I am grateful to the scholars who read and responded to a book that did not always make for easy reading. The generous and irenic nature of their comments invites a reply in kind. I especially appreciated what seems to be a general recognition among these readers (possibly representing the totality of its audience) that the book attempted to grapple with a genuine problem, which is not whether God’s presence and power is at work in creation, but whether and how we can speak responsibly about that presence and power.
Westminster John Knox, 2018
Indeed, I am a bit awed by the fact that—with the exception to be noted—my insistence that the church needs to embrace rather than repudiate the language of myth was met with critical engagement rather than outrage. I likewise appreciate the willingness to focus on the camels (the incarnation, the resurrection) rather than on the gnats (the walking on water, the stilling of the storm).
Rather than reply to each of these thoughtful statements individually, I will offer some comments on what appear to me to be some shared issues, in the hope that the conversation retain its edifying character.
- I am most surprised, perhaps, that the comments all focused on the epistemological issues and the New Testament materials. In my own mind, what I said about “the miracle that was Israel and its law” and the miracle that was prophetic speech were equally provocative—or maybe I just found them equally difficult to address. The same can be said of the readers’ lack of comment on my stress on the Psalms (“beginning with prayer”) in the shaping of an imagination open to God’s work in the world. If the lack of comment equals full approbation, of course, I am delighted.
- I am happy to agree with some of my reviewers that I might have employed greater precision, especially in my crucial remarks on modernity. It is possible that I misread Hume, for example, but I do not think I did so in a way that fundamentally distorts him (he really did elide from an epistemological to an ontological stance), or detracts from his iconic position among contemporary deniers (e.g., J. Z. Smith). Likewise, the point is certainly correct that not science qua science is the problem, but rather a sort of scientism with which modernity clothes itself. Generally, I think, while my criticisms of secularity lacked some necessary distinctions, the overall points I made hold true.
- The comments made about my coverage of Matthew were not only fair, they could be extended to all the biblical books! Nowhere in this project did I feel the constraints of space more acutely than in the sections devoted to the actual texts of Scripture. The line I tried to walk was between the sort of obsessive analysis that seeks to “explain” while only obscuring, and the sort of generalized statement of themes that provides no sense of the distinctiveness of passages. That I failed to walk that line consistently or successfully does not surprise me.
- I recognize the difficulty in drawing another sort of line, this one between a strong theology of creation/providence, and miracle. Why? Because existence is itself the greatest of all thaumata. If we grant that God creates out of nothing at every moment, then yes, resurrection from the dead is a “wonder” but not one categorically distinguishable from the wonder of existence out of nothingness itself (if I follow Paul in Romans 4 here). Yes, everything that exists can be regarded as sign and wonder. Therefore, a leper being cleansed or a demon being exorcized can be distinguished from that “great and first” wonder, but not, I think, absolutely. Our need to make distinctions ought not to triumph over God’s profligate and indiscriminate gift of being.
- Despite the readers’ reluctance to cavil at the use of the term myth, I must clarify a couple of things that comments suggest are still bothersome. I do not align myself with the “elite” in contrast to the “populace.” As a pre-Vatican Council Roman Catholic and former Monk, I have had a formation certainly as popular and traditional as any of my generation. I am among those who use and celebrate the use of miracle within my faith community. But I spent 35 years teaching in Protestant seminaries, and I think it safe to say that no one schooled (well or poorly) exclusively within the framework of the historical-critical method is entirely immune to the “elitist” perceptions of modernity. I belong to a tradition, remember, that emphatically rejects cessationism every time it canonizes a saint!
- Certainly, as one reader commented, “traditional” language does very well where and when it is fully accepted; but the double-mindedness of many contemporary believers and ministers makes miracles the “problematic category.” Were that it was otherwise. Then, books like this one would be truly otiose. Along the same lines, I cannot think of a scholar more unlike Bultmann on the most essential points (although I do think he was, within his framework, both bold and honest). Number one essential: the resurrection is not the coming to life of authentic faith, but it is the exaltation of Jesus as Lord. The resurrection is real, but the epistemology of history is inadequate to speak of that reality.
- One last observation. More than one reviewer seemed to suggest that by using the term myth, I was somehow seeking to reduce the gospel miracle stories, for example, to forms of symbolic parabolic expressions. By no means was this my intention. By myth I mean a register of language that enables us to speak of divine agency in the empirical realm. Could things happen the way the Gospels say they happened? Yes. Could they have happened another way, and still be signs and wonder? Equally, yes. None among us would deny that, in narrative terms, the healings and exorcisms and resuscitations performed by Jesus seem more plausible than the so-called “nature miracles.” But narrative plausibility guarantees neither historical accuracy nor religious truth.
I heard the other day that my former monastic colleagues had been reading the book aloud at meals, and it was reported that mass indigestion was not one of the results. Monks, to be sure, expect miracles, since their very manner of life is a quiet witness to God’s presence and power. I wish nothing less than the same sense of wonder and thanksgiving among the reviewers who so graciously read and commented on my book.