Feb 26 2009

The Shock and Awe of Supernatural Feats

Published by at 11:45 am under An Almighty Alpha,psychology

Jesus worked miracles….Actually, what the gospels say he performed were dynameis, ‘mighty deeds,’ or semeia, ‘signs.’
- Russell Shorto (40)

Primate gestures and displays are aimed at impacting individuals from a distance. “Moving” them. Not physically, emotionally. The element of surprise can play a key role: of not knowing when or what an individual is capable of. Primates of all sorts are moved to watch and perhaps fear those who surprise them. And bow down. As for humans, if the feats fall into the category of beneficial wonders, the feeling may be more of awe and a desire to praise and follow.

Current age psychological research has confirmed that human beings are inclined to strive for status and recognize it according to the emotional impact different individuals make. One such study on children concluded, “the dominance hierarchies were formed on the basis of the relative degree to which a child was the target versus the initiator of aggressive and persuasive acts.” (41)

Is it in our nature to to bow down to persuasive others? I think so. Can we find evidence of that nature in religious ideas and writings? Yes.

The Bible’s Old Testament god, Yahweh, was more of an old-school primate. His feats induced fear. He expected people to bow down to him. Trembling before him was a wise thing.

So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. (Exodus 3:20)

A fairly direct act, but not against his “chosen,” the in-group.

I will plague your whole country with frogs. (Exodus 8:2)

This was not a punishment for frogs, but a threat.

When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD.” (2 Chronicles 7:3)

In the Old Testament there dozens if not hundreds of verses that tell of a god dumbfounding his people. Confusion is anxiety-producing (imagine talking to a dog through a vacuum hose; he may initially investigate, but then may fear it and flee). Avoiding anxiety, and attempting to placate those who produce it in us, is a general human trait.

Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” (Isaiah 29:14)

Not even the knowledgeable will be able to figure out what is going on. They will be confused, and moved.

In the New Testament we meet Jesus, a dominant agent that some might describe as a kinder and gentler deity. Rather than making a fist and shaking it at people to keep them in line (he didn’t really have a line to begin with, he had to acquire one) he flexed his supernatural biceps. In a way, rather than yelling he made eye contact and cleared his throat. Hu-humm. Pay attention to me.

These relatively indirect displays of aggression/power allow Jesus to be depicted as a kinder and gentler alpha. More aloof. No, he wouldn’t smite the people (or bless them with land and fecundity). He would bless individuals and threaten hell in an afterlife.

How central is the performing of dynameis, “mighty deeds,” to the tale of Jesus? Consider this limited collection of verses.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

How did he do that? Amazing.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. (Matthew 8:14-15)

Jesus was one powerful dude. But not the hit-you-in-the-face powerful. The stop-a-train-in-its-tracks powerful. Awesome.

[Jesus] said, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
(Matthew 8:26)

Another feat, another illustration of his power.

He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:32-34)

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. (Matthew 14:19-20)

What primate wouldn’t want a leader who could break a banana in two, share it with the troop, and, when all had had their fill, collect a whole bushel of fruit for tomorrow?

People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed. (Matthew 14:35-36)

Etc. [more verses in footnote 42]

To be a persuasive supernatural agent, you must astound your audience. Because people today understand the natural world so much better, we are astounded less easily. And thus believers insist their god has ceased showing his power, and we must instead have faith that he once really did.


(40) Shorto, R. Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History, and Why it Matters, Riverhead Books, New York, 1997, p. 123
(41) Pettit, G., Bakshi, A, Dodge, K., & Cole, J., “The Emergence of Social Dominance in Young Boys’ Play Groups: Developmental differences and Behavioral Correlates,” Developmental Psychology, November 1, 1990, Vol. 26#6
(42) Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:13-21)

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:9)

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him. (John 2:11)

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. (John 14:11)

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. (John 20:30)

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