Last summer I taught for a week on the Bible and Culture course at Schloss Mittersil in Austria. One of the students had a background in philosophy and had a deep grounding in Hegel and his successors. He came to the course deeply distressed by his reading of 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.
Feuerbach was an influential secularist whose thought was widely held to have demolished religion. He claimed to show that the Christian God and Heaven are merely the projection of our own best ideals. Therefore God only exists in as much as He is the object of our faith and mature reflection will reveal that to be truly human we need to replace love for God with love for Man and faith in God with faith in Man.
The thing that troubled my student most of all was the argument that belief, plausibility and validating structures can arise around anything that is firmly believed, and from inside it is impossible to tell whether they are true or not. That is, we set about validating what we believe, consciously and sub-consciously, to the point where we inevitably deceive ourselves about reality. The argument is that there are no certainties and no assurance from within the system because it is demonstrably impossible to tell whether what we believe is true or not.
His conclusion was that he could not tell whether his faith was sophisticated self-delusion, validated and maintained by the expectations of the faith community in which he was involved. After all to believe differently would put him outside the belief structure of the community with the possibility of losing his friends. Isn't that a pretty powerful motivator for comtinuing to belief despite evidence? He was beginning to conclude that everything he believed about God was nothing more than make-believe.
This unusual instance came back to me as I was thinking about the confrontation between Paul and Elymas in Acts 13. Luke tells us that the pro-consul, Sergius-Paulus, was an intelligent man who was interested in the gospel, but it was when God worked supernaturally that he believed the teaching. Note, he didn't believe the miracle, but the teaching. But the miracle had a powerful validating effect.
It has often been argued that Acts miracles are signs of the apostles. That is, they act to affirm the apostles as they teach and hence, by extension, the canon of scripture. When the canon is closed the miracles have done their job and are hence-forward redundant. You don't need miracles, it has been argued, when there is a finished New Testament.
It seems much better to me to argue that the miracles were not signs of the apostles (and therefore really only useful to validate their teaching), so much as signs of the gospel. That is, they demonstrated that the ascended Christ has poured out the Spirit, in order that God be glorified through the Church taking the gospel to all nations in His power.
What the Acts 13 miracle did was provide external, obvious, physical, irrefutable validation for someone who God clearly knew needed it. Praise God that He does this kind of thing. We can think of Gideon, for example. I wouldn't want to make the case that we should normalise Gideon "putting out fleeces", or that we should expect miracles to always and necessarily accompany evangelism. But I do think that God is very gracious in helping people towards faith. Might we not argue that miracles are potentially a powerful antidote to the argument that we have deluded ourselves with sophisticated and self-validating Feuerbachian make-believe?
I want to leave this post open. Because I don't know quite what pastoral advice I should have given to that philosophy student. I am reluctant to suggest he should have been seeking God for miracles, although maybe he was something of a Gideon. I think that belongs in God's gracious purview. Anyone like to come back with any thoughts or advice?