Investigating Miracles With Lewis and Vervaeke
In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis puts forward a symbolic worldview that provides a rich framework to explain Christ’s miracles. The book is divided into two broad sections, one for the theoretical background, set against naturalism, and one to explain the place of Christ’s miracles. My goal in this blog post is to summarize some of Lewis’ key insights and to offer a few supplements using the work of John Vervaeke. The fact is that naturalism, the background against which Lewis sets his arguments, has considerably shifted since Lewis himself wrote his book. I will explain that in many ways, Lewis’ points turn out to be easier to make and more powerful when set against modern versions of naturalism.
Following Lewis’ own division, I will start out by laying out the theoretical groundwork. I will explain that modern naturalism now fully grants several of Lewis’ points, and that we only need to make minor adjustments to make room for miracles in that new framework. I will then use that framework in the second section to explain the symbolism of the incarnation. It is here that we will see most clearly the usefulness of bringing Vervaeke into dialogue with Lewis. What Lewis singles out as the fundamental aspects of nature, namely selectiveness, vicariousness and the pattern of death and rebirth, matches very well with what Vervaeke has called “relevance realization”. The upshot will be the surprising claim that the miracle of the incarnation is a cosmic exemplification and redeeming of relevance realization.
Lewis himself relied on reason to break the idea that nature is a “Total System”, closed to external influences 1. That’s important because if nature was a closed system, it would have no place for miracles, among other things. The heart of Lewis’ argument is that reason is not reducible to irrational, natural constituents. Rationality does not fit in the Total System.
Each particular thought is valueless if it is the result of irrational causes. Obviously, then, the whole process of human thought, what we call Reason, is equally valueless if it is the result of irrational causes. Hence every theory of the universe which makes the human mind a result of irrational causes is inadmissible, for it would be a proof that there are no such things as proofs. Which is nonsense.
But Naturalism, as commonly held, is precisely a theory of this sort. The mind, like every other particular thing or event, is supposed to be simply the product of the Total System. It is supposed to be that and nothing more, to have no power whatever of “going on of its own accord”. And the Total System is not supposed to be rational. All thoughts whatever are therefore the results of irrational causes, and nothing more than that. The finest piece of scientific reasoning is caused in just the same irrational way as the thoughts a man has because a bit of bone is pressing on his brain. 2
The upshot for Lewis is that reason, though not natural, must somehow intermesh with nature. Nature is therefore not a Total System, impervious to external influences. He has no doubt that the intermeshing of reason and nature has something to do with the brain, because it is obvious that when the brain is impaired, so is our ability to rationally inform it. But the details don’t matter for our purposes. By opening the door to non-natural influences on nature, Lewis gives himself elbow room to introduce miracles. Like human reason enters nature through the human brain, so will Divine Reason intermesh with creation through miracles.
But let’s not get to miracles just yet. As you may have noticed if you have been following the discussions in this corner of the internet, the philosophical terrain has shifted quite a bit since Lewis wrote these words. Many naturalists now defend claims that Lewis would be happy with.
It’s not just rationality that is irreducible to irrational parts. As John Vervaeke has explained to most of us in this corner of the internet, all kinds of irreducibility theses have popped up across various sciences 3. We can’t reduce human consciousness to brain cells. We can’t reduce sociology to psychology. We can’t reduce biology to chemistry. It’s not even clear that we can plausibly reduce chemistry to physics. Even worse, it’s unlikely that the different layers of physics, e.g., cosmic-level relativity and micro-level quantum, can be reduced to a common layer! As I have explained in more detail elsewhere 4, Plato and Aristotle are making a comeback in naturalism.
It turns out to be more fruitful to see the world as made of nested layers of potentiality/matter and actuality/forms. Fundamental particles emerge from and inform the fundamental fields. Atoms emerge from and inform the particles. Molecules emerge from and inform the atoms. Cells emerge from and inform molecules. Animals emerge from and inform cells. Societies emerge from and inform animals. Each layer has its matter, and its forms, and the different sciences operate at these continuous but genuinely different levels. Sometimes you can reduce a layer to another to a certain degree, like chemistry to physics, but other times you definitely can’t, as in the case of consciousness to neuroscience.
Still, the modern naturalist will hold that all of those layers belong to “nature”. The potential at the bottom layer of physics is part of nature, and so are the invisible top-down laws of nature that constrain the emergence from that potential. To put it in traditional terms, the “Nature” of the modern naturalist now includes the Earth/potential/matter, and Heaven/patterns/forms. Modern naturalism thus still claims that nature is the whole show, but that nature is much, much richer than the nature of the old school naturalists of Lewis’ time.
How could Lewis adjust his argument following this philosophical shift? As I hinted at previously, Lewis’ goal in establishing the permeability of the brain to reason was to get to the permeability of nature by divine Reason. Well, the naturalist actually already grants the analogous thesis in his modern naturalism. The different layers of the world are of course permeable to one another. That was the point of the layered view of nature we just mentioned.
We’re already familiar with the old school materialist idea that the world is made bottom-up from matter. Particles make atoms, which make cells, which make animals, which make species. But the modern naturalist also fully acknowledges the top-down emanation of irreducible formal structures on their constituent matter. The potential at the bottom layer of physics is permeable to fundamental particles, which can pop out of it and thereafter shape it. The various molecules in a cell are permeable to the irreducible top-down causality of the whole cell. Human neurons are permeable to the irreducible top-down causality of the human mind. Individual humans are permeable to the irreducible top-down causality of societies. Individual species are permeable to the irreducible top-down causality of natural selection. And all of those layers are permeable to the irreducible laws of nature.
In other words, the modern naturalist sees the world as simultaneously emerging bottom-up from the potential at the bottom layer of physics, and emanating top-down from the eternal and abstract laws of nature. Classical theists such as Aristotle or Aquinas would be pleased 5.
The modern naturalist thus fully acknowledges the possibility that higher layers of being can influence lower layers of being. All that is lacking for Lewis at this point is a Christian move: behind potential and natural laws, there is the One God. Indeed, why are there laws? Why is there potential? Why is there a world at all? And why does it keep existing? Why are emergence and emanation coherent across time? Why do emergence and emanation meet to create a world with intelligent beings in it, rather than just empty space or black holes? The Christian grounds all of this in the One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, or, to put it in modern naturalist language: the origin of potential and natural laws.
As the origin of matter/potential and forms/natural laws, God already acts through them in His creation. Whenever something happens, the primary cause is God, who creates matter and form in general. But we do not want to call this sort of mundane divine action miraculous, because it is all too mundane. We must rather ask: what would it look like for the creator of Earth/potential and Heaven/laws to intervene miraculously in His creation? Let’s first have a look at what Lewis himself wrote:
A miracle is emphatically not an event without cause or without results. Its cause is the activity of God: its results follow according to Natural law. In the forward direction (i.e. during the time which follows its occurrence) it is interlocked with all Nature just like any other event. Its peculiarity is that it is not in that way interlocked backwards, interlocked with the previous history of Nature. And this is just what some people find intolerable. The reason they find it intolerable is that they start by taking Nature to be the whole of reality. And they are sure that all reality must be inter-related and consistent. I agree with them. But I think they have mistaken a partial system within reality, namely Nature, for the whole. That being so, the miracle and the previous history of Nature may be interlocked after all but not in the way the Naturalist expected: rather in a much more roundabout fashion. The great complex event called Nature, and the new particular event introduced into it by the miracle, are related by their common origin in God, and doubtless, if we knew enough, most intricately related in His purpose and design, so that a Nature which had had a different history, and therefore been a different Nature, would have been invaded by different miracles or by none at all. In that way the miracle and the previous course of Nature are as well interlocked as any other two realities, but you must go back as far as their common Creator to find the interlocking. You will not find it within Nature. The same sort of thing happens with any partial system. The behaviour of fishes which are being studied in a tank makes a relatively closed system. Now suppose that the tank is shaken by a bomb in the neighbourhood of the laboratory. The behaviour of the fishes will now be no longer fully explicable by what was going on in the tank before the bomb fell: there will be a failure of backward interlocking. This does not mean that the bomb and the previous history of events within the tank are totally and finally unrelated. It does mean that to find their relation you must go back to the much larger reality which includes both the tank and the bomb — the reality of war-time England in which bombs are falling but some laboratories are still at work. You would never find it within the history of the tank. In the same way, the miracle is not naturally interlocked in the backward direction. To find how it is interlocked with the previous history of Nature you must replace both Nature and the miracle in a larger context. Everything is connected with everything else: but not all things are connected by the short and straight roads we expected. 6
Thus, when He performs miracles, God still acts through the different layers of reality, but in a novel way. And this does not make miracles arbitrary or nonsensical. In fact, they make the world more intelligible once we find the right frame for them. And, as Lewis highlights with his example of the fish tank, the need to find the proper frame exists at all layers of reality, not just in the properly miraculous. The peculiarity of miracles is merely that to explain them we have to use the largest frame possible: the theological one.
Let’s go through this at a few layers to be extra clear. When a fundamental particle emerges from the potential at the bottom layer of physics, we need the frame of particle physics to make sense of it. If you were to limit yourself to looking at the level of the fundamental fields of physics, you would remain astonished forever. Why would a particle pop up from that potential? But once we tell a story of how various probabilistic laws emanate onto the fundamental field, the emergence of the particle makes sense.
Or consider me writing these lines. If you were to look at what happens in my brain as I write, you would be thoroughly astonished. Billions upon billions of neurons coordinate into extremely coherent and unified neural networks. Ultimately, these networks will activate countless muscles in my arms and fingers in a highly coordinated fashion so that I can type up these words. That is completely incredible. But once we use the frame of cognitive science, it makes sense. My conscious decision to write these sentences constrains the potential of my neural networks so that they fire the precise way they do. The form, the pattern of me, as a conscious whole, emanates down to my neurons as my neurons simultaneously emerge into me and my conscious thoughts. With that cognitive science frame, what happens in my brain makes sense. It’s still surprising, but we accept it.
Let’s go higher. Consider the placebo effect. A patient with very severe migraines goes to see his doctor who hands him a flour pill and tells him that it’s a cure for his ailment. Over the next few days the patient gets better. Somehow, a panoply of enzymes and hormones coordinate in his body to lower his stress levels and intracranial pressure. The patient is healed. Looked at from a biological perspective, the emergence of that healing is highly surprising. Flour is not materially related to those biological changes, which don’t typically spontaneously cohere by themselves. It is only when we look at the narrative layer that the mystery subsides. Once we know that the placebo narrative emanated on the patient, we can make sense of the emergence of the healing.
Now, miracles require us to think at the highest frame, that is, the theological one. To explain a miracle proper, it does not suffice to consider the frame of fundamental physics, nor the frame of cognitive science, nor even a narrative frame. To explain a genuine miracle, we need to invoke the One God behind all frames, behind all of emergence and emanation, behind matter and form altogether. It is only once we consider this highest frame that we can understand how God goes through them all in special ways when performing miracles. And conversely, understanding God’s miraculous actions yields a better understanding of creation in general. By better understanding the Ground of emergence and emanation, we should better understand emergence and emanation in general. Here’s Lewis with a delightful analogy:
Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony. Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of manuscript and says, ‘This is the missing part of the work. This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned. This is the main theme of the symphony’. Our business would be to see whether the new passage, if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it, did actually illuminate all the parts we had already seen and ‘pull them together’. Nor should we be likely to go very far wrong. The new passage, if spurious, however attractive it looked at the first glance, would become harder and harder to reconcile with the rest of the work the longer we considered the matter. But if it were genuine then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we had hitherto neglected. Even though the new central chapter or main theme contained great difficulties in itself, we should still think it genuine provided that it continually removed difficulties elsewhere. Something like this we must do with the doctrine of the Incarnation. Here, instead of a symphony or a novel, we have the whole mass of our knowledge. The credibility will depend on the extent to which the doctrine, if accepted, can illuminate and integrate that whole mass. It is much less important that the doctrine itself should be fully comprehensible. We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else. 7
Lewis thus sets forth to show that this is precisely what Christian miracles do. They are events which come into our mundane reality all the way from divinity, in novel ways that shed light on all of reality. To make his claim, Lewis first explains the grand miracle of the Incarnation, and then turns to the miracles of Christ.
First, let me state what the Incarnation is. It is the story of the One God, who transcends all of our frames, coming down through them to us in special ways. Like the mind permeates the brain, God permeates all levels of creation in the Incarnation. Coming from Heaven, He selects one planet, the Earth, where He selects one species, humanity, in which He selects one people, Israel, in which He selects one woman, Mary, to fashion a body for Himself. God thus becomes flesh, with cells, molecules and fundamental particles. And this wasn’t a one-way trip. The purpose is to bring creation back up with Him through all of those layers of being. Indeed, the incarnation is also the bottom-up story of Christ gathering a Church to remake Israel, Rome, Humanity, and ultimately all of creation.
To use words that John Vervaeke has introduced in this corner of the internet, we can talk of cosmic-level relevance realization 8. From the infinite number of possibilities that stood before God, he constrained Himself, incarnating as a single person that would die and be reborn to remake the entire world. The Logos constrained Himself before expanding back up. Or, to put it another way, the Logos emanated on creation so that a new creation might simultaneously emerge, with new and more glorious patterns, i.e., new heavens.
Now, this story is miraculous. First, if it is true, we really do need the theological frame to explain it, because in it, God goes through the different layers of reality in ways that are genuinely novel. For instance, the selection of Israel from the different peoples of the Earth is an amazing coherence of events, such as the pregnancy of Sarai in old age, the burning bush of Moses, and the emergence of very unique laws about diet and idolatry. This crossing from the level of humanity down to the level of a single group is so weird that it warrants a higher frame of analysis than the merely sociological one. Similarly, the virgin birth and the Resurrection are events that cross the material and biological layers of reality in ways that we cannot explain within the frame of normal biology. To reuse Lewis’ analogy, it would be like trying to explain what happens in a fish tank as bombs are exploding nearby without knowing that we are in war-time England.
And on the flip-side, just as knowing the central chapter of a novel enlightens the whole work, taking the Incarnation as the center of creation enlightens all of creation, or at least that is what we will try to show in the rest of this article. We must show that the novel ways in which God goes through the different layers of creation in the Incarnation are not arbitrary, but that they in fact make the whole of creation more intelligible.
At this point, we must state our strategy very clearly. Since the claim really is that the Incarnation sheds light on all of creation, we have to be highly selective. We cannot talk about all of Christ’s miracles, and neither can we talk about all of creation, obviously. We will rather follow Lewis. His strategy is to show that the Incarnation employs three patterns fundamental to nature: selectiveness, vicariousness, and death and rebirth. It is precisely by employing these patterns fundamental to nature that the Incarnation sheds light on nature and redeems it. To use our modern terminology, I would say that the incarnation exemplified and redeemed relevance realization, which is the very world-creating process. Christ showed us that selectiveness, vicariousness, death and rebirth can be for Glory. He showed us that, at its deepest roots, nature is good, and comes from Him. To see this, let us thus go in turn through selectiveness, vicariousness, and death and rebirth.
Selectiveness is a necessary feature of our cognition. When we look at an object, like an apple, we actually perceive only a tiny fraction of it. There are too many potential details we could look at, so we have to select just a fraction of them to be actually able to perceive the apple. This selectiveness isn’t bad; it’s what allows us to see.
And Christ taught us that the selectiveness that occurs at the natural and cosmic scales isn’t doomed to be bad either. The fact that only one planet harbors life, that evolution selects, that the overwhelming majority of species are a dead-end, is not in itself a bad thing, any more than Israel’s or Christ’s selection was. Though they are clearly singled out, they are so for the benefit of all others. Israel was selected to suffer for all the peoples of the Earth, and Christ, with his mother Mary, suffered for everyone 9. You can even go further and say that humanity was selected by God to unite nature and divinity, and that humanity has been doing so precisely through suffering. We’re not the center of the world in material terms, but we are in terms of meaning 10.
In other words, selection is good if the selected devote themselves to the unselected, like selecting just a few features of the apple actually allows us to see the whole apple. Which brings me to the next point: vicariousness. The fact that every living thing depends on others does not have to be bad. It’s not all violence and parasites. It also makes room for self-giving, charity and gratitude. Christ’s dependence on His mother, or our dependence on Him, is beautiful. Vicariousness makes room for self-sacrificial love and communion: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” 11
Which brings me to the third point: even the all-pervasive pattern of death and rebirth does not have to be a bad thing, as it allowed Christ to display His Glory. To think of it in terms of human consciousness, the fact that our selections are not static, that they are limited and die, is actually part of what allows us to see. If we did not constantly reselect features of our environment, if our brains were just static, we would not have consciousness as we know it. We could not do relevance realization. And with Christ’s own death, the same kind of phenomenon occurs at a cosmic scale and throughout all of creation. It makes the world come alive at the highest level possible. As Lewis points out 12, God is like a masterful strategist who lets His opponent make a good move to reply with yet a better one; Satan’s introduction of death into the world allowed Christ to redeem the world precisely by His own death and Resurrection. It allowed God to act through even the deepest layers of His creation. It allowed God to display the greatest feat of love possible.
The Incarnation thus exemplifies, at the cosmic scale, selectiveness, vicariousness, and the pattern of death and rebirth, or, to use modern language: relevance realization. The Incarnation redeems nature as it reveals to us its deepest roots. Notice how plausible this makes the miracle of the Incarnation: all of creation reflects it and is made for it. The pattern of relevance realization is all over creation because it is made after the model of incarnation. Creation was made so that God could constrain Himself in it, going through all its layers, to have it simultaneously emerge in union to Himself. “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” 13.
And within that grand miracle, the individual miracles of Christ are also highly intelligible. As particular events within the Incarnation, they shed light on particular aspects of creation. Another way to put it is that they are symbols that mediate between Christ’s cosmic creation/recreation and his individual ministry in Palestine two millennia ago. They are events by which God acts through the layers of creation.
I contend that in all these miracles alike the incarnate God does suddenly and locally something that God has done or will do in general. Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of Nature. They focus at a particular point either God’s actual, or His future, operations on the universe. When they reproduce operations we have already seen on the large scale they are miracles of the Old Creation: when they focus those which are still to come they are miracles of the New. Not one of them is isolated or anomalous: each carries the signature of the God whom we know through conscience and from Nature. Their authenticity is attested by the style. 14
Lewis called “miracles of the old creation” the miracles that symbolize at the individual scale the old cosmic patterns, i.e., the old heavens. For example, it’s normal for water to become wine, and for bodies to heal themselves. It’s not normal that they do so as quickly and dramatically as when Christ, the creator of those patterns, is around, but still, those are normal patterns. It’s also worth mentioning the virgin birth, where God non-violently creates a body for Himself out of nothing, like He creates the entire world out of nothing. The virgin birth is but a miraculous microcosm of good old creation. We could also mention the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. After all, grains and fishes do multiply each year. Christ brought all of those patterns to the level of miracle by accomplishing them so quickly, but he did so in deep cooperation with them.
Notice that this really matters. It matters that Christ’s miracles clearly come from outside of normal creation while still being in deep continuity with that creation. It allows us to recognize Him precisely as the author of creation. That’s what allowed people to recognize Him in Palestine two millennia ago, whether it led them to follow Him or to crucify Him. It was a necessary part of the story.
And in contrast, the “miracles of the new creation” are miracles that bring into creation new patterns, i.e., the new heavens. As Christ’s earthly ministry advanced, he performed more and more dramatic miracles of this type, smoothly moving from the old creation to the new creation. For example, he walked on water, brought the dead back to life and was Himself resurrected with a glorious body.
Walking on water is a clear symbol of remaking the world in accordance with new and higher patterns. The watery and chaotic potential obeys the mind. Christ even allows Peter to do the same, at least for a moment, bringing not only water but even humanity into the patterns of the new creation. Similarly, in bringing the dead back to life, Christ is reversing the normal course of nature where aging and sickness progressively sever mind and meaning from matter.
The clearest new creation miracle is of course Christ’s own Resurrection. Not only did it reverse the normal course of nature as in the other resurrection accounts, but Christ’s body came back glorious. This glorious body was not constrained as it is now by physical limitations such as distances, or even walls. It obeyed mind and meaning at a much higher level than in the old creation.
Lewis is very good at laying out this top-down intelligibility of miracles. Because Christ is the Logos, the Form of forms, you can see His miracles as recapitulations of creation, old and new. What I want to stress here is the bottom-up emergent aspect. The miracles of the new creation participate in bringing about the new patterns that they exemplify.
Indeed, the Christian claim is that Christ’s miracles are symbols in the strong sense, in that they cause what they signify. Christians do not think that Christ did miracles merely to give us helpful metaphors of what he was really doing in another manner; as if he was rewriting the laws of nature, i.e., the heavens, in his private hidden workshop and separately exploiting them in His public miracles to give us images. The claim is rather that He was remaking the heavens by performing His miracles. The emergence of the new heavens through miracles is simultaneous with and affording of the emanation of the new heavens from Christ. Christ’s Resurrection really conquered death, for instance. It is the exemplar cause of our own coming resurrection 15.
In the same way that a fundamental particle permanently changes the surrounding fields when it emerges, or that Christ’s Resurrection transformed society, the Christian claim is that it ontologically changed nature, ushering in new heavens, i.e., new laws of nature. By emanating Himself onto creation, the Logos has been simultaneously shaping the emergence of a new creation.
It would be tempting for me to keep elaborating. Each one of Christ’s miracles has a special significance in the entire story, and so do the miracles that still occur today in his Church. But at some point, I must stop and simply refer you to Lewis’s book! I can only hope that the dialogue with Vervaeke’s work has shed light on miracles and on their plausibility, even in our modern world.
As I explained in the first section of this article, the fact is that modern naturalists fully grant Lewis’ point that reason is irreducible and that the different layers of reality are permeable to one another. We only need to convince them that God, who is beyond all of those layers, has come down through them in a special way in the Incarnation.
And that is what we tried to make plausible in the second section of this article. The Incarnation is the story of a God who goes down through all layers of creation to simultaneously bring it back up to Himself. In thus using the natural pattern of relevance realization, God sheds light on it and redeems it. Within that grand miracle, the individual miracles of Christ function as symbols, expressing and affording at the individual level what He does at the cosmic scale, i.e., creating and recreating the world.
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- Lewis, C.S. Miracles, chapter 3, Harper Collins, 1996.
- Lewis at 28
- Vervaeke, John, Vanderklay, Paul and Pageau, Jonathan. “Emergence and Narrative” at 25:20, August, 2020
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Rediscovering Forms”, The Symbolic World Blog, April, 2020. Marceau, Jean-Philippe and Pageau, Jonathan. “Emergence and Cell Tower Burning”, YouTube, June, 2020
- Feser, Edward. Aristotle’s Revenge. Editiones Scholasticae, November 2019. Dodds, Michael J. “Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas”, The Catholic University of America Press, 2012
- Lewis at 73-74
- Lewis at 132-133
- Vervaeke, John. “Ep. 28 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Convergence To Relevance Realization”, YouTube, July 2019. See also episodes 29 & 30
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Joyful Suffering in Christ – How the Cross Brings Cosmic Meaning to Our Afflictions”, The Symbolic World Blog, 2020, June.
- Pageau, Jonathan. A Full Frontal Attack on The Copernican Revolution | Eastern University, St-Basil Center Talk, YouTube, June, 2018.
- Bible, John 15 :13
- Lewis at 155
- Bible, Romans 8:22
- Lewis at 161-162
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 56