History and the supernatural

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high- priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 NIV)

It is fashionable these days to relegate the stories of the New Testament to the realm of myths and fables, stories that though they may have a moral purpose, should not be regarded as historical accounts. This is no doubt because the events that are recorded in the New Testament accounts are so out of the ordinary. They are not the kind of things that the average person observes every day. Much of the New Testament is miraculous – supernatural. There is a tendency nowadays to imagine that the ancients were much more prone to thinking in supernatural, or magical, terms, than contemporary humans, who have been enlightened by the discoveries of modern science. This is often put down to simple ignorance – they didn’t know any better, so they made up miraculous stories to explain the things they saw around them. They didn’t have the understanding or the knowledge that we have today.

As a doctor Luke must surely have been aware of this tension between the natural and the supernatural, but he does not discuss it. His book of Jesus’ life combines careful historical documentation, such as is illustrated in this first verse of chapter 3, with things that people told him about the events he recorded. So here in these verses he first records a whole lot of historical “facts” – with names and places and dates that would have been familiar to many – but in the same breath records a subjective experience with the same tone of authenticity: “the word of God came to John… in the wilderness.” This could only be something that was reported to him by someone who had heard it from John the Baptist himself (John was long dead by the time Luke wrote his books). Nowadays, when someone says to a doctor that God spoke to him or her, the doctor tends to interpret it as being the product of the imagination, and not the real words of a supernatural being. Not so Luke, who records them as simple fact: God spoke to John.

Luke was an observer and a listener, as well as an historian. These are the essential marks of the practice of medicine, even today in our “enlightened” modern world. We observe (examine), listen (question) and record what we see. We then try to put our observations together into some kind of coherent form so that we can understand what is going on. Only by understanding can we attempt to intervene in processes that are causing suffering for the persons who present themselves to us. Relieving suffering is, after all, our ultimate goal as doctors, and the method by which we attempt this task is this medical process of gathering information, and interpreting it in the light of our accumulated knowledge and experience. This is what we do. This is what Luke did.

Luke was working within the context of a worldview that did not dismiss the supernatural; unnatural perhaps, but not unreal. Today doctors generally work from a different worldview – one which regards the miraculous as not real. For us, natural equals reality and supernatural equals unreality. But is this true? Why should reality be limited to the natural? We easily fall into the trap of believing that our context is more true than Luke’s context. But we are as much products of our historical context as Luke was of his. There was a period that is known in the history books as The Enlightenment, but did it really enlighten humanity? Was it really a step on the pathway to ultimate truth, or simply a reflection of the wishful thinking of humanity?

The Bible suggests that since the beginning of time humanity has been wishing that God did not exist. We find God inconvenient, and would rather he was not there. We would rather see ourselves as gods, the source of all things, the repository of all knowledge and wisdom. We are offended by the concept of revelation (which originates in the willingness of another to tell us something), and prefer the concept of discovery (which originates in our own will to find things out). Was the so called Enlightenment just a helpful step for humanity on the pathway to the abolition of God, much as Darwin’s theory of evolution was some centuries later? Helpful in the sense that humankind’s goal was to get rid of God, and the Enlightenment (and Evolution) were useful tools to this end.

If we are to be unbiased recorders of reality then we have to understand the context that we find ourselves in, and understand the influence it has on our perceptions and interpretations. Whether Luke could imagine a world like ours or not is hard to say. But we modern doctors have something to learn from him. It is simply this: observe, listen and record. We will make our own interpretations of what we see and that will guide our decisions and the outcomes for ourselves and the patients in our care. But lets try to remember the context in which we work and try to critically review the interpretations we make based on that context. Perhaps it is time to question the presupposition of modern medicine that the supernatural is equivalent to unreality and begin to rethink the way we respond to the problems we are presented with every day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s