Bishop Seraphim Sigrist recently posted some notes for a paper he read on Christianity and Society in the Christianity and Society discussion forum, and has now posted a report on the retreat where he read the paper. The retreat was held at a Coptic centre, and his report is illustrated with some Coptic ikons of the desert saints and led to some interesting discussion in which Bishop Seraphim referred to a piece written by William Dalrymple on the role of miracles among Coptic Christians, and especially among the monks of the desert today.
I think this piece by Dalrymple is from his book From the Holy Mountain, in which he compares Near and Middle Eastern Christianity today with what it was like shortly before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.
What it brings out most clearly are some of the characteristics of the premodern worldview. Compared with Western Christianity Orthodoxy is generally premodern, but in Coptic monks this can be seen in a particularly pure form.
What is interesting is to compare this approach to miracles to that of Western Fundamentalism, because the latter is clearly imbued with moderniity, and even modernism. The Western Fundamentalist approach to miracles seems to be that miracles are important because they are thought to prove some doctrinal or ideological point. Miracles have been taken up into a system of rational argumentation, and this approach is characteristic of the modern worldview. Read almost any theological discussion in Usenet newsgroups, for example alt.religion.christian and you will see that even when Christian fundamentalists are arguing with atheists, both presuppose the same modernist worldview.
I became acutely aware of this in discussions with some Calvinistic Baptists in Durban some thirty years ago. It was apparent that to them the resurrection of Christ was an important “fact”, because it was in the Bible. But it did not seem to be a significant fact. It was merely a kind of adjunct to the importance of the Bible and so another matter for rational argument and prooftexting. If one said to them “Christ is risen and the angels rejoice, Christ is risen and Hell was angered for it was mocked” they saw no cause for rejoicing but went scurrying to find proof texts to show that such rejoicing was unseemly and that it wasn’t so.
Compare this view with that of the Coptic monks, for whom rational argument occupies a much lower place in the scale of priorities. Miracles are not there to “prove” anything about anything, they are just there to enjoy the commuinion of saints and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.