Friday, February 02, 2007

The good Rev James East expressed the perception (NCBC 21 January, Sunday evening service) that there is a current resistance to any suggestion that the failure to invoke miraculous healing is bound up with a lack of faith in Christ’s power (and willingness?) to heal. This perception of James probably stands a better chance of being right if it is qualified. Perceptions like this are notoriously dependent on the Christian subculture one naturally identifies with, not to mention swings in fashion. Swinging pendulums, counteractions and polarization may explain why in the May of 1996 I wrote the following passage which, in fact, expresses the very opposite perception – namely, that the “Faith deficit” hypothesis as an explanatory tool for making sense of an apparent dearth and/or failure to invoke miraculous healing was very much in vogue. The following is from a work of fiction I entitled “Signs and Numbers” and it uses the device of a fictional Christian fundamentalist organization (whose acronym was simply “BO”) to explore the subject of the miraculous:

The larger part of the healing theory of the BO was a cluster of ideas that could be invoked to explain why, in so many cases, what they thought should be the norm of miraculous healing on demand did not actually appear to be the case. When faced with a "healing" that conflicted with appearances they resorted to two types of explanation to resolve the conflict. The first were those ever popular explanations, although very unpopular with those on the receiving end, that healing had not taken place because of some hidden impediment like a lack of faith, spiritual blockage, hidden sin, fear, demonic influence, or lack of desire for healing etc. The second category were more subtle, for they asserted that healing had actually taken place but then gave an account of why appearance suggested otherwise; for example it might be claimed that although the indisposition was healed, only the symptoms persisted, or that old age and not illness was the problem, or that the healing would eventually take place even it took days, months, or years (making it ostensively indistinguishable from “natural” healing), or that demonic influence was manifesting itself with misleading symptoms etc etc. The BO was a heavy-duty user of explanations of this kind and from a collection of ideas of this sort it was always possible for faith to find refuge in some explanation of why the appearance of indisposition persisted in spite of prayer for healing on demand.

The BO was proud of its strong affirmation of miraculous healing, but with a cluster of explanations with which it could spin-doctor the awkward realities of failed healing events, when it came down to it, the BO did not have much more faith than anyone else. Certainly not more than those Christians who would claim that miraculous healing did not take place on demand; The latter Christians accepted that there were many cases when miraculous healing did not happen for inexplicable and inscrutable reasons; reasons whose mysteries would not yield to heavy handed spiritual trouble shooting which either intimidated the acceptance of an ambiguous "miraculous healing" or else sought someone to loudly blame for having obstructed it in some way. In fact even dispensationalist Christians who claimed that miraculous healing was largely confined to early church history could hardly have their faith faulted by the BO when they were only doing what the BO itself did; namely, to provide their own explanation as to why certain miraculous healings did not happen. The fact was, and is, that most traditional Christians believed in miraculous healing and they only differed in their beliefs about why it did not always take place: Consequently, the cause of contention was not so much the concept of miraculous healing itself, because most orthodox Christians believed in it anyway, but rather in the differing theories they invoked to explain why miraculous healing was not invariable. Some said that miraculous healing once happened and now doesn't. Some said that it sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. The BO, although it was unlikely to admit it, also said, in effect, that it sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't; but they, like many other authoritarian Christian groups hinted at the causes of failed healings by mixing up imperatives with matters of fact; for them miraculous healing should happen and sometimes didn't because someone somewhere was to blame.

The BO, paradoxically, probably prospered all the more for these views, which provided a pretext for spiritual bullying and thus pandered to the quasi-masochistic drives of the religiously insecure and guilty who needed an opportunity to punish their fleshly intellects that ran on logic.

Let me summarise: The task of human cognition, as always, is to make sense of reality and when difficulties of interpretation arise that cognition is capable of creating some very ingenious devices to maintain a semblance of logic and balance. Accordingly, the “faith deficit” hypothesis takes its place amongst other sense making cognitive resorts that are commonly used to explain away a lack of healing (or failed healings) and other awkward facts of Christian reality via a kind of ontological laundering. All this is highly ironic as many fundamentalist Christains who are heavy duty users of cognitive resorts often disparage any attempt to bring logical sense to “spiritual world”, which they believe to be better experienced through the quasi-illogical sensings of the “heart”. Hence, the suggestion that Christians tender interpretative hypotheses in such a spiritual area as miraculous healing will, of course, be strenuously denied if only on the grounds that “heart Christains” don’t work in the scientifico-intellectual fashion of consciously trying out this or that hypothesis: True! They don’t! But what they do, in fact, is to tender interpretations unconsciously just as the mind unconsciously and automatically tenders such things as face patterns in the clouds (or even on the surface of Mars!), but which presumably get short shrift when it is clear that these patterns, in this context, are not evidence of real faces. Hypothesis tendering, of sorts, is what the mind does unconsciously and this process is so effortless, seamless, unconscious and so often successful that it is easily put down to some kind of esoteric understanding. It is at once both an irony and an hypocrisy that those who impugn the faith of fellow Christains for finding reasons why miraculous healing is absent, cannot yet see that their preference for the faith deficit hypothesis fits in the same category of being an explanation for the absence of healing!

Since I wrote the piece of fiction above I have heard of another way of laundering healing ontology. This ontological resort depends on the distinction between “cures” and healing, the former being a complete cessation of the pathology and the latter being only a degree of cessation. One can then employ this device to widen the goals posts and broaden the range of circumstances that can be classified as miraculous healing. However, I have to remark that using this relaxed criterion, Christ’s miraculous healings would probably all count as cures. Another factor that makes the whole subject a slippery area is the sheer complexity of human pathologies, which sometimes make it impossible to identify just when a “miraculous healing” has occurred.

If James is right and the faith deficit hypothesis is now well out of vogue, then perhaps past reckless and unfair abuse of this hypothesis by Christian groups not unlike my fictional “BO” has resulted in a counter reaction that has made the whole subject off limits. Hence, given this qualification James may be right - although I suspect there are still many Christian groups out there who are heavy duty users of the faith deficit hypotheses: for them explaining away a lack of miraculous healing in this way is still very much in fashion.

I have to say that my own acquaintance with invocations of miraculous healing that have ultimately failed to bring an end to pathology, have all been in the context of great faith and unless I had constantly surmised the presence of hidden spiritual impediments in order to explain the anomaly, I could see no reason why the healing should not have happened if sheer faith in God is a sufficient condition to make way for it. Of course, it goes without saying that it would have been totally wrong of me to invoke scriptures like Mark 6:5 to criticize Christian groups who have failed to secure miraculous healing, as this scripture (which links to material in Luke 4) concerns those who openly opposed Jesus and it would have been unfair to use this scripture against Christian fellowships who gave every appearance of following Christ and having complete belief in His willingness and power to heal.

Given a belief in basic Christian theology we are left, therefore, with an outstanding cognitive problem – why, apparently, is there such dearth of successful miraculous healing? The orthodox dispensationalists tell us that the overtly miraculous phase of the church’s work ended a long time ago when the apostolic period came to a close (although I myself am not entirely convinced of this view). On the other hand many Christians invest their hopes in “healing ministries” – itinerate religious showman that occur with a frequency similar to the distribution of faith healers who appear in the general populace. This phenomenon looks suspiciously like the “7th son of a 7th son” effect rather than any general miraculous healing power bestowed as a gift by Christ upon certain individuals in His church. Others rely on “social texts” (or “rumours” might be nearer the mark) that do the rounds; for example one often hears someone claim that they know someone who once attended a rally who saw someone healed. I have to admit I do not yet have in my possession any evidence of spectacular healings that are of any better quality than rather remote anecdotal accounts. That I treat such accounts with reserve has more to do with a lack of faith in the human ability to reliably interpret rather than a lack of faith in God.

For myself I would not accuse even dispensationalist Christains of throwing up a doctrinal screen in order to cover up a faith deficit. Any genuine Christian who has some acquaintance with the omni-powerful vistas opened up by the Biblical vision of the super-total God, can see immediately that the sweeping and comprehensive powers available to the Biblical Creator makes miraculous healings a relatively small task, and this is clearly understood in deep way by all the Christains I have met. Hence, my own theory, as suggested in the piece of fiction above, is that the apparent dearth of miraculous healing has nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of faith in God’s authority and power; for Christains of all shades have different ways of laundering away the difficulties of applying a Christian ontology in the area of miraculous healing - and that applies as much to the users of the faith deficit hypothesis as to any one else. This whole area, in fact, is very closely related, and at least analogous to the subject of theodicy – that is, attempts to reconcile a loving omni-powerful God with suffering and evil.

Let me summarise: The apparent dearth of miraculous healing has no necessary connection with a lack of faith, and invokes a variety of Christian attempts at making sense of the realities of healing as they seek to come to terms with them. Quality of faith is not so much the variable amongst Christains as is the way that faith is applied. However, this view is certainly not going to be accepted by Gnostic Christains, because for them it is always a faith question. This is because for them belief in God is not about a cognitive encounter with reality, but rather it is almost exclusively about the achievement of sublime states of faith and mind that are capable of unlocking the door to the miraculous. Hence, if faith is to be equated with esoteric states of mind, as is the wont of Christian Gnosticism, then it is an easy task to rubbish the claimed faith of fellow Christains by accusing them of not having these sublime states of faith.

But, of course, the Christian Gnostic position, in spite of all its fideists sentiments, counts as a cognitive point of view, an attempt to make sense of reality even if this is strenuously denied. Moreover, it also counts as just another Christian subcultural platform from which Christians can impugn the faith of fellow Christains. Fine, that suits me. As readers of my electronic columns know the divisions and mutual-slanging matches that go on amongst Christains is a constant theme to which I return with satire and comment. It is the great anomaly that hides the deep truth of Gospel Grace. This polarized “east versus west” activity of Christains is unlikely to stop before kingdom come but that’s OK with me, because it gives me plenty of material to think (and laugh) about!

No comments: