Miracles — Responding to Objections
Following my latest post on miracles 1, I’ve had the pleasure of receiving a very large amount of feedback. I’ve spoken with Jonathan Pageau 2, Paul Vanderklay and John Vervaeke 3, who you are probably all familiar with. I also spoke with Derek Fiedler 4, writer on this blog, and many other people have left comments. I sincerely thank you all. In this post, I want to try and address the major kinds of objections that have emerged from all this feedback.
They mainly center on the border between the natural and the supernatural. You could also say between the extraordinary and the miraculous. Objections come from both sides of that divide: naturalists do not think that events as extraordinary as Christ’s miracles are possible in their natural frame and they also think that introducing a supernatural frame would threaten the intelligibility of the world. I see this as a bottom-up objection. On the other hand, several Christians are weary of the claim that there’s a deep continuity between the supernatural/miraculous and the natural/extraordinary. By using scientific examples to understand miracles, some Christians are worried that we’re reducing God and His miracles to science. I see this as a top-down objection.
Symbolically, I like to see those two as objections coming from the skeptical Thomas the Apostle on the one hand, and the scared and shocked believer Mary Magdalene on the other. Here, I will try to bring both sides a bit closer to the center. I will try to have the bottom-up naturalists and the top-down supernaturalists talk to one another, for their mutual benefit. Finally I will conclude by answering a question that is of a more existential nature and that I have seen coming from both sides of the divide: if miracles are real, then why aren’t they more common? Why haven’t I see any? Most importantly, why didn’t my prayers heal my now deceased relative?
Let’s start with the objection coming from the naturalists. At its root, it goes something like this: though extraordinary events can happen within nature, such as the placebo effect, nothing quite as drastic as Christ’s miracles can occur. Plus, invoking a “supernatural” level of reality would threaten the integrity and intelligibility of nature. I see two somewhat overlapping ways to make progress here. The first, which we will explore right away, is to avoid speaking of “nature” and “supernature” altogether. Without clearly distinguishing between the “miraculous” and the “extraordinary”, we simply try to make the case for the extraordinary events that Christ performed within the naturalist’s own system. We need to stress the deep correspondence (isomorphism) between the miraculous and the scientific.
I see this as a bottom-up response to a bottom-up objection. Rather than arguing directly for full-blown supernaturalism, we take the naturalist’s side and very patiently smuggle in Jesus. The end of my conversation with John and Paul converged on that possibility. Just as Einstein introduced the weird idea of a space-time continuum to systematically illuminate the anomalies of Newtonian physics, Christ’s miracles introduce a weirdness that illuminates the anomalies we currently see in the world.
Actually, I don’t know how weird Christ’s miracles really are when we consider the whole story. If we aren’t shocked by the emergence of fundamental particles trillions upon trillions of times a second, or by the emergence of placebo healings millions of times a day, why would we be shocked to hear that in the middle of it all, Christ re-emerged from His tomb? Isn’t it less weird if there’s a hierarchy to all that weirdness? To all that emergence? If the central and highest weirdness explains the lesser ones, wouldn’t we find ourselves in a world that is more intelligible?
That’s what C.S. Lewis illustrates beautifully in the last three chapters of his book, Miracles. Namely, the chapters The Grand Miracle, Miracles of the Old Creation, and Miracles of the New Creation. If you go through the symbolism of Christ’s miracles, you’ll see that, while by themselves they are shockingly weird, they also really do illuminate the entire Creation. If you accept Christ’s Incarnation, Death and Resurrection for instance, you illuminate the entire process of emergence. The strange process by which things mysteriously emerge becomes more intelligible, from fundamental particles to placebo healings, and ultimately to Christ’s Resurrection.
Rather than rely on some of Lewis’ more supernaturalist analogies, which we will explore later, we would rely here more on his book/symphony 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. 5
Seen in this way, Christ’s miracles are part of Creation like the central chapter of a book is part of a book. The Incarnation is a chapter like the others, and yet it is central in its ability to make sense of the other ones, as strange as it is when considered by itself. You could thus say that miracles are part of “nature” in the modern, non-reductive sense of the term. Thus, nature would remain as the whole show, but it would be elevated by the Incarnation. The mysterious emergence and emanation we see across nature is illuminated by the emanation of Christ onto nature during the Incarnation, which is simultaneous with the emergence of nature into Christ.
Now, I fully admit that my assertions here only really open the door. I do not want to go through all of the symbolism again here, and ultimately, it takes a lot of time and practice to really see the connections provided by miracles 6. It’s by embedding yourself into the Christian worldview, centered around the grand miracle of the Incarnation, that you come to see the world as more intelligible this way. In the same way that Einstein had to actually show people that the explanatory power of his mystery was justified, Christians have to show that the explanatory power of their mystery is justified. Or, to put it the other way around, like physicists had to go through Einstein’s arguments to get relativity theory, non-Christians have to go through Christian symbolism to get the Resurrection.
However, this first option is not wholly satisfactory. It is mainly an existential response, and will leave some people wanting. At some point, we have to deal explicitly with the metaphysics. Where did Christ come (emanate) from? What’s with all the claims about Him remaking the heavens? What is it that naturalism doesn’t afford that so many Christians want so vehemently? Why does Lewis spend half his book doing metaphysics before he finally gets to symbolism (and Jesus smuggling)? Naturalists deserve that we at least attempt to answer those questions.
And as John told Paul and me, there was a dispute about this in the late Renaissance. Magical Neoplatonists stressed the continuity of the world, which included miracles and magic, while the Catholic Church ended up on the decidedly supernaturalist side, even willing to take Cartesian dualism seriously. Now, this metaphysical debate is intermeshed with so many other issues, such as corruption, the Renaissance, the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, that I admit I have a hard time untangling it all. Here’s a pithy summary by Peter Dear, professor of the history of science:
The Council of Trent met intermittently from 1545 to 1563. Among its decisions relating to ideas about the natural world and how to know it were the following. First, because the large number of Catholic miracles served in polemical attacks on miracle-bereft Protestants as evidence of divine approval (continuing to do so throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Catholic stress on this argument rendered careful management of miracles of great importance. Accreditation of miracles was accordingly brought under formal ecclesiastical control, whereby a judicial procedure was established to review claimed instances of miraculous events. Since miracles were defined as events caused directly by God that suspended or violated natural processes, nature itself had on this view to be seen as governed by firm and unalterable regularities: miracles were only possible if there were natural regularities to violate. Catholic orthodoxy therefore encouraged a knowledge of nature that stressed order and intelligibility rather than disorder and caprice. At the same time, divination and magic, including astrology, were firmly repudiated. 7
It gets even more complicated when I try to dig into the magical Neoplatonism of the time, which would place more stress on the continuity of nature with its Creator. While some Neoplatonists were undoubtedly rejected by the Church, such as Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake), they tended to be those that were very provocative, going beyond mere metaphysical argumentation (or that’s at least how history remembers them, who knows). For example, here’s a quote by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Bruno:
Christ’s [miracles] were bagatelle, “sleights of hand” (BOI II, 383). They were no more than natural magic, effects produced by manipulating “occult”, that is, natural, though imperceptible, forces (BOL III, 427). Or, indeed, they may have been the fruits of demonic magic, a comment which implied that Christ had commerce with demons. Christ began to perform miracles, Bruno noted, only “after his struggle with the devil in the desert” (BOL II.2, 181) 8.
Or, to give other examples, this time citing Michael Allen, medieval and Renaissance scholar:
take Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who made his egotistical entrée into the intellectual world by inviting all comers to papal Rome to challenge his defence of 900 theses in the manner of a Parisian university debate (though it was usual in Paris to defend just one or two propositions). Included in these 900 were 13 propositions which a committee appointed by the Roman Curia found questionable and some as heterodox. Pico, headstrong, brilliant and aristocratic, rushed to a defence of these 13 propositions which the committee then condemned as unquestionably heretical […] Or take as a third and final example the strange prophetic figure Giovanni ‘Mercurio’ da Correggio, a Platonic-Hermetist, who rode on a white ass through the streets of Rome on Palm Sunday 1484, the year of a grand conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Clothed in a blood-stained linen mantle and with a crown of thorns topped by a silver disc in the shape of the crescent moon, and accompanied by crowds of people bearing palm branches, he made his way first to St. John’s in the Lateran and then via the Campo dei Fiori to the high altar amazingly of St. Peter’s itself, urging repentance before the coming millennium, while striking a skull in a basket with a reedstaff, and proclaiming that he was the Angel of Wisdom, Pimander, the divine being who appears to the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice great Mercury, at the beginning of the Corpus Hermeticum. 9
Add to this complexity that there were also quite a number of Neoplatonist members of the clergy who managed it by treading carefully. Marsilio Ficino, for example, was instrumental in the revival of Neoplatonism during the Renaissance 10. After all, it’s not so surprising, considering that all the Church Fathers were Platonists or Neoplatonists. You can even make a convincing case that Aquinas, who was himself accused of heresy before becoming the dominant thinker in Catholic theology, also belongs to that Neoplatonic tradition11.
All that is to say that, while I haven’t found much metaphysical argumentation, properly speaking, to chew on regarding the Catholic disputes around the Neoplatonist/natural/extraordinary vs. dualist/supernatural/miraculous distinction, it was obviously a big deal. It was at the heart of a significant controversy. We have to at least try to spell out the distinction between the two points of view.
That is why I will do my best here to defend supernaturalism. I see it as a top-down response to the bottom-up objection of the naturalists. Rather than going for careful bottom-up Jesus smuggling, we should lay all our cards on the table to the best of our ability. It’s more risky and we’re more likely to make mistakes. It speaks to our abstract intellect more than to our phenomenology. Crucially though, it allows us to at least give an idea of how it is that the Resurrection defeated death, ushering in new heavens. Without supernaturalism — the idea that nature can be rewritten by something outside it — I frankly don’t see how we can articulate the scope and uniqueness of the central Christian claim of the Resurrection, with its power to rewrite the heavens. I may be wrong on this, and we’re obviously dealing with very difficult metaphysical issues, but I think that naturalists deserve that I at least try to formulate supernaturalism. I’m asking a lot by bringing miracles into the conversation; I’m breaking almost all of their frames, promising to give them new ones. I can’t just leave it at that and tell them to go to Church until they see that I’m right. Jesus smuggling is not enough. The least I can do is try to lay out the kind of metaphysics they’d end up with if they follow the trail I’m inviting them on.
Even pragmatically, I think it’s best to be as precise as we can with this kind of metaphysical difficulty. Making precise claims means that we can be precisely attacked, but that in turn means that we learn precisely what to work on. Hopefully, as this top-down Christian response meets the bottom-up skeptics, we can all move towards the center, like Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Apostle, who eventually converged in the Church.
In fact, I believe that John’s central objection during our conversation with Paul arose mainly because I failed to fully explain how I see things 12. I tried to smuggle my claims into John’s system, but it didn’t quite work out, and I had a hard time seeing what was the issue exactly, from failing to be precise to start with. The objection rests on the idea that if you start rewriting nature to allow in miracles, you’ll break the whole thing apart. Yes, you can talk about social-level emergent phenomena, such as the placebo effect, but nothing as drastic as Christ walking on water. To put it in Christian language, if you try to rewrite the heavens, you’ll just return everything back to the primordial chaos of Genesis. A related point is that, in my essay, I was attempting to use the modern naturalist scheme of emergence and emanation to make sense of miracles. But if I’m a supernaturalist, what’s the point of invoking naturalist metaphysics anyway?
By clearly stating how I see the relationship between nature and supernature, I believe I can avoid those issues. Note that I will not argue for supernaturalism per se. That’s a very big, old and worn-out debate that would take us off track without much payoff. I will simply lay out the supernaturalist worldview and the elegant place of miracles in it. That will be enough to address the objections at hand.
To do so, I turn to Aquinas and Eriugena. Crucially, I will do so while highlighting the important and too often ignored place for emergence and emanation within Aquinas’ supernaturalism. I highly recommend Fr. Michael Dodds’ book Unlocking Divine Action on the subject 13. For Aquinas, the world is created simultaneously bottom-up and top-down by God. Bottom-up, God creates potential/matter. Top-down, God creates forms/patterns/heavens. This means that God efficiently acts via both emergence and emanation on Creation. By creating potential, he acts through emergence. By creating the heavens, he acts through emanation.
As amazing as it sounds to modern ears, Aquinas therefore holds that God’s actions transcend contingency and necessity. God acts not only though emanation via the heavens that He creates, but also through genuine emergence via the potential that he creates. He causes some things to happen by necessity, and other things by contingency.
The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow; but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the plan of divine providence conceives to happen from contingency. 14
You can thus say that God is the efficient cause of Creation, as you can trace everything back to Him, both bottom-up and top-down. And not only that, the world also emerges back to Him, who is its final cause. Sure, God remains distinct from Creation, and the emergence of the world into Him does not change or constitute Him. It’s rather the other way around. God does not change, but Creation does: the finality of Creation is theosis — which is to say, that it might become God.
To make this last point clear, I turn to John Scottus Eriugena, whose symbolic interpretation of Genesis is masterful on that subject 15. In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth. As we just explained, this can be interpreted as the creation from God of both forms (the heavens), and of potential (the earth). It is through these that God then goes on to create, simultaneously bottom-up and top-down, His creatures. For example, Adam is the simultaneous bottom-up emergence of a body from dust, and the top-down emanation of a mind from Spirit.
Eriugena notices two interesting facts about this Creation narrative. First, at the end of just about every day of Creation, when matter/emergence and form/emanation have met to create something, the text states that God saw that it was good, or even very good. Second, on the seventh day, God simply rests and does not create anything. Eriugena pulls those two things together. They indicate that God is not exhausted by Creation, and that while He always remains other, Creation emerges back towards Him insofar as it is good.
Indeed, we should not think that the seven days of Creation refer to a sequence in time. More than anything, they are an ontological description of what God does at every moment. At every moment, God creates the heavens and the earth. The heavens emanate down to earth and the earth emerges into the heavens, and this intermeshing produces beings, such as light, grass, animals, and ultimately humans. But God is not exhausted by this. He is not just the Uncreated Creator, He is simultaneously the Uncreated Uncreating. God remains separate from and undiminished by His Creation. That’s what God’s rest indicates.
And despite this separation or otherness, Creation can emerge back into God. Not to constitute or even change Him, but so that, seeing its goodness, He might recognize Himself in it. Without loosing their respective identity, Creation and Creator unite in love. That’s why the Genesis narrative emphasizes so much that God delights in the goodness of Creation. That mutual love is the purpose of Creation, its final cause, its theosis.
Having said all that, where exactly do we now put the line between natural and supernatural? We traditionally put it between Creation and Creator. God supernaturally creates the heavens and the earth, and remains distinct from them and everything in between, though Creation can also supernaturally emerge back into God. In between these two overarching movements — when nature merely follows its own course, so to speak — we are within nature.
Let me address one point some readers may be wondering about: don’t we also want to say that God the Father is in Heaven, as the Lord’s prayer clearly states? Yes. There’s a distinction between the heavens, which God has created, and the highest Heaven, uncreated, where only God dwells. Both are higher levels of Being that are invisible to us, and Heaven is the top layer. As an example, think about the difference between physics and mathematics. The laws of physics are contingent and are part of Creation, whereas mathematical truths are necessary and uncreated. As necessary truths, mathematics belong to Heaven, in the mind of God, whereas physical laws, as contingent truths, belong to the heavens. The laws of physics are patterns that do govern the lower levels of Creation, but they are part of Creation. Mathematical truths exist at a higher, eternal level of Being and govern all of Creation.
Importantly, I adopt this supernaturalism without dropping the useful naturalist scheme of emergence and emanation. I simply speak in an apophatic manner, putting God beyond emergence and emanation. Or, to reuse words that Jonathan Pageau and John Vervaeke have used on a closely related topic, I say that what we see between Creation and Creator are “infinite” kinds of emergence and emanation 16.
As I explained above, all of Creation is meant to emerge into God, though this kind of emergence is different from the emergence that occurs within Creation. Indeed, within Creation, the emergence of the lower into the higher generally constitutes the higher. For example, the potential at the bottom layer of physics is necessary for particles (patterns) to emerge. Or, to give another example, our neurons are the potential necessary for our minds (patterns) to emerge. But God is emphatically not dependent on Creation in any way. Even all of Creation brought together in the Body of Christ, emerging towards God in cosmic theosis does not constitute or change God Himself. You can summarize this by saying that God is beyond emergence. At its best, all of Creation is groaning and travailing towards God, never reaching Him, but going from Glory to Glory. That’s why we can say that the emergence of Creation into God is infinite.
Similarly, you can see God’s Creation of nature as an infinite kind of emanation. In general, emanation means that a pattern constrains potential. We can reuse the examples we just mentioned: how the laws of physics constrain the emergence from the potential at the bottom of physics, or how the mind constrains the potential configurations of neurons in a brain. But God does not need to constrain potential, as He is, strictly speaking, beyond potential and patterns. God creates potential and patterns altogether. Nonetheless, you can say that God is beyond emanation, in that He creates potential and patterns the precise way He currently does rather than in some other “possible” way. This is an infinite kind of emanation, where God “selects” not only patterns, but even the potential He creates.
You can therefore say that there’s both a difference of kind and a difference of degree between the emergence and emanation that occur within nature, and between God and nature. Or, rather, you can say it’s an infinite difference in degree, which makes a difference in kind. It’s a difference of degree in that we’re dealing with the highest of levels. And it is a difference in kind in that the highest level is infinitely removed from the lower ones, and creates them.
Now, in that worldview, we can straightforwardly apply Lewis’ supernaturalist fish tank analogy. God can come down from the highest Heaven and recreate the lower heavens.
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. 17
Properly speaking, we reserve the term miracle for events that 1) are novel and 2) are only explainable using the highest frame of analysis, that is the supernatural one. You could define it some other way, but what I’m using here is the traditional and restrictive sense of the term 18. Everything is ultimately caused by God, who creates the heavens and the earth, but we don’t want to say that everything is a miracle, as that would make the term useless. That’s why we need (1)—novelty. At the same time, we also don’t want to say that any novelty will do, because that would also make the term useless. Every time a narrative emanates on a group of people, every time a thought emanates on a brain, or every time the laws of physics emanate on probability fields, we have novelty. In all of those cases, the emanation of a higher-level pattern brings novelty to the lower level. So, rather than make the term “miracle” almost ubiquitous, we reserve it for when we need the supernatural level of reality to explain the novelty that we see (2), such as in the case of the Resurrection.
Notice that because Lewis defined “nature” as the material layer of reality, following the naturalists of his day 19, we end up here with a much more restrictive definition than he did. The intrusion of anything non material into the material counts as a miracle for Lewis. The way human reason emanates on a brain for instance, is supernatural and miraculous for him. Interestingly, because I’m willing to grant non-reductive naturalists that nature has several layers, interwoven in emergence and emanation, I end up putting the distinction between nature and supernature back up where tradition put it originally, i.e., between Creation and Creator.
Now, does the Neoplatonic argument of the loss of intelligibility threaten the supernaturalism I’m putting forward? In a certain sense, but not completely. All that does not participate in God, all that in which God does not recognize Himself, is indeed diminished as not ultimately real. As Christ said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” 20 Like we can imagine changing the laws of physics without changing mathematics, we can imagine changing Creation without changing its Creator. The lower heavens can change without the highest Heaven itself having to change.
Christianity thus promises something that indeed radically changes our perception of reality. But Christianity also promises not to leave us completely bereft. There is always a higher and more God-like level of intelligibility behind what we mistakenly see as the highest level of intelligibility. Christianity promises to give us new and better frames as it breaks our current ones. Recall how Saint Paul lost his sight for three days after seeing Christ. During that time, he was breaking his old framing of reality and getting acquainted with a new and deeper one. The analogy with Einstein comes to mind here again. As Einstein breaks our Newtonian frame of physics, he gives us a new and more powerful relativistic one.
Thus, my claim is that miracles are events where God, in Heaven, acts through the different layers of Being in unusual ways that do break the local intelligibility of Creation, but only to ultimately make it more intelligible. As God comes down to meet us, He invites us to rise to higher levels of intelligibility. Christ’s miracles break most of our frames, but they also allow us to see that reality is fundamentally good and meant for union with God. Creation can change, but God’s love for it can’t. The ways in which emergence and emanation meet within Creation can change, but the fact that Creation comes from God and is meant to emerge back into Him will not.
Let me close this section by bringing in the notion of metaphysical and existential risks that I’ve used in prior discussions with John 21. Since I’m committing myself to having extra entities in my metaphysics, there’s a real sense in which I’m taking a risk. I can arguably provide better answers to questions such as “why do emergence and emanation meet to produce conscious living beings rather than just emptiness?”, but I have to do so by invoking an entity that is beyond emergence and emanation altogether, namely God, and this is so far removed from our everyday experience that I’m almost certainly making mistakes. Jesus smuggling would be metaphysically safer, and naturalism would be even more so. In other words: my worldview is more likely to be complete than John’s, but it’s also more likely to be inconsistent.
I even personally know people who use supernaturalism as an excuse not to wrestle seriously with the integrity and intelligibility of Creation. I frequently meet several of them when I go to Church. Becoming superstitious is a risk I’m taking. One thing that helps me mitigate that risk is that I’m aware that I’m taking it. If, at some point, I discover fatal flaws in all my arguments, I can still roll back to mere Jesus smuggling, or to John’s rich naturalism, which I still see as an existential safety net. There’s enough continuity between these positions that I think the transition wouldn’t be too dramatic. I know which leaps I’m making.
And on the other hand, supernaturalism, and especially supernaturalism with Christ’s miracles, gives me so much more than I’m risking. Not only can I cultivate virtue and wisdom in existing communities, embedded in a rich narrative, it also gives me one phenomenological advantage that John and I had been looking for with Mary Kochan, namely presence 22. With a supernatural God that can act miraculously within Creation, you don’t relate to God as emptiness. God becomes active. He’s much more personal. He can do things. I’ve even seen my phenomenology change over the weeks that I’ve been working on miracles. Prayer feels much more direct and alive now.
Another important factor that mitigates the risks that I’m taking is that the Church has been effectively dealing with this from the very start. Some people are more like Thomas the Apostle, skeptical of all miracles, and some others are more like Mary Magdalene, first witness to the Resurrection who was shocked and scared by it. It’s by all gathering together in the distributed cognition of the Church that both extremes cohere. Thomas came to believe in the Resurrection, it became viable to him, while Mary Magdalene’s fear and shock were quelled. She did not become a raving superstitious madwoman. I think we’re in a similar situation today. I’m more on the Mary Magdalene side, defending full-blown supernaturalism and trying to work it out. John is more on the Thomas side, defending naturalism and the intelligibility of the world. Paul and Jonathan are of course the other Apostles, of more stable faith and theology, and that’s why John and I find our discussions with them so valuable. These discussions stabilize me, and they open new possibilities for John.
Interestingly, the previous objection coming from non-Christians is not so far from what I’ve seen several Christians themselves comment. They’re afraid that by making miracles more intelligible using the idea of emergence, we threaten the otherness and the power of God. They actually want a clean break between the world, our understanding of it, and God. To put it another way, by using scientific examples to understand miracles, some Christians are worried that we’re reducing God and His miracles to science. They’d rather keep those apart.
The best way to answer this worry is to realize how much our understanding of creation has changed over time. Modern science, with its probability waves and emergent properties, would look occult to Newton. And Newton himself was accused of scientific heresy for introducing gravity as a mysterious action at a distance. In that spirit, I don’t exclude the possibility that science will one day explain some of Christ’s miracles. But by then, science may well look more like modern theology than modern science. After all, we would do well to remember that non-reductive physicalism is much more like Aristotelianism than it is like enlightenment materialism. 23
Thus, I don’t think that Christians should be overly worried by attempts to have theology and science speak to one another. If Christianity is right, then over time it’s science that will come to look more and more like theology rather than the opposite, like Thomas the Apostle came to believe Mary Magdalene rather than the other way around. Sure, there will be setbacks, such as what happened with modernity, but we Christians should rest assured that this is but temporary. As Ed Feser and Fr. Michael Dodds have argued, I think we’re in fact already seeing the tide turn 24. Non-reductive physicalists are a lot closer to Aquinas than they are to Galileo.
Let me conclude by an objection that I’ve seen coming from both sides of the divide. If miracles happen, why aren’t they more common? Why don’t I see them? Why didn’t my prayers heal my dying relative? I believe that we can fairly straightforwardly answer that question by looking directly at the Christian story. Christ’s miracles were not ultimately about healing the sick or feeding people. They allowed Christ to gather disciples and enemies. Ultimately, they lead to the Cross and the Resurrection. And the story was similar with His Apostles. They went to different cities and performed miracles. As they gathered disciples and founded Churches, they also gathered enemies and were ultimately persecuted and martyred (except for John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos).
So we should be careful which part we ask to play in the story. Miracles are about growing the Kingdom, and that is ultimately done through the suffering of the Cross. Christ performed no miracle to save Himself on the Cross. And, lovingly wanting to bring us into His glory, He really wants us to participate in His own Death and Resurrection. He could’ve just healed everyone in Palestine two millennia ago. But that’s not what He did. In fact, even the people he fed, healed, and brought back from the dead still went on to die. Many of them became martyrs, sharing closely in Christ’s own Death and Resurrection. Christ’s miracles are not the point, they’re parts of the story that leads to the Cross.
You can thus say that the miracle that really matters is the Resurrection. It’s the one we should strive to ultimately participate in. Some will do so by following the Apostles, performing miracles and becoming martyrs, and others will do so more simply, suffering in secret 25. We will all die, and if Christianity is right, we can all share in the Resurrection too, for better or for worse. That’s the miracle that matters.
Linked Premium Articles & Posts
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Investigating Miracles with Lewis and Vervaeke. The Symbolic World, October 2020.
- Pageau, Jonathan and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Miracles and their Role in Creation. Youtube, November 2020.
- Vanderklay, Paul; Vervaeke, John and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. CS Lewis’ Miracles, Relevance Realization, Non-Reductive Physicalism. Youtube, November 2020.
- Fiedler, Derek and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Are Miracles Real? Youtube, November 2020.
- Lewis, C.S. Miracles at 132-133, Harper Collins, 1996.
- In addition to the article and the conversations that I’ve already referenced above, you may want to have a look at my article on perception to explore that point: Perception is Symbolic
- Dear, Peter. The Church and the New Philosophy at 123, in Science, Culture and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe, edited by Pumfrey, Stephen; Rossi, Paolo and Slawinsky, Maurice. Manchester University Press, 1991
- Knox, Dilwyn. Giordano Bruno. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2019
- Allen, Michael. At Variance: Marsilio Ficino, Platonism and Heresy. In Studies in the Platonism of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico, edd. Douglas Hedley & Sarah Hutton, International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives, vol. 196, Dordrecht: Springer, 2008
- Snyder, James. Marsilio Ficino. Interned Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Pearl, Eric. Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. Brill, February 2014.
- Vanderklay, Vervaeke and Marceau at 1:09:24
- and Edward Feser’s Aristotle’s Revenge if you want even more
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima pars, Question 22, Article 4, Reply to 1st Objection
- Shuskov, Sergei. Being and Creation in the Theology of John Scottus Eriugena: An Approach to a New Way of Thinking at 217-221. Pickwick Publications, August 2017. For an introduction, you may want to look at two videos I made on Eriugena’s metaphysics: Eriugena’s Symbolic Reading of the Days of Creation and Eriugena and the Deep Continuity of Relevance Realization
- Pageau, Jonathan and Vervaeke, John. God and Relevance Realization. Youtube, December 2019.
- Lewis at 73-74
- Dodds, Michael J. “Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas” at 248, The Catholic University of America Press, 2012
- Lewis, Chapter 2: The Naturalist and the Supernaturalist
- Bible, Mt 24:35
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Metaphysical and Existential Risks with Vervaeke and Bergson. Youtube, August 2019.
- Vervake, John and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Wrestling with Hard Metaphysical Issues with John Vervaeke. Youtube, October 2019. Vervake, John; Kochan, Mary and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. On the Personhood of the One. Youtube. February 2020.
- Dodds, Michael J. Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas, The Catholic University of America Press, 2012. Feser, Edward. Aristotle’s Revenge. Editiones Scholasticae, November 2019.
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Joyful Suffering in Christ. The Symbolic World Blog, June 2020.