God, Miracles, and Salvation
This is my last essay of 2020 posted on the last day of 2020. The year will mark an historic changing point in the world. We have a chance to make a lot of that change for the better. This is my idea of what better means.
Throughout my life I have found it more difficult to believe in God than to believe in miracles.
Miracles are everywhere. We don’t notice them because we assume there is a rational explanation and someone, somewhere understands it. This is a form of faith. When we flip a switch and the light comes on, we don’t think twice about it. An electrician installed the wiring, a carpenter built the wall and installed the switch plate, you or I may have installed the light, we all replace light bulbs. It’s commonplace, but none of that is an explanation of how flipping a switch makes light.
Most of us don’t know how. We know that electrical engineers and physicists know how, but if we haven’t studied it ourselves, we don’t know. We just accept. At the deepest levels, even scientists don’t really know how. Their realm is “what”. Their tool is inductive reasoning, which says that if something has happened in a certain way over and over again in the past, we can safely assume it will keep happening that way in the future. They create a model that works the way they observe the world working and use that model to predict what will happen next in the world. That isn’t the same thing as knowing how something happens, or what is happening fundamentally.
This is mundane, though. What about “real” miracles, like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Moses parting the Red Sea? If you have read other of my Pencils essays, you may know that I have a nuanced view of reality. I think that collectively we are constantly learning about, interacting with, reinterpreting, and very slowly but inevitably changing what we call real.
Though I have never seen anything like this other kind of miracle, I can’t rule out its possibility. There is too much mystery in the universe for me to presume to exclude anything. This doesn’t mean I don’t behave according to current rational and scientific principles. I do. They work. If one day they don’t, I will be in the same boat as everyone else. I just won’t be completely surprised. Also, I am confident that new rules will be found to explain the new principles of how things happen. Nothing that happens in the natural world is outside the natural world. “Supernatural” refers to things beyond our understanding, not beyond the natural. That’s nonsense. “Supernormal” is the accurate term.
The existence of God is separate from miracles. God can work miracles, but miracles do not determine the presence of God. There can be no proof of the presence of God. We experience God (sometimes including answered prayers, guidance, and other insights), but God is not a being or thing or any kind of entity. God the creator is not separate from creation. Neither is heaven. Neither is hell. Everything that happens or can happen is part of creation, the natural world.
It’s problematic to link God and miracles for two reasons. If you can’t find miracles, you may miss finding God. If you do find miracles, you may identify the presence of God when it’s really something very different. Both ways, you miss out, sometimes dangerously.
But wait. What’s the point of God without miracles?
I can’t answer that for you. You have to decide. Remember the times you have experienced God and look forward to those future times. It’s a little like those Magic Eye pictures that you stare at and suddenly see the image that is there. You know God is there, clearly, has always been there, will always be there, it’s all okay, and then...the experience fades. But you have the memory, and you know God will come again even though God hasn’t gone anywhere.
Think about this. You, personally, may not identify the experience with God. God is a human word with human associations. It isn’t for everyone. The experience is though. It’s part of the human condition.
My point is this. Don’t look to the natural world—and anything, including a miracle, that happens in the world is natural—for evidence of God. God is everywhere and nowhere. God cannot be proven or identified. God can be experienced.
For me, this experience of God is salvation. The Christian concept of salvation incorporates absolution from sin, entry into heaven, and victory over death. Usually this is expressed in temporal form because that’s how we think. We are born into sin and must be born again into Christ. By the grace of God, we will live in heaven after we die on earth. We will be part of the resurrection of the body in the life hereafter.
In my attempt at a timeless view, all three are satisfied. Since sin is best understood as separation from God, the experience of God joins us to God and sin is ended. The experience of God is heaven here and now. The hereafter and the herenow are all the same in the experience of God.
In our temporal lives, salvation is not a one and done proposition. We seek it always, sometimes finding it, then losing it again, until, one day, maybe, we don’t lose it. If we gain that, we balance on the point of a pin, but like a spinning top, the balance is stable and unbending, eternal.
So why is it so hard to get there? Because we are surrounded by human misery. Our connections to humanity pull at us and keep us off balance. Some people try to separate themselves from humanity, from this force of distraction, to make salvation easier for them. There are uses in that path, if only in pointing the way, reminding us of what is possible, but it is only that, a guidepost, like John the Baptist in the wilderness paving the way.
The only real solution is to end human misery.
Only when all of us are ready and able to stop and seek the balance of the experience of God can it happen for any of us. It is a difficult task and requires a balance of both fixing problems and the acceptance of problems that can’t be fixed because those problems are problems only because we have chosen to define them that way. Which is which? When do people need real assistance, and when will a change in point of view end their suffering?
Sometimes it’s easy to know this. If people are starving, feed them and help them to feed themselves. If people are being tortured and killed, stop the torturing and killing. If people are oppressed, stop oppressing them. Other times, it’s hard to know, and the suffering can be great in either case. Probably the dividing line is different in different situations and in different times.
The path is very hard and full of wrong decisions. Often, we create misery when attempting to end misery, but we have to keep trying. Making mistakes is part of every learning process, and just being on the path is most of the solution, though not all of it. We have to be able to look up from the path sometimes and feel timelessness, feel God here and now.
The key to all this, of course, is love. God is love. The experience of God is love. Acting with love helps guide us rightly, no matter what we do. Though once again, we will not be perfect even this way. Mostly the goal seems impossibly far off, and then it hovers in a breath close by.
In the end, we are temporal beings seeking an end to time before time ends us. That is what salvation means to me. And every step towards that, with all of us, is a better place than the last.
December 29, 2020