Several months ago, you wrote, "I know the Bible is filled with miracles like the splitting of the Red Sea. . . . but I choose to see most of these miracles as symbolic, or perhaps the report of overly enthusiastic observers of what actually happened. . . . The Exodus, for example, could have been the result of people on foot getting away from soldiers in heavy chariots when they ran through a marshy area. I prefer a natural explanation to a supernatural one every time, but this does not mean that real miracles are impossible."Well, I prefer to take Scripture at face value. Could not a God with the wisdom, knowledge and power to create us and the sea also have parted the sea? If we start relegating to fable any portion of the biblical record as merely symbolic, I believe we're on dangerous ground - for who can tell what is truth and what is merely symbolism?
- P., via e-mail
The basic problem with miracles is that they replace belief in God with belief in miracles.
If our faith requires us to believe in talking snakes, then the first time we realize snakes can't talk, we're forced to conclude God cannot exist. This is both false and foolish. It replaces monotheism, the belief in one God, with "bibleism," the belief that the Bible we have in our homes is the exact copy of God's words.
In addition to the strain bibleism puts on our reason, there's the problem of which Bible text is actually the word of God. The English text was written down 2,000 years after the oldest Hebrew text, whose oldest surviving copy, the Allepo Codex, was itself not written down until 1,000 years after the original text, which has disappeared. Since then, there have been many translations of the Bible, all of which conflict in major and minor points. So even if the text of the Bible is perfect, the text we have in the pews is not.
Another problem with bibleism is that everyone who reads the Bible does exactly what you say they shouldn't do - "pick and choose" which parts they consider to be the word of God. Everyone of decent moral fiber ignores the commandments to kill homosexuals and witches. The slaughter of the Amalekites and their children and flocks was a repulsive genocidal mistake that the God I worship would never have commanded. And I think you'd be hard pressed to find Sunday schools actually teaching kids that Balaam's donkey could speak fluent Hebrew! So the question is not whether we should pick and choose, since we all do it. The question is what we pick and choose.
The atheists' conclusion is that the Bible is corrupt, but I believe they're also wrong. The same Bible that teaches about split seas and talking snakes also teaches that we should love our neighbors; not murder, steal or commit adultery; care for the widow and orphan; do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. These are moral virtues found first in the Bible, and I believe they're revelations directly from God to our needy souls.
The Bible, in my view, is the word of God the same way one can see sun in a far meadow that's partially obscured by leaves. Some verses block your view like the leaves because they're man-made. Some verses are so luminous and incantatory that we can't help but see God's light shining through the text.
Like us for whom it was given, the Bible is a complicated and layered document. This is also why, above all other books, you need a teacher to help you read it. To view it as simple dictation from God is simply false to the Bible's subtle and evanescent genius.
Faith can indeed bring us miraculous gifts that are beyond the reach of reason but are crucial to a hopeful and virtuous life. Faith can bring us hope in life after death for the soul. Faith can give us courage to pursue justice despite overwhelming injustice because of the belief that our right to freedom is a gift from God. Faith can give us courage to defend the sanctity of all life because people are made in the image of God. These beliefs and others are central to my faith, and they are true miracles. I need these miracles for my faith more than I need the special effects of a split Red Sea.