On Miracles

6 07 2009

exvoto

above: from the parish church in St. Martinville, Louisiana

Disbelieve nothing amazing concerning the gods or divine dogmas.

-the third Pythagorean symbol

Two blogs that I read, from two entirely different people, have had posts on miracles recently. The first comes from that rather snarky Lutheran blogger who says what all Protestants think but don’t feel they can say, Josh S. In his post on miracles, he basically takes the “minimalist” position: the miraculous only exists to sustain and establish the Word of God, which is faith in Jesus Christ; the only thing of any importance:

God seems to do miracles mainly when he has some serious world-changing business to do. There are some exceptions, but most biblical miracles occur at major junctures in salvation history. They have a major point. And that point, I might add, is never, “Work really hard, and you, too, can gain magic powers!” It’s usually something a little more interesting, like “Let my people go!” Or “Israel, return to the covenant!” Or “This is my Son, listen to him!” God’s not at anyone’s beck and call. The big storytellers in Christianity are prone to talking about God as though he were an impersonal force you could just manipulate, or as though he were easily amused and highly predictable. That’s just not the Biblical picture. God does miracles when he’s got a people to deliver or a Son to kill. The instances of him springing into action because some hobo in the desert swore off chocolate cake are basically nonexistent…

God generally uses miracles to either establish or confirm the publicly preached word, not to change it. Moses’ miracles were confirmation of the promise to Abraham. The prophetic miracles were to turn Israel back to their long-standing covenant. The miracles of Jesus confirmed that he was the one the prophets spoke of, and the miracles of the apostles continued to attest to this and Jesus’ own teaching. But the revelations of ghosts? The speculations of philosophers? The accretions of folk tradition? The inventions of men? These simply are not the objects of miraculous attestation in Scripture. And, more often and not, the forms of worship and doctrines taught by these sources frequently appear to blatantly contradict what was given in the beginning–which is why the miracles are supposed to be so necessary. Sure, of course an early Christian would be reluctant to add a pantheon of demigods to the divine liturgy! That’s why God had to send all the ghosts to convince everyone! But in the Bible, when God had an important revelation to confirm, he didn’t just send a ghost–he sent a prophet and ultimately his Son. Something as critical as a change in the liturgy needs more than a ghost story to back it up.

Having read Josh S. for a while, he is basically what I would call a “cosmic minimalist”. God sets the universe in motion like some ticking clock, and only intervenes when He absolutely, positively has to; really a sort of cosmological deism. (He fails to mention the Bethesda pool and other things, but all of you can interject that if you feel like it.) As in the case of many modern Protestants, he feels that such “Biblical minimalism” gels well with modern science’s views on miracles in general. If you can reduce the number of miracles in the world to a minimum (the bare bones number given in the Bible by a “rational” God who doesn’t play around), then the whole Christian thing is easier to swallow. The problem is, to quote AG from a few years ago, once you have committed yourself to the idea that a Jewish carpenter rose from the dead, arguing over the curative nature of Lourdes water seems a little esoteric to the outside observer. For Josh S., the miracles of the Bible prove that such supernatural interventions are the exception and not the rule. But even for many Protestants today, they prove that they are the norm and not the exception. Depends on what you think is necessary to “confirm the publicly preached” Word of God.

(He also fails to mention, hearkening back to last week’s post, that the Bible states that Jesus’ followers will be able to handle serpents and drink poison, and will be able to do greater miracles that even Our Lord. Seems like our Sola Scriptura advocate has to squirm quite a bit under the verses of the Bible itself.)

The second post comes from that indefatigable blogger and defender of all things archaic, Daniel Mitsui. Mr. Mitsui, being a good Catholic, never met a saint’s miracle he didn’t like, and I can’t say that I blame him. In his post, he focuses on the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, citing that the reaction of the devout Catholic to the extraordinary happenings in the lives of the saints there should be to give the benefit of the doubt. Needless to say, I am far more sympathetic with his position than I am with that of our crypto-rationalist Lutheran:

For there is no evidence that St. Denis did not carry his head, or that St. Barbara was not imprisoned in a tower, or that St. Catherine did not destroy the wheel of her torture, or that St. Medard was not sheltered from the rain by an eagle, or that St. Cuthbert was not reverenced by otters after a night of penance in the cold sea. There is no evidence that St. Eustace did not witness the apparition of the Crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag, or that St. Hubert did not witness the same, or that the two men are really one (for who says that God cannot work a similar miracle twice?). There is no evidence that a giant of monstrous appearance did not ferry the Christ Child across the river, or that St. Genevieve’s candle was not snuffed by a demon – for giants and demons are real, and still exist today…

And even more importantly – we know that holy scripture, the inerrant Word of God, speaks of dragons and basilisks, of frogs falling from the sky and rivers turning to blood. The miracles of Elijah are no less fantastic than the miracles of St. Nicholas. Balaam’s ass is no less fantastic than St. Rumwold. The Old Testament – and the New – are no less fantastic at face than the Golden Legend. They smack no less of mythology to the modern mind…

The debate over the worth of the traditional hagiography should not be reduced to an argument over different categories of authority. For the Bible is not just a book of stories whose veracity we are not permitted to question; it is a record of God’s action among men and as man, a record of events that really occurred – and it speaks of marvels. We either live in a world in which these sort of things happen, or we do not.

Indeed, as I was saying, once you throw in your lot with an omnipotent God, His incarnate Son, virgin births, miraculous shadows, and resurrections, you cannot object to any post-Apostolic miracles on philosophical grounds. The idea of God as the distant clockmaker is an Enlightenment invention, one that is far removed from the traditional Christian idea of God moving the world and celestial spheres through His invisible ministers. Although one may be interpreted as being a romanticist curmudgeon for saying so, and the Church itself has turned its back on many of the miracles that Mr. Mitsui cites (see Vatican II’s document on liturgy), to say that many post-Biblical miracles may be tall tales but a talking donkey somehow makes perfect sense seems to be a rather contrived argument. As Mr. Mitsui says, why not just admit that we live in a universe where a donkey can talk if God sees fit to make them do so?

I for one don’t think we have to go all the way to the Middle Ages to see such miraculous things, and much of what I write on this blog demonstrates this. Pace Daniel Mitsui; the relationship between the beliefs of the elites and masses until very recently was not divergent but rather symbiotic. As I have written before, in such places as Italy, it was the elites who first introduced the “atavistic” practices and devotions to the mass Catholic populace, and it was the masses who preserved and developed them. Even looking at the ex-votos shown above from French Louisiana, one sees evidence that miracles were taken for granted in people’s daily lives; a small plaque with the word, “Merci”, is put at the foot of the Virgin in gratitude for the miracle granted. Perhaps this is a far more effective narrative of showing modern man the true nature of the sacred cosmos: not showing extravagant medieval lore and telling people that, yes indeed, these things do happen, but rather showing how such things have continued to happen down through the centuries. What we are speaking of here is not of the contrast of some golden age to our own, but rather of continuity between a miraculous past and an enchanted present.


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