On Miracles, Magicians and Manichees

this essay is an excerpt from Fr Longenecker’s book The Quest for the Creed.

Some years ago there was an Anglican bishop who was asked his opinion about the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. The bishop said he believed in the resurrection, but not in any crude physical way. “The resurrection”, he stated, “was not a conjuring trick with bones.”

What many people did not notice at the time was that this was a conjuring trick with words.

The bishop, like many modern theologians was an expert at verbal legerdemain. What the bishop meant was, that he believed in the resurrection, but not the physical resurrection. This is like saying I believe in marriage, but not a marriage where people do anything so crude as to make love.

Many modern clergymen and women understand the resurrection in this way. Like most magicians, they use this sleight of hand to mystify and entertain their audience. So on Easter Day, Reverend Mandrake will stand in the pulpit and proclaim, “Today we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” What he means by this is that “In some wonderful way the teachings of Jesus were remembered by his disciples after he was dead.”

The problem is, what Mrs. Bloggins in the front row thinks he means is that he believes that Jesus’ body was brought back to life miraculously; that his disciples saw it, put their fingers in the nail holes, and watched him eat a breakfast of broiled fish and toast. With this verbal trick Rev Harry Blackstone Jr. is able to please both Mrs Bloggins and the bishop. In other words he is able to fool everybody– even himself.

A plain thinking person might be excused for distrusting the clergyman. “He has said one thing, but means another!” It is then understandable when the ordinary fellow in the street puts the modern clergyman in the same category as the politician, the used car salesman and the snake oil man. It is easy to criticize this clergyman for being dishonest, but we must forgive him. Like the naked emperor’s courtiers he has only believed what he has been told to believe.

Furthermore, the modernist bishop and his clergy sincerely believe that by saying one thing and meaning another in this way that they are being more honest. So the bishop might say,  “I am not so naïve or literal in my understanding as to expect Jesus to physically rise from the dead. Surely the true meaning of this belief is that he continued to exist in some spiritual manner.”

The problem is the old either-or dilemma. Those who deny the physical resurrection in favor of a spiritual meaning assume that those who believe in the physical must be so dumbly awe-struck by the miracle, that they miss its spiritual meaning. This is a mistake. The joy of believing in the physical resurrection is that you can believe in the spiritual meaning too. In fact the spiritual meaning of the resurrection is dependent on the physical event. It is the physical fact of the resurrection that makes the spiritual aspect jump up and dance a joyful jig. In the same way, my marriage has spiritual meaning because my wife and I enjoy making love. You could say that it is only because a husband and wife make love that they understand love.

Anyway, aren’t you suspicious of any theory that is all “spiritual”? It is too ethereal and otherworldly. Any religion which “spiritualizes” away the physical aspect indicates a negative attitude to the physical side of life. This negativity towards anything physical was made famous by a third century thinker called Manichaeus. His followers were called Manichees, which makes them sound like a cross between a sea cow and a Chinese fruit. Despite the strange name, they believed something that is very easy to believe: that the physical is filthy and vulgar and nasty while the spiritual is clean and ethereal and nice. But I am suspicious of things that are easy to believe. If they are easy to believe it is all too likely that they are comfortable, and if they are comfortable they do not really smell true.

Manichaeus concluded that the physical was inferior because he thought that Satan had stolen particles of light from the world of Light and imprisoned them in man’s brain. The object of religion was to liberate these particles of light from their sordid physical captivity. The way to release the light imprisoned in the brain was to suppress the sordid physical realm with extreme asceticism.

I doubt that the Anglican bishop I mentioned was a Manichee in the respect that he went in for extreme asceticism. The man I have in mind was plump, and somewhat of a bon vivant. I can hardly imagine him sacrificing his dining rights at high table to sit in a snowdrift in his underpants in order to liberate the particles of light from his brain. However, inasmuch as he found the physical resurrection of Jesus to be distasteful he was a Manichee.

I use the word “distasteful” because I suspect that educated and sophisticated people deny physical miracles not so much because they are incredible, but because they are an error in taste. It is true that physical miracles are embarrassing. There is something mad, subversive and unpredictable about miracles, and I wonder whether intellectuals deny them simply for this reason. However, the threat of being embarrassed is itself an embarrassing thing to admit, so they devise intellectual reasons for not believing in the miraculous. The most famous foundation for this denial is the philosophy of David Hume, who simply asserted that miracles are impossible because miracles cannot happen. This bald statement is then taken as a watertight philosophical conclusion. It seems leaky to me.

Doesn’t this depend on your prior assumption? Hume assumed that the physical universe ran like a clock according to fixed and unalterable principles. Therefore miracles were impossible. If something seemed to be miraculous it was simply because we hadn’t yet figured out how it fit into the machine of the cosmos. But if the universe is actually expanding, as we now think, doesn’t that indicate that it is not quite so fixed as we thought? Perhaps the cosmos is more like rubber than concrete. If that is so, then the unpredictable is possible and strange things can happen. If the universe is elastic, then rather than miracles being an aberration from the natural order, they might well be an ordinary, but unpredictable part of it. To look at it another way, the universe might be more like a party than a stage play.

Perhaps then, God is a God of surprises; a God who likes tricks, twists in the tail, paradoxes and unexpected pleasures. Miracles, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, are just that sort of reversal we would expect from a good storyteller. The hero descends to the deepest depth, and at that point he turns the plot, twists the knife and rises to triumph. Now this historical, physical miraculous event certainly has much spiritual significance, but if you reduce it totally to spiritual significance doesn’t that rob it of the very significance you wish to give it?

Saying you believe in the resurrection only in “a spiritual sense” is not to believe in the resurrection at all, because the whole astounding and scandalous point of the resurrection is that it was physical. Two thousand years ago hundreds of witnesses reported seeing a man alive whom three days before they had seen being tortured to death. The witnesses reported being frightened out of their wits. They thought it was an apparition or a ghost, but then they saw him eat fish and bread. They touched him and put their fingers in his oozing wounds.

This is not what happens when something is true “in a spiritual sense.” When something is true “in a spiritual sense” bishops discuss it with their clergy over a glass of dry sherry. When something is true “in a spiritual sense” old ladies of both genders mutter together around crystal balls and packs of Tarot cards. When something is true “in a spiritual sense” people sit with their legs crossed and hum Hindi words together.

But when something like the resurrection is true, really utterly and physically true, then people are scared. They run and weep and cry out in fear. Then, once they have grasped the reality of the event, they get on and do something. They do not do something “in a spiritual sense” they do something real and physical and world-changing, like feeding the poor, kissing a leper, starting an orphanage or returning to minister to savages who tortured them because they want to.

Learn more about The Quest for the Creed and Fr Longenecker’s other books by visiting his website. You can also sign up for his weekly newsletter, visit his blog and follow on Twitter. Go here.

 

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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  • D.A. Howard

    Christ is risen!

  • Howard

    To me, the distinction is that a miracle is meant to display a truth. It is not merely a wonder; it is also a sign. Merely maintaining the world in existence is a supernatural act, but it is perhaps too subtle for some people to be considered exactly a miracle.

    Magic, on the other hand, is always misdirection. That can be entirely innocent, as in the performances of Harry Houdini or David Copperfield, in which the hand is simply quicker than the eye. The other kind of magic — real, diabolical magic — is also misdirection; it is meant to misdirect our attention away from God.

  • irena mangone

    As far as I am concerned Jesus is risen from the dead. And He will come again Alleluia

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