Monday, July 06, 2015

The Inferiority Of Non-Christian Miracles

I recently read The Cambridge Companion To Miracles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), written by a group of almost twenty Christian and non-Christian scholars. There are chapters about miracles in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, along with chapters on other topics related to miracles. It's far from a conservative Christian book, but it often advances the case for Christianity, whether the authors realize it or not.

I've argued in the past that Christianity's system of miracles is superior to competing systems, such as here and here. What I want to do in this post is provide some examples of how the book cited above furthers that case.

In his introduction to the book, Graham Twelftree refers to the "mountain" of literature we have on Christian miracles, including at the scholarly level (2). He contrasts that with the far lesser amount of literature we have on miracles affiliated with other belief systems, including "traditional religions" and "the major religions that arose in the East" (2). He goes on to refer to "Jesus, who has dominated and continues to be important in Western debates about miracle" (3).

Twelftree tells us that "No figure in antiquity has more miracle stories associated with him than Jesus." (5) In a chapter on healing miracles, Niels Christian Hvidt comments that "Healing miracles appear to be the most common form of divine intervention in many religions. This certainly is true for Christianity." (311) The singling out of Christianity is significant. He's writing in such an ecumenical book, in the context of such an ecumenical age and ecumenical academic environment, yet Christianity seems to stand out in his mind when considering healing miracles.

In contrast to Christianity, there's been a lesser reporting of miracles in other religions (e.g., see the comments about Judaism on 5, 9, 103, and 105; comments about ancient paganism on 77, 79, and 83-4). Robert Garland writes that miracles were "a major weapon in the arsenal of Christianity" against polytheism (87). Ancient paganism seems to have made lesser miracle claims than Christianity, and the pagan miracle claims that were made often had significant disadvantages. The alleged miracles were attributed to competing and contradictory pagan gods, for example. Garland notes that the supposed miracles of the holy men who became popular in pagan circles in late antiquity were "largely performed in private" (90). Garland concludes his chapter by commenting that "just as Poseidon had lost out to Athena, so paganism eventually lost out to Christianity, not least because its miracles were deemed inferior in value and usefulness" (90). (See the similar remarks from the non-Christian historian Edward Gibbon cited on 131. Colin Brown refers to how miracles were a "potent factor" in Christianity's growth on 273.) It's worth noting that one of the authors, James Carleton Paget, refers to how ancient Christians performed their miracles "in the name of Jesus" (140), which is relevant to issues of where the miracles came from and exclusivism. (See, also, the discussion of medieval miracles done in the name of Jesus, the Trinity, etc. on 160.) On Christian miracles leading to conversions to Christianity in antiquity, see 238-9. In contrast to the lesser role of miracles in other belief systems, Twelftree (citing another contributor to the book) notes that "the testimony of miracles has never been absent from Christianity" (9).

In a chapter that's often critical of Christianity, Paget notes that ancient Christian miracle claims were often acknowledged as factual by ancient non-Christians, but were attributed to sorcery (138). He claims that there was a "less well attested" argument in antiquity that Christian miracles didn't occur, but the only source he cites to that effect is an unverifiable, dubious reading of a fragment from Quadratus (138). In that fragment, Quadratus refers to how some people healed by Jesus were still alive in his own generation. It's possible that Quadratus made those comments in response to denials that such miracles had occurred. But he also could have made those comments to underscore the evidential nature of Christian miracles, without anybody having denied that Jesus performed such deeds. The evidence for miracles is important regardless of whether anybody is denying their historicity. The Quadratus fragment itself is ambiguous on the matter, and the larger context makes Paget's reading highly unlikely. He goes on to cite some examples of Christian miracles denied by Celsus, but Celsus acknowledged other Christian miracles, as Paget himself notes. So, none of Paget's sources actually denies the historicity of Christian miracles altogether.

Like other treatments of miracles, the book doesn't say much about prophecy. Though "foretelling the future" is mentioned as one of the miracles attributed to Muhammad (7), there's a lack of discussion of Jewish and Christian prophecies, which are far more numerous than Islamic prophecies and supported by far better evidence. See here for our material on prophecy fulfillment in Christianity, which I would argue is superior to what we see in any competing system of prophecy. Paget acknowledges that prophecy played a large role in early Christian argumentation (136). He doesn't discuss the subject much, though. Neither do any of the other authors.

None of the scholars discussing Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam offer anything comparable or superior to the network of Christian miracles documented by Craig Keener in his book on the subject. If there's something comparable or better in one or more of the other major religions of the world, the authors of the book I'm reviewing seem either unaware of it or too unconcerned about it to mention it. Gavin Flood's chapter on Hinduism closes with a section mentioning how "replete" the Hindu literature is with miracle accounts and how there are "many" miracle accounts in Hindu hagiographies and in accounts about gurus (192-5). But the examples cited are often vague or trivial (Krishna dancing with cow girls, a girl being turned into a plant), with nothing cited like the evidence Keener and other Christians offer for many of their Christian miracles, and with no effort made to subject the accounts to the level of scrutiny applied to Christian miracle claims. There are exceptions. For example, Flood cites Sai Baba as "the most famous contemporary guru associated with the miraculous" (194). But the miracles he goes on to mention are largely trivial (making something like a watch or necklace materialize or something like ash or red powder come out of his fingertips). Somewhat more significant miracles are mentioned, like levitation, but Flood goes on to note that "Sai Baba does not appear to perform healing miracles….he has borne the brunt of negative criticism that his 'miracles' are in fact sleight-of-hand and accusations of sexual abuse and even complicity in murder" (195). He refers to "less controversial gurus who are also said to manifest 'miracles' in a less overt way, such as the miracle of transforming life itself. The 'hugging guru' from Kerala, Mata Amritananadamayi Devi sits for long hours simply hugging devotees who line up to receive her blessing and claim to come away transformed." (195) He goes on to refer to people "possessed by deities of local shrines" who "dance through the compound area blessing devotees by being seen, giving darshanam", who sometimes "offer predictions and give advice" (195). Whatever miracles actually occur in Hinduism, and I think there are a lot (though the book being reviewed here doesn't do much to establish that), overall they seem to be of a lower quantity and quality than what we see in Christianity.

In the past, I've argued that although there have been many miracles in Christianity throughout church history, the post-apostolic miracles are in some ways inferior to the miracles of the Biblical era. Along the same lines, Ralph Del Colle's chapter on miracles in Christianity cites Augustine and John Chrysostom making an argument similar to mine (237-8). They refer to ongoing Christian miracles, but the miracles are of a nature that's inferior to Biblical miracles.

It's striking how often the authors go after Christianity and Christian exclusivism (e.g., 11, 294-5). Other religions have their own forms of exclusivism. But the authors seem far more concerned with Christian exclusivism and far more interested in trying to undermine Christianity than trying to undermine other religions. There are chapters that analyze Christian miracle accounts in a lot of detail, often raising objections to them, with a level of scrutiny not applied to any other religion in the book. Contrast Barry Blackburn's analysis of Jesus' miracles on 113-30 with the far less critical treatment of Buddhist miracles by Rupert Gethin on 216-34, for instance. Notice how issues like the authorship and dating of documents and naturalistic explanations of miracle accounts come up far more often when Christianity is discussed than when, say, Hinduism or Islam is under consideration. That's a backhanded compliment. The authors know which belief system poses the biggest threat. And it's apparent, from comments they make throughout the book, that Christianity is such a threat largely for evidential reasons.

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