In his Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that at the heart of the Christian faith is the claim that God has revealed himself and acted to accomplish his purposes through signs, wonders, and miracles. The mighty acts of God—from Creation to Exodus to Christ’s resurrection to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—are only sensible as acts ascribed to divine agency. Israel’s Prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostles Peter and Paul are remembered as those who manifested the immediate and experiential power of God in this world through healings, exorcisms, and signs.
Suspicion, Embarrassment, and Rejection of the Miraculous
Westminster John Knox, 2018
Affirming “God’s continuing presence and power in creation” is fundamental to the Christian faith (p. 22). And yet modern-day Christians often find talk of the miraculous to be difficult, strange, and embarrassing. The late-eighteenth century German Gotthold Ephraim Lessing noted that while appealing to miracles for the truth of Christianity may have worked for earlier Christians, he needed arguments that were more acceptable and appropriate for his day.See both his “On the Education of the Human Race” and “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power.” In other words, reports of miracles could no longer do the trick for convincing the educated elite of the truth of Christianity. Many Christians today, it would seem, feel the same way. Suspicion toward and embarrassment by the miraculous is nothing new. From early Christian concerns that the miraculous overlapped too closely with pagan cults, to an emphasis upon Christianity as centered upon moral transformation rather than access to divine power, to Hume’s discovery of the so-called immutable laws of nature, belief in the miraculous has often been contested, rejected, and ignored throughout Christian history. Johnson notes that the “crisis of the present age is that the culturally most influential forms of Christianity have capitulated to a worldview that effectively eliminates the miraculous from serious consideration” (p. 19).
For Johnson, what is even more insidious and dangerous than outright rejection and suspicion of the miraculous, however, is the secularization of the church’s consciousness. Johnson employs the biblical language of “double-mindedness” (James 1:8, 4:8) to describe the contemporary Christian’s understanding of God’s relationship to the world. On the one hand, believers profess belief in the God of the Bible who is living, active, and continues to relate to his creation and people in diverse ways; on the other hand, believers live “within the secular conception of nature in daily life, a conception reinforced powerfully by the machinery of cultural formation (entertainment, politics, education)” (p. 28). Johnson minces no words here about the danger of Christianity capitulating to its secular age:
The secular perspective of modernity makes Christians double-minded with respect to fundamental aspects of classic Christian tradition, including Christology, creation, providence, and eschatology. Christians’ unease about miracles is part of this divided consciousness: secularity’s ethos prevents a wholehearted embrace of the miraculous, cutting them off from the witness of Scripture and form the largest part of the tradition (p. 30).
A Scriptural Vision of Reality
What can be done? The heart of Johnson’s proposal is his sketch of an alternative vision of reality, one that resists the secularization of our imagination and can thereby aid contemporary believers in professing the truth of Scripture’s testimony to God as one who once and still continues to engage his creation and people in powerful ways.The heart of Johnson’s proposal is his sketch of an alternative vision of reality, one that resists the secularization of our imagination and can thereby aid contemporary believers in professing the truth of Scripture’s testimony to God. Johnson proposes four aspects of this alternative vision that will enable believers to resist secularizing impulses and appropriate wholehearted belief in the God of the Christian Scriptures. First, believers must imagine the world that scripture imagines. It is Scripture after all, rather than our secular world, that provides the necessary resources and imagination for interpreting God’s powerful presence in our world. The Scriptures portray the world not as a closed system but, rather, as “an open system whose source and goal is an unseen power active in things both seen and unseen” (p. 52). Second, Christians must learn to speak and affirm God as the Creator of the world. Affirming God as Creator, however, is not only a claim about something that God has done in the past. Drawing upon biblical texts such as Psalm 104 and Isaiah 45, Johnson states: “This God creates the world new at every moment and is totally present to the changing world because it is by his power that it comes into being and changes” (p. 59). This means that confessing God as Creator is not primarily about describing how the world came into existence; rather, it is an epistemological posture toward reality that views this world as the arena for God’s ongoing revelation and self-disclosure. Third, if God continues to reveal himself as Creator in our world then believers must develop habits and practices whereby they can discern divine activity. In other words, revelation is not simply a past event but is, rather, a process of interpretation. A community willing to speak of divine transcendence, open to the ongoing experience of God’s presence and power, and reflecting upon its life through the symbols and language of Scripture will be able to resist the secular construal of reality. Fourth, and finally, Christians will need to learn again to appreciate and speak of the truthfulness of myth. By “myth” Johnson means “first-order statements . . . that place human and divine persons in situations of mutual agency” (p. 69). Affirming divine activity, both in the Bible and in our contemporary world, requires an ability to speak of more than only the historical and empirical; the language of myth is a necessity for “expressing the experience of God’s power and presence in miracles” (p. 74). Apart from the language of myth, the Christian cannot speak of creation, incarnation, or resurrection.
Ecclesial Practices for Inculcating a Sense of Wonder
After Johnson presents his explicit engagement of the primary scriptural texts on miracles in the OT and NT, he suggests four embodied practices churches must commit themselves to if they would resist the impulses of secularization and embrace Scripture’s vision of God’s ongoing power and presence in the world. First, churches must renew their commitment to the teaching of Scripture whereby congregants become deeply attuned to the ways in which God is portrayed as one who “is constantly active within the world that God brings into being at every moment” (p. 281). This teaching, however, will also be attentive to human experience and the way in which actual human lives play out God’s powerful presence. Personal human testimonies to those who have experienced “God’s presence and power are the church’s best means, truly, its only means – of access to the miracles happening in people’s lives” (p. 284). Second, Christians cultivate a sense of wonder through good preaching will embraces the miraculous and mythic through inviting those who listen to reflect upon divine activity in their lives and communities. Third, Christians will open themselves to God’s powerful presence through prayer as Christians seek to imagine the world imagined by Scripture, even drawing upon the prayers of the Psalter to shape their language in submission to God’s presence. Fourth, Christians will pursue pastoral care and counseling in a manner which seeks to listen—and appropriately respond—to the manifestation of God’s work in situations of joy, crisis, grief, and trauma. Johnson concludes with a passionate plea to the church:
For believers, the truth is that the living God will continue to manifest his presence and power within creation . . . The issue is whether humans will have ears to hear the word that God seeks to express, or eyes to perceive the signs and wonders that God uses to draw attention to the truth about humans and their world. The church ought to be the place in the world where God’s continuing self-revelation is discerned, celebrated, and embodied . . . The church’s greatest gift and its mightiest challenge is to declare God’s self-revelation within the world that God brings into being, the One from whom creative derives, and the One to whom creation is ordered (p. 300).