Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, November 03, 2004

On Faith and Miracles 

Dr. Blosser's note on 'faith and miracles' brings to mind one of the most vexing - and for me, frustrating - aspects of modern theological discussion. I refer to the indisputable fact that modern theologians have swallowed the Enlightenment bias against miracles hook, line and sinker. I recently re-read Cardinal Kasper's famed christological tome, 'Jesus the Christ,' which, regrettably, ends up recycling most of these objections. He reduces them to three:

(1) Since God is the author of the 'laws of nature,' and if miracles are defined as 'violations' of the laws of nature, it follows that God would be violating his own laws, which is unseemly.

(2) Testimonies of miracles are inherently incredible; if they happen at all, they are so inexplicable that they can never be accepted on the testimony of another (David Hume's famous objection).

(3) If an empirically verifiable miracle were to occur, it would 'compel' belief in its onlookers. Yet the nature of belief is that it must be free, and cannot be compelled; hence, it would be inappropriate for God to work miracles.

Theologians like Kasper think they have dissolved the first objection when they affirm the differentiation between primary and secondary causality. But, without getting into the philosophical nitty-gritty of causality, by reducing miracles to the ordinary workings of divine secondary causality, they render the concept of the miraculous empty and hollow. In his explanation, by my reading, Kasper seems to be saying that a miracle is an event which - while, if studied empirically, could be verified to have resulted from ordinary, cause-and-effect relationships entirely within the realm of nature - and yet which, given a perspective of faith on the part of an onlooker, can be understood to have a certain 'significance' within the realm of divine providence, although this 'significance' can mean nothing more than the fact that it excites wonder and trust in God on the part of the onlooker. My response is that this is all well and good, but it has nothing to do with a 'miracle' as we traditionally define it. Kasper's solution is something akin to overcoming objections to God's existence by explaining, that by 'God' the Church simply means one's positive self-concept.

C. S. Lewis handles this objection to the miraculous quite deftly in his book 'Miracles,' by explaining the the 'laws' of nature aren't really 'laws' at all, but simply our observations about what normally happens in nature, which does not at all prevent occasional events which depart from the norm. The best theological treatment, however, in my opinion, comes from an Eastern orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae, in his book The Experience of God: Creation and Deification, vol. 2. Staniloae, one of the great eschatological thinkers of our day, explains that 'nature' should be viewed not as a static collection of philosophical essences, but rather as a dynamic world of intelligible forms, all pointing and tending towards their eschatological fulfillment in their divine Archetype. Given this cosmic vision, miracles can be seen not as 'violations' of certain stable, unviolable and natural 'laws,' but rather as occasional 'anticipations' of the eschaton, in which the consummate perfection of a certain form is given premature expression, precisely as a divinely-bestowed sign of the eschatological consummation of all things.

The second objection, with regards to the supposed incredibility of witnesses to miracles, reeks of Enlightenment elitism - which saw miracles as accompaniments of 'primitive,' 'barbaric' religion - and modern skepticism, which sees all truth-claims as contingent and relative. Suffice it to say that, for a Catholic, for what it's worth, this position has been anathematized by Council:

"If anyone says that all miracles are impossible, and that therefore all reports of them, even those contained in Sacred Scripture, are to be set aside as fables or myths; or that miracles can never be known with certainty, nor can the divine origin of the Christian religion be proved from them: let him be anathema" (Vatican I Constitution Dei Filius, canon 3.4).

The third objection, that such a miracle would 'compel' belief, seems to me to arise from an overly idealistic view of faith. The nature of faith, especially given our 'embodied' state, is such that it can never be entirely 'free,' in the sense of being utterly disconnected from all external conditioning. And no one saw this more keenly than St. Augustine. There is always some element of 'compulsion' in faith, for we are not disembodied creatures, and our faith is necessarily immersed in our bodiliness. A thousand external factors always rush in upon our faculty of belief. What, for example, of the power of rational argument, which might convince one to take a step of faith, or at least overcome objections to it? What of the power of human witness, of a life well lived, which inspires one to take the same step? What of being born into a family, of living in a community, surrounded by those who hold faith? It is a point of fact that all fo these things can have an influence on the possibility of one's attaining to faith, a fact pointless to deny. Does faith become any less 'free' because of these fact? Or, more likely, do these factors simply arise necessarily from the fact that man is a composite of soul and body?

# posted by Jamie : 7:55 AM


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