches--the ones that have gray borders and who let just anyone show up, no matter how foul or unreformed--have never been as popular as churches that have stricter standards. (Even though the former churches--which is what the house-church movement, at its best, is trying to be--is obviously closer to the spirit of Christ. I guess another way of putting it is that there's no way I can think of that a TRULY Christlike church--one that actually embraces the lepers regularly--will ever be popular enough to survive to a second generation. Instead, the idea of the returning-to-Christ church, the invite-everyone model, is one that has to constantly be reinvented as a sort of occasional subculture outside the existing church.)
I kind of want to add that, to my mind, the mainstream or evangelical Christian church is to mainstream representative fiction as the determinedly sacrificial and rather difficult church is to metafiction: weird storytelling tricks like you see in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and Vonnegut and Pynchon keep reappearing, but it never actually revolutionizes fiction; it's just a consistent crowd-pleaser for the subculture that cares more about thinking about fiction than normal people could be expected to. Your smart money will always be on representative fiction that doesn't pull any unusual stunts. In the same way, you'll always fill more pews by having a church that feels like what people think of as a church--not by challenging peoples' ideas of what a church should be. But there I think I'll stop. I've got a big writing day tomorrow.