How could Jesus walk on water?
The question is both absurd and current. We are engaged, it seems, in a time when religious narratives are being used to test orthodoxy. The effect of such tests is to polarize religious communities. This is going on in all worldwide religions, but I will limit my suggestions to Christianity with references to Thai Buddhism. Really, the question of whether Jesus actually walked on water or whether the Buddha pacified a stampeding elephant or whether Thor traded an eye for a translation of runes are all misdirected questions based on inconsistent assumptions. Specifically, the assumption is that we are talking about the same thing today as the stories are talking about. Walking on water is the same thing whether it is on the Sea of Galilee in 30 A.D. or Lake Michigan in 2018, isn’t it?
If we are getting mired into the question of “How”, what we must be overlooking is the type of narrative we are reading. It is ironic that even small children are able to tell the difference between beings in real life and ones in stories that begin “once upon a time.”
There are 3 types of narrative writing that often become confused. We can call them historical stories, legends and religious narratives. Consider the differences between narratives of 3 heroes, Alexander, Ulysses and Hercules.
Alexander was a warrior whose campaigns were extraordinary in that they were beyond what other generals had done. But he was a historical figure from a particular time and place who took actions that left enduring physical traces and results. None of the events of his life were done outside of real time and real space. Stories of Alexander’s conquests were historical and gave rise to the first rigorous attempts at writing historical accounts in Western civilization. Alexander lived in historical time, as do we.
Ulysses was a hero, at least some of whose adventures took place outside of real space. On the way back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy, his ship and crew were blown through a profound mist into a liminal space where they encountered beings that were unlike ordinary human beings or creatures of nature. His experiences were not likely to be repeated by anyone else, ever again. Those experiences exposed human frailty and vulnerability and reflected human proclivities, but they were not morality tales. In order to propose how they happened at all, Homer fell back on the trope that it was all because of the vindictiveness of petulant Posidon, god of the sea, and the reluctance of Athena to intervene. Socrates thought Homer got the message wrong; from Socrates’ philosophical perspective the point of such narratives had to be about more than entertainment and extraordinary story-telling. Nevertheless, Ulysses was probably a real king and hero whose stories Homer told ambiguously as happening in both historical and legendary time.
Hercules was an entirely legendary hero, whom Alexander chose to believe had lived in the dim historical past (before Ulysses) and whose armor Alexander expropriated for its symbolic value. Neither the time nor the location of Hercules’ exploits could be identified for sure. But Hercules was supposed to have lived at some time just out of reach. All his labors had super-natural elements that removed them from being seriously considered by others in real time and space. On the other hand, those labors of Hercules lacked the element of establishing a frame of reference for coming generations that stories of divine-heroes have. The stories of Hercules do not tell us how we have been rescued. They are legends.
Notice that those 3 types of heroes lived in two types of time, historical time and legendary time.
Horus, heroic son of Osiris, however, lived in a third type of time, religious time. When Horus sacrificed his eye in battle with his uncle Set to rescue his father, Horus described theological conditions under which human beings could make sense out of their life and death. The stories of that divine family were informative. They were also formative, giving rise to rites that gave human life meaning from birth to death, that gave the annual seasons meaning from one flood season to the next, and gave society meaning from Pharaoh to slave.
The stories of divine-heroes all take place outside the stultifying perimeters of the ordinary. Just as religious time is beyond the natural restrictions of time, so the operating principles in religious time are extra-ordinary. In religious time natural principles do not apply, nor do the principles that describe exceptions to natural principles in real-time. When some beneficial result that defies natural law occurs in real-time to living beings, it is called a miracle. When that sort of result occurs in religious time it is a sign; it is indicative of an implicit meaning. Its verifiability or mundane “factuality” is irrelevant. Its value is how it illuminates an aspect of the identity and character of the divine-hero.
For the purposes of this limited discourse on religious narrative there are three types of narrative depending on three types of time in which the stories took place. But those stories are interpreted and reflected upon (and sometimes re-narrated) from particular historic eras. Those eras are often labeled such things as Classical Greek, the Age of Belief, or the Age of Enlightenment based on philosophical patterns of thought. Similarly, as with succeeding schools of philosophy, each literary age found the previous age flawed, and the ones before that even more mystifying.
Before delving more deeply into what is involved with religious-time, let’s consider a particularly clear example of this sort of narrative dexterity.
Throughout northern Thailand there are mountains that are considered sacred, particularly if they have caves. One of those is Chiang Dao Mountain and cave, about 70 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Prof. Donald Swearer and colleagues from Chiang Mai University have explored these sites and analyzed legendary-histories written about them. The chronicles include several about Doi Ang Salung (literally, “Water Basin Mountain”) Chiang Dao. As a whole, the stories of Doi Ang Salung tell about events that took place while and after the Buddha (together with various disciples and King Asoka) traveled throughout northern Thailand often leaving behind a physical relic or footprint with instructions to maintain those sites as a shrine or build a temple there. Swearer comments:
Popular chronicles such as the Legend of Water Basin Mountain are fundamentally mythic in nature. The primary purpose of the chronicle is to convey the normative belief in the sacralizing presence of the Buddha in northern Thailand, rather than relating a historically accurate account. Consequently, the text ignores such rational questions as how the Buddha and his monks could have traveled to northern Thailand or how King Asoka (third century B.C.E.) could appear on the same historical stage with the Buddha. [Swearer, D.K. et al, 2004, Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and their Legends. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, p. 95 (emph. added)].
In those legendary tales a typical event was when a person or mythic being asked for a device to help coming generations remember the Buddha’s having been there, a hair was given (or a footprint impressed in a rock); the hair was encased in a bamboo casket and buried in the ground a sacred number of cubits deep; then a Buddha statue or chedi was erected on the spot and if the site was maintained and venerated the people would prosper. Therefore, it is sustained veneration (a collective act of faith) that verifies the site as sacred and puts that spot as on a map of sacred space. Proof that the Buddha has been there in otherwise unverifiable legendary time is the sustained veneration of the site by a community of faithful people. It is not coincidental that these legends also validate that land and its political rulers as blessed by the Buddha.
Nobody who heard the narrative of the Buddha’s encounter with the Lawa farmer in Chiang Dao was bothered about how the event could have “really happened,” or how the Emperor Asoka could have accompanied the Lord Buddha on his journeys in Thailand when the emperor was born centuries too late to have met the Buddha in person. That was set aside so that the legend could communicate its message connecting the present to the primordial past that exists eternally in religious time as long as believers sustain their faith.
In the logic of religious reality, belief is a priori. Sacred narratives provide information for believers and have nothing to say to non-believers.
How are these legends interpreted? How do they rise above the level of entertaining fiction? How can they function to validate regimes? Historical accounts do not require an element of unverifiable belief. Battlefields yield evidence of past battles and accounts tend to be cross-referenced. Legends make no claims to be about historical events that are independently verifiable. They are stories that infer and allude to beliefs held by people in a previous era as having unspecified elements of truth. But they function as cultural heritage of a people. The legends say, “We are people who own these stories.”
A vignette: Not long ago a social activist was arrested (and later released with charges dropped) for having suggested two years before that a certain famous battle between Siamese and Burmese kings on elephants should be reviewed for historical validity. It is against the law to criticize the reputation of the King of Thailand or his family. Members of the military charged the scholar with undermining the account which they recall to uphold their role as protectors of Thai culture. Most of the confusion in the media and in court was caused by a lack of clarity about whether the story was history or legend and what the difference is. The military use the story as legend to identify elements of culture, but insist it is a true historical fact. The scholar argued that if the story from nearly 500 years ago is historical the facts should speak for themselves and can stand review. The scholar was saying that the military can’t legitimately have it both ways. Either the story is legend or it is history.
The same thing can be said about arguments over the narratives of Jesus.
If the stories of Jesus Christ are legends they serve to link Christians as people with a shared narrative. They serve a cultural purpose. If the stories are history they must be able to withstand scrutiny not based on faith alone. If the stories are legendary or religious, charges that they are scientifically absurd are invalid.
Now, as to the third type of narrative, religious narratives in religious-time: if the stories of Jesus Christ are religious narratives, they have the purpose not only of identifying a key aspect of the culture of faithful Christians, but also key aspects of the character of Jesus Christ as the divine-hero. Each episode adds something illuminating about the character of Jesus as divine-hero. To adapt Swearer’s postulate, “The primary purpose of the stories of Jesus is to convey the normative belief in the sacralizing presence of the Christ in the world.”
The account of Jesus walking on the sea is not primarily about walking on water, but about who Jesus Christ is as a divine-hero. The story tells people who already believe Jesus is the divine Christ, that one way Jesus is Christ is that laws of nature are not obstacles for Christ the rescuer. The story may have other meanings for people in different circumstances. One feature of narratives from religious time is that they can be adapted, provided that the adaptations conform to the principles of religious reality of the narratives as a whole. The story of Jesus walking on the stormy sea and Peter trying to walk to him could not, for example, be used to illustrate the morality of same-sex marriages. That would be incoherent. But the story can certainly give encouragement to a Christian beset by emotional storms.
To reiterate, events ascribed to religious time conform to the purposes and principles of religious time. Those narratives have nothing to do with proving to listeners that the hero was divine. That is accepted to begin with. The narrative illuminates an aspect of that divinity so listeners can expand their faith with particulars about the divine-hero’s character. If the narrative includes eye-witnesses to the action of the divine hero in religious time, the witnesses’ reaction is typically described as either tenuously recognizing the meaning of the sign they have witnessed or total failure to see the sign as having the meaning it had. Full understanding typically comes later.
Listeners to the narratives have the advantage of already knowing they are hearing about a divine hero whose story is set in religious time. The first auditors and readers of stories of Jesus were by no means simple and stupid as they are often represented nowadays. They knew how to tell the difference between a religious story and a legendary or historical one. They knew a narrative was set in religious time if the story begins with the birth of the divine hero in some way that is super-natural, such as a virgin birth or an instantaneous maturation at birth. Religious narrative proceeds in religious time with accounts of astounding actions and the convoking of a cadre of believers. The effect of these actions is to confirm the identity of the divine hero and his or her mission. The narrative signals the end of religious time with the departure of the divine hero in a way that defies death as we know it, and transports the divine hero into universal time, time without end.
Religious narratives of a divine-hero often allude to prior religious narratives. That can be very helpful to discern the fundamental meaning of the narrative. Astute interpreters find those links. They help construct theological understanding. Were there other individuals who were cast upon stormy seas and needed a savior to rescue them and send them on a mission to continue the work of the divine-hero? What about Jonah? These connections, too, make it clear that the narratives are set in religious time.
The apostle Paul was persistent in making connections between the saving work of Jesus Christ and prior accounts of the nature of that work. But he was quite unconcerned with accounts of Jesus as divine-hero. Paul was writing to communities of real people in real places in their own time. Their issues were immediate. He avoided confusing references to details about the life of Jesus in religious-time. The narratives of Jesus Christ as divine-hero were for edifying people whose faith in Christ would be enhanced by stories set in religious time.
The narratives of Jesus set in religious time have no answers to questions like, “Did Jesus really walk on water?” “Did he really rise from the dead?” “Did he really turn water into wine?”
The question to ask about a narrative of Jesus is, “What does it tell us about God?”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.