Every time I’m tempted to think Charismatics are stupid I remind myself that I was stuck in Charismania for well over a decade. Rumours and promises of the supernatural can be incredibly alluring. When people are so desperate to experience God their levels of credulity increase dramatically. But that doesn’t mean many of these people are not intelligent. Of course they are, and I was reminded recently of one highly intelligent thinker for whom I have the utmost of respect, and who also happens to be a charismatic: JP Moreland.
JP Moreland is an influential Christian philosopher and apologist. His text “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview,” co-written with William Lane Craig is one of the best standard Christian philosophy books on the market. I also particularly like his shorter volume “The Recalcitrant Imago Dei,” in which Moreland discusses several features of humanity which are difficult to accommodate within a naturalist worldview, such as: consciousness, rationality, morality, freedom, and personhood.
And so, naturally curious about his charismatic beliefs, I picked up a book he had written called “The Kingdom Triangle,” in which he has a few things to say about Christians rediscovering the power of the Spirit, and in which the influences of his Church – Anaheim Vineyard – are quite apparent. Admittedly Moreland’s language is often baffling when he speaks of such matters. He invites us to “seek to bring God’s supernatural power to bear on [needs],” as if God’s supernatural power is ours to distribute. He encourages us to “grow in the miraculous” as if the occurrence of miracles were down to our personal growth. He also speaks about how we “grow in power,” as if wonders happen because of how spiritually strong we are.
Moreland doesn’t have a lot to say about phenomena such as speaking in tongues or prophecy – though he clearly believes in such gifts – but he does have a few things to say about divine healing, a main emphasis of the Vineyard brand. Moreland even has some stories to tell, and some advice for the rest of us concerning the proper epistemic reaction to such testimonies.
I want to share a few of Moreland’s anecdotes, and critically assess his advice that the rest of us should believe such testimonies when we hear them. I’m not normally impressed with testimonies of healing, but Moreland makes me listen more than usual, largely because this is an obviously intelligent and coolly rational mind who is far less likely to be deceived or mislead than Joe Bloggs. Anyhow, here’s a summary of Moreland’s account of his own healing:
Moreland came down with a dose of laryngitis. The timing couldn’t have been worse for him, as he now had to cancel a 3-hour lecture he was to give at another church, not to mention having to cancel academic classes which would mean he had overshot his quota of missed lectures for that semester. After church that Sunday he just wanted to get home, and had to make phone calls to cancel his lectures, but just before he left some elders from his church prayed for him. One placed their hand on his throat, and when they prayed Moreland felt warmth rushing through him, and within minutes his laryngitis was gone. He never had to cancel his talks after all.
This testimony is the most significant in Moreland’s book, because it is first-hand. Other testimonies Moreland recounts have a sort of hearsay folk tale quality to them. There was a young woman in China who came down with a virus doctors had never seen before, and for whom everyone had lost hope. However “following prayer she was healed and fully recovered.” We have a Thai missionary reporting that a church service he was conducting was interrupted by a village leader desperate because the rains had not yet come and the crops were soon to be ruined. However, the church prayed and fasted for 3 days and on the 4th day it rained. Or consider another missionary tale of a boy with a hernia in a Brazilian village. The missionaries laid hands on the boy and the hernia disappeared during prayer. Moreland also recounts the tale of a young girl who had two parakeets, and when one of these birds died the little girl prayed for another and found another just like it up a tree the very next day.
Moreland clearly believes sharing such stories is vital to boost our faith. He admonishes us to “read to grow in faith from the testimonies of others as they bear witness to the things they have seen and heard.” Further, when faced with stories of the miraculous Moreland advises: “if there is credible eyewitness testimony for an event, including a miracle, then, all things being equal, one ought to believe the event even if there is no medical proof.” [Emphasis mine]
Now, what are we to make of all this? It seems to me that Moreland sets the bar far too low for miracle reports. There are lots of good reasons to be (at least prima facie) sceptical of miracle reports even when they come from credible eyewitnesses (please remember I write this as a Christian – not as a naturalist).
Consider first-person healing testimonies. People are often very poor witnesses concerning themselves. Many don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own medical condition, so that what seems serious and incurable to them perhaps isn’t so to a medical professional. Cancer is a good example here. Many people think of cancer as if it’s a single illness which must be cut out or destroyed by chemotherapy. Few people realise that there are many forms of cancer which behave very differently from each other, and that many forms of cancer can spontaneously remit. Illnesses can behave in ways that can surprise many non-professionals who easily lapse into certain presuppositions when they think about illness. This might cause us to think a miracle has occurred in some case when in fact an illness is simply behaving in a natural way, albeit in a way that most of us don’t associate with the illness in question.
Further, when illness strikes close to home we can catastrophise matters. As someone who suffers from health anxiety I understand only too well the distorting effects health worries can have on our perceptions. Also, there is a strong temptation when testifying to healings to overdramatize things a little, to “sex-up” our stories, make them more interesting than perhaps they are. I’ve witnessed a large number of such testimonies in my time in charismania.
On top of this we must also keep in mind that many investigations have been undertaken into miracle claims which have yielded not-so-good results for miracle testimonies. Many alleged healings turn out to be dubious at best, and, sadly, often fraudulent, deceiving even intelligent and credible witnesses. How many credible witnesses saw people rise out of wheelchairs at a WV Grant crusade, not knowing they weren’t disabled in the first place or were stooges planted by the faith healer? Related to this problem is the lack of medical follow-up. Moreland says this doesn’t matter, but it obviously does. Many healing testimonies are given moments after an alleged healing. However, the sad fact is many of these people wake up the next morning only to find they are not healed, or go to the doctor only to discover the tumour is still there and that they experienced nothing other than temporary pain relief in the charged atmosphere of a healing service. And yet, credible witnesses wake up that very same morning and tell all their friends that a person with a painful tumour got healed and couldn’t feel the pain any more.
Furthermore, many witnesses do not understand the nature of illness and disease well enough to be considered good witnesses despite the fact that they might well be very honest in how they report some event or other. In fact, this ignorance is widely exploited by unscrupulous faith healers. For instance, a person might be brought on stage and “healed” of blindness. The faith healer will wave a brightly coloured handkerchief in front of their face and the person sees it and grabs it in their hand, and maybe even follows the healer around the stage. A person might honestly report that they saw a blind person healed. The truth is they were deceived. Faith-healers know that when people hear the word “blind” they typically think that the person can see nothing at all. But this is rarely the case. The vast majority of legally blind people have some visual ability, however slight. Most can at least see the blurred outlines of a brightly coloured handkerchief held in front of their face, and if not they can still hear well enough to be able to follow a healer’s voice around the stage. It all creates a very persuasive illusion.
I suspect there might be a misunderstanding of illness at work in one of Moreland’s anecdotes – the boy with the hernia that went away during prayer. I had an inguinal hernia in my late teens. With this sort of hernia a muscle tear causes part of one’s intestine to protrude, forming a lump in the groin. However, I was able to pop mine back in again at will. So, I wonder did the missionaries lay hands on this boy’s hernia – popping it back in temporarily – and think it went away under the power of prayer? Perhaps they then moved on to the next village, not knowing that the boy’s hernia manifested itself a day or so later. What we end up with is a credible witness report of a miracle that wasn’t a miracle at all.
These are just some of the reasons why we need to be cautious in the face of miracle claims: other articles on this blog give additional reasons. And these reasons lead me to think that Moreland’s claim that we “ought to believe” the sorts of anecdotes he recounts is rather epistemically wild.
Stephen J. Graham