In Bringing the Hidden to Light, I read Frank Moore Cross’ “A Homily on the Book of Jonah”. The following passage stood out to me, from pages 46-47:
Today, belief in the fish story has often become a test of orthodoxy in fundamentalist or evangelical circles. Irony of ironies. A satire, a tract written against religious narrowness and bigotry, has become an instrument to impose obscurantism. In the New Testament, Luke 11:29-32, we read that Jesus inveighs against those who desire signs—miracle and mystery. He declares that this evil generation shall have no sign but the sign of Jonah. The sign in question is the preaching of Jonah, his call for repentance delivered to the people of Nineveh. Unhappily, the early church (Matt 12:38-42) made the “sign of Jonah” the three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (the time it took to get Jonah back to land) the three days and nights of Jesus in hell, preclude the resurrection. The sign of Jonah thus is turned from “preaching” into an “archetype of the resurrection.” This is a grotesque and ironic distortion of Jesus’ sermon against signs, changing the meaning of his words into their opposite.
It’s interesting how some Harvard professors feel as if they are persecuted by religious conservatism. When I was at Harvard, a Christian professor told me that he considered me a brother in Christ, despite our differences, and he hoped I would think the same of him. I was baffled by this and similar incidents! In my eyes, these professors were the people in power! They decided my fate—on grades, on whether or not I get into a specific program, etc. And yet, they were acting as if I had power. In my opinion, they were rebelling against the religious conservatism that was predominant at some point in their background. I doubt I was on their radar all that often, but, when I made clear to them that I was a conservative—which was basically me rebelling against Harvard liberalism—they tended to act like I was some sort of oppressor. I may be wrong on this, but that was my impression.
Granted, Frank Moore Cross is correct to say that there are many religious conservatives who have made belief in the fish story into a test of who is truly a Christian. I’m against that. And yet, suppose somebody at Harvard Divinity School said in a class that he believed in the fish story? How would he be received, after challenging liberal religious orthodoxy?
On the issue of signs, conservatives have argued that Jesus is not preaching against signs in Luke 11:29-32. Rather, he’s upset that his detractors are asking for a sign, after all the miracles he had performed! But Frank Moore Cross interprets Jesus differently: he says that Jesus is anti-sign here, since Jesus would like for people to repent in response to his message, not any miracles that he might do. I can buy this if the issue is morality: as Jesus preaches the importance of righteous living, he wants people to feel convicted out of a love for righteousness, not out of a regard for the miraculous. The Ninevites repented because Jonah’s preaching influenced them to realize that their acts of oppression were morally wrong and merited the wrath of God. Because Israel in Jesus’ time had a conscience and the Hebrew Bible, she should have had enough of a moral sensitivity to receive Jesus’ message of repentance out of a regard for righteous conduct, which was the content of Jesus’ message.
But when it comes to Jesus being the Son of God or the only way to heaven, yes, I think Jesus should do signs to demonstrate who he is. In John, Jesus says that there are two witnesses to his identity: himself, and the Father, who confirms Jesus’ status with signs. And yet, John also affirms that those who truly desire to do the will of God will follow Jesus. That seems to indicate that John would like for us to accept Jesus because we’re drawn to something non-miraculous, his character.
Do signs really prove anything? Non-Christian cultures have signs. “But Christianity is based on eyewitness testimony”, some might say. Ken Pulliam, in his post, The Christian Delusion: Chapter Eleven–Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable, refers to Richard Carrier, a scholar in ancient history, who points out that the historian Herodotus talks about miraculous events. Herodotus wrote not long after the events that he describes, sifts through his sources to determine which are reliable and unreliable, and consulted eyewitnesses. How can we say that the miracles in the New Testament happened, but not the ones in Herodotus? Both are reported in sources close to the events, and their veracity is based in some manner on a claim to have consulted eyewitness testimony.
For LooneyFundamentalist’s critique of Carrier, see here. Looney (if I am interpreting him correctly) attributes non-Christian miracles to demons, says that a miracle must be significant for him to accept it (you’d have to read his post to see what he means by that), and points to Christianity’s righteous fruits as evidence for its veracity. Looney lands close to the same place as Frank Moore Cross: we should accept Christianity on the basis of its righteous content, not so much the miraculous.
And yet, Looney is not a naturalist. The reason that the fish story has become such a litmus test among certain conservatives is that (by and large) conservatives are against those who deny the possibility of the miraculous. In their view, why should anyone deny that God is powerful enough to create a sea-monster to swallow and preserve Jonah?
Should one buy that Christianity is the only way on account of its good content—its righteousness? A way, perhaps. But the only way? There, I have issues, for other religions have righteous content as well.