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Magic

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.
-- Saint Augustine

During World War II, tiny islands in the South Pacific became staging areas for American troops, who built airstrips to bring in supplies.  The native populations watched in astonishment as shiny flying machines dropped from the sky and disgorged vast quantities of food, clothing, medicine, vehicles and weapons.  After the war ended and the troops left, the natives carved their own crude airstrips out of the jungle and performed elaborate rituals in the hope that the gods could be enticed to drop from the sky once more.  These so-called “cargo cults” developed their own millennial beliefs, probably adapted from the dogmas of Christian missionaries, in which messianic figures return bearing valuable cargo.

As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke noted in Clarke’s Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  According to some UFO buffs, Clarke's Third Law might explain a curious passage in the Old Testament.  This was the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of shiny winged creatures “in the form of men” who arrive in a great cloud and move about on wheels.  Ezekiel believed the heavens had opened and that he had seen visions of God.  But perhaps the "Ezekiel's wheel" passage was just an early attempt to describe the landing of an alien spacecraft as it might have been interpreted by a Jewish exile living in Babylon during the sixth century BCE. 

The Bible is full of visions and supernatural phenomena that can't be squared with modern science or even with science fiction.  This has forced believers to make uncomfortable choices, causing some to insist on the literal truth of passages that were probably intended as allegory, while others dismiss as allegory passages that were clearly intended to be the literal truth.  The real issue is whether miracles happen at all and, if so, what they might signify.  Does God selectively ignore his own laws of nature, or does he operate according to laws we don't yet fully comprehend?  As G.K. Chesterton pointedly observed in Orthodoxy, "Things that the old science at least would frankly have rejected as miracles are hourly being asserted by the new science."

Thomas Jefferson hoped to reclaim Jesus from what he regarded as the wooly-headed mystification of the Christian church by producing his own edited gospel that preserved the essential teachings while eliminating all the miracles.  The result is a Jesus who talked a good game but posed little threat to the established order, which begs the question of why the authorities would bother to have him killed. 

Even Jefferson's expurgated gospel leaves tantalizing hints of a larger reality.  In the Sermon on the Mount, which is lifted almost intact from the King James Version of St. Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells his listeners not to be concerned about what they shall eat or what they shall drink or what they shall wear, "for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things."  Does this mean that the law of scarcity no longer applies, and that God's children have nothing to fear from poverty and famine?  This passage only begins to make sense when coupled with stories in which Jesus feeds a multitude with some fish and a few crusts of bread.

Jefferson's version includes an exchange taken from the Gospel of St. Luke in which the high priest asks Jesus point-blank if he is the Son of God, and Jesus answers, a bit ambiguously, "Ye say that I am."  What does this mean in the context of a narrative in which Jesus does nothing out of the ordinary?  Jefferson omits a passage from the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus is nearly stoned for saying, "I and my Father are one."   Just as revealing is his defense against the charge of blasphemy for claiming that a man could be God.  Jesus turns the tables on his accusers by quoting from one of the Psalms, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, Ye are gods?'"

Jefferson's determination to present Jesus without magic tricks inevitably winds up robbing his words of their magic as well.  In the end, the gospels must be taken on their own terms, even if this forces us to make uncomfortable choices.  Is Jesus the Son of God, or isn't he?  And if he is who he says he is, then are we also who he says we are?  You are gods, he told his accusers, quoting Scripture, which puts everything he said about faith moving mountains into a whole new light.  Jesus called on his followers to reclaim their birthright as beings who were created in God's image and given dominion over creation. 

Jefferson was no doubt right in some ways about the mystification wrought by Christian church, which is its own kind of cargo cult. However, it's not just that we fail to comprehend fully the laws of nature; we also fail to understand fully our own nature.  Faced with Jesus' fundamental challenge to our identity, we have found it far easier to worship him rather than to be like him.

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