Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Keener's "Miracles": Additional Thoughts

D. Neiman provided us with an excellent review of Keener's Miracles on Monday; to this I will add only a few of my own observations about the book.

I found a number of the key observations familiar; they reflect arguments I have used in other venues before -- particularly, that the dichotomy between natural and supernatural is an artificial one (7 -- later, Keener goes into some detail on how this dichotomy emerged from Hume's era of super-rationalism) . I also found useful the point that given the historical record -- including that of enemies of Christianity, like Celsus -- attributing the miracles stories of Jesus to legendary embellishment is a non-starter (25-8); the critic will have to assume Jesus did do something that seemed to be miracles, even if they opt to argue Jesus himself was fooling people with parlor tricks and such.

Keener offers a discussion of how miracles stories are formatted (40f) reminiscent of, and confirming, what we reported some years ago regarding Werner Kelber and oral tradition. He also discusses OT parallels (71f), offering some of the same conclusions we did when addressing Randel Helms.

Keener discusses at several points how Enlightenment rationalism, with its associated snobberies, lies behind much of what stands as rejection of miracles accounts today. Of particular interest -- and new to me -- is the depth to which David Hume was influenced by racism. I had known that some Skeptical heroes of that era were racist (eg, Ingersoll and his "natives of Central Africa" comment), but until now had not known that Hume was so inclined as well. Skeptics fond of quoting Hume on miracles might want to check out what else Hume said in an essay titled, Of National Characters, about persons of African descent. (It's rather funny how Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding appears on the Secular Web, but this one doesn't.) He wrote:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant differences could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho' low people, without education, will start up amonst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Skeptics who make much of pro-slavery Chistian literature ought to also know that Hume was quoted by pro-slavery writers in support -- and that abolitionists had to respond to him. That's a dirty secret you'll find useful for making fundy atheists wince. Of course, they will deny that this has anything to do with Hume's philosophy, but in reality, it does: Hume naturally mistrusted members of other people groups to have the good sense that he had to recognize that miracles couldn't occur.

Finally, I was pleased to see many accounts of miracles, a good number with decent documentation -- although I would have liked more of that type. However, I also appreciate why, as Keener explains in detail, we don't have more such documented cases (mainly, it's because people rarely anticipate the need for them).

I'll close with one related observation. There are a number of people and groups who try to claim miracles as validation of some ideology or other. I have also recently checked an item (at reader request) titled Mega Shift by James Rutz, which claims all manner of miracles, and in a few cases gives documentation (though not as well as Keener does overall). The problem: Rutz uses the data to somehow validate the house church movement. Keener, however, offers examples from all across the ideological board, and that is as it should be: Miracles that do occur are the blessing of the church as a whole, not just one group or ideology.


  1. Does Keener discuss claims that the "scientific improbability" of miracles outweighs their historical probability (unless one assumes theism)? I've been hearing that one a lot and if this book discusses it I may snap it up instantly rather than waiting like I tend to.