From the Again Magazine – Volume 18, Number 3 – September, 1995 Page 4-7
Signs, Wonders, & Angelic Visitations
By Deacon R. Thomas Zell
We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race. As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity. Nature may indeed be broader and deeper than we now know; any new discoveries, however, will but enlarge our knowledge of the natural.
“We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
—The Humanist Manifesto II, 1973
If an historian from a future century were to sift through the rubble of our collapsed civilization, only to unearth a tattered copy of the document quoted above, he would, perhaps, make the following entry in his journal: “For the pitiful. technologically advanced citizens of the latter twentieth century, religion in general and any serious belief in the ‘supernatural’ seem to have passed from sight.”
Were the Manifesto his only discovery, he would perhaps conclude that its authors speak for all modern humanity when they state, “We believe. . . that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Any account
Hopefully, our explorer would soon dig up a computer and a modem, and find a way to tap into the late-twentieth-century Netscape. There he would quickly discover, to his surprise, that despite years of relentless siege warfare on the part of secular humanists, these and related subjects were far from absent from the public consciousness.
Here’s a brief sampling of what a friend found for me in an afternoon on the Net—circa September, 1995.
• A 1993 TIME magazine poll indicates that 69% of Americans polled believe in the existence of angels. 46% believe they have their own guardian angels, 32% have personally felt an angelic presence in their lives, and 49% believe in the existence of fallen angels or devils.
• Science News quotes a recent Gallup poll of 1,236 adults stating that one in four people believes in ghosts, one in seven says he or she has seen a UFO, one in four believes believe in extrasensory perception.
• Newsweek reports that 58% of those recently polled say they feel the need to experience spiritual growth. And a third of all adults polled say they have had a mystical or religious experience.
• A Book of Angels, by Sophy Burnham, has gone through over thirty printings and half-a-million copies. Billy Graham’s Angels, God’s Secret Agents is now approaching three million copies sold.
• Dr. George Ritchie, author of My Life After Dying, reports that one out of fourteen people on the operating table have a near-death experience.
• Marilyn McGuire, president of the New Age Publishing and Retailing Alliance, estimates that the New Age industry rings up about one billion dollars a year in sales in North America alone.
• The University of Calgary’s extension department offered two courses in the fall of 1994 called “Ultimate Questions I and II.” A holistic education center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered 700 courses to 20,000 registrants in the fall of 1994. Two thousand people showed up to attend a conference on body and soul that same year.
Instead of The Humanist Manifesto, our explorer would be fortunate indeed to uncover a copy of the November 26, 1994, Newsweek article, “In Search of the Sacred,” by Barbara Kantrowitz. It’s far more realistic in its appraisal of the untidy realities of modern society, and much more fun to read. Barbara writes:
Check out the barometers in the cultural marketplace. Bookstores are lined with spiritual missives. Music stores feature best-selling Gregorian chants. Hollywood salts its scripts with divine references and afterlife experiences. Want to give that special seeker on your winter-solstice list a crystal? Be sure to wrap it in angels gift paper. These are amazing times: Pope John Paul II’s new book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, tops the bestseller list, beating out Faye Resnick’s raunchy tell-all about Nicole Brown Simpson. . . . Politicians, like Newt Gingrich, have pushed school prayer onto the national agenda. Talk shows, such as “Oprah,” have featured spirituality. Physicists debate the spiritual significance of quantum mechanics. Attendance at religious retreats has skyrocketed. The Abbey of Gethsemani, 45 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky, is booked through the end of April. “For people who are really insistent,” says Brother Patrick Hart, “we say we’ll put you on standby, just like on the airlines.”
THE DESCENT OF MAN
While no sane onlooker could view this spiritualistic feeding-frenzy without a degree of scepticism, it must come as an especially daunting disappointment to the secularists and humanists who helped frame The Humanist Manifesto. Despite centuries of propaganda, the humanists seem to have failed miserably in their attempts to exorcise modern humanity of its fascination with things immaterial.
Why? Certainly through no lack of effort on their own part. In a rising tide of secularism and disbelief, tracing its origins “from ancient China, classical Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to the scientific revolution of the modern world” (from the introduction to The Humanist Manifesto II), the humanists have assaulted the concept of God or a divine order to the world. This attack has reached its apex in the last two centuries of human history. Consider just a few of the high points (or should I say “low points”) of this assault.
In 1841 the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published his book, The Essence of Christianity. This work was followed by The Essence of Religion (1845) and Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1851). Feuerbach was a dyed-in-the-wool secularist and materialist. Not only did he part company with theologians and religious thinkers of his day, he even went beyond the ever-shifting bounds of his fellow philosophers in stating that the world around us is entirely material or natural in its composition and design. He argued that nature itself, not God or some divine order, is the ultimate and only force impelling the universe. There is nothing beyond.
In 1867, the radical philosopher and political activist Karl Marx finished work on his enormously influential analysis of modern society, Dos Kapital. Following the lead of Feuerbach and other materialist philosophers of his day, Marx took the next logical step in the humanist equation. For him, religion had become more than harmless excess baggage. It was the enemy of progress and the object of open attack. Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness.”
Despite centuries of propaganda, the humanists seem to have failed miserably in their attempts to exorcise modern humanity of its fascination with things immaterial.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Whatever else can be and has been said concerning the relative strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory of evolution, or his reasons for formulating it, the underlying implications were clear. He applied the materialistic philosophies of his day to the questions of mankind’s origin, and arrived at the same conclusions as Feuerbach. The universe is a “closed system.” Nothing exists now which cannot be explained apart from natural causes.
THE DEATH OF GOD
Needless to say, the unabated fervor of secularists such as Feuerbach, Marx, and Darwin—and a great host of others—did not leave the Christian Church unscathed. In fact, the results were devastating. Sadly, many of the secularist theories promulgated in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries had their origins directly or indirectly in the theological mindset of the Western church—both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Elements of the Protestant Reformation, medieval scholasticism, and the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas unwittingly provided the kindling, the dry brush, and the kerosene. All that was needed was someone to strike the match.
For at least one lamentable sector of the Western church, the intellectual heat wave produced by the ensuing conflagration proved too great to bear. Whereas in the early Church countless Christians willingly faced Roman torturers and executioners rather than renounce their faith in Christ, latter-day European and American Christians often appeared all too willing to sacrifice the precious Pearl of the Gospel before the modern idols of secular rationalism and humanistic pride.
Just listen to the words of Rudolph Bultmann, a mid-twentieth-century theologian whose now-outmoded beliefs represent the classic “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach followed by a plethora of liberal theologians of his day—and ours!
“For modern man the mythological conception of the world, the conceptions of eschatology, of redeemer and of redemption, are over and done with. Is it possible to expect that we shall make a sacrifice of understanding, sacrificium intellectus, in order to accept what we cannot sincerely consider true—merely because such conceptions are suggested by the Bible?”
“Mythological” concepts for Bultmann included such “outmoded” beliefs as heaven and hell, Satan, angels, and even the Person of Christ when He is “. . . said to have been begotten of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. . . a great, preexistent heavenly being who became man for the sake of our redemption and took on himself suffering, even the suffering of the cross.”
Bultmann bridged the sacrificium intellectus by seeking to “demythologize” the Bible. He pulled out from the Scriptures all those embarrassing elements which had become a stumbling block to the Christian intellectuals of his day—men and women who were being humiliated by the humanistic attacks of the modernists. Then he boiled what was left down to those ethical concepts and general principles he felt would be more palatable to the current intelligentsia.
Although the conclusions Bultmann drew were unique to him, and to those unfortunate enough to follow this blind guide, his approach was highly symptomatic of that taken by almost all liberal theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whether it was the “Death of God” theology of Altizer or van Buren, the neo-Orthodoxy of Barth or Brunner, the heretical Quest for the Historical Jesus secular/historical approach of Schweitzer, the blasphemous radicalism of J.A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, or the endless hack-and-slash reductionism of the biblical higher critics spewing out of European and American religious institutions, the presuppositions always remained the same: the God of Orthodoxy is dead. Long live the god of modem rationalism.’
THE TORONTO BLESSING
How far away can you get from the dusty academic halls of Tubingen School in Germany and the arid rationalism of nonmythologically-minded men like Rudolph Bultmann?
How about the Airport Vineyard Church of Toronto, home of the second annual “Toronto Blessing” which occurred in Canada at the beginning of this year? It would probably be quite safe to predict that scarcely a soul in the crowd of approximately 4,000 ecstatic Christians was concerned about the possibility of making a sacrificium intellectus during the six days of this event.
What were they concerned about? A good laugh! Billed as the top tourist attraction of Toronto for 1994, this event has skyrocketed into the public limelight, garnering the attention of the worldwide media. Charismatic Christians came this year from all over the globe to “catch the fire” of the laughter movement which is currently sweeping charismatic circles.
Some of the more mundane aspects of this event included men and women collapsing to the floor in ecstatic bouts of laughter, and falling over backwards at the touch of a minister’s hand or the words of a sermon. Farther to the fringe could be found behavior such as barking, growling, and the emitting of animal noises, pastors pumping and scooping the air to transmit the Holy Spirit into the minds and hearts of the faithful, and reports of prophetic utterances on the part of some members warning doubters against the eternal dangers of denying the validity of this phenomenon.
How does this bizarre behavior fit into the jigsaw puzzle of modern existence we have been examining? The roots of the modern-day charismatic movement can be traced back to the early teachings of John Wesley and the revivalism of the American frontier. From Wesley’s “Methodists” sprang the Holiness movement—an attempt to purify Methodism of growing liberal tendencies. In the early 1900s, Methodists such as Kansas preacher Charles Parham began emphasizing the importance of “speaking in tongues” as a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. With the famous 1905 Azusa Street Revival of W.J. Seymour, the modern Pentecostal movement was in place.
While it would be wrong to label this movement and the later “neopentecostal” or charismatic movement as “anti-intellectual,” since expository preaching and teaching have been a part of the proceedings from the beginning, it would be quite true to say that in increasing doses, experientialism such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit have tended to become the spiritual hub around which everything else in the movement pivots. The “supernatural” aspects of the faith—signs, wonders, and divine visitations—have taken center stage every time.
The latest stirrings from Toronto have caused even some of the modern charismatic leaders to take time out for a supernatural reality check. Many are asking the question, “How much is too much?” In view of the bizarre manifestations the laughter movement is producing, some are beginning to question the true source of this behavior.