Posted by: Andrew | November 17, 2014

I Believe in Miracles (or do I?)

I’ve spent time recently listening to Sikh, Hindu and Muslim friends recounting miracles that are recorded within their respective faiths. All the worlds faiths (as far as I’m aware) share a belief in the miraculous – an event that sits outside normal laws of physics, biology, chemistry or time and that owes its occurrence to a deity (I’ve also come across stories of miracles within Buddhism but that aren’t attributed to a deity). As I’ve listened to these stories I’ve started to ponder whether miracles is a useful starting point for interfaith engagement or a controversial complication best left to one side.

At one level they can be a great starting point for conversation. Twice I’ve been with people who have felt embarrassed to talk about miracles assuming that I’ll ridicule them for believing in things dismissed by rational scientific analysis. When I’ve explained that, as a Christian, I too believe in miracles so am happy to hear the accounts of others they’ve opened up and shared the stories in some depth. We’ve been able to talk about similar beliefs or accounts in our faiths and found discussing miracles as a helpful starting point for conversation.

That’s fine as a tool for exploring comparative religions. But the question left hanging is what do we make of the stories of miracles from other faith traditions? Do we believe that ‘Our God’ could or would perform miracles for people of another faith? If so then what meaning do we attribute to those miracles? It’s clear that miracles do more than heal or make us feel astonished or awestruck, they say something about God and the relationship between God and the created order. Whether we feel able to believe in the miracles of others or how we interpret them seem to me to be key questions if we are to seriously engage in interfaith encounters between people who both hold onto a belief in a deity who acts to change the world in ways outside the ‘natural order’.

In the Bible we read that God can clearly perform miracles that bring healing and wholeness to those outside the Jeudeo / Christian communities. In fact Jesus faced serious opposition for saying as much early on in his ministry (Acts 4: 14-30). But whilst those people benefitted from God’s generosity the miracles are clearly attributed to Jehovah and so they can be located within Jewish, and then Christian, theology. But there are others from outside that faith community that are recorded as performing miracles such as  Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7. So can I, as a Christian, believe that God performs miracles that aren’t called on in the name of Jesus? One way to look at this is to consider that if God does love the whole world, and if his spirit is abroad in the world, and he is sovereign then why shouldn’t he answer the cry of the mother when her child is ill or the father desperate for food? (why God seems to grant miracles to some people and not others is a debate for another day). It seems to me to be reasonable that God could do this, but to suggest that miracles believed in by Sikhs or Muslims are done by God acting in accordance with Christian principles is to somehow bring them under the orbit of Christ, when the adherents of those faiths might well wish to deny that he is the source of their miracles. So whilst we may feel comfortable understanding their appearance from within our own theological framework is it possible to make sense of them from within the epistemology of the faith itself. In other words can I as a Christian believe in or make sense of a miracle attested to by Sikhs without seeing it as part of a Christian understanding of the world but as a Sikh understanding of the world? If not then does it matter if I interpret it in a Christological framework? Is one interpretation as equally valid as any other? (the same of course would be true of any faith considering the miracles of another faith tradition).

Understanding a faith on its own terms without constantly interpreting it through our own filters is one of the biggest challenges in interfaith work and our ability to conceive of the miraculous in the other is perhaps the biggest challenge within this. Maybe too big, but it opens up new ways of engaging in faith discussions beyond the who’s text is most reliable or which personal experience is most interesting or valid.

There’s lots more to ponder and I suspect some more posts on this topic to come, I sense this is just the start of this exploration.




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