Education at my Jewish private school was chock-full of religious instruction. Precisely half of our lessons were dedicated to Jewish studies. We had Bible classes (Chumash, we called it) every single day. As a child, I wasn’t particularly excited about most of the miracles. Sure, the staff turning into a snake was cool, but it felt like a parlor trick. The sea splitting felt too huge to even contemplate. The one miracle that seemed to get everyone in class thoroughly enamored with God’s power was the concept of manna from Heaven. The idea that you could just dream up what you wanted to eat — and for eight-year-old me that was infinite donuts, pizza and Dunkaroos — and it would just fall from the sky? Well, that was truly miraculous. Unfathomable, yet just fathomable enough for me to be able to properly grasp its meaning.
Fast forward more years than I’d like to admit and I’m suddenly thinking through ways to share those same Bible stories with my daughter. Obviously, the simplified versions, without quite so much wife-sharing, openness to child-sacrifice, and sibling rivalry leading to enslavement. But as I sat down to tell her the child-friendly versions, I realized a few of the Biblical wonders we marveled at as children don’t seem quite so wonderous anymore.
Is the concept of manna from Heaven really so different than ordering from Uber Eats or Postmates? (Now I think of it, it’s astounding that one of the food-delivery apps hasn’t branded itself as Manna). It seems that we’re not very far from drone delivery becoming widespread. Manna from Heaven just doesn’t have the wow factor it once did.
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously formulated three laws. The third is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That is certainly true of our society today. Most of us cannot fathom how we are able to pick up the phone and hear someone’s voice 5,000 miles away, and yet we do it and take it for granted. Most of us don’t spend our days studying or developing technology, just using it: the tools we use to get through our days are nothing short of miraculous. I wonder whether Clarke’s third law is true of miracles too. Are we at a point in which technology is or will shortly be indistinguishable from God? And will it matter?
In 2007, less than 20 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center they were atheists, agnostics or believers in “nothing in particular.” This year, that number has risen to 30 percent.
I think back to those Bible studies classes. The nascent Jewish nation fell to its lowest nadir right after it had witnessed God’s miracles first hand. The worship of the Golden Calf, an idolatrous betrayal of the monotheistic God, takes place right after the Hebrews had a front-row seat for the kind of miracles we don’t see in the world today. So maybe it doesn’t matter that we struggle to see the miraculous in many of the original miracles. Maybe that won’t take away from faith.
Or maybe it will — for some. Humans, children especially, have always struggled to understand things on a macroscopic level. We don’t want to think about life and death, the afterlife or sickness and health. To top it off, there is theodicy: the struggle to comprehend why God might allow bad things to happen to good people, and vice versa. There are few easy lessons or answers in the realm of theology. And so, for convenience and to foster religious devotion, many faith communities, and certainly my own, have simplified matters when instructing its youngest and greenest members. We put God into the smallest possible box we can, to enable our limited understandings. We focus on the manna because it is relatable. But when we shrink God into a tiny version of himself, we ensure that if not now, then in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to compete with his wonders. And then we wonder why the number of non-religiously affiliated Americans has almost doubled since 2007.
At the same time, the idea of abstaining from technology or medicine or any kind of human intervention is nonsensical. There is a folk tale that I’m sure is common to many religions, but which I learned in a Jewish context. A town floods and a man stands atop a roof waiting for God to save him. Several passersby try to rescue him but each time he refuses, saying he has put his faith in God and knows he will be saved. Finally, after rebuffing countless rescue attempts, the man drowns. When he arrives at the gates of Heaven, he asks God why he was forsaken when he was clearly one of the faithful. God replies: I did try to save you. I sent you three messengers, all of whom you refused.
I’ve decided to tell my daughter that God works in mysterious ways. Manna might arrive via the App Store, but it’s no less miraculous.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.
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