Reading John 6.1-21
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
After the events of 5th May – the date of the general election, just in case you’ve forgotten already – the Liberal Democrats only have 8 MPs but even so the election last week of Tim Farron as their leader did manage to make the headlines.
On the BBC I heard some political commentator making what I thought was a rather snooty comment about Mr Farron ‘consulting’ God as to whether he should stand for the leadership of his party. Mr Farron is a Christian.
It was that use of the word of the word ‘consulting’ that slightly irked me. It was as if this BBC person couldn’t conceive of God as being anything more than a kind of dodgy political advisor.
In an interview the next day with John Humphries I heard Mr Farron say that he had prayed for wisdom. Mr Humphries seemed to think that even that was a bit odd.
Well, I presume, I hope, that most of us here today have prayed for wisdom, or for strength, or for inspiration, or for a loving heart – and I presume, I hope, that most of us have – at least sometimes – felt guided, strengthened, inspired, given a more loving heart. I hope we have felt that our prayer has evoked a discernable response from that divine reality to which we made our supplication.
But can we call this altering of our internal state of being a miracle? Well, it does seem to show God interacting with the world and in some real but intangible way changing the course of events within it. So, in a way, I think this kind of influence exerted by God can certainly be called miraculous but it’s not perhaps what we normally think of as a miracle.
Now, it’s not clear to me who the mysterious body of people are who choose our readings on a Sunday morning – or indeed why they choose the passages they do. Today our gospel reading was a bumper issue. Not content with the feeding of the five thousand – and I bet you thought we were going to finish there – they also gave us Jesus walking on water.
To use an entirely inappropriate analogy, it never rains but it pours. The feeding of the five thousand, walking on water, these are the sort of things we normally think of as miracles – as well as healings of course. Jesus was the great healer.
It is common in certain circles to scoff at the possibility that miracles can happen – as if mere ridicule constituted some sort of argument. Sometimes you find a similar attitude even among Christians. Years ago there was a famous biblical scholar called Rudolf Bultmann. He was pretty sceptical – excessively so – about the historicity of the gospels. He had this to say: ‘It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles’.
Nowadays, he might have said: ‘It’s impossible to use the internet and the mobile phone or to send a spacecraft to the dwarf-planet Pluto – and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles’.
I’ll leave aside the mention of the word ‘spirits’. That’s another sermon altogether. We’re thinking here specifically about miracles. Now, look at those words of Professor Bultmann’s as carefully as it’s possible to look, and I don’t think you’ll be able to detect anything approaching a reasoned argument. What precisely is it that makes it impossible to listen to the wireless and also to believe in miracles?
Bultmann doesn’t tell us. There’s a hint, I think, of intellectual snobbery on the lines of ‘no modern, sophisticated person could possibly believe in miracles’. He most certainly doesn’t want to be taken for a benighted soul in the grip of some primitive superstition.
More specifically, I would guess that his view is based on a particular assumption, which he takes for granted that any educated person must share. And the assumption is this: the world, the universe, is a closed, self-sustaining system that obeys the laws of nature, and God cannot and does not intervene.
He almost seems to be saying that human beings have exercised immense ingenuity in discovering the laws of nature and, by George, we’re not going to throw all that away by returning to the dark ages.
An understandable way of thinking perhaps but not one, I would suggest, based on rational thought. Bultmann doesn’t cease to believe in God but he keeps nature and God in two separate compartments. He is very much influenced by the secular outlook called naturalism.
Naturalism is the idea that matter and energy in their various manifestations are all there is, was or ever will be. There’s no room for God or anything like God. And by definition there can be no room for miracles or anything like miracles. By believing in miracles you would implicitly be conceding that God – or something like God – exists.
Naturalism is quite a commonly held belief in Western societies and tends to think – erroneously, in my view – that modern science is on its side. It is sometimes said that science has disproved the possibility of miracles taking place. It’s certainly true that science can give a natural explanation for some events that may previously have been regarded as miraculous.
But miracles are by definition infrequent, unique, unpredictable and unrepeatable. Science deals with that which is regular and repeatable. It doesn’t seem to me that science could even in theory prove that they never happen. To do that you need to make the entirely unprovable assumption that naturalism is true and then completely disregard even the most compelling evidence for an apparently miraculous event.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he found himself before God on Judgment Day and God said to him, “Why didn’t you believe in me?” Russell replied: “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!”
Many people assume naturalism is true because they see no evidence for God in the world around us. Of course, it depends what you mean by evidence. We don’t see or hear or touch God but it seems to me that there are plenty of what we might call indicators in the world that point to the existence of God.
But even if there were no such indicators – which I would strongly dispute – it wouldn’t mean that naturalism was true. Naturalism is an assumption, not a scientific belief. It’s logically possible that naturalism is bang on the nail right. It’s just that there’s absolutely no way to demonstrate it.
All this doesn’t mean that belief in God is a scientific belief. That isn’t how it works. As God is beyond nature, belief in God is beyond science, but it’s certainly not contrary to science.
The spirit of naturalism is so widespread that it probably infects us all to some extent. It is a very prevalent mindset in our society but it’s important to realise how little solid justification it has. In fact, it has no solid justification at all.
I speak as someone who has a naturally sceptical cast of mind. But the reports of miracles – today and in the past – are so numerous, so widespread and in some cases so well documented that I am driven to the conclusion that, very probably, miracles do happen. I can see no rational reason to deny it. If miracles happen, they happen. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s not up to us to lay down some doctrinaire rule based on a shaky assumption. We should go where the evidence takes us.