( 2017 ) Yujin Nagasawa, Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xix + 115pp, ISBN 978-0-198-74721-5
In the words of the late, great, Max Bygraves, I want to tell you a (true) story. A friend, let’s call him Jason, had just started coming to the church I help lead. He had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, was going to see the consultant, and asked for prayer. The next week he turns up, face beaming, ‘The consultant says the cancer has gone – it must be the Lord!’ (I’m précising his words, and his excitement).
So a couple of disclaimers – I go to church, and I have seemingly been witness to a miracle. For some of those reading this review, that will be the end of the matter – I’m biased. But when anything is discussed, or written about as in this book, which relates to non-fictional descriptions of the ‘supernatural’, we’re all biased. Perhaps our scepticism kicks in, and the ‘believer’ is gullible; perhaps our belief kicks in, and the sceptic has been blinded by the devil.
So to the book, which I enjoyed (and not just because it’s brief – it covers a lot of ground in a few pages). Nagasawa has a fairly detached view of the whole subject, which neither denigrates the believer nor exalts the sceptic. His background as Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion means that his experience is broad and analytical.
There are 5 chapters: ‘what are miracles’, which looks at a wide range of experiences and objects (e.g. a toasted sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary) that people have regarded as miraculous; ‘what miracles are reported in religious texts’, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu as well as Jewish/Christian; ‘why do so many people believe in miracles’ – a look at the possible psychological reasons; ‘is it rational to believe in miracles’, substantially based on a model devised by David Hume (Scottish philosopher); and ‘can there be miracles without the supernatural?’
There are a lot of things to like. Nagasawa writes engagingly, and with a relatively easy to understand style, even when discussing philosophical ideas which usually leave me cold. When he writes about, what for some people will be a turn-off, the wilder extremes of ‘miracle’ (again, the toasted sandwich), he doesn’t denigrate, he just explains. And for me, the fact that when he tells a Bible story he doesn’t quote from the Authorised Bible, in sixteenth century English, which therefore makes it sound quaint and easily ignored, is a big plus.
I do have some niggles with the book, though. Some of the stories in the last chapter (Can there be miracles without the supernatural?) are of people of faith, or people who found faith following the miracle – surely, if faith is involved somewhere in the event, it is ‘supernatural’ (however you use that term). And David Hume’s philosophical argument, which eventually comes to the conclusion that it is (potentially) rational to believe in miracles, seems to be swiftly dismissed on the grounds of difficulty of gathering sufficient, valid evidence – the question is, who is doing the gathering, and what ‘biases’ has the person who is reviewing what’s been gathered?
Nonetheless, this is a book I would recommend to both believer and sceptic.
P.S. A year later Jason is still cancer free.
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