I don’t know when my skepticism of miracles began. I was raised hearing Biblical stories of miracles and I never doubted their authenticity or reality. I still don’t. I don’t buy into the Jesus Seminar deconstruction of the Gospel miracles or the scientific speculations of the parting of the Red Sea etcetera etcetera etcetera. The rationalistic and scientific explanations always seemed more contrived to me than the original story as it is told in Scripture.
So, in 1969 when I was seventeen, I “converted” from Catholicism to the Jesus Movement and shortly after that I got involved in the churches of Christ which is a cessationist tradition. They believe that the power to perform miracles through human agency ceased when the last Apostle died, though God is still capable of effecting one directly.
I always felt like an outsider in the Jesus Movement. I prayed for the gift of tongues when all my friends were speaking in tongues, but I wasn’t willing to fake it. So, I never spoke in tongues. I would sit on the floor as a long haired, glassy eyed Bible study leader talked about audibly hearing the voice of God leading him to do this or that and everyone would close their eyes and raise a palm toward heaven mumbling “Thank you Jesus, praise Jesus, thank you Lord”. Even though I also had long hair and John Lennon glasses, I felt faithless and like a judgmental jerk because I was sitting there thinking, “C’mon people, this guy has dropped more acid than a pool cleaning service, he’s so fried and wouldn’t know the voice of God from a K-mart blue light special announcement.” I remember one story in particular about a church picnic football game where someone knew a friend who was at the game where someone got tackled and had a compound fracture of his leg (the bone was STICKING OUT!) and the players gathered around, laid hands on him and prayed and the bone WENT BACK IN! and THEN he got up and played the rest of the game with no ill effects! I never asked why 90% of the miracles happened to people who knew someone who was “there” when it happened, but they were never ”here”. Not that I thought they were consciously lying (after all, why would they lie?), but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe them for some reason.
Over the years now and then, I prayed for an undeniable miracle to happen before my eyes so I would not be so doubting and perhaps even faithless. By the time I became an Episcopalian at about age 40, I had heard dozens of second hand and a few firsthand accounts of miracles but still had not personally witnessed or experienced anything that was undeniable as a divine intervention like a polio victim being straightened or a blind man seeing instantaneously. I’ve heard lots of the more garden variety of miracles like cancer disappearing, people getting “premonitions”, survival stories and “wild coincidences”, all attributed to divine intervention. But the problem for me was that most “garden variety miracles” were things that happen even to unbelievers, but were attributed to Christians’ prayers or faith in God. It always seemed to me to be somewhat triumphalistic when atheists experienced spontaneous remission of cancer, unexplainable recoveries and wild coincidences too. Over the years I could not force myself to rationalize a miracle out of an unexplainable event, or some “normal” anamoly of science or medicine that happens to some people regardless of religious affiliation or even belief in God or a god.
So I had left the rationalistic churches of Christ and had been reading the great Mystics of the Church and was more open to the possibility of divine intervention than ever in my life. I joined the Episcopal Church and the priest at our parish was into the charismatic healing movement. He was big on the Vineyard ministries and Francis MacNutt, a Roman Catholic faith healer. One weekend we had a “healing event” which featured Francis MacNutt, a local Vineyard pastor and our parish’s “healing ministry team”. A couple hundred people showed up for the mini-Benny Hinn fest. During the course of the night people got whacked on the head, slain in the spirit, fell down, cried… all the usual things you see on TV. It seemed like it was almost scripted it was so “usual”. Several people in our parish came and were “healed”. A child’s leg grew, a man’s club foot “felt like it was getting better”, various illnesses and traumas were removed. During the session, a middle aged man in shorts and a short sleeved shirt came forward for healing. He twitched uncontrollably and looked around the room as if he was surrounded by Ninja assassins. He had a red, scabby skin condition, perhaps a case of severe eczema, as close to looking like a leper as you could imagine. The healing team sat him in a chair up on the altar area, and they all gathered around him and laid hands on him (on his clothing, actually, no latex gloves for faith healers). One woman on the team stood behind him. Her breasts sat on top of his head as she laid her hands on his chest from behind. She had her eyes closed, her face raised to heaven and spoke in tongues. Every once in a while someone on the “healing team” would ask him, “Do you feel the Spirit moving?” The man would say, “Yes, yes…” then timidly, “….I think so.” My unbeliever friend Joe who was looking for a miracle too leaned over and hissed loud enough for half a pew all around us to hear, “Of course he does, I’d feel the spirit too if her ***** were on my head.” The man walked off the stage, still twitching, still scabby and we never saw him again. Four weeks after the” healings” no one talked about our members who were “healed”… the still clubbed foot, nor the surgery to correct the child’s short leg, nor the ongoing treatments for various ailments. So, the six years of Vineyard and Francis McNutt ministry experiences in the Episcopal Church only reinforced my skepticism. I vacillated between feeling faithless and like a wet blanket on the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit, and feeling smugly superior to the “healers” that I perceived as deluded, or egoists, or marginal and weak and trying to fit into an elite club in the parish.
Then I became Orthodox. And I found out the Orthodox Church believes in miracles. I mean, it REALLY believes in them. The Church has “wonderworking” saints, icons, relics, oil, and elders. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the Church. So “BAM!” my issues with the miraculous just got kicked up several notches. It seemed I had to buy into all kinds of miraculous occurrences that I’d never heard of in my Protestant experiences: icons that weep myrrh, dead people that don’t rot and smell like roses, relics that heal people, dead saints that wear out the shoes put on their feet, fire that spontaneously appears and lights candles on Pascha night in the Holy Sepulchre. And, again… I heard the stories (why would people lie?), and I know just about everyone believes them because well… just about everyone believes them. If someone doesn’t, they sure don’t speak up, at least not in public. But like before, I’ve never seen any of it with my own eyes. And my feeling of being a fringe dweller and a curmudgeonly faithless jerk kicked up several notches as I read and listened to people tell stories about this wonderworking icon or the oil they were anointed with that healed them and I felt like I had to play “pious” and mumble “Thank God”, which seemed to me to be the Orthodox version of the lifted palm to heaven breathily chanting “Thank you Jesus”.
I finally connected those two dots and I figured out the real issue for me. It was not that I disbelieved the possibility of miracles, it was that I doubted the judgment and discernment of the people who were claiming or reporting them. How DO we know we should be thanking Jesus or God for what we think we saw or experienced? Just because it was “miraculous” doesn’t make it “from God”. But I knew that from the Bible. But even with that clearly in the Scriptures, I never saw anyone in 40 years of Church experience question whether or not something miraculous within a Church was of God or Satan.
So when I delved further into the miraculous in Orthodoxy, I discovered something I really liked about Orthodoxy: The Church actually encourages us to view the miraculous with caution even if individual Orthodox people don’t. It teaches us to be skeptical and to be discerning of alleged miracles because it takes seriously the Gospel and the warnings of Christ and the apostles of the possibility of demonic delusion and “lying wonders”.
My best friend (who is also a former church of Christ miracle skeptic) was at an Orthodox summer camp where icons started weeping. Even though he called me the night it happened, the news of it didn’t spread like the spiritual wildfire one would think, and when the priest in charge of the camp was asked about what it meant he just said, we don’t know what it means, we’ll see what fruit it bears. I liked that a lot. Of course “fruit bearing” can also be a tough thing to discern. It assumes the spiritual qualifications to judge fruit. A couple years ago I heard of a “monastery” in Texas that had a phony “weeping icon” that drew thousands of pilgrims and helped them raise hundred of thousands of dollars and basically funded their monastic pedophilia ring. I wondered how could thousands of pious people and even clergy be duped over a period of years? If one is a skeptic of these things, by the reaction one gets sometimes it seems that gullibility is a fruit of the Spirit.
So in my area recently it was announced that there was a travelling priest with a piece of the “True Cross” WITH the blood of Christ on it. He is from Cyprus (or several other places depending on who I talked to). He was appearing at a local monastery and then at a local parish doing healing services with it. (I didn’t go, it sounded too much like Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith” the way it was promoted). The story was he was given the relic by a woman who handed it to him and told him God told her to give it to him. Another story is that his mother gave it to him. Both stories are from people who claimed to have talked to him personally. I think this is how some hagiography gets written… Anyway, he eventually discovered its healing powers and began travelling doing healing. The relic is embedded in a heavy, large gold cross and when he puts it on people’s bodies it “sticks” to the places that need healing. He can remove his hand from it and it stays put, defying gravity. Hundreds of people flocked to the monastery and then to the parish for healing. There are things that I was told that sent my skeptic meter into the red zone. One thing was that he seemed to “know” things. But according to the Fathers, “knowing things” isn’t always a good thing.
About 20 years ago a group of buddies and I paid five bucks to have our Tarot read by a street gypsy one Sunday night on Mill Avenue, just for grins. As she turned over card after card, she revealed my life… way too specifically to be mere “astrological coincidences”. I didn’t know how she did that until I became Orthodox years later. You see, the demons know what “is”. They cannot tell the future, but they can reveal real events that have happened to people and what they are doing. She clearly knew what I was doing. In the writings of the desert Fathers, there are dozens of stories of monastics who were drawn into delusion because they thought they were clairvoyant, but in reality they were being fed information by the demons so they would fall through pride and their desire for followers and admiration. The stories usually go that everyone around them was fooled and drawn away from the faith by the deception except for one person who saw the imperceptible signs of delusion and demonic captivity. So, as St. Ignatius warns, not even clairvoyance whether it is a gypsy or an “elder” is a sure sign of godliness, it can be demonic manipulation.
Anyway, those who attended the “True Cross” healing sessions said they were moving. They were amazed. They were uplifted. They “felt the grace”. OK, so you felt something you thought was “grace”. So does that make it of God? No. It just means that’s how some individuals perceived it. Am I willing to accept the witness of someone “feeling the grace” as affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit? Frankly, no. (And as an aside, I would not even accept MY OWN feelings as affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I’ve felt a lot of things in my life that turned out to be passions rather than piety. I’ve had plenty of spiritual feelings and leadings in my life and after living the with consequences of acting on them, I hope to never have one again.) The Scriptures and the Fathers say that Satan sends a strong delusion into the Church to lead people astray. Of course the “most convincing demonic miracles” would happen in the Church. Satan appears as an angel of light, not like Batman. Why send a strong delusion to unbelievers when a weak delusion will do the trick, save the real work for those who have faith.
So, as for me, I’m perfectly content to not praise God prematurely and sit back and wait twenty or thirty years to see what kind of fruit some miracle brings forth. In the meantime if God wants to kick the skepticism out of me, I’m sure He knows where to kick me and how hard. The thing is, I don’t feel deprived of any “spiritual joy” nor do I believe the Gospel any less because I am skeptical of miracles, even ones affirmed by thousands of pious people. I am content to believe if God did a miracle in someone’s life it doesn’t matter if I believe it or not. It is what it is and it is between that person and God. We’ll see what fruit it bears in the long run. It doesn’t make me any more in awe of God or any more or less faithful one way or the other. I do know that when it comes to miracles, there is safety in caution and dire consequences for gullibility. There is a big difference between attributing everything to God, or everything to Satan, and being unwilling to make pronouncements one way or the other because one doesn’t trust one’s own judgment nor the judgment of other people to discern the difference. Of course I realize that I could be wrong and its my own fault if I am missing out on a blessing because of my “rationalism”. But, I’ve never been one to go out of my way to seek out special or extraordinary “blessings”. I believe mine come in my day to day walk with God, all I have to do is pay closer attention.
I’ve always liked G.K. Chesterton’s take on miracles. He sums up my thoughts very nicely. He says:
No religion that thinks itself true bothers about the miracles of another religion. It denies the doctrines of the religion; it denies its morals; but it never thinks it worth while to deny its signs and wonders.
And why not? Because these things some men have always thought possible. Because any wandering gipsy may have psychical powers. Because the general existence of a world of spirits and of strange mental powers is a part of the common sense of all mankind. The Pharisees did not dispute the miracles of Christ; they said they were worked by devilry. The Christians did not dispute the miracles of Mahomed. They said they were worked by devilry. The Roman world did not deny the possibility that Christ was a God. It was far too enlightened for that.
In so far as the Church did (chiefly during the corrupt and sceptical eighteenth century) urge miracles as a reason for belief, her fault is evident…. It is not that she asked men to believe anything so incredible; it is that she asked men to be converted by anything so commonplace. What matters about a religion is not whether it can work marvels like any ragged Indian conjurer, but whether it has a true philosophy of the Universe. The Romans were quite willing to admit that Christ was a God. What they denied was the He was the God - the highest truth of the cosmos. And this is the only point worth discussing about Christianity.
And I thank God nothing more or less than this is required of me to be truly Orthodox.