XFiles: Retroactive miracles

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 71/2: “A Philosopher’s Journey of Faith, Part Two”)

It’s testimony time! Before we get to William Lane Craig and his story of how God uniquely blessed him, I’d like to tell a joke. It seems a hunter was out in the woods one day and came across a bullseye painted on a tree, with a single arrow dead center in the middle of it. The bullseye was rather small, and even the tree itself was not too large, so the hunter was impressed. As he continued through the woods, he found more and more of these small bullseyes, each with a single arrow in the dead center. “Clearly,” he thought, “I’ve stumbled onto the domain of a master archer. I must find him and see if he can teach me to shoot as well as he.”

After some searching, he came upon a young man with a bow, a quiver of arrows, small pail of red paint, and a brush. “Are you the one that’s been shooting all those bullseyes?” asked the hunter. “I am,” replied the youth. “Such skill in one so young!” declared the hunter, “Will you teach me?” “Surely,” the youth replied. And with that he set down his paint and brush, pulled out an arrow, drew back his bow, and shot it into a thickly-wooded part of the forest, where it struck a tree. He then took his paint and brush and painted a neat bullseye all around where the arrow had landed.

And now, at the risk of incurring some serious déjà vu, let’s look at how God’s answers to Craig’s prayers have been so remarkably on target.

In “A Philosopher’s Journey of Faith, Part One,” Craig shared how a businessman with connections to his wife’s family had graciously volunteered to fund Craig’s post-graduate training. In Part Two, he shares how things went as his schoolwork drew to a close.

As Jan and I were nearing the completion of my doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Birmingham in England, our future path was again unclear to us. I had sent out a number of applications for teaching positions in philosophy at American universities but had received no bites. We didn’t know what to do or where to go.

I’ll summarize the next part of the story, but I wanted to quote this part to highlight the fact that Craig is actually pursuing several different options at this point. Do you think it occurred to him that perhaps he ought to pray about his future? It would be pretty odd if he did not, given his character, beliefs, and ambitions. And yet no mention is made of asking God to bless any of these applications and grant him a position as a philosophy professor at a university. He wants God to do something, but he’s not painting any bullseyes on any particular tree, at least as far as he tells us today. Coincidence? Let’s see how the story develops.

His wife asked him what he’d like to do, and he mentioned a German theologian he’d like to study under. Immediately God went to work and looked up all the grants and fellowships, and found two that—I’m sorry, I misread my notes, it was his wife that got busy and found the two fellowships. One was a grant offered by a German agency to come study at German universities, which was nice but too small to cover their living expenses. The second, however, was a real plum, as they say: in addition to funding his research, it also paid for four months of language training, followed by help with housing, a travel allowance, pocket money, and even a cruise on the Rhine! The sponsor, Humboldt-Stiftung, was seeking to promote research by foreign scientists and scholars at German institutions, as part of a program to improve Germany’s postwar cultural image.

At this point, Craig begins telling us about how he wanted that fellowship, and how hard he prayed for it, and how unlikely it seemed to him that his application would be given the same consideration as the applications of physicists and biologists and other scientific scholars. He makes no mention of having any similar hopes and desires for the other options he was exploring, nor does he try to make it sound implausible that an American university would hire a new philosophy professor from the doctoral program of a prestigious theological school. Only this story gets the dramatic build-up—the tiny bullseye painted on the slender tree. Can you guess why?

In true dramatic fashion, he leaves the story hanging at this point. The foundation offering the grant would need 9 months to evaluate it, and meanwhile they needed a place to live and some way to feed themselves. His wife expressed a desire to learn to speak French, so they applied to a missionary school in France. The program, however, was only offered to missionaries, and was more than they could afford, and they were initially turned down. Craig wrote back to them, though, and expressed his desire to “serve the Lord” in some way, even though he wasn’t officially sponsored by any missionary board.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going too well. “Time passed,” writes Craig, “and none of my other efforts to find a job had materialized. We had shipped all of our belongings back to my parents’ home in Illinois. In one week we had to move out of our house in Birmingham, and we had nowhere to go.” Good thing he’d kept his paintbrush in the bucket, and left the trees alone, eh? But then the missionary school wrote back and said they could attend, and could pay whatever they could afford, and they’d trust the Lord to provide the rest. Woohoo! Let me grab my brush and… there, bullseye! They were off to France. I’ll let Craig tell the next part.

Our French language training was to end in August, and as of July we still hadn’t heard a decision from the Humboldt-Stiftung. We were getting nervous. (Jan has since formulated a saying that aptly describes our lives: “The Lord is almost always late!”) Then one day we received a letter from the Humboldt-Stiftung.

You can guess what it said, so I’ll spare you the little melodrama about having to use a French/German dictionary to find out he’d been accepted. But I wanted to focus just for a moment on the parenthetical remark above, about how the Lord is “almost always late.” It seems to me this explains a lot about miracles.

Look at what it’s saying: God is “late.” What does that mean? It means there’s something you want, and you’re not getting it, and you’re feeling frustrated and anxious. That’s the emotional state you’re in when you experience a “miracle.” You’ve been under stress for a while, because you haven’t got something important that you need or want, and then when you get it, hooray, God finally delivered. Why isn’t God ever on time? Because if you try for something, and obtain it without any trouble or delay, where’s the stress? The ultimate outcome is the same either way, but when God is “late,” it feels more like a miracle, because of your emotional state. So it’s really your emotion, rather than any overt action on God’s part, that leads you to conclude a miracle has occurred. But we’re getting a little ahead of our story.

So Craig gets his fellowship, and goes off to study theology with Wolfhart Pannenberg, and surprise, surprise, some of the theological texts are in French. Apparently there were Christians in France at some point or another, and even though Craig had no idea that studying in Europe might involve reading more than German and English, the Lord knew that he was going to need French, and that’s why He made Mrs. Craig suddenly want to study French, and why He hypnotized the administrators at the missionary school and forced them to admit a pair of non-missionaries who could not pay their full bill. And fortunately, as the Lord well knew, no significant theological works have ever been written in Spanish, Italian, or Latin, so really, German, French and English were all he needed.

Yeah, that’s just a bit snarky, I know, but there’s a certain narcissism in this particular interlude that’s a bit annoying. “I’m William Lane Craig, and I’m so important to God that He meddled in the lives and business affairs of His own servants, and even of my wife, just to make sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of my teacher by admitting that I did not speak French.” “I’m William Lane Craig, and I’m so important to God that He got me a cushy, expensive grant so that I could pursue my heart’s desire while millions of His children cry out to Him in poverty and hunger and suffering, and hear only stony silence in reply.”

I don’t want to go too far down that tangent, but it does seem to explain why Craig is so generous in his offhand dismissal of the suffering God allows. Why should he care? The “suffering” God has permitted in his life apparently consists of having to wait for people to hand him large wads of cash. Oh the pain.

But enough of that. The real lesson here, I think, is the insight Craig inadvertently gives us into the anatomy of a miracle. It’s retroactive: you don’t paint the bullseye until you see where the arrow hits. Had his life story gone differently, like if he’d gotten a faculty position right out of grad school, he’d have painted a different set of bullseyes, and we’d have heard about how much he wanted to teach at that school, and all the reasons why his acceptance was delayed and seemed unlikely, and then poof, God intervenes—in some way which Craig never quite describes—and he gets it. The key part of the miracle (besides the emotional state) is in not painting the bullseye too soon.

Of course, if you do paint a bullseye and then God misses the target, it’s not that God really missed, it’s that you painted the wrong bullseye! That’s called “testing God,” or at least, that’s what you call it if it turns out not to happen. Everything is retroactive. You see what happens first, then you announce what the target was. That’s why God will relieve Craig’s suffering and give him his heart’s desire, but He won’t feed the starving, or heal the sick, or defend the weak. Craig is in a privileged position, materially speaking, and therefore he naturally gets the benefits, with or without God’s help. But the underprivileged? Well, not many good things happen to them, so there’s not much God can take credit for. Even God can’t make the paint-the-bullseye-later trick work when you’re in a desert and there’s no trees for your arrow to hit.

Next week, we return to the apologetics content and Craig’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus. Stay tuned.

5 Responses to “XFiles: Retroactive miracles”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    “.. memories are made of this, poo-poop, the memoriies You gave-a-me..”

    Then a smooth transition to:-

    “When You Were Young And Your Heart Was An Open Book
    You Used To Say “Live And Let Live”
    (You Know You Did, You Know You Did, You Know You Did)
    But If This Ever Changing World In Which We’re Livin’
    Makes You Give In And Cry
    Say “Live And Let Die”
    “Live And Let Die”
    “Live And Let Die”
    “Live And Let Die””

  2. Anonymous Says:

    “That’s the emotional state you’re in when you experience a “miracle.” You’ve been under stress for a while, because you haven’t got something important that you need or want, and then when you get it, hooray, God finally delivered.”

    I’m glad you mentioned the business of stress. I have always assumed that when something nice happened to Christians, they automatically declared it to be a miracle, just because their religious peers expected them to do so. Now I see that some of them actually believe that a true miracle has occurred! They’re dumber than I thought.

  3. Michael Says:

    “That’s the emotional state you’re in when you experience a “miracle.” You’ve been under stress for a while, because you haven’t got something important that you need or want, and then when you get it, hooray, God finally delivered.”

    I’m glad you mentioned the business of stress. I have always assumed that when something nice happened to Christians, they automatically declared it to be a miracle, just because their religious peers expected them to do so. Now I see that some of them actually believe that a true miracle has occurred! They’re dumber than I thought.

  4. Wanderin' Weeta Says:

    A miracle has occurred when something that happens was impossible in the natural world, and supernatural aid is needed. But so-called “miracles” do happen, often.

    How? There are three simple steps to “get your miracle”: first, redefine “impossible” to mean “difficult” or “delayed”. Next, try to get something: send in your applications, take the antibiotics, re-examine your budget, etc. Then, when nothing happens immediately, it automatically becomes impossible. So, third, when finally the meds begin to work, the application is accepted, … , it had to be supernatural! It was a miracle! Praise your deity of choice!

  5. Skeptic Griggsy Says:

    Aquinas paints the bulls-eye after the archer shoots the arrow in his fifth way- his teleological argument! He begs the question of directed outcomes.
    Some great philosopher who loved auto-da-fes!


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