* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mark 4:35-5:43: If Someone Started Handing Out Miracles, Everybody Would Want To Be First in Line

The miracle stories in the gospels reflect many myths about healers and miracle workers in the ancient world. For instance, close parallels to the gospel accounts can be found in the legends of a Greek demigod of healing, Asclepius. The symbol associated with Asclepius is a serpent coiled around a staff, which is similar enough to the "caduceus" of Hermes (two serpents coiled around a winged staff), that many North American medical practitioners have mistakenly adopted the caduceus as a symbol of healing. Hermes, incidentally, was a protector of merchants, thieves, and liars, but we need not read too much into an honest mistake of the medical community. Asclepius, on the other hand, was a supernatural healer who traveled around performing the kinds of miracles we read of Jesus performing in chapter 5 of the gospel of Mark. In fact, various bits of mythology about Asclepius suggests that raising people from the dead got him killed at the hands of another god who was upset about the healer's intervention.

The comparison to Asclepius is particularly relevant because the gospel stories so closely resemble tales of this Greek figure, but every human culture has stories about miracles and magic. We have always been fascinated with stories that suggest the possibility that a loved one could be brought back from the dead, or be inexplicably healed when all seemed lost. Many stories even suggest the penalties or curses that must accompany tampering with the natural order of things. We are still drawn to tales about individuals who can perform miraculous or magical feats, perhaps because there is a part of us all that longs for the ability -- or at least to know someone with the ability -- to defy the natural order of things on our behalf. We want to be exceptional, or at least well liked by someone who is exceptional.

People everywhere have these stories, and yet so often we get wrapped up in which stories are truth and which are fiction. Today, no one actually believes that there is a sun god Apollo, much less that he had a half-human son who went around performing miracles until his beneficent actions crossed a line that worried Hades, god of the underworld. Some of those who insist that any tale of Asclepius must be patently false would believe the story, however, if the names were changed a little bit. Tell any story of Asclepius and substitute the name "Jesus," and suddenly the miracle story seems more believable. This is a rather remarkable phenomenon, actually. Instead of recognizing how much people everywhere long to be exempt from the natural order of things, some people insist that they are, in fact, exempt from the natural order of things.

Here is something to consider: If every culture has stories about magic and miracles, and we do not witness any magic or miracles on the scale of these folktales, then perhaps all these stories say more about human culture than about any specific miracle worker. "But miracles do still happen!" Sure, if you want to shift the qualification of a miracle to "something I didn't expect," then we have modern-day miracles. However, none of the "miracles" we might see in the world today are on the scale of these mythological stories of Jesus, Asclepius, and others. We have lowered the bar on what constitutes a miracle, perhaps, but this also says a great deal about our longing to ignore the complexities of the natural world in order to consider ourselves in some way exempt, special, important, or even powerful.

After all, why do people believe that God will answer their specific prayers? Is it not because they believe that they are in some way special? More beloved, more important, more powerful than other people? Perhaps some people actually expect that God will defy the natural order of things for anyone who prays sincerely, but most people are keen enough to realize that this would mean God could favorably answer the prayers of people they don't like -- or that God could potentially be faced with sincere yet contradictory prayers. In other words, there would be no natural order of things if God disrupted the natural order of things in response to everyone. Which means that, if God works miracles for anyone at all, some people must be special, set apart, chosen, better than everyone else. At some level, we all want to be exceptional enough that someone considers us worthy of being exempt from the natural order of things.

Miracle stories are wonderful tales that can grant us insight into the things we want and fear most. When we begin to insist that they are factual accounts, and that we can realistically expect the same sorts of results in our own lives or the lives of people around us, we miss the point. Religious justification keeps us disconnected from reality and from the people with whom we share this world. We are all the same, at the end of the day. Whether one believes in God or not, mature wisdom will lead one to reconcile faith with the reality that everyone fears sickness and death to some extent, and everyone is attracted to some sort of story that suggests that sickness and death -- even the weather -- can be overcome. Tales of boy wizards or fantastic stories of Middle Earth touch on this very thing. We want to believe that someone we are exceptional enough to be free of pain. If the miraculous is possible, then perhaps we can be the beneficiaries. Isn't that better than not believing in the miraculous at all?

Actually, no. Recognizing that the unexpected can happen is a brilliant way to bear witness to the wonder and complexity of nature. Belief in the truly miraculous, though, usually comes with a set of false expectations about life. When we are honest, we realize that people are all pretty much the same. No one is more worthy of a miracle than anyone else. We are responsible for our own well-being. We must care for ourselves in a way that does not consider an "escape hatch" miracle to be a plausible way of handling our lives. We must bear our grief and our pain, and hopefully we can do so in connection with other people. There will be pain, and no one is exceptional enough to avoid it. And while it is comforting to believe in an afterlife, we do not have any convincing evidence that people experience anything at all after the brain shuts down. Quite the opposite, actually. We know with certainty that we have this life, though. If there are no miracles in store for us, and we may have just a brief time in this life to experience all that we can, learn all that we can, and love all that we can, let's do that.

If we truly live our deepest intentions and do all that we can to make this world a better place, then we will actually be quite exceptional. But it still won't mean anyone's worth more than anybody else.

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