One highlight of my trip to Kenya in February was leading a worship service alongside my clergy friend Susan. Toward the end of the service, we were told by the locals that the sick were to be brought forward for the laying on of hands, for prayer, and, well, for healing if possible.
Of course, I tried to act as if this were the most natural thing in the world, and I’d done this a million times before, but a voice within wanted to shout: “We American Methodists don’t do this sort of thing!” (Quickly followed by another voice that said, “But that’s our problem.”) The sick people didn’t speak English. I couldn’t find out what ailed them. So I placed my hands on their head, prayed a prayer asking God to heal them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I made the sign of the cross on their forehead.
Liturgically, I performed the rite O.K. If I had oil, I would have anointed them.
So what happened to them after I did this? Did God heal any of them? Beats me.
But here’s what surprises even myself: As skeptical as I am by nature, I’m open to the possibility that healing might have occurred. If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Yes, but do you mean a physical healing or a spiritual healing?”
I can’t pretend I don’t understand the question, although spiritual healing, if it happens at all, seems far more important than physical healing. And who knows the extent to which a spiritual healing could manifest itself physically. We are, as I learned in seminary, psychosomatic creatures. By that, I don’t mean that our mind tricks our body into thinking it’s sick (as modern psychology might say); I mean that, contrary to the spirit of modern medicine, we are unable to neatly separate body and soul. One always affects the other to some extent.
Regardless, most of us modern Christians happily concede that God could perform a spiritual healing. I wonder why we tend to believe in one and not the other? Is it because, since spiritual means “invisible,” no one can disprove it?
But why be so skeptical? If you believe in spiritual healing—which means you believe that God actively intervenes in some way to change us—how much harder would it be for God to perform a physical healing?
So I guess I’ve made progress over these past 15 years as a Methodist. While I’m hardly a Pentecostal, I’m far more, um, charismatic than I was as a Baptist. Which is exactly as it should be: we Methodists have a more robust pneumatology, theologically speaking: we believe the Spirit is very active in our lives and world world today, and this doesn’t preclude, on principle, even miracles or tongues or prophecy. If you talk to the Kenyan pastors whose testimonies I heard (and believed), the miraculous is positively commonplace in that part of the world where the Spirit is spreading the gospel like wildfire.
Wildfire? Or should I say “strange fire”? Depends on whom you ask, I guess.
John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, two prominent conservative/fundamentalist Calvinists with large radio followings, have recently thrown down the gauntlet against the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement at a recent conference in California called “Strange Fire.” A favorite blogger of mine, Roger Olson, a Pentecostal-turned-Baptist, wrote a nice piece about it here.
I thought about “Strange Fire” last night as I finally finished the C.S. Lewis book Miracles. I have no idea the extent to which Pentecostalism had spread to England in the middle of the 20th century, or how aware he was of it. But he wasn’t a cessationist, by any means. As far as I know, cessationism isn’t consistent with Anglican theology and worship. Lewis believed miracles still happen, although we shouldn’t expect them to happen to us. If they do, he says, it means we’re probably in the midst of trouble and persecution.
But Lewis put his finger on a potential problem with cessationists like MacArthur and Sproul. Does their firm conviction come from careful exegesis (and I find the biblical case for cessationism very thin and unpersuasive) or from our unreflective modern impulse toward Naturalism, the pervasive belief that miracles don’t happen because nothing happens beyond or outside of Nature. MacArthur and Sproul aren’t Naturalists, of course, but Lewis would say they don’t have to be. Naturalistic thinking is our habit, our default position. Unless we remain vigilant against it, we fall back into it without thinking.
Is it possible that cessationism is just a way of “baptizing” our Naturalistic outlook on life?
Lewis says that he fears this default Naturalism more than any positive argument against miracles:
that soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook as you close the book and the familiar four walls about you and the familiar noises from the street reassert themselves. Perhaps (if I dare suppose so much) you have been led on at times while you were reading, have felt ancient hopes and fears astir in your heart, have perhaps come almost to the threshold of belief—but now? No. It just won’t do. Here is the ordinary, here is the ‘real’ world, round you again. The dream is ending; as all other similar dreams have always ended. For of course this is not the first time such a thing has happened. More than once in your life before this you have heard a strange story, read some odd book, seen something queer or imagined you have seen it, entertained some wild hope or terror: but always it ended the same way. And always you wondered how you could, even for a moment, have expected it not to. For that ‘real world’ when you came back to it is so unanswerable. Of course the strange story was false, of course the voice was really subjective, of course the apparent portent was a coincidence. You are ashamed of yourself for having ever thought otherwise: ashamed, relieved, amused, disappointed, and angry all at once. You ought to have known that, as Arnold says, “Miracles don’t happen.”[†]
I’ll say more about the book later.
† C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 270-1.