Is there such a thing as a secular miracle?

Christ's Pieces this morning opposite the church 
This question came to be formed in my mind this week for three reasons. The first was the sermon delivered here by my Lutheran colleague and friend, Oliver Fischer, in the ecumenical service on Good Friday; the second was David Cameron's controversial speech about Britain being - in his opinion - a Christian country; the third was that, today, the current two living Popes are declaring as saints Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. These thee events allow me to tell you a story that I don't think I would otherwise to tell you.

Let's start with Cameron's claim. His speech was short but, to my mind, quite worrying. The reason for this was the clear, but subtle, promotion of Christian "belief" in his speech and not what we might call a generally, Christian derived "praxis" or "ethics." The key clue in his speech that shows this to be the case was his praise for the running of "Alpha Courses" for prisoners and other offenders. (It's not that I'm concerned that such courses exist but rather that their use in the public sector is being encouraged).

Along with John Vincent of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, I agree that "The Alpha course, because of its didactic style, its narrow-mindedness and its closed nature, doesn't facilitate alternative views". He goes on to say that, in consequence, it "leads people into a self-centred religion which is not the same as genuine Christian discipleship." A former Alpha course leader in Sheffield echoes my own experience about the way the course is taught. She said: "It became clear very early on that what Alpha was really about was high-pressure selling of a very narrow evangelical agenda, which dismisses and denies whole swathes of Christian teaching and tradition" and she went on to add that "It's very manipulative. It uses leading questions to make people assent to things that really aren't as clear cut as the course suggests." (- including, of course, miracles). All the above quotes can be found in this article for BBC News.

Now, in considering Cameron's claim, I am making what I hope is a reasonable assumption - namely that he has done his homework here and that he actually knows what Alpha Courses are about and that he doesn't just think they are cosy, liberal chats over a shared meal about generally being nice to each other. They are most certainly not that - heed well the use in the quotes I have just offered you of the adjectives "didactic", "narrow-minded", "closed" and "manipulative".

Now, I don't know whether it is more worrying that, as the Prime Minister of a secular country he is promoting Alpha Courses in the public sector out of either ignorance or real knowledge of them. Either way, I think his support and praise of them is worrying and something I think we as a religious community rooted in the liberal Christian tradition should be deeply concerned about.

However, the letter of protest (which, by the way, our own Unitarian Chief Officer, Derek McAuley, signed), although I agreed with its general power and thrust, worries me almost as much as Cameron's speech because, in articulating what feels like a near-absolute "no" to Cameron's claim that Britain is "a Christian country", the letter's authors and signers seem to be forgetting that, although, we are certainly no longer a country of Christian *belief* or formal religious affiliation (see Rowan William's expression of a similar thought here), we are most certainly a country whose secular, liberal, open democratic culture is (or was) a coherent playing-out of liberal Christianity. As I have suggested on a number of occasions from this lectern, drawing heavily on the work of our neighbour Don Cupitt, what we have in the United Kingdom, and also in many places across Europe, is something we can meaningfully call a "secular Christianity" - i.e. a non-supernatural way of working and living through certain key aspects of the Christian tradition.

One accessible way of presenting what this means is to point out that it is perfectly possible to be both a certain kind of atheist and a committed supporter of the secular liberal Christian tradition; it is perfectly possible to be both a certain kind of Muslim and a committed supporter of the secular liberal Christian tradition; it is also possible to be a certain kind of Jew, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Pagan or even Christian, and still be a committed supporter of the secular liberal Christian tradition. Our secular, liberal Christian tradition's general openness to other beliefs and disbeliefs about God and/or Nature didn't come out of nowhere but out of a particular and distinctive evolution of Christianity. (An evolution I would point out has by no imaginable means concluded which means that, one day, it may become sufficiently different to be called by another name.)

Now, from where I'm standing both Cameron and the writers of the protest letter have forgotten this very, very important historical, cultural and evolutionary fact and it seems to me that the way they are proceeding sets up a very unhelpful general situation.  

OK. So hold on to the thought that there might be some middle, evolutionary ground (called at the moment "Secular Christianity") between Cameron and the letter writers and signers.

 Now we can turn to some words of Pastor Oliver Fischer given here on Good Friday during the ecumenical service. At one point in his sermon he asked us to:

Cross on the wall of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
". . . step under the cross and find our own place there. We have to use our imagination to do this, especially since in this church we have no cross in front of us. Although: there is a nearly miraculous story of a cross appearing on the wall of the apse - can you spot it? [see photo on the right] What an allegory of the cross this is, that is always there. If you choose it or not, we encounter the cross on our way through life and have to bear it ourselves."

Although there was much in his sermon involving certain Christian beliefs that I, personally, could not agree with, I was powerfully and positively struck by the way he used the story of the cross appearing in this church. But, as he told it to the sizeable ecumenical gathering, I realised that despite having told it to Oliver, I have never told it to you as a congregation. Cameron's speech, Oliver's sermon and the events today in Rome have, together, given me a positive reason to tell it to you now.

Once upon a time, shortly after I came to Cambridge (in 2000), this church had a huge argument over whether it should maintain its basic liberal Christian identity or begin to abandon it entirely in favour of some other stance. In the midst of our painful disagreement something very odd happened, a cross began to appear on the wall of the church! A couple of people, overly enthusiastically on the Christian side of things, took this to be a real miracle, an actual and clear sign that God wanted this church to stay Christian.

Despite being chief among those who wanted to maintain our basic liberal Christian identity this reading of such an unexpected phenomenon, frankly, struck me as both completely incredible and also, I have to say, highly embarrassing. Not surprisingly I took every opportunity to point out to those who became aware of it that the cross-bar was clearly caused by our minister emeritus' (Frank Walker) head where, for twenty-four years, he used to rest it during the musical offering. The vertical-bar, on the other hand, was clearly formed by a wholly coincidental lightening of the wood grain which runs in that direction; I put this latter phenomenon down to the extra use of heating in the church due to the starting of an evening service. All in all, I said, the cross was clearly not a cross at all but *just* wear, tear and drying out. But, for all my protestations, as you can see, the resultant wear, tear and drying out still looks damnably like a cross and, over the years, as the vertical bar has got lighter and lighter, it's come to look ever more and more like that.

Now what was I, are we, to make of this? Or, perhaps better, the question was how might this complex of phenomena usefully be used by us who, as my comment's about Cameron's speech were designed to show, occupy a creative but still skeptical middle ground between Christian belief on the one hand and the complete abandonment of a Christian identity on the other.

Hume's "Maxim" from "On Miracles"
Some might be tempted to say that, since the cross is *just* physical wear, tear and drying out it should simply be ignored. After all, we do not - or at least most of us here do not - hold the kind of Christian belief that says there exists the a supernatural being called God who intervenes in the world in this kind of miraculous fashion. In terms of many forms of Christian belief this means we clearly cannot be Christians. We are a religious tradition which, when it sees something that some want to call a supernatural miracle, wants itself to point instead to some more credible natural, physical cause. It is this that reveals us as very much "children" of David Hume.

But, as I have pointed out, even when in the strongest way possible we affirm the natural causes of this cross' appearance on the wall of our church, it cannot be denied that still looks like a cross and, much more than that, that it was a cross which began to appear in a church in the midst of an argument about whether it should maintain or abandon its liberal Christian identity.

The key thing to be completely aware of is the irresistible power of context which meant that the cross' appearance simply could not at the time be experienced or interpreted as *JUST* wear, tear and drying out.

The cross means something in our culture over and above the simply physical and it's cultural, symbolic meaning is not going to go away any time soon. As a symbol it is carved unimaginably deep in the heart of our culture. When we see its shape, resonances and echoes are inevitably set-off in us - this is the way we are made and, in the same way we cannot strike a bell without it ringing, we cannot see a cross without it setting off resonances in us. To pretend otherwise is delusional.

In the context of our local church's difficult disagreement back in 2000 the appearance of the cross in our midst was striking and it most certainly set a few of us ringing as we thought through the important implications of the struggle with all its rights and wrongs. Not surprisingly when I notice it on the wall behind me it still sets me ringing and powerfully reminds me of a very important struggle and period in my life and the life of this church - it speaks of the cross (of our cultural Christianity) which we (like Simon of Cyrene in his own very different context and with a related, but very different, kind of cross?) were both forced to, and also chose to, bear.

But, let's be clear, with the exception of the two people I mentioned earlier, no member of this church who has heard the story has ever really believed that a miracle occurred, that a supernatural being called God put this cross here. No! Everyone has believed it to be the product of wholly natural causes.

On a day when two Popes are being made into saints because of the occurrence certain claimed miracles which occurred in their name I'd like to make a small scale, local protest against such a world view by being clear that I stand alongside Hume and state that the appearance of our cross was not a miracle - a supernatural God did not intervene in our very human disagreement nor in the very human process of healing which slowly followed.  

But, although the appearance of this individual cross may not have been a miracle the appearance of a natural world in which such a cross (or any religious symbol) can appear, in which also appear countless different people, cultures, religions, birds, flowers, Popes, Unitarian minsters, and cities like Rome and Cambridge (with all their extraordinary unique histories and culture) - now that surely deserves the name of "miracle." For the "miraculous" existence of this natural world, that there is something not nothing, I give the greatest of thanks. There is no need for an Alpha Course or of the Saints, or the words of some skeptic like me, to teach us about this secular (i.e. worldly) miracle - all that is required to experience this is an openness to the surpassing wonder of life and existence in all its diversity.
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