Saturday 21 January 2012

Three attitudes to miracles


Personal miracles are sometimes common events for praying Christians.

I am talking here of public miracles, miracles of claimed general significance.


There are three main attitudes.

1. They are all fake - all explicable by error, dishonesty or delusion.

2. They are rare, but some are real - and these are divine. If error, dishonesty and delusion can be ruled-out - using reasonable criteria - then public miracles are divine communications.

3. Of real miracles, most are demonic. Indeed public miracles are assumed to be demonic, except when there are grounds to consider otherwise.


The third position is, I believe, correct - it is the one I have derived from Eastern Orthodoxy especially Fr Seraphim Rose.

The normal public debate is therefore mistaken and a false dichotomy: I mean the debate between people who believe something is a miracle and that therefore it is from God on one side, and those who disbelieve that this event was a miracle (either specifically this event not a miracle, or often because they believe miracles to be impossible as such).

This is a distinctive aspect of Eastern Orthodox mystical tradition - a lively recognition that supernatural experience is real but usually demonic.


All other traditions (and individuals) seem, by comparison, dangerously credulous about mystical experience.

It is real, not-uncommon, but usually harmful.

The difficulty about mystical experience is not to have it, but to have it real and benign (ie. divine).


(Demonic miracles would no doubt be performed in a different way, using different methods, than divine miracles - but the point is that they may be very difficult or impossible for humans to distinguish in terms of their observable effects.)


My attitude is that miracles happen, I mean real public miracles, but that most of them are demonic in origin and designed to mislead, to harm souls. I would not usually argue the toss over whether something really was or was not a miracle, but assuming it really was a miracle, would argue about whether it was a divine miracle.



Alan Roebuck said...

I agree that most miracles are demonic. I also think this is, if not the official view of confessional (i.e., properly-ordered and disciplined) Protestantism, then it is in harmony with Protestant views.

Hugh Ross, former professor of astrophysics and the president of the science-oriented Christian apologetics organization Reasons to Believe says that all of the “valid” UFO phenomena (that is, those not due to charlatanism or honest misinterpretation of natural phenomena) are demonic. He says this primarily because when UFO-nauts communicate with us, and when they mention things spiritual, they always oppose Christianity. UFOs are the most up-to-date method by which demons attempt to mislead modern, secular Western man.

The crucial test of whether a miracle is divine or satanic is whether it supports or opposes Christianity. Most importantly, whether it supports or opposes the Divinity of Christ, the Atonement (and, more generally, man’s need for his sins to be atoned for), and the need for us to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. If UFO-nauts badmouth our Savior, there can be no doubt of their satanic origin.

Wurmbrand said...

I'm reading Craig Keener's 2-volume Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). He challenges the assumption that true miracles don't happen on philosophical and historical grounds, and recognizes that miracles may be associated with malevolent spirits, not just God.

Bruce Charlton said...

Assuming there is no general repentance, and things continue down - I think it will be ever more vital for Christians NOT to equate miracles, mystical experience or other supernatural events with the divine; but to assume the worst, until proven otherwise.


@Alan - your name seems to be misspelled on your User Profile.


I also tend to feel that is a mistake for people to try and use miracles from their own experience to try and convince others, or even to mention or describe them - those fortunate to have such signs should simply express gratitude in their prayers.

Probably we should say nothing more specific than Thomas Browne in Religio Medici: "Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a history but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable."

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

You are conflating two issues here – miracles and mystical experiences – that need to be treated separately. Nor, for that matter, have you given adequate justification to support the conclusion given in either case.

To assume that mystical experience is “usually demonic” is entirely too pessimistic; on the contrary, while not denying the possibility of being led astray, mystical experience is quite typically self-validating in character. Nevertheless, spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual director is generally recommended in part due to the consideration raised. As for “public miracles”, should one therefore conclude that, say, the longstanding miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem – see, for example, – should be assumed demonic in character? Orthodox Christians quite generally would be outraged at such a suggestion.

The more crucial problem is that to take as a rule that public miracles and private mystical experience are generally demonic undermines the very foundation of Christian faith, for much of the Christian witness to Christ’s divinity is precisely the miracles he wrought, particularly the empty tomb, while the very mark of an Orthodox theologian is one who has undergone the mystical experience of the uncreated light. If you reply that, of course, these cases are exempt from your judgment, then this must be defended in a manner that isn’t simply definitional: why these alone, but not, typically, any others?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ptere S - I think we disagree on this issue. I follow the teachings of Serpahim Rose on this - in our era, an era of extraordinarily low Christian devoutness, it is extremely hazardous to aim at 'religious/ spiritual experience' - because what you will get will be religious/ spiritual but not Christian - will indeed be anti-christ-ian.

Of course Jesus's miracles were *a* proof of his divinity - and extremely important, but of course they were not *sufficient* proof of his divinity - and the New Testament mentions other anti-Christian miracle workers.

I think that private spiritual experiences which are kept private are much *less* likely to be demonic than experiences which are used to influence other people - but since the 1950s the mainstream of people interested in and experiencing spiritual phenomena (by meditation, drugs, shamanic techniques) are anti-Christian as revealed by the focus on aiming at *self*-development, *self*-healing and other *powers* - plus sheer happiness: ecstasy, kicks, highs -- e.g. the beats, hippies, New Age.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

I suspect we are closer on this issue than we both suppose. I agree on the three key points you outline in your reply above: a) that to specifically aim at or strive for “religious / spiritual experience” is wrongly directed spiritual effort; b) that, yes the miracles of Christ were not the ‘only’ evidence early Christians looked to and that false miracle workers were reported; c) that to seek “religious / spiritual experience” outside of established tradition, particularly in the context of the New Age, is to go seriously astray.

With that said, such experiences happen, often unlooked for, not infrequently early in the spiritual life. While I do not disagree that an experience ‘could’ be demonic in origin, I reiterate that this seems unlikely in most instances, on evidence of their typically reported character and the predominating mercy of God. Usually, the problem is quite otherwise than what you are suggesting; rather, such experiences tend to be what might be termed ‘positively destabilizing’. The problem is not so much the experience, but rather what one is to do with it afterward. It ‘should’ serve to propel one upon the spiritual path, as a kind of ‘Divine goad’, and this is a frequent outcome. However, the individual so graced can certainly make poor or misdirected use of it, a misuse that does not necessarily invalidate the experience itself; this is where established tradition and spiritual direction becomes invaluable.

Let me close with a rather wise observation from Huston Smith:

“It is easy to make too much of direct mystical disclosures. Desert stretches provide opportunities for growth that are as important as mountaintop experiences, and theologians assure us that souls can be established in an abiding relationship with God without being sensibly aware of God’s presence. The goal is not altered states but altered traits.”

– Huston Smith & Phil Cousineau, “The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life”, p.97.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter S - Yes, but in a sense, any experience *can* be turned to good, even plain and deliberate sin - so I don't think that argument gets us very far.

Huston Smith exemplifies fairly exactly the problem that I am warning about...