Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World

Reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments exist on both sides of the God equation

NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.

There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.

I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance on scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.

Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency. Deism kept God in the picture, but relegated Him to bystander status.

Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.

The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).

Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time, matter and energy (whatever that is). They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality. They assume, therefore, that nothing exists that cannot be explained by science.

In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.

Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things is an unknown merely awaiting a natural explanation.

Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen.

This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We stopped looking for God because we saw order in nature and that God is of no consequence to the study of natural laws. from a determination that God is aloof it’s a short walk to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws, which we now view as random colocations of molecules.

Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, and that is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.

The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.

Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.

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On the Intersection of Differences and Unity in the Body of Christ

Esau McCaulley interviewed NT Wright on his Disrupters podcast last year.  NT Wright is a British New Testament scholar of some renown who became McCauley’s mentor t St. Andrew’s. McCaulley is an African American raised a Southern Baptist in the deep south.

McCaulley made a comment after the interview that prompts my writing today. He said, “I feel like I am a mix of a bunch of things. I have this kind of British, evangelical side, and I have this kind of African American church side, and strangely they have coalesced in ways I didn’t expect.”

I think about how interesting and rich the conversation was between NT Wright and Esau McCaulley. The fact that they come from disparate and diverse backgrounds permeates the discussion as they explore the things that unite them.

Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar in his own right, now, because of the influence of NT Wright. He has written one book on Galatians, and he is now writing a second. McCauley also became an Anglican, but his heritage and unique experience, personally and communally, as a black man in America remains central to his identity.

I think about the church in the United States and the global Church. I recently heard someone note an unfortunate, unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Reformation and the great movement to translate the Bible into common languages so that all people can read the Bible in their own tongues. That consequence was the fragmentation of the Church.

First, it fragmented into groups of people who spoke English, French, and other European languages. Over time, the fragmentation rippled out so that today in America we can find Spanish-speaking, Filipino-speaking, and other linguistic, ethnic and cultural huddles of believers that keep largely to themselves based on language, heritage, doctrine, the format for worship and other things.

The Reformation splintered into many “protestant” groups, and that fragmentation exploded into the New World where Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others splintered apart from each other into various and distinct groups, and many more new denominations sprung up. The fragmentation continued along cultural, doctrinal, ethnic, ritualistic, racial, governmental, and other lines.

Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident in the world than in the United States. In fact, statistics that show that churches in the United States are more segregated than the rest of the country (which is still pretty segregated).

The intersectionality (to use a very loaded term) of the disparate backgrounds, experiences and heritage of NT Wright and Esau McCaulley, and their ongoing relationship remind me of the need for unity in the Church. We need to come together. We need each other.

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On Working to Establish a Biblical Orientation on Issues of Race

Christianity transcends all the natural barriers to human relationships.

Although the dust has settled (somewhat) on racial tensions since the maelstrom that was kicked up in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota, no one should think that the issue has been settled or will go away without some resolution. The country, including the church community, is divided on the facts, and issues, and measures that should be employed to resolve the racial tension. Even people of good will are uncertain on how to move forward.

A predominant worldview has emerged in academia that is filtering down into local communities that frames the issue and potential resolution in terms of oppression. This worldview divides the world into the oppressed and their oppressors. The people who hold to that narrative are aggressively pushing for change.

They push the people they are define as the oppressors in the racial tension. The people defined as the oppressors are white and predominantly “Christian” in name (at least). As with the laws of nature, so with the laws of natural human tendencies: when someone pushes, people being pushed naturally push back.

So it is today that the predominantly white, Evangelical Church in the United States is feeling the pressure of the desire and demand for change to address the racial disparities and tensions in our world, and we are tempted to reflexively push back against that pressure.

But how should we respond?

I have written on the differences between Critical Race Theory and biblical justice. We should recognize that the worldview based on the CRT framework is not biblical, though many of our brethren of color and more progressive white Christians have embraced it.

I submit, though, that CRT has come to prominence in the African American churches and among progressive white churches because the Church, generally, has left a vacuum, and “nature abhors a vacuum”. We have failed to recognize and address in a biblical way the deep and lasting pain of racism that continues to exist in a society that only recognized equal rights for African Americans in my lifetime.

The failure of the Church to address racial issues left room for a completely secular and unbiblical approach to sweep in. So, other than acknowledge our failure, what do we do now?

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God’s Plan for Unity from Diversity

God’s end game is a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.


I have been thinking quite a bit about diversity and the Church (universal, the body of Christ) lately. NT Wright commented recently that a modern secularist might believe that the church is catching up to the issue of racism following a largely secular cry for attention, but the truth is different from what it appears.

When asked about the church’s response to issues of race, Wright commented that God has always had a plan for the diversity of His creation. The comment got me thinking in what ways it might be true.

In fact, if we “read ahead” in the story, we see John’s great vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” standing before God. (Rev. 7:9)

If this is the end game, where do we find evidence of the plan of God to gather that multitude from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages to Himself?

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Jesus Wept with Mary, Though He Knew the Joy to Come

We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.


NT Wright commented to Justin Brierley in the 39th episode of Ask NT Wright Anything, “We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.”

Jesus was able to identify with and feel the crushing sorrow and the intense grief that the family and friends of Lazarus felt. When Jesus saw Mary, the sister of Lazarus weeping, he wept too. (John 11:32-33) Jesus felt her grief, and it moved him to tears.

Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, of course, reveals his humanity, his empathy and the fact that he felt the range of human emotions that we feel in our own lives. Imagine God taking on our form and experiencing what we experience!

The most remarkable aspect of this story, for me, is that Jesus felt the grief of the loss of a loved one and was moved to tears even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with grief though he know that joy would follow the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

In this way, we see that God doesn’t minimize our grief and suffering. He is able to identify with it because he felt the crush of it as we feel it.

He felt the crush of human grief even though he knew the miracle he was about to perform.

Perhaps, Jesus was weeping for all the people who feel grief without assurance or confidence or hope. Surely, Jesus had more than merely hope. He knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he also realized that his friends, the friends and family of Lazarus, didn’t know or appreciate what he was about to do.

Even though Jesus told the friends of Lazarus that he was doing “to wake him up” (John 11:11), and he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” they didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Jesus was saying. (John 11:23) They didn’t feel the assurance or confidence or hope that Jesus had.

I imagine Jesus also thought in those moments of all the people in the world who mourn without assurance, confidence or hope in the face of death. This is the human condition, and Jesus fully embraced it. He fully felt the weight of it, and it caused him to weep with them.

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