There’s a book called How the Scots Invented the Modern World. And it makes a pretty good case. Many of the building blocks of today’s Western civilization originated from Scots:
The telephone (Alexander Graham Bell)
Capitalism (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie)
Paved roads (John McAdam, originator of “Tar-Mac” roads).
Steam power (James Watt, for whom the term “watts” is named, as in a light bulb having 100 watts).
Philosophy entailing freedom of/from religion (David Hume)
Literature (Walter Scott invented the historical novel. The genre has become popular in film: ex., Saving Private Ryan).
Two other Scots are not so well-known, but they made an earth-shaking contribution to modern thinking. They were geologists The year that one died the other was born: James Hutton died in 1797, the year of the birth of Charles Lyell. Like a father-and-son legacy, the later geologist Lyell, popularized a concept of Hutton’s.
The concept was this: Prior to Hutton, the most common thinking in Western culture was that the Earth and all of its landscape features have the shape that they do because of God-authored catastrophes, primarily Noah’s Flood.
*Mountains, valleys, plains, oceans–all took shape as the waters of the biblical Flood rose up and then receded.
*Dinosaurs had existed right alongside of human beings, but perished in the Flood.
*The race of Homo sapiens originated with Adam & Eve, nearly went extinct because of the Flood, but survived in the family of Noah and proceeded to populate and spread over the Earth from those lone survivors of Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives. (A lot of intermarriage between first cousins had to have been going on!)
This belief that catastrophes formed the landscape of the planet and guided human history was called: catastrophism.
What the geologists Hutton and Lyell did was to show: There are processes of change that we see TODAY. Erosion and other changes in landscape are caused by wind, rivers, tides, glaciers, sunlight, rain…
In later times (in the 20th Century), this concept of change happening gradually and going on IN THE PRESENT as in the past would include the theory of the Earth’s mantle being broken up and drifting through plate tectonics. The result has been the gradual shaping of entire continents.
In our day also, there has been the discovery of the likelihood that a massive meteor struck the Earth, causing a world-wide shroud of darkness that blocked the sunlight, killing off the dinosaurs. This meteor indeed WAS a catastrophe. So the geologists who believe in uniformitarianism also admit SOME contribution of catastrophism to the changes in nature.
Overall, the concept championed by Hutton and Lyell consists of two parts:
*Change is slow, gradual–caused by the daily wear of wind and water over millions of years–rather than happening instantly by a catastrophe like the Flood, authored by God.
*Processes of change like erosion that we see TODAY have been the same processes working all through the ages. For all of the ages, the forces of change have been the same–they have been uniform.
This idea of gradual change caused by the same, uniform processes working for millions of years that are still working today is called–uniformitarianism.
Lakes and mountains weren’t caused in a flash by God-driven catastrophes. Rather, these features took shape over millions of years by slow, gradual forces that have been the same all through the ages–wind, rain, glaciers, rivers, tides…
The importance of uniformitarianism for Western civilization is: Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology was taken on board the ship by a young naturalist, Charles Darwin, during his five-year journey around the world on The Beagle.
Uniformitarianism influenced the thinking of young Darwin. He eventually employed the theory in his description of evolution by natural selection. Slow, gradual processes of change are the way new species arise (rather than from direct creation by God), and the same processes are still working today.
(Paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge have maintained that species change in spurts rather than gradually–what they called “punctuated equilibrium.” But the “spurts” in geological time range from hundreds of thousands to millions of years–hardly the instant creation of species by God, an idea which is a pillar of creationism.)
This switch in viewpoint from a religious-based belief in catastrophism to a scientific basis for uniformitarianism is what’s called a “sea change” (like the massive shift of an ocean tide). The sweeping influence of uniformitarianism has encompassed not only the study of nature; but also the study of the Bible.
The gradual process of uniformitarianism vs. the instant happenings in catastrophism have become ways of interpreting the Scriptures. This gets back to our original question: Why don’t miracles happen TODAY as in the days of the Bible?
A common reply is: That was a special time. God needed outlandish displays of power to get belief started. Miracles were used. They’re not necessary now. We’ve got the Gospels and churches and a billion believers.
Others, however, insist that nothing has changed. Miracles ARE happening today just as in Jesus’ time! People are healed who were told they didn’t have a chance to survive–the power of prayer is proven again. A driver is saved from a horrific wreck. An air liner makes an eye-popping, emergency landing.
I think people who cite instances like this want to prove that God exists. It’s isn’t about the miracle. It’s about believing in God and wanting others to believe.
But I think it IS about the miracle. The miracle IS the thing to focus on.
For example, the attribute we learn most thoroughly about God from Jesus is: God is gracious. It isn’t as though a prayer has to be said in order for God to act. God doesn’t wait to be asked, nor does God wait for somebody to be good. God is gracious. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45, NIV)
Still, people insist that prayer summons God into action. It sounds like ringing for the butler.
But why are we told only of individualistic miracles–one person is saved; at most a plane load is saved–when thousands die as in the attacks on the Twin Towers?
Was one saved because of prayer–while thousands died because nobody was praying for the Twin Towers? That IS the conclusion by some fundamentalists like Pat Robertson. God HAD been shielding the United States from attacks. But nobody knew to pray for the Twin Towers. America had slid so far into sinful behavior–abortion, gay marriage, etc.–that God removed the shield. God “allowed” the attacks to get through.
Talk about “passive aggressive”!
By contrast, uniformitarianism maintains: Miracles aren’t happening today as in biblical times–because they weren’t happening BACK THEN! The same processes of life that are going on today were going on back then.
The miracles that we read about in the Scriptures are exaggerated stories to get across a point with a wallop. Jesus walking on water refers the reader back to Moses leading the Hebrew people across the Red Sea.
In the Gospels, Jesus is continually referred to as the successor to the greatest prophets of the Old Testament–Moses and Elijah. He mirrors their behavior, and he succeeds them in carrying out the plan of the Old Testament that some day not just a few individuals like prophets and kings would be close to God–rather, all people, through Jesus.
Moses and Elijah are portrayed as endorsing Jesus as their successor (in the Transfiguration on the Mount, they appear alongside of Jesus, like former Presidents at a political convention standing alongside of the nominee). This is the purpose of some miracles in the Gospels–these acts connect Jesus to the prophets of the Old Testament:
*The feeding of many with a few loaves of bread was first done not by Jesus but by Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44). Jesus mirrors the same miracle. Both stories are told with the same detail of the person possessing only a few loaves of bread protesting that it won’t be enough, and the detail that there turned out to be more than enough–there were leftovers.
*Moses descends Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and finds his followers mired in disbelief (they are worshipping a golden calf). Likewise, Jesus descends from the Mount of Transfiguration (where he meets Moses), and Jesus (like Moses) goes down the mountain only to find his followers mired in disbelief. They are unable to heal a boy of a type of seizure. Jesus groans that they are ineffective because they lack faith. “O unbelieving generation!” (Mark 9:13)
Other miracles occur which produce healing. One wonders how Jesus would choose one blind man to be healed but not others; one man with leprosy but not others; one man with a disabled hand but not others. There ARE times when he heals many people. But all the more would be making their way to Him if such happenings were true.
I mentioned in my blog yesterday that the belief in God CHOOSING one person has the logical obverse side of believing that God with as much deliberation chooses NOT to intervene for others. I have a difficult time matching that belief of selectivity with the enormous compassion of Jesus.
Rather, the miracles of healing are actually a common genre of “pious stories.” They are devised to punctuate a point that is being made in the Gospels. For example, you may notice that healing of blindness sometimes occurs right AFTER a story about Jesus explaining something to His followers. The blind man’s eyes being opened is a type of punctuation on the people’s eyes being opened to a truth:
*Blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10
*The two blind men in Matthew 20
Other miracles serve the purpose of authenticating Jesus’ identity. He is not just human–he is divine.
*Healing the paralyzed man in Mark 2 proves to scoffers that Jesus has the authority to do only what God would do: forgive third-party sins. That is, Jesus could forgive the sins of those who have wronged not HIM (as any of us have the power to do–we may forgive somebody who has hurt US). But we do NOT have the authority to forgive those who have sinned against OTHERS. Jesus, however, does. How does He prove His identity as divine? He tells the paralyzed man to get up and walk. The miracle authenticates His identity.
*The story of Jesus calming the storm from a fishing boat in Luke 7 follows immediately the story of Jesus’ mother and siblings being embarrassed about His going public with preaching and teaching. They don’t believe in Him. Right after that account occurs the story of the storm being calmed. The story is a way to confront the Apostles (and by proxy–US). Do they disavow Jesus the way His own family does? Witnessing the storm being calmed causes the Apostles in the boat to wonder which way to go–belief or non-belief: “Who is this? He commands even the wind and the water…” (Luke 7:25b)
Thus, the miracle stories in the Gospels are “evangelical” in purpose. They are ways for the Gospels to get across the point that Jesus is worthy of our faith.
But they are a style of writing that was permissible in ancient times. It doesn’t mean these events actually happened!
Even today what believers portray as miracles seem really for the purpose of evangelism. When the miracles themselves are examined, however, they are shown to be awfully flawed. Following are accounts were given by two stars of evangelism.
One was the famed Presbyterian preacher, Peter Marshall, whose biography A Man Called Peter which came out in 1951 came out as a movie in 1955. I read recently a book of his sermons. In one sermon, he told the story of the World I War fighter ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, being lost at sea with seven others when their B-25 crashed in the Pacific on a special mission in World War II. Peter Marshall told how Rickenbacker credited the power of prayer for getting the men through the ordeal. They were starving. Suddenly, the wind which had been blowing their three rafts in one direction–shifted–and flying in on the shifting wind now coming toward them was–a sea gull. The sea gull landed right on top of Rickenbacker’s head. Captain Rickenbacker quickly grabbed the bird, and they now had raw meat to eat, and entrails to use for bait.
God is credited for shifting the wind to deliver the food.
The story ends with the men being rescued after 24 days. Peter Marshall talks about how Eddie Rickenbacker credited the power of prayer.
What is NOT told by the preacher? One of the men died! He died right there in a raft during the first week and was buried at sea. And the supposed feast that the starving men had with the sea gull–in his book, Rickenbacker says the meat was so raw and dry, it made the men all the more thirsty, and didn’t dent their hunger at all.
It isn’t the devil that’s in the details–it’s disillusion! The claim that God did this or that is too easily made to audiences that are too ready to believe more of what they already believe. Closer scrutiny by those who aren’t so ready to believe reveals the miracles to be awfully shaky.
The other star evangelist who told a miracle story was–Corrie ten Boom. (All credit to her for saving the lives of Jews who were sought by Nazis in the Netherlands!) Corrie ten Boom herself was finally arrested in a round-up and taken to a concentration camp north of Berlin, called Ravensbruck.
She was made to get rid of her clothing and change into a coarse, plain slip. Inside of the slip, she was hiding her Bible. It caused an obvious bulge. The prisoners had to walk past some guards before being allowed to go into their barracks. While she was next in line, Corrie ten Boom prayed that God would surround her with angels. They would cover her from the guards’ vision. They wouldn’t notice the bulge in her clothing.
Her turn came. She was allowed to walk right past the guards unmolested.
Corrie ten Boom credited her prayer. God answered by surrounding her with angels.
She was a young woman at the time–but still fairly husky. Bulges in her clothing wouldn’t be unusual. Who knows what the guards were looking at as she walked past?
What struck me as very odd was: Corrie ten Boom believed so firmly in God answering prayers immediately and miraculously. And yet here she is in a place of death–one of the most dreaded concentration camps. But her prayer is not such a biblical cry like “let the gates fling open and the prisoners go free” and the guards drop dead. Her prayer is: Save my Bible?!
Seems a nonsequiter in such a dire situation.
An elder in a congregation that I once served argued with me that it was important for survival for Corrie ten Boom to have her Bible for comfort and strength. I repeated: Look at the situation. You’re in a place of death–a place of pure evil. Many are doomed. You believe that God can & does intervene. And you tap into that mighty power in this deadly circumstance only to ask for your Bible to be saved?!
Aside from the trivial nature of her prayer, to claim a direct correlation–prayer led to this–prayer led to that–is very, VERY naïve. If not downright delusional! Our lives are influenced by so many factors–big and small–some of which we aren’t even aware–that to claim prayer caused a direct result is as narrow an outlook on life as a horse wearing blinders. Looking at only one thing is what a horse can’t help but doing with blinders. Looking at only one thing–prayer as THE cause of something–is wearing a blinder by choice. But it’s boasted of as “faith.”
Uniformitarianism seems to me a better viewpoint not only to explain happenings in nature but also to explain happenings in the Scriptures. Did the miracles really occur? If so, why aren’t they happening today as they were back then?
They aren’t happening today the way they were back then–because they weren’t happening back then, either!
The stories are a style of writing, permissible in ancient times to get across a point with a wallop.
There is one more way that uniformitarianism helps us understand the Scriptures.
In the Bible, often events happen immediately. A man lies to the Apostle Peter–the man drops dead immediately. His wife arrives, tells the same lie–SHE drops dead immediately. (Acts 5)
Does this sort of thing happen in real life?
Wrongdoing is followed IMMEDIATELY by punishment?
In the battle of Jericho, the Hebrew people surround the city–and after a few preliminaries of walking around the city walls–trumpets are blown. Immediately the walls collapse! The people of Jericho are no longer protected–they are wiped out.
Did this sort of thing happen in real life?
Typically, in ancient times, the siege of a city took YEARS. What eventually brought the residents to surrender was starvation.
In the stories of creation, things happen instantly. God speaks–the Sun is created. God speaks–the Moon is created.
Did this sort of thing happen in real life?
Scientific findings show the Sun and the Moon to have taken billions of years to evolve from gases gravitating into masses with a predictable orbit.
But the style in the Bible is for things to happen immediately. You sin–you die. God tells you to do something–it gets done in one fell swoop. God says something–it’s done instantly .
In real life, things normally happen more gradually. Again, this understanding can be applied to the biblical stories with a viewpoint formed by uniformitarianism. It makes unlikely to have really happened the stories about instant creation, instant punishment and instant reward.
Why then are the stories TOLD this way?
Because the writers of the Scriptures want to make clear the connections:
*Sin is connected to consequences.
*A virtue like perseverance (going around Jericho seven times) is connected to reward.
*God is NOT nature (we don’t worship the Sun or a mountain or an ocean). Rather, the point that God is not a part of nature but is superior occurs when there is an instant connection: God speaks–things appear. Instantly. Like snapping one’s fingers.
I enjoy reading the Bible now with this modern, progressive method much more than when I was taking everything literally. Taking it word-for-word, I felt I had to defend every word, else my faith was misplaced. I feel much firmer and healthier in my faith today because it’s deeply rooted by spirit. I believe the spirit of truth in the Scriptures without having to take everything as being factual.