1. An Overview of “Miracles” in Religious Experience
Supernatural means, literally, “over or above nature” but is commonly understood as an event that transcends the Laws of Nature. For millennia, all of nature’s fury, blessings, and awesome mysteries were attributed to the gods or God. In most religious writings, however, we also encounter those “miracles” in which a Divine hand intervenes to contradict nature’s laws.
In the mid-19th Century, researchers began to apply the scientific method to the phenomenon of religious experience. Biomedical science dissected the underpinnings of “faith healing,” “placebo effect,” “voodoo effects,” and other aspects of cures for psychosomatic illnesses. Psychical researchers explored religious phenomena such as exorcisms. At the turn of the century, William James in his classic work Varieties of Religious Experience stated that, “the founders of every church owe their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communication with the Divine.” In the 1970’s, Sir Alister Hardy‘s The Spiritual Nature of Man demonstrated that — far from being the realm of a few saints, prophets, and sages — religious experiences occur in a large percentage of the general population. Over the years, an enormous amount of research has been undertaken into life after death, deathbed visions, after-death communications, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. Today, there is ample evidence of religious experience, a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence pointing to an afterlife, data on psychosomatic research relating to faith healing, and some research relating to exorcism. Though the efforts of interdisciplinary science, we now know that religious experiences are not only “natural” but rather common. Conversely, truly nature-defying “miracles” are simply not present in the modern world.
2. An Analysis of the “Miracles” of Three Famous Prophets
In this paper, I will show how the “super” and the “natural” can be separated when the same standards of analysis are applied to both ancient and modern accounts. To illustrate, I have selected three famous religious persons from history: Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad.
a. The “Miracles” of Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism
Zoroaster is the ancient Persian prophet who is credited with the divergence of religious approaches in the East and West, as well as providing the roots for subsequent Western religions — including the concepts of angels, demons, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and the resurrection of the body. Highly ethical for its time, Zoroaster’s new religion advocated that man’s free will to choose:
“Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds” helps defeat evil.
Like Moses and Buddha, the dates of his life are uncertain; a date of 7th Century BCE is often given, although the archaic language used in his hymns to God suggests a date as early as 1600-1200 BCE. The first of his revelations occurred at age 15 years, but his major revelations occurred at age 30 when he, like Jesus, went into the wilderness to seek God. Virtually all scholars, ancient and modern, agree that Zoroaster himself is the author of his hymns (Gathas). In them, he tells us that it was revealed to him that:
“Silent meditation is best for attaining spiritual enlightenment” (Yasna 43.15).
Zoroaster also says that God is supreme:
“When I held you in my very eyes, then I realized you in my mind, O Mazda (God), as the first and also the last for all eternity, as the Father of Good Thoughts, as the Creator of Righteousness and Lord over the actions of life” (Yasna 31:8).
At the end of our lives, our own good deeds will determine whether we go to Heaven or Hell; at the end of time, after those who are evil are purified in Hell, ALL will be saved (Yasna 30:11).
Zoroaster’s religious experiences of God were similar to those of mystics of all ages. Only after his death are “miraculous” tales attached to him — beginning with his birth. Later accounts in the Avesta (the Holy Book of the Magi) and the Zend (a Talmud-like continuance of holy writings) tell of exorcisms and miracles being performed by Zoroaster, beginning in his childhood (similar to stories of Jesus’ childhood in the Apocryphal gospels).
b. The “Miracles” of St. Paul in Christianity
St. Paul’s religious experiences include his after-death communication with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8), his out-of-body experience in which he is taken to the third level of Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and his speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18). He states frankly that the Gospel (Good News) that he preaches did not come from humans but was communicated to him by Jesus from beyond the grave (Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17). Paul both acknowledges and encourages the religious experiences of others (1 Corinthians 12:8-11; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). While he says that others have the ability to heal (1 Corinthians 12:9), his letters do not tell of his healing; in fact, Paul writes that he was not even able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Contrast Paul’s own letters with the stories about him in the Acts of the Apostles (thought to have been written by the author of the Gospel of Luke). In Acts, Paul performs a negative miracle by temporarily blinding a sorcerer (Acts 13:8-11) — an excellent example of the “nocebo” effect (negative counterpart to “placebo”). Paul heals a man who was crippled from birth (Acts 14:8-10) and even raises the dead (Acts 20:9-12). Clearly, this author’s depiction of Paul is very different from what Paul said about himself.
c. The “Miracles” of Muhammad in Islam
The final example comes at the end of the Classical World with Muhammad. His teachings were memorized by some of his followers, and others who were literate transcribed them. (According to Karen Armstrong, the Quran was compiled and edited some 20 years after Muhammad’s death.) Muhammad works no miracles in the Quran, although he does mention miracles of past prophets. Interestingly, he includes the story of the child Jesus who made clay birds miraculously come alive (Quran 5:110). Although not in the New Testament, this story can be found in several apocryphal infancy gospels, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2:4-8).
In the Quran, Muhammad tells of his religious experiences of God through the Angel Gabriel (Quran 96) and his “dark night of the soul” when he had no revelations for two years (Quran 93). Muhammad describes his out-of-body experience, known as the “Night Journey,” in which he is transported to Heaven (Quran 17:1). Interestingly, Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, testified that his physical body remained next to her during this out-of-body experience.
Although Muhammad’s religious experiences can be compared to those of persons today, the Hadith (later oral history) proclaims Muhammad a miracle-worker! The Moslem theologian Al-Ghazzali lists 45 miracles, including Mohammad feeding an army with a handful of dates, his blinding an entire enemy army by throwing a handful of dust, and his restoring the eye of one of his companions. Even better — Muhammad was given a miraculous birth!
3. The “Super” Removed from the “Natural” in World Religions
Our three ancient examples — Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad — suggest that ancient religious experience existed without supernatural occurrences. Buddha said that supernatural miracles were “for the uninitiated.” Nevertheless, according to Max Muller, editor of the Sacred Books of the East, miracles are part and parcel of religion. To the unsophisticated of the world, belief in supernatural miracles and the magical power of religious icons remains vital.
In most of religious writing, “natural” religious experiences are mixed with “super,” nature-defying miracles. Jesus is a good example of this. Along with his ethical teachings, we find miracles like turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) and healing a man blind from birth (John 9:1-7). Yet the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the fact that Jesus’ attempts at faith-healing and exorcism did not always work and that some of the people exorcised by Jesus became re-possessed (Matthew 12:43-45, Luke 11:24-26). When Jesus was unable to heal folks in his own hometown, the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:6 NIV) notes that, “he was amazed at their lack of faith” (emphasis added), revealing him to be a “faith healer.”
Truly “supernatural” miracles such as Moses parting the water, Jesus walking on water, and Buddha levitating and gliding over the water are outside the experience of the modern world and have yet to be demonstrated for science. These ancient stories are better explained in two ways. The first is that of “mythic reality,” meaning that they are “true but didn’t happen.” As metaphors, a kind of Truth is expressed that the miracle-worker was an extraordinary person, favored by God. Modern people who read these stories too literally and tried to replicate the “miracle” have had rude consciousness-awakening! In 1967, an attempt by a group of “hippies” to levitate the Pentagon (in Washington D. C.) resulted in dismal failure. In 1972, L. S. Rao, an Indian yogi, announced that he would walk on water; the televised event, however, showed the guru taking one step into the tank and immediately sinking to the bottom! The second explanation for miracle stories is simple fraud. An example of fraud from the Old Testament is the story of Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14:1-42); this chapter is included in the Bibles of Catholics, Orthodox, and Coptic Christians and but is relegated to the Apocrypha in the Protestant Bible. Currently, a website by Erlendur Haraldsson lists several negative and inconclusive attempts to validate whether the “god men and women” of India are fraudulent or genuine.
The actual words of these three prominent religious figures — Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad — reveal ample evidence for a variety of religious experiences similar to those collected by the Religious Experience Research Centre. However, the nature-defying miracles attributed to them are always embellishments of subsequent writers.
To me, the “super” miracles are superfluous. It is “super” enough that human experience of the Divine is an integral part of our human nature! It is even more “super” that modern research can be used to demonstrate the phenomenological reality of religious experience. Religion is not something in old, old books; as William James realized:
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