Wonder and Meaning in World Religions
Publication Year: 2010
“In a pluralistic world, Weddle presents an engaging study of what millions of religious people in the world believe about miracles even while others do not. This comprehensive history of miracles for both believers and skeptics should appeal not only to academics but also to anyone interested in the enigmas of faith.”
Published by: NYU Press
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The story of miracles begins with the miracle of story: the power of narrative to draw readers into alternative views of reality. As some theorists of religion argue, one of the creative achievements of religious faith is the construction of “religious worlds.”1 Among the most powerful tools in that enterprise is the miracle story. For many believers, miracle stories reveal the poverty of conventional views of reality and demonstrate that human existence is not confined to the repetitive predictability of material forces in their ...
1. Preliminary Considerations
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Why should anyone, living at the dawn of the twenty-first century, be interested in miracles? For three centuries the capacity of science to explain events as the result of natural forces has seemed to make reference to divine causes unnecessary, even harmful. In times of crisis, hoping for assistance from supernatural saviors seems a dangerous distraction from the challenge of solving our own problems. Yet, around the world stories of wondrous acts continue to be retold in religious communities where ...
2. Hinduism: Signs of Spiritual Liberation
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Among the most widely read Hindu sacred texts is the Mahābhārata, an epic about a divided family and its tangled tragic history. Brought to the point of war, the righteous Pandava brothers confronted their evil cousins on the plain of Kurukshetra, near modern Delhi. Just before they launched into battle, the leader of the Pandavas, the renowned champion Arjuna, paused, reluctant to fight because those on the other side were members of his family. He wondered how he could fulfill his caste duty as a warrior ...
3. Judaism: Signs of Covenant
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One of the most often told miracle stories in the Jewish tradition concerns an argument among rabbis over whether a stove of a certain construction could be ritually impure. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (40–120 c.e.) was certain of his view that the oven was clean, but the others disagreed. According to a later commentator, the incident was called “The Oven of Akhnai” because “they encompassed it with arguments as a snake (Akna) and declared it unclean.”1 Here is the story:
4. Buddhism: Signs of Transcendent Wisdom
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We begin this chapter with a miracle of the Buddha, an act of levitation and transformation.1 According to one version, the event occurred on his return to his homeland to share his teaching with his father, King Śuddhodana, and the elders of his clan, the Śākyas. But they denounced him for becoming a wandering mendicant and demanded that he return to his royal duties. He countered by condemning them for their ignorance. The elders turned to leave when, in a final effort to win them over, Buddha performed the “miracle of the pairs.”
5. Christianity: Signs of Divine Presence
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The most familiar miracle stories in the New Testament are the accounts of Jesus of Nazareth walking on the waves of the Sea of Galilee. The story is so thoroughly assimilated into Western culture that the phrase “to walk on water” commonly indicates ability and virtue beyond the range of ordinary people. For most Christians, the popular understanding is appropriate because they believe Jesus was unique among humans as the embodiment (incarnation) of God, sent into the world to die as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity and, through his resurrection from the dead, to ...
6. Islam: Signs of Divine Authority
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To write about miracles in Islamic tradition requires at the outset that we acknowledge that many Muslims insist the only miracle in their history was the revelation of the sacred text, the Qur’an (“recitation”), to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century. Called the “standing miracle,” it was an event of transcendent power that confirmed the authority of Muhammad to convey the words of God, and it evoked such wonder in those who heard the words recited that many reported being converted to the new faith by the power of the language alone. For Muslims, the inimitability of the Qur’an is proof of its divine origin.1
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The meanings of miracles in the five religious traditions we have considered are derived from their role as signs of transcendent reality. The narratives that recount these miraculous events represent worlds in which human life is transformed by power and wisdom from “elsewhere” than the world shaped by conventional perception and expectation. Miracle stories give dramatic form to what believers could expect to happen if their belief in the transcendent were true. In the final analysis, then, does religious faith require belief in miracles as a condition of its credibility?
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About the Author
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David L. Weddle is the David and Lucile Packard Professor of Religion at Colorado College. He is the author of The Law as Gospel: Revival and Reform in the Theology of Charles G. Finney.
Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2010