Miracles VI: Bartimaeus and the Healing of the Man Born Blind

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 December 2006 0 Comments
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As an interested reader of your columns, I feel that you are

just about the only person I can pose this question to and expect an

intelligent response. The question has to do with whether or not God ever

intervenes in human history to heal individuals or stop natural disasters in

response to prayer. I am 71 years old and have lived most of life under the

ministry of Baptist churches that constantly insist that God heals and

answers prayers. In the reflection of my later years, I have come to wonder

if this makes any sense at all, or is even possible. If God is capable of

inserting himself (okay, herself) into human affairs and to change things in

response to prayers of petition, what is the best way to understand that

he/she sometimes does and sometimes doesn't? It can't be just the urgency

or the numbers of prayers, can it?

I have read Sam Harris' two books that question the very existence of God

and challenges the useful purpose of any religion. He does raise questions

that cannot be easily dismissed, such as why in all of human history, there

is no record of God ever healing an amputee by regenerating a limb or

changing a Down syndrome child to one of normal health. If God does or can

intervene, it is only in situations that can be otherwise explained as

natural phenomena? Or, deeper still, should we even think of a God capable

of inserting himself into human experience? Is "God" something else



Your question is a primary and essential one and cuts

immediately to the essence of theological debate today. Yet it is one that

most people who identify themselves with evangelical Protestantism or

conservative Catholicism seem to think they can either ignore or repress.

They cannot. It is also a question that in order to address it adequately

would take a book, not a column.

Sam Harris' criticism of popular religion is right on target.

The weakness of his book is that he assumes that popular religion is what

Christianity is all about.

The intervening, miraculous God is built upon the old idea of

the record keeping Deity who lives above the sky and who swoops down on

earth to split the Red Sea, or to rain heavenly manna on the starving

Israelites in the wilderness. This is also the God who delights in sending

plagues on Israel's enemies, the Egyptians, and drowning them in that same

Red Sea.

This is also a God who apparently has not accepted the insights

of Isaac Newton about how the world operates. It is a world, not of precise

natural law, but of controlled chaos. Most theologians have long since

abandoned such a deity.

When people assert that God intervenes in human life to heal,

they must explain why God does that so sporadically. When people assert that

splitting the Red Sea was a miracle to save Jews from death, they must

explain why God allowed the Holocaust that destroyed Jews by the millions.

It is not a simple subject.

The only thing that needs to be said quickly is that the idea

that anyone knows who God is or how God works is ludicrous. What kind of

human folly is that? I do not think that a horse can describe what it means

to be human. Humanity is a dimension of life and consciousness that is

simply beyond that which a horse can embrace. Similarly, I do not believe

that human beings can describe what God is. The realm of God is simply

beyond that which the human mind can know. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes

once wrote that "If horses had gods they would look like horses!" Perhaps

one ought to observe that most of the deities that human beings have

worshiped throughout history have looked remarkably like human beings,

magnified and supernaturalized. We have no God language to use so we force

our God consciousness into human language. Only when that truth is

acknowledged and accepted can we even begin to answer your question.

The discussion must then turn to the nature of God, again

something we cannot know but about which we speculate endlessly. I believe

God is real, but my human mind and human language can never penetrate that

reality. So I cannot describe God, I can only describe my presumed God

experience and honesty compels me to state that I might be delusional. Only

at that point can we begin a discussion on the reality of prayer.

When I wrote a book entitled, "A New Christianity for a New

World," based on lectures I had given at Harvard University, I sought to

address the issues you raise. The book is almost 300 pages long. It

challenges most of the pre-suppositions of traditional Christianity. It

seeks to find new meaning for the most traditional symbols. It seeks to

move between what I call both the God experience and the Christ experience

which I believe are real and the way both the God experience and the Christ

experience have normally been explained, which are to me dated, inadequate

and generally unbelievable. Your question rises out of that mentality.

I hope this helps though it only scratches the surface of the

territory where an answer can be found. I want to assure you that your

question is the right question and that you are not wrong or weird to be

raising it. Those who continue to repeat the slogans of their religious

past as if they are still operative are wrong and they are increasingly


John Shelby Spong




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