Miracles in Western Culture

Robert Bruce Mullin’s book Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination leads the reader through a fascinating tour of recent history, narrating the ways Western culture has wrestled with the idea of miracles. Here are two quotes from the beginning and end of the book that merit reflection:

Third (and most tentatively), this study suggests that this debate over the miraculous may be one of the principle divisions in religious thought since the mid 1850s, replacing the traditional Protestant-Catholic tension. Many students of late-nineteenth-century religion have noted that something important transpired during these years that altered the religious landscape in a profound way. Within the study of American Protestantism, a split between conservative and liberal–often defined by differences over the authority and inspiration of scripture–usually has been assumed. Indeed when I began this study I took for granted the conservative-liberal model. But I have become convinced that the debate over the miraculous and the spectrum of attitudes outlined in chapter 7 were far more important in transforming religious life than the issue of scripture per se. Finally, as I suggest in the epilogue, this pattern of responses may also help us to make sense of the religious discussion of the late twentieth century, where the issue of the miraculous has reappeared. 3

Second, not only has the debate over the miraculous emerged, but the four views of the interrelationship of biblical signs and wonders and modern signs and wonders… have also resurfaced. As one recalls, these four positions were (1) that the concept of miracle should be abandoned, (2) that miracles occurred during a “limited age,” (3) that “miracles” are important and occur in all ages, and one must use the understanding of the modern spiritual wonders to properly interpret the nature of biblical miracles, and (4) that miracles are common to both biblical times and the present day but one must use the biblical miracles to understand the modern wonders. Over the last few decades each position has found its supporters. Once again “progressive” clergy are calling for an abandonment of the category of the miraculous and are reinterpreting the great gospel miracles, whereas some conservative Protestants continue to maintain the cessationist position. But what seems to characterize the present religious world is the tremendous growth in popularity of positions three and four. Most modern advocates of miracles can be seen as dividing along these two positions. Thus whereas advocates of New Age healing attempt to interpret the healings of Jesus in light of their distinctive metaphysic, individuals like John Wimber and other advocates of sign ministry continue to emphasize the relevancy of biblical categories for the present. 264-265