Shortly after he was elected the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson began a project that was to consume much of his leisure time in later life. Working after hours in the White House, Jefferson clipped and pasted from the New Testament those passages he deemed most likely to yield the "philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." As best he could make out, Jesus was "a man, of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, [and an] enthusiastic mind who set out without pretensions of divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law." Nonetheless, Jefferson much admired Jesus as a teacher of moral principles and hoped to distill them by "abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John], and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill."
The Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, published posthumously in 1904 by the U.S. Congress, is interesting now mainly for what it leaves out. All of Jesus' miracles are omitted. So are the narratives of his miraculous birth and the greatest miracle of all, his resurrection from the dead. There is, in short, nothing to suggest that Jesus was anything more than a teacher of morals that -- to Jefferson's mind -- were both noble and self-evident to those who (like himself) could separate the wheat of common sense from the chaff of superstition.
Jefferson was deist, a luminary of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment who imagined God to be as reasonable and rational as the laws that govern the visible universe. His abridgment of the gospels was just as tidy. In reducing Jesus to a teacher of morals, Jefferson purged the gospels of nearly half their text. But in editing out the miracles and other gospel stories, Jefferson also made Jesus into a self-deluded prophet, albeit "the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His country." From his abridgment it was impossible to know why any Christian would give up his own life rather than deny faith in Jesus. Nor was it clear why anyone would bother with him eighteen centuries later; whatever moral principles Jefferson's Jesus taught had become not only "common sense" but also, by then, commonplace.
Had Jefferson gone on to excise from the Old Testament all the verses where God or His prophets work miracles, readers would lose all sense of the Bible as sacred history. They would never understand why and how God came to be thought of as the deliverer of His people, or why the Israelites came to see themselves as divinely chosen.
The Book of Miracles focuses precisely on the kinds of stories that Jefferson left out. Miracles -- and miracle workers -- are found in all the major world religions. My contention is that without some knowledge of such stories and what they mean, no religion can be fully appreciated or understood. In these pages, it is the uncommon that is pursued as a way of discovering how each religion discloses the meaning and the power of the transcendent within the world of time and space.
Here, then, for the first time in a single volume, the reader will find classic miracle stories from Hinduism and Buddhism alongside those from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here the reader will revisit Moses as he divides the waters so that the Israelites might escape Egypt for the Promised Land. Here Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The Prophet Muhammad miraculously produces food and water in the desert and blinds an opposing army with a handful of dust. Krishna lifts a mountain and thereby saves a village. The Buddha dazzles his kinfolk by rising in the air, dividing his body into pieces, and then rejoining them.
Also for the first time, I have brought together miracle stories of the great saints, sages, and spiritual masters revered in each tradition. Among them we will meet Talmudic wonder-workers like Hanina ben Dosa and Hasidic masters like the Baal Shem Tov; the early Christian hermit Saint Antony and Saint Francis, who bore the wounds of Christ; the early Sufi mystics, the Muslim female ascetic Rabi'a al-Adawiyya, and the martyr al-Hallaj; the classic Hindu saints like Shankara, Caitanya, and Mira Bai; and Buddhist saints from the earliest of the Buddha's disciples, like Moggallana, to the Tantric master Padmasambhava. The figures I have selected show us how miracles continued to accompany the spread of each religion. In this way, the saints themselves become figures in whom the Other that is God (or in Buddhism, the truth that is the Dharma) breaks through the mundane world, saturating it with meaning. Put another way, miracles disclose the whole of reality to those who can see only a part.
But The Book of Miracles is not another anthology. Anthologists collect texts by removing them from the contexts in which they find their meaning. This is questionable enough when what is being anthologized is isolated sayings, or sound-bite wisdom of the spiritually advanced. But miracles are by definition stories that make sense only within larger narratives. What I offer here is a guide to miracles as they unfold within the sacred scriptures of each tradition and are amplified in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters. My aim has been to show how those stories function within each tradition and what they reveal about those who perform them.
For example, when the Buddha walks on water, that story discloses to a Buddhist (or should) something quite different from what a Christian sees (or should) in the similar story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. But when the apostle Peter raises a dead man to life, his miracle echoes not only what Jesus did, but also what the prophet Elijah did several centuries before. And when the Prophet Muhammad ascends to heaven, it is both like the Ascension of Jesus and something very different. In other words, to understand the meaning of a miracle, one must know the tradition out of which it comes. One must also know what earlier tradition is being challenged or superseded. Thus, to read a miracle story literally is -- inevitably -- to miss the point. To ignore the literal meaning, however, is to fail to understand why the miracle story was told in the first place. Why should a story told of Jesus or the Buddha be less complicated than a story by Kafka or Joyce?
On the other hand, the reader might well ask why he should bother with religions not his own. The answer, I suggest, is because we must. We live in an age of convergence. In small towns now as well as urban centers, mosques and shrines and ashrams appear where once only churches and synagogues could be seen. The people Christian missionaries once went abroad to convert are now their children's playmates in the school yard back home. Diversity, in other words, has moved well beyond the categories of race, class, and gender to include the richer, more challenging, and more comprehensive category of religion. Religions are powerful symbol systems that define reality for those who live in their embrace. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus all share the same experiences; what makes them differ one from the other is the insight into the meaning of those experiences. We cannot afford ignorance of what our next-door neighbors, or even the Bombay sales manager just an E-mail away, may believe about the nature and destiny of humankind.
Moreover, in an age of convergence, it is not at all surprising that we see the young embarking on a spiritual search. But the search is almost never confined within a single tradition. On the contrary, one often finds within the classroom setting, where searches by the young typically begin, a presumption that all religions are at bottom (or alternatively, at top) essentially the same: the same basic morality, the same perennial wisdom, or the same higher consciousness packaged under different labels. If you are dissatisfied with the package you inherited, just migrate.
In some ways, all religions are the same, though not in the ways that the young assume when they take spiritual flight. All religions have saints. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus no less than Christians venerate relics. Only Jews do not; nor do they, like others, venerate images. But all religions do have martyrs. And in all religions (save, again, Judaism) saints are far more likely to be celibates who renounce marriage and family life.
Imagine, then, a Jew bent on leaving a demanding Hebrew God behind, only to find more than one avenging deity in Hinduism. Imagine a Christian who is looking for a religion without the threat of hell discovering that Buddhism has five or six of them. Imagine a Hindu who admires the soothing, therapeutic Jesus now offered in many Christian venues discovering a Christ who demands of his disciples that they follow him to the cross. The integrity of religions is violated, therefore, when they are not presented entire. An engagement with miracles in other religions is one way to discover how different religions really are. Because they speak of the uncommon, miracle stories are sharp reminders that to move from one religious world to another is to cross real boundaries. As Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, has reminded me -- and others -- so often, sympathetic understanding of another religion is important for the peoples of the planet. Indeed, serious engagement with another religion is the best way to discover the uniqueness of one's own. But to call one's self a Buddhist Christian (or, for that matter, a Hindu Jew), says the Dalai Lama, is like putting "a yak's head on a sheep's body."
The Book of Miracles is addressed to two audiences: those who believe in miracles and those who don't. Opinion polls routinely show that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and nearly as many (82 percent) believe that "even today, God continues to work miracles." At first glance, this is no surprise. Eight out of ten Americans also identify themselves as Christians, and of all the world religions, Christianity is the one that has most stressed miracles. (Hinduism, however, has more "living saints," and therefore more miracle workers.) But two-thirds of U.S. Christians identify themselves as Protestants, and since the Reformation, Protestant tradition has denied that any miracles have occurred since those of Jesus' apostles recorded in the book of Acts. Among liberal theologians, however, even the Biblical miracles have long been dismissed as pious fictions. Seventy years ago German theologian Rudolph Bultmann spoke for most Protestant "demythologizers" of the Bible when he declared: "It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of...miracles."
Skepticism, of course, is the air that academics breathe, some more heavily than others. But outside academic subcultures American religion has always emphasized personal experience. "Born-again" Christians, especially, have stressed the experience of God acting in and on their lives. What they mean by miracles, apart from personal promptings of the Holy Spirit, the polls do not tell us. Nor do they tell us much about the God that believers believe in. New Age religions, to cite another current phenomenon, are notoriously profuse in the number of available higher beings and powers to call upon. In his last book, The Demon-Haunted World, the late cosmologist Carl Sagan took note of polls showing that most Americans believe the earth has been visited by aliens. America in the middle 1990s, he felt, was living in a new Dark Age of pseudoscience and superstition -- thereby proving G. K. Chesterton's axiom that when people stop believing in God, they begin to believe in everything. The book market's most popular volumes on miracles contain testimonials from people who see the miraculous where others might well see coincidence or chance. And if some books that sell in the millions are to be believed, angels are more apt to respond to prayer for help than God. Almost anything, it would appear, can be called a miracle.
If many believers are merely credulous, many nonbelievers are merely consistent. Since there is no God, so the argument runs, there are no miracles. If, as sometimes happens, medical science is presented with a complete, instantaneous, and scientifically inexplicable cure (see chapter 11, "Modern Miracles and Their Stories," for examples), the skeptic has a ready if dogmatic answer: what is inexplicable now will someday be understood because there can be no such thing as a miracle. In this respect, the contemporary culture of disbelief is not much different from that of the eighteenth-century deists. To the deists, God as Creator was tolerable so long as He was also willing to leave well enough alone. "It is impossible that the infinitely wise Being has made laws in order to violate them," Voltaire wrote in his Philosophic Dictionary. "He has made this machine [of the universe] as good as he could."
Voltaire imagined God from the regularity he saw in the universe. Contemporary science, however, offers very different descriptions of how the universe works. Observable laws still operate, but they are activated by chance. Thus, in the emerging picture offered by contemporary science there is a dynamic of structured randomness both in the activity of subatomic particles and in the macro world of evolving stars and planets. In evolutionary perspective, the world appears to be self-creating. It may be a purposeless process, in which case the emergence of human beings is a fortuitous accident. Or it may have purpose, rooted in a Divine Intelligence Who fashioned human beings for Himself. In any case, science no longer corresponds to anyone's common sense. Whether there is room in such an evolving universe for God -- and therefore the kinds of divine action assumed by miracles -- is a legitimate, even pressing issue, which contemporary philosophers, theologians, and scientists are pursuing with considerable intellectual vigor.
This is not the place, nor is it my intention, to argue the existence of God, or of gods, or of miracles. Belief in miracles, in any event, has never been a substitute for religious faith. But it is the place to remind readers that the great face-off between science and religion is a relic of nineteenth-century Western culture. Today, many scientists are also people of religious faith, and some theologians are also scientists. No science, of course, can proceed in any calculation or experiment with God as a factor and still claim to be a science. Saints, on the other hand, may, and often do, "experiment with God" as Gandhi experimented with "truth." This presupposes a God who is neither withdrawn from His creation nor uninterested in how it turns out. Indeed, in an evolutionary world where everything is related to everything else, it is not hard to imagine a God who, in Himself, is relationship.
The central premise of this book is that miracles are best understood through stories. Approaching them through definitions, I've discovered, is not much help. For example, it is often said that a miracle is something that violates the laws of nature. But "nature" and its "laws" are slippery concepts. As I have already indicated, nature as a self-contained reality that operates according to its own inherent and inviolable laws is a very recent and Western idea, one that is foreign to the cultures from which the stories collected here are taken. In the Biblical view, for instance, the world is God's creation and it is His presence and power that sustain the world in its existence. The laws that matter are not laws of nature but those that God reveals for the good of humankind. Biblical miracles, therefore, are extraordinary acts of God -- "signs and wonders" -- by which God reveals His power and His will for His people. Much the same view prevailed in the medieval West. As Augustine put it at the dawn of the Middle Ages: "It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles as well as the minor marvels I have mentioned, and he has included them all in that unique wonder, that miracle of miracles, the world itself."
Nature as a closed system of laws has never been an Indian view, either. Indian religions take it for granted that gods or other unseen beings can and do affect the world as it is ordinarily experienced. In the Indian scheme of things, the invisible world is at least as real as the visible. Moreover, Indian spirituality and philosophy both move in directions in which, for Buddhists especially, the physical world approaches the status of nonexistence. In some traditional forms of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and practice, full spiritual realization requires the literal denaturing of ordinary human existence. For Buddhists, especially, all that is is impermanent and, to that extent, unreal relative to what is permanent. If there is a natural law in Indian religion, it is karma, the law by which what our mind holds on to -- what we have thought and loved -- determines our next rebirth. To gain liberation from all attachments, therefore, is to realize our true nature.
If, however, we begin with stories (as all religions do), we find that miracles tend to define themselves. That is, a miracle is usually an act or event that in some way repeats or echoes previous miracles within the same tradition. The Buddha's disciples repeat the miracles of the master as they progress along the path to enlightenment. Muslim mystics imitate the mystical path traced by the Prophet Muhammad. Krishna's miracles not only echo previous stories of the gods but also establish in his devotees the ability to replicate the experience of Krishna by, in some cases, becoming Krishna himself. When the Hebrew prophet Elisha picks up the mantle of his predecessor, Elijah, the power to work miracles passes with it. The apostles of Jesus, as we have already seen, perform miracles like Jesus, but they do so in his name and through the power of the same Holy Spirit.
In short, what constitutes a miracle within each religious tradition is defined to a great extent by the tradition itself. That is why I have followed each chapter on the foundational miracles in each tradition by a chapter on the miracles of the great saints, sages, and spiritual masters. In this way, we can see how miracles themselves become signs of the continuing power and presence of God in this world (for Jews, Christians, and Muslims), of the continuing power of the diverse gods and goddesses (in Hinduism), and of the continuing power of the Dharma, or teachings, of the Buddha -- and in some Buddhist traditions, of the enduring presence of the Buddha himself.
The miracles of the saints also help us see something else. There is within each religion a history of the miraculous. As Buddhism develops into different schools or sects, miracles take a different form or prominence. In the religions of what we call Hinduism the miracles of Shiva's followers are different from those of Krishna's devotees. In the course of the Hebrew Bible, miracles move from those worked by God directly to those worked by his prophets to the disappearance of miracles altogether. In the course of the Middle Ages, Christian miracles shift (though not completely) from those worked by living saints to those worked through their relics after death. In some cases, the scriptures themselves have the power to transform those who study them: the Torah, for example, in Rabbinic Judaism, the Qur'an in Islam, and the Lotus Sutra in Buddhism.
Although miracles are found in all five major world religions, miracles are never to be sought or performed for their own sakes. The Buddha, in particular, is quite explicit on this point. He knows well that with spiritual discipline (asceticism and meditation) a monk can eventually fly in the air, make his body invisible to others, and otherwise manifest the miraculous powers (called siddhi) that accompany advancement toward liberation from the cycle of rebirth. But he forbids his monks from exhibiting these powers before the laity. To do so is a manifestation of vanity and therefore a sign of retrogression in the struggle to achieve liberation from attachments to a spurious self.
The Hebrew Bible is equally wary of miracles. Because miracles always manifest power, and because that power can come from evil as well as divine sources, miracles alone are never to be trusted. The book of Deuteronomy warns that miracles mean nothing if the miracle worker's intent is to lead the people away from observance of the Torah. Obedience to God and His commandments is more important than signs and wonders. In the New Testament, the miracles of Jesus are almost always performed in response to manifestations of faith in him, or designed to elicit that faith. Because faith is more important than miracles, Jesus tells his disciples, "Blessed are they who have not seen [the miracles his disciples have witnessed] yet believe." In the Qur'an, the Prophet Muhammad rejects every request to work miracles, saying that the Qur'an is itself a miracle and the only one Muslims need. It is only in the ahadith, or oral traditions of the Prophet's life, that we find the miracle stories of Muhammad.
In all the sacred scriptures of the five major world religions there are also contest stories, in which miracle workers from one religion compete with counterparts from another. Moses and his brother Aaron compete with the magicians employed by the pharaoh of Egypt. The Buddha competes with wonder-workers representing the Brahmin tradition that he has rejected. In the stories of the Indian saints, Hindu wonder-workers best those who are Buddhist, just as in Buddhist lore the Hindus are defeated. Here we see the miracle story put to polemical use -- proof of the axiom that "in polemical writing, your magic is my miracle, and vice versa." The distinction between miracle and magic, as we will see, is crucial in the religions of the Bible -- although even there the line between the two is often blurred in certain stories. In Biblical perspective, magic is seen as the manipulation of nature -- which is God's creation -- and therefore counterfeit, while a miracle is a sign of divine authority and power, and therefore legitimate. And the arch counterfeiter of them all, of course, is Satan. Thus, those who oppose Jesus accuse him of working miracles by Satan's power. Conversely, the miracles of Jesus and, later, his apostles and saints are read in part as signs of the victory of the Kingdom of God over Satan as the "prince of this world."
In the religions of India, history itself is the story of repeated conflicts between good and evil. Periodically the gods take human form to rescue the world from chaos -- the ultimate form of evil. The miracles they work are signs of both their divine identity and their claim to exclusive worship. But in the saints of India, the power to work miracles is also understood to be innate in everyone, like bottled divinity that the saint learns to decant through rigorous spiritual discipline. In the miracles of the Buddha, especially, the gods themselves discover their limits as still-unliberated beings. But even the Buddha must endure the onslaughts of Mara, who resembles Satan in that he is the prince of the illusions (and attachments) that bedevil the unenlightened. In short, if we begin to think of morality not as a tissue of ethical principles as Jefferson did, but as a contest between the powers of good and evil in ourselves (which modern readers may readily understand) and in the world (which many may not), we can begin to see how some miracles, at least, find their meaning and moral resonance.
Miracle stories, it should be clear by now, are not case histories. By their very nature they resist the commonsense rules of cause and effect assumed since the eighteenth century, when the writing of history as we now understand that term began. We now know that the writing of history has taken many forms, and throughout I have relied on the work of contemporary scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of ancient and medieval texts.
Rather than ask, did it really happen?, The Book of Miracles invites a different question: what does it mean? The first question requires the kinds of materials -- letters, diaries, and other contemporaneous records -- that are absent in the literature of miracles. Most of the stories here come to us through oral traditions written down many centuries later. Moses is a figure (scholars believe) of the thirteenth century B.C.E. The Buddha lived five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the stories of Krishna were developed over a millennium before they achieved the forms in which they appear in this book. In every case, we are dealing with the literature of sacred biography, a genre in which the central figure cannot be separated from what others thought him or her to be. In the case of the Buddha, his teachings preceded the first biography known to us by half a millennium. By comparison, the gospels were all written within a few decades of the death of Jesus. Yet the effort to separate the "historical Jesus" from the New Testament accounts have, after 150 years of scholarly effort, yielded more sensational headlines than solid history. In short, the figures presented here are all historical, but they elude the usual conventions of modern historiography.
Moreover, the forms that sacred biography takes include myths and legends, which must be reckoned with on their own terms. Myths create worlds and give meaning to time and all that takes place within it. They "do not, strictly speaking, have meanings; they provide contexts in which meaning occurs." The lives of the saints, too, are indistinguishable from the literary and other conventions of those sacred biographers who wrote them. These hagiographers had purposes in mind other than those of modern biographers. But with those purposes in their minds, contemporary scholars are able to say much more about the saints, especially the Christian variety, than their Enlightenment predecessors dared conceive. In some cases, what we have is obviously legend. But even legend has its historical uses: as one of the best scholars of Christian hagiography once put it, "legend is the homage that the Christian community pays to its patron saints."
But when the question put to miracles is, what does it mean?, even the most familiar and apparently straightforward stories may suddenly become new and strange. It is the nature of scriptures that they continue to provide meaning for those who hold them sacred. What I have tried to capture in each case is the meaning of the miracle story in relation to its own tradition. In this way, each story provides an entry into a narrative world that is not the reader's own.
Obviously, a library of books would be needed to record and analyze all the miracles of the five major world religions. For this single volume I have had to make choices. In making those choices, I have tried to adhere to certain rules, and departed from them only when I felt the needs of readers required that I do so.
First, I have selected stories that are both interesting and considered classic, or foundational, within each tradition. However, I have not hesitated to include miracle stories from the margins in order to make a larger point. Selecting miracle stories from the Hindus was especially difficult since Hinduism is not one religion but a family of religions. Selecting miracles of the Christian saints was also difficult because, like Indian religion, Christianity has produced so many saints.
Second, I have tried to present these stories from the perspective of each tradition. Where there are differences of viewpoint within a tradition -- as there usually are -- I have attempted, space allowing, to indicate those differences. In the main, however, I have assumed that many contemporary believers do not know completely what is in their own tradition, much less religions not their own. I have kept the general reader in mind and provided endnotes for those who want more detailed information.
Third, only miracles attributed to human beings are included. Thus I have excluded stories in which God or the gods act directly. But I have included the miracles of the Hindu gods when they take human form as avatars since they are presumed by most traditional Hindus to have been historical personages. However, since most Western readers are unfamiliar with Indian religion, I have included creation myths by way of background.
Fourth, I have tried to limit my selection to stories that in principle were witnessed by others. Therefore, I have excluded the Resurrection of Jesus, which no one witnessed, and which is in any case not a miracle that Jesus himself worked. I have, however, included the Buddha's experience of enlightenment under the bodhi tree, which no one witnessed, because I cannot presume most readers are familiar with this story that is so essential to the understanding of Buddhism. An enlightened Buddhist, after all, can become a Buddha, but even the holiest Christian cannot become Christ.
Looking back, I can see that my own process of selection has produced a working definition of miracles. For those who like definitions, here it is:
A miracle is an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.
That covers the field. But it does not begin to explain how, to the imaginatively adventurous, miracle stories can change the way we see the world.
Copyright © 2000 by Kenneth L. Woodward
The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam
The Book of Miracles
The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam
- Simon & Schuster |
- 432 pages |
- ISBN 9780743200295 |
- July 2001