All the God-talk at Easter has got me thinking about Biblical miracles. In the Guardian's Face to faith column yesterday, Michael Horan makes the case for the resurrection story being just that, a story, and not something to believe in literally. I say he makes the case, but it's more a sort of ruminating about something he takes for granted. In fact he is bemused that many people still believe that the resurrection and ascension were literally physical, historical events.
Here's how he explains it:
At this distance in time, and with only the New Testament as a source, we cannot know what actually happened after Jesus' crucifixion. Disillusion, confused and frightened, the disciples seem to have returned north to Galilee to resume their fishing. As they reminisced, possibly over many months, recalling their extraordinary experiences with Jesus, links began to form between their mental images of him and then-current messianic expectations. Possibly a part of that imagining was the idea, wholly feasible in their minds, that God had raised Jesus into his presence.
Probably when I was a very young child I took the Biblical miracles literally. But I don't think I was more than ten or eleven when I started to realise they might not be factual. The pictures of Jesus travelling vertically upwards, like a slow-mo human rocket, seemed silly, and ever since then I was content to take all that as metaphor, without really worrying my head about it.
But since I got interested in parapsychology I've had to rather modify that view. True, it's not hard to think of claims such as turning water into wine and walking on water as post-hoc imaginings - I'm not familiar with any credible claims of that kind in séance literature, for instance. But the Resurrection is a bit different. Whatever you think about claims of materialising mediums, it can't be denied that a great many people over the past one hundred and fifty years have believed themselves to be briefly reunited with a dead family member, apparently in fully flesh and blood form, that they could touch and embrace. As I mentioned when discussing Helen Duncan (Feb 29) the claims are sometimes very detailed and categorical, and curiously hard to account for. A lot of people have also been convinced by apparitions, although these seem less physical and so perhaps only indirectly relevant.
Without going so far as to make a detailed case for the Resurrection as a common-or-garden parapsychological event, I wonder whether this, and perhaps some of the other Biblical miracles, are actually the imaginative myth-making that is widely assumed - by many Christians as well as atheists. What interests me is the way the modern mind refashions something it can't accept - a 'category mistake', as Horan says. This speculative reframing - 'as they reminisced, possibly over many months...' - is typical of how sceptics explain away apparitional experiences, for instance, as a combination of faulty memory and imagination, which on close examination doesn't really work (I'll come back to that another time).
Of course the first Christians lived so long ago we can speculate all we like - they aren't here to contradict us. The fact that they belonged to a pre-scientific age means we can consider them prey to all kinds of imaginings. But it's not quite as easy when people living today, or at least quite recently, make claims every bit as extraordinary as anything in the Bible.
This makes me stop and think. I've always understood that it was precisely those miraculous occurrences that launched Christianity in the first place - that people took Jesus's teachings seriously because his doings made him seem literally superhuman, validating his claim to be an emissary of God. It's startling to think that two thousand years later, paranormal claims that the world tends to regard as unexplained 'miracles' again challenge us to rethink our beliefs about our situation.