Monday 26 June 2006

Miracles, faith, and unusual events

Over at Pontifications, Mike Liccione offers a very thoughtful response to my recent post on miracles, and he points out my “characteristic ‘heretical’ error” of one-sidedness. Mike’s main argument is that “some events of grace are a lot more amazing than others,” and that miraculous events “have a significant role in eliciting faith.”

Naturally I agree with the former point: some events are more unusual than others. And I wouldn’t want to deny that a given miracle-story in the Bible has an unusual event as its historical basis. But my point is that such an event is a “miracle” not because of anything to do with “divine intervention” or the “laws of nature,” but because of this event’s interpreted place within a particular narrative.

As for Mike’s other point, though: is it true that miracles can “elicit faith”? The miracles of Moses did not seem to elicit faith (except among those who already believed). And the reactions to Jesus’ own miracles were remarkably ambivalent: some people responded in faith, but others concluded that he was demon-possessed. For me, this illustrates the real character of miracles: a specific event can be understood as a “miracle” only from within a particular narrative context; outside that context, the same event may be interpreted in all sorts of other ways, but never as a true “miracle.”

Anyway, let me give the last word to Dostoyevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov, the narrator remarks: “It is not miracles that make a realist turn to religion. A true realist will, if he is an unbeliever, will always find the strength and the ability not to believe in a miracle, and if faced with a miracle as an undeniable fact, he will sooner disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. And if he does admit it, he will admit it as a natural fact hitherto unknown to him. In a realist, faith does not arise from a miracle, but the miracle from faith.”


byron smith said...

John 2.23: 'When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.'

John 6.2 'A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.'

John 10.37-38 'If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”'

John 12.8 'It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.'

Acts 2.43 'Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.'

Just wondering how you read this strand of the NT. I realise that there is no necessary connection between signs and faith (e.g. John 12.37), and that those who believe 'without seeing' are blessed (John 20.29), but there certainly seems to be a theme (esp in John) in which belief is the result rather than the cause of witnessing a sign.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Byron -- Yes, I know what you mean. John's Gospel repeatedly emphasises the relationship between the miracles and faith -- and of course the series of signs itself is written "that you may believe" (although the "you" here is of course already the Christian community).

At the same, time, though, John's Gospel consistently highlights the ambiguity and the interpretedness of Jesus' signs -- again and again, the same signs produce ambivalent responses. For instance, you quote 2:23 ("many believed in his name because they saw the signs"), but this is followed immediately by the statement: "but Jesus did not trust himself to them" (2:24), i.e., Jesus himself saw their "faith" for what it really was.

Similarly, as you say, in John 6 a multitude "followed him, because they saw the signs" -- but this chapter also highlights the misunderstanding and the unbelief of the same multitude. Even after the miracle of the loaves, the people demand a sign, saying: "what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you?" (6:30). And when Jesus explains to them the meaning of the sign of the loaves, many of them draw back and no longer follow him (6:66). Thus they are eager in a general way for marvels, but they are offended by the signs of Jesus.

Even in the climactic sign, the raising of Lazarus, the responses are mixed: some of the people "believed in him", but others "went to the Pharisees" (11:45-46), who immediately planned to kill Jesus.

The ambiguity of Jesus' signs is brought out wonderfully (and very humorously) in the story of the man born blind (John 9). Jesus performs the miracle, but the man's neighbours, and the people who had seen him beg, and the Pharisees all come up with the most extraordinary interpretations of the event: but none of them interprets the event correctly, and none of them responds in true faith. Even the man himself is not said to "believe" until Jesus speaks to him and reveals himself to him personally (vv. 35-38). Until then, the man had recognised Jesus only as a "prophet" (v. 17) and as a man from God (v. 33), but now, addressed personally by the Son of Man, his eyes of faith are opened and he confesses, "Lord, I believe!"

Certainly, then, the miracle has played a role -- but it is the word of the Son of Man that elicits the response of faith. And of course the miracle is significant precisely in this way, since the word of Jesus itself provides the right interpretation of the sign, i.e., it discloses the sign-character of the event in such a way that it becomes a true sign and thus a true confirmation of faith in Jesus.

Anyway, sorry to waffle -- but thanks for raising such a valuable question!

byron smith said...

No waffling - that captured very well what I'd been thinking (in a fairly inchoate kind of way).

To push this a little further in a few more directions...

What sacramental implications arise from such a reading? Are sacramants signs in a similar way? (i.e. always requiring the presence of the word to be interpreted aright, but in that context, geuinely becoming signs of Jesus)

Are there also then other contemporary signs of Jesus? Can our communal life be itself considered a sign? (Again, sticking with John: 13.35; 17.23)

* I really just wanted to use 'inchoate'.

guanilo said...

I'm of two minds on the miracle subject after my recent rereading of Schleiermacher, so I'll withhold substantive comment. Just this warning from recent experience: careful on wading into a debate on Pontifications!

Mike L said...

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

Excellent response, Ben. Both your statement, "a specific event can be understood as a 'miracle' only from within a particular narrative context; outside that context, the same event may be interpreted in all sorts of other ways, but never as a true 'miracle'", as well as the Dostoeyevski quote highlight the antithesis between believer and unbeliever, and the need for "new eyes" to see the miracle from the perspective of (Christian) faith. (Interestingly, I think that Barth and VT are more "in tune" on this point than the latter realizes).


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