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Sunbeams over clouds

In 1963, as a young, newly minted sociologist, Rodney Stark was given the chance of a lifetime. 

On behalf of the Survey Research Center of the University of California-Berkeley, he was granted the privilege of designing the first-ever major survey of religion in America.

Stark intended to ask randomly selected church members, among other things, if they had ever had a mystical or supernatural experience – something that entailed “visions, voices, messages and miracles.”  He suspected that these were fairly common occurrences, and was eager to invite ordinary people to tell their stories.

There was just one problem. 

The religious leaders who reviewed the draft of his survey – including Dr. Martin E. Marty, who at the time was one of America’s preeminent theologians – were outraged.  In their opinion, only people who were lunatics or otherwise spiritually unhinged would admit to such delusions.  Rank-and-file Christians might be so offended by such extreme ideas that they would abandon the survey altogether. 

Stark admits he was fortunate to be able to include just two vaguely worded questions regarding personal experiences.  Had the respondent ever had “the feeling that you were somehow in the presence of God,” or ever had “the sense of being tempted by the devil”? 

A whopping 69% of the respondents said they had encountered the presence of God, and 61% believed they had had to resist Satanic promptings.

The results did not surprise Stark.  But they shocked the theologians who had long before concluded that nothing supernatural was happening in America’s pews – for the simple reason that their theological presuppositions had convinced them of the implausibility of an invisible world.

For the better part of the last 75 years, a majority of our nation’s scientists and academics (including all too many religious leaders) have assumed that naturalism, not theism, tells the true story of the cosmos.

“In the beginning were the particles” has gradually supplanted “In the beginning, God.”  Intelligent people would surely come to appreciate this perspective.

But it’s clear that Hollywood has always had a keener awareness of public sentiment.  Americans display a never-ending appetite for features about the strange and the supernatural.  Every October, in the run-up to Halloween, streaming services highlight films featuring zombies, demons, poltergeists, monsters, and Jamie Lee Curtis.  At the healthier end of the spiritual spectrum, series like The Chosen reveal an enduring hunger for dramatizations of the life of Jesus.

Naturalism may prevail in certain ivory towers.  But supernaturalism is alive and well in sanctuaries and family rooms.   

In his book Why God?, Rodney Stark – now at the end of a storied career as a sociologist and historian of religion – cites a number of recent surveys that indicate almost half of those who claim to follow Jesus have had a firsthand experience of healing, divine guidance, or a “confirming” sense of God’s presence. 

In 1994, 78% of respondents to a Gallup Poll said they believed in miracles.  In 2005, 54% of respondents told the Baylor Religion Survey that they felt they had been protected from harm by a guardian angel.

Detractors continue to insist these must be delusions. 

The eminent cosmologist Carl Sagan was particularly incensed that anyone could claim to have experienced a miracle.  Don’t people know that miracles violate the laws of physics?  Stark declines to assess the validity of the accounts he hears.  But he points out, “What Sagan could not seem to grasp was that nothing qualifies as a miracle unless it violates the laws of physics.”

After a press conference in which Stark mentioned the fact that millions of “sane and honest people” claim to have had out-of-the-ordinary experiences, a television reporter took him aside.

She said that when she had been pregnant, she had stepped off a curb and started to fall.  “Two hands grabbed me and put me back on the curb.  But there was nobody there.” 

As a pastor, I did not lead what anyone would call a miracle ministry.  But miracles seemed to happen anyway.  In the midst of our church going about its daily business of paying attention to God in a confusing and often disappointing world, cancers disappeared.  Lost hearing was restored.  Prayers were answered.  Spiritual oppression was lifted.  In their final moments, dying individuals reported seeing loved ones.

A man told me he had heard God or an angel speak audibly.  The voice spoke just four words, but they were the words he needed to hear.  A shy woman recounted an extraordinary vision.  Someone reported to me that she was awakened in the middle of the night by an overwhelming urge to pray “for something that was happening in the church” – at the very time something dramatic was indeed happening at the church.

All of these events were surprises – gifts of grace.  Their outcome was a sense of awe and a renewed commitment to pursue God.

One of modernity’s points of pride is that people-in-the-know have the world all figured out.  Surely we live in a disenchanted universe.

But what if they have somehow missed the One Thing – the One Person – who is worth knowing above everything else?

If that’s so – if God is really God – then all bets are off.