Thursday, October 04, 2018

Argle-Bargle with a Soupçon of sheer nonsense

I'm detecting a theme....

First, most Biblical scholars understand "miracle" as an act which is in violation of natural law (the generic type, not the Thomistic type).  Second, "magic" has distinct gradations of form and definition according to anthropology, the science of human culture (and precious little of those definitions have anything to do with Harry Potter).  So this kind of discussion is possible with the terms of science and scholarship, but this is the internet, we don' need no book-larnin'!

Then again, this article starts with a quote from Douglas Adams, which I am too lazy to try to copy 'n' paste here.  Sure, he was a Brit with a glib tongue and a gift for the sardonic, but beyond that? Please.

Why do so many Christians believe in miracles? Former Evangelical minister, John Loftus—now author of skeptical books and founder of the website, Debunking Christianity—asked me to address this question as part of an upcoming anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

So our source is a contributor to a volume by another former evangelical, which means neither of you probably have any formal training in these subjects at all.  Nothing wrong with a lack of education, but what makes you an authority?  You were asked to write something for a book?  The subject touches on anthropology, cultural studies, several fields of the humanities. What you got, again? Douglas Adams?

One obvious answer is that Christians believe because our ancestors did. Handed-down religious beliefs are remarkably powerful and change-resistant, and Christian belief in miracles dates all the way back to the beginnings of Jesus worship. In fact, it dates back even further, back into the beginnings of the Hebrew religion and the earlier religions of the Ancient Near East from which the Hebrew stories and beliefs emerged.

Yes, and the definition of them offered by Biblical scholars (those who, like Bultmann, were interested in "demythologizing" Christianity, and those who are avowed atheists) is not the one you are going to use in a minute.  That one you pull out of thin air, crafted entirely to support your conclusions. I'd bounce that in a Freshman English essay in a heartbeat, but this is the intertoobs, so we move on.

Christianity was born at a time in history when every religion included a belief in magic or miracles. Miraculous healings, natural “signs and wonders,” good things magically happening to good people and (even more satisfying) bad people magically getting what they deserve . . .

Yes, in the New Testament they are called "dunamis" (which my computer, ironically, wants to re-write as "dynamos") or "acts of power."  John calls them "semeia," or "signs."  These things matter, but let's not clutter up your ignorance with knowledge, eh?  (Actually, I know some evangelicals who would know this much, so....).  Not so sure about the "bad people magically getting what they deserve," outside the she-bears eating the children for mocking Elijah, but maybe Ms. Taricot knows something about the scriptures I don't.

Belief in all of these was the norm, along with the conviction that we humans can draw magic to ourselves by attracting the attention of supernatural beings, engaging in certain rituals, eating or drinking special foods, touching objects with talismanic powers, and more. What would have been truly miraculous would have been the emergence of Christian texts and traditions that didn’t include magical thinking.

That would have been a real wonder.
No, the wonder is that you think you're a cultural anthropologist and an historian of the ancient Near East; or of all human culture, for that matter.  The Greek philosophers make reference to the gods, but never anything about special foods or rituals beyond pouring out libations, and Greek literature doesn't have much to say about drawing the attention of the gods, except generally you don't want to. But hey, I've only read some Plato and some Aristotle and a few plays; what do I know?

You can tell from the language I just used, that I see the Christian belief in miracles as a subset of humanity’s broader belief in magic. Christians for centuries have claimed that what they call miracles are somehow different than magic. They have claimed this, typically, while believing in other kinds of magic. The Bible writers and Church fathers were no exception. The Bible and the traditional Christian worldview include all manner of supernatural beings with special powers. In the Bible itself, this includes disembodied spirits, angels, devils, unicorns, dragons, seers, human sorcerers and witches, enchanted animals, and a whole pantheon of deities.
Unicorns?  In the Bible?  I must have the wrong translation.  Balaam's ass is, apparently, the "enchanted animal."  Or maybe the she-bears.  A "whole pantheon of deities"?  Doesn't that violate the radical monotheism of the Hebrews?

Many modern fundamentalists, at least in their own minds, continue to inhabit this wonderland. They believe that an invisible ethereal plane underlies the physical world, and that our lives are part of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil which spills from the otherworldly plane into this one. Magic, for them, still exists. On the website, Got Answers, one believer tried to clarify the difference between magic and miracles. His answer reflects the thinking of many other Bible believers:

“Basically, magic and miracles differ in their source: magic has either a human or demonic source, but miracles are a supernatural work of God. . . . “Magic is an attempt to circumvent God in the acquisition of knowledge or power. . . . “Miracles and magic sometimes look the same, but their goals are different. Magic and illusion distract the eye from reality, while miracles draw the eye to reality. Miracles reveal; magic hides. Miracles are an expression of creative power; magic uses what already exists. Miracles are a gift; magic is a studied skill. Miracles do not glorify men; magic seeks to be noticed and bring glory to the magician. Jesus was not a magician. He was the Son of God, known for His many miracles.”

Got that? Miracles are the magical stuff done by the Christian God or his proxies. Magic is the magical stuff done by the competition. The latter is bad, bad, bad, because it might trick you into worshiping someone or something else. And it’s real! The Occult. The Dark Arts. Keep your kids away from Harry Potter.
Well, that's it then:  a comment on a website speaks for all persons similarly situated.  Because of course it does.  You know, Disney went with that "magical" belief and fired James Gunn from the third "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie, and stuck with their decision because to go back on it would be just....well, just something.  Maybe an indication Disney shouldn't pay attention to a few comments on the internet.  I'm not sure basing your argument on some comment on the internet is exactly sound argument.  Again, I'd bounce a Freshman English essay for such lousy reasoning and research.

For those of us who don’t believe that any supernatural stuff is done by either the Christian god or any other gods for that matter—the distinction is little more than a cloud of smoke from an illusionist’s mist-making machine. It is just one of the many tedious ways that Christianity claims to be different—not a religion but a relationship, not man-made like all the others, not polytheistic like Hinduism, not antiquated like the fairy tales of Pagan Europe, and definitely not a bundle of superstitious woo like New Age wonders involving crystals and incantations. I find Christian exceptionalism of this sort—philosophers call it special pleading—to be narcissistic and irksome, and I’m going to use the terms miracle and magic interchangeably.
Oooh, "special pleading"!  Are you going to talk about "logical fallacies" next?  People who don't understand logic or reasoning love to talk about "logical fallacies" and throw around terms like "special pleading."  I don't know anybody who uses that term except first year philosophy students, or somebody in an Intro. Philosophy course.  As for the first sentence, can I introduce you to Rudolf Bultmann, or even Karl Rahner?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, maybe?  Shubert Ogden?  I can think of a raft of modern theologians and even philosophers of religion who would take exception to your slip-shod generalization in just that sentence.

But I digress. It is true that specific Christian beliefs about miracles and magic are products of a specific handed-down tradition, kept alive by the architecture of the Church and the flow of history. But Christians are not alone in their miracle belief. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they believe in miracles, including almost 20 percent of nonbelievers.
I'm guessing "architecture" there is a metaphor, since architecture reflecting stories of miracles are not handed down but are still standing across Europe, although there aren't too many of them here in America, especially among Protestants like evangelicals.  "Flow of history"?  What are you now, a student of Hegel and Yeats?

The fact is, most all of us find ourselves attracted to magic, even if we are firmly convinced it isn’t real. People flock by the thousands to marvel at tricks performed by illusionists. Viewers flock by the millions to watch movies about super-villains and superheroes with superpowers. Young Adult fiction is dominated by genres like fantasy and science fiction and even paranormal romance. We humans love us some magic!

So, to answer the question, Why do Christians believe in miracles? we really have to ask—Why do we all love magic so much, child and adult, skeptic and believer alike? Why does magic so delight and call to us that it emerges in a myriad of different forms when we are given the freedom to build worlds from the unconstrained raw material of the human imagination? And what are the habits of mind that make us so prone not only to create magical stories but to believe the ones that have been handed down by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them all the way back into the shadowy mists of pre-history?
Because we like ducks?  (You'll have to go read the Douglas Adams quote now to get that; and yes, it's as much a product of chop-logic as it seems to be.)  Then again, the article promises to explain why Christians believe in miracles, so apparently the answer is, we all do?

I mean, that's it?

"These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand."

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