Let’s think about how we believe. No, not “what we believe” or “why we believe it.” How we believe is what I want to discuss with you.
Craig Keener visited the Credo House last week. On Friday, he gave a presentation on miracles to a packed house. It was based on his excellent work, titled Miracles. During this presentation, Keener shared the fruit of his research; among other things, he has catalogued what he believes to be legitimate attestable miracles from God that have occurred around the world. In the book and presentation he gave examples and demonstrated how these miracles can and should be believed due to the testimonies and evidence he gathered for each. And the evidence, for many of them, was very compelling . . . or at least it should have been.
I have trouble believing things. So when Keener was sharing his stories, even though I am the one who brought him in to give this presentation, I found them all hard to believe. Why? I don’t know. I am skeptical. I don’t normally believe people, when they tell me this or that about how God intervened in a supernatural way. In the back of my mind, I am patting them on the head saying, “I am glad you believe this and I am not going to do anything to take away from your belief, but I don’t.” Maybe “don’t” is not the best word. It is more that I reserve my right to suspend judgment on this “miracle.”
But in truth, I need to believe more of these miracle stories. There are so many for which I don’t have any other legitimate explanation. For example (and this was not part of Keener’s presentation), J. P. Moreland once told me, when I asked him why God does not heal amputees, a story that is continually in my mind when these kind of things are on the table. He said he once witnessed a guy who was missing an ear (there was just skin where the ear should be) and saw it grow back as people (including Moreland) prayed for him. He said they watched as there was a break in his skin, blood came out, and a slight “ear” formed. What is interesting about this story is that the ear did not grow completely back. When the miracle was over, he just had a hole there, a bit of an ear, and could hear out of it.
This is one story I think I believe. Or, at least, I believe it somewhat.
I suspend belief on “miracle” stories for many reasons. One is that most of the stories I hear are not falsifiable. In other words, they can’t be proven wrong. I think this is convenient for fabrications and misunderstandings. After all, back pain, hurt knees, and short legs are very hard to verify. I am not saying healings do not happen. Perhaps many of these are true and I am missing some information that might give some more substance to my faith. But, seeing as how most of the stories are not falsifiable, I wonder why God would perform so many unsubstantiated (from a verification standpoint) miracles and be so absent (relatively speaking) from miracles that would leave everyone speechless. You know, I am referring to miracles such as raising the dead, healing the blind, and making a paralytic walk. Those are the things we see in the New Testament and, more importantly for me, these are the ones that are hard to deny.
The second reason I suspend belief is because I don’t, in most cases, trust the person telling the story. I don’t know his or her character. I don’t know if they have integrity in this area (not that I am claiming much), I don’t know whether they are critical enough to share these claims. Maybe they just want it to be true so they pass it on (albeit in a more objective sense). It takes awhile for me to trust people, especially when it comes to this stuff. Claims of God’s intervention are too important for me to “just believe.” For me, it is dishonoring to God for me to believe something just because I want it to be true, or because it fits into a worldview I desire to be true. Therefore, I suspend belief because, at least in my mind, I am honoring God. For me to really trust someone takes time. It takes an experience of a person’s honest character, willing to wrestle with weaknesses, able to admit shortcomings. and not believing things just because they fit into a desired framework that makes him feel better.
J. P. Moreland, however, told a story that has all the makings for my belief. Therefore, I think I believe it. The story was certainly not something that was obscure like back pain. As I mentioned earlier, he related how he watched an ear grow back (at least in part). Moreland is no lightweight uncritical scholar. Over the years he has gained my trust, both through personal interaction with him and via his scholarly writings. He has also had the courage to change his theological position on some things that would otherwise be hard to change. Furthermore, the story itself contains an element of embarrassment in that the ear only grew back partially!
So, I think to myself: He is either lying, misunderstood what he saw, or it happened. Assuming I understood the story he told (and I sometimes doubt that), these are the only three conceivable alternatives. The first two are very hard to believe. Therefore, I think I believe the third.
This is the way it is with so many of the stories in Keener’s book. They seem so legit. I think I believe them. I want to believe them.
Then why is my belief so tentative in things like this? If it stands up to scrutiny (which I think it does), why not really believe it? The answer, I believe, comes down to an understanding of how I believe. The what and why are in place. They are defined and strong. But the how is getting in the way of my full commitment here.
Experiences such as these are not and will never be the foundation of my faith (at least I hope). Neither should they be the foundation of yours. However, they do turn a two-dimensional faith into a three-dimensional one. I do want to believe them (at least the ones that legitimately reveal God’s presence in the world). And you should, too. After all, if God is working in miraculous ways in the world today (and I believe he is), we need to be able to rejoice about such actions, even if we never experience them firsthand.
In the next blog post I am going to try to do what I originally intended here and explain more about how we believe.
I suppose, for now, a good question would be this: do you believe the Moreland story? Why or why not?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]