Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Grammar of Miracle

A couple of weeks ago, James Chastek at Just Thomism put up an excellent post on miracles, which sparked some further reflections on my part, and the midst of Hanukkah, celebrating the "great miracle" of the oil in the re-dedication of the temple after the Maccabees' revolt*, seems a good time to put it up.

Somewhere in an interview -- I can't recall the source anymore -- Ken Wilber remarked that reincarnation is still one of those topics that you cannot mention without your standing being immediately compromised in academic or professional philosophy circles. There are a number of these forbidden topics, and you can quickly suss out the assumptions of whatever in-crowd is dominant wherever you are by just asking yourself which matters you would feel uncomfortable being caught taking seriously. (The neo-reactionaries like to push the socio-political ones in your face to see standard-issue liberals get uncomfortable.)

Miracle is high on this list. Even in many a seminary or house of worship there are those who squirm at it. It just seems so clearly to be a vestigial meme from an earlier, more credulous era. We are very confident.

Rosenzweig introduces the second section of The Star of Redemption with a meditation on miracles that is (like so much of that indispensable book, really one of the short list of great philosophical works of the last century) still unplumbed. Miracle, says Rosenzweig, is the embarrassment of modern theology, and this embarrassment is a symptom of a decisive break with classical theology, which (he says) was rooted in the idea of miracle. Rosenzweig parallels the decline of theology with a decline of philosophy, both of which had seemed to come to a coinciding triumph in Hegelianism, and both of which were compromised by fatal flaws in Hegel's system.

For Rosenzweig, a miracle is not an inexplicable event, and it need not be "contrary to the laws of nature." It is, however, crucially bound up with prophecy -- a point which marks one of his vital connections to Pascal. When I first read Pascal, I was surprised and mildly put off. I had expected quite a lot more of the moralism along the lines of "All the misfortunes of Man come from his inability to sit quietly in his room alone;" or the proto-existential anxiety in the face of infinite interstellar spaces. Instead, I found huge swathes of text unpacking the fulfillment of Hebrew scripture in the New Testament. I did not know what to make of it. But Rosenzweig's whole project -- which is at least partially glossable as an exploration of what the Biblical inheritance means vis-a-vis the sum of philosophy -- provides one way of understanding: the issue of prophecy and of miracle alike is intra-traditional. For Pascal, the issue is not a proof directed to the pagan philosophers, but to those who already accept the Hebrew scripture as authoritative. To Rosenzweig as well, miracle is a "proof" of revelation -- the miracle par excellence -- and of providence, to be sure, because it exemplifies the way "all things work together" from the moment of Creation; but it is only this to those who already believe. To outsiders, to unbelievers, and in particular to the enemies of belief (those for whom "unbelief" is not neutral and bemused but antagonistic and resentful), the miracle is not experienced as a refutation. The hosts of Pharaoh do not flock to the camp of Israel to learn of Moses, nor do the believers in Baal turn to Elijah in the wilderness after their priests are consumed by fire. The unbeliever is not converted, but merely confounded. And, at least in many circumstances, they turn to "miracles" of their own (e.g., the snakes of Pharaoh's magicians). At best, "miracle" in this sense proves to be, in the Bible, a confrontation of power with greater power. But this never validates God; it merely validates -- power.

In the New testament, this pattern is confirmed -- miracles are frequently beside the point for most people, or illustrate the wrong point, even those intimately involved. The disciples are sure a ghost is walking toward them on the water; those who ate at the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 is later told they are seeking Jesus not because they saw the signs performed, "but because you had your fill of the loaves;" of ten lepers who are cleansed, only one turns back to give thanks and homage. In short, the Biblical authors do not seem to think that miracles produce any big swing from unbelief to belief.

What, then? This is where Chastek's post on Miracles is so clarifying:
miracles ... [are] not meant to get unbelievers to believe but to get believers to change their beliefs. (emphasis in original)
Chastek's rationale for this point -- that miracles are rare and occur "at transition points in salvation history" is important but only really pertinent to those who will grant, at least for the sake of argument, that "salvation history" is a meaningful category. I'm not going to argue that here, though I will note that this is one way in which Chastek anticipates a frequent objection -- to wit, that the Bible somehow "makes us expect" that miracles happen frequently. Not so, he says:
Scripture records two thousand years of narrative history, and not a hundred years of it are great times of miracle. Even that overstates the case since we certainly don’t mean that we find a hundred years of continuous miracles when we add them all up.
Rosenzweig agrees:
The question as to why miracles do not come to pass "today" as they used to "once upon a time" is simply stupid. Miracles never "came to pass" anyway. The atmosphere of the past blights all miracle. The Bible itself explains the miracle of the Red Sea post eventum as something "natural." Every miracle can be explained after the event. Not because the miracle is not a miracle, but because explanation is explanation. Miracles always occur in the present and, at most, in the future. One can implore and experience it, and while the experience is still present, one can feel gratitude. When it no longer seems a thing of the present, all there is left to do is explain. ("A Note on a Poem by Judah ha-Levi" in Franz Rosenzweig: his life and thought, ed. Glatzer, p 289-90)
But what is really important is that the Biblical authors do regard "salvation history" as relevant (and n.b., this "history" is decisively oriented towards the future in a crucial sense), and that this casts real light on the way "miracle" functions for this worldview. Miracles do not aim to change unbelievers into believers, but to make believers believe differently. This is my own, stronger, re-phrasing of Chastek's point -- it isn't just, or primarily, or perhaps at all about the content of the belief, but about what we might call the mode of belief. Not, we may say, the meme, but the meta-meme.

In the comments to the post, a reader asked: well, what about the miracles of the Saints? To this Chastek replied, completely consistently I think: the saints' miracles are a function of the liturgy (I would have said, of the Eucharist) -- and so are an extension of the principle that miracles are "addressed to" believers.

"No, no," I hear someone object -- "the point isn't whether miracles "mean" such and such; the question is whether they happen at all. For if they don't happen, then they can't very well "mean" anything, can they?" But this is to miss the point. In fact, and much to some of his admirers' dismay, Meillassoux has (without quite using the terminology) re-opened the issue of the plausibility, or at least possibility, of "miracles" in a certain sense -- not, to be sure, as "exceptions" to a law of nature, but simply as momentary changes in such a law. To say this is certainly to interpret Meillassoux against his own intent, but the point here is not whether I'm reading him correctly; it is that a consistent materialist and non-providential account of "miracles" as "events our current laws of nature do not permit" is certainly possible. For Rosenzweig, the miracle always functions within the context of an understanding of Providence; what Meillassoux offers is an account of "miracle" (of a sort) in the radical absence of providence. Doubtless, this account has a formal ingeniousness to it which makes it an object of interest, if not indeed a kind of perverse fascination. Probably, in fact, many such accounts could be possible, so far as this formal interest is concerned. But so what? What this shows is that the notion of "whether miracles happen" (or can happen) in that sense is not the question. We could even stipulate that they can and do; alternatively, we can prescind entirely from the question of "whether miracles happen" in the sense of the big Cecil B. DeMille special effects, because the question of "whether they happen" is playing a different role for the non-believer than it plays for the believer. The non-believer who asks this way is trying to say, if there "are no miracles," then such-and-such follows -- which implies (disingenuously, though they may not be aware of this disingenuousness), that if "there are miracles," something else follows. I.e.: a miracle "now" -- a real, bona-fide, nope-we-can't-deny-it-and-we-can't-explain-it miracle -- would prove something; and so, by implication, the absence of a miracle proves something else -- something opposite. What the Biblical account of miracle implies (according to the reading I am offering of Rosenzweig, Chastek, and to some degree Pascal) is that no such thing follows. The calculus does not play out that way. That is not how the grammar of "miracle" in the Bible works; it isn't meant to offer that sort of "proof" at all.
If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
(Luke 16:31)
But if that grammar refers us to the question of believers and non-believers (a tendentious terminology that has bequeathed us an ambiguous heritage), then the real issue raised here is not the meaning of miracle at all, but the meaning of -- belief itself. It seems to me that the question of how this term functions for the Biblical writers is one of the most difficult and pressing of all.

*It is perhaps worth mentioning that the miracle of the oil lasting eight days does not figure in the narrative of I or II Maccabees. It is referred to only in the Talmud.


  1. Excellent, and very helpful. Pannenberg, as I recall, wrote that Aquinas held that miracles do not violate the laws or rationality of nature, but merely "reveal heretofore undisclosed potentialities", or something like that.

    1. Thank you. I used to chafe at this suggestion ("heretofore undisclosed potentialities") because I grew up with it in Mormonism, where it functions in a strange way, making God into a kind of super-scientist who just understands these "laws of nature" we don't get yet. (It really is Clarke's law about sufficiently advanced tech made into theology, of a sort.) It took me a long time to see this idea as deployable in any other way.