Magical Thinking And Miracles
One of the most endearing theological characters I have ever come across is Fr Joseph-Marie Lagrange, a Dominican friar who died in 1938, founder of the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem, who spear-headed the renewal of biblical studies in Catholicism at the end of the XIX century at great personal cost: he was reprimanded and silenced during the infamous anti-Modernist purge operated during the papacy of Pope Pius X and, remarkably, was rehabilitated towards the end of his life. He was perfectly aware that his scientific approach to Scripture was bound to displease the old guard, never played the martyr, believed that the seriousness of his work would eventually be vindicated, and deftly dodged the sanctimonious fervour of his opponents in the Roman Curia with unalterable bonhomie and good humour. His memory was still very much alive in the Dominican house of Rangueil in Toulouse where I spent my first year of doctoral studies in the late nineties and it must have been there that I heard an anecdote that has resonated with me ever since. A faction of ill-intentioned students looking for pretexts to report him were trying to determine how he interpreted the episode of the giving of the table of the Law to Moses on the mount Sinai in Exodus 31. They kept pressing him: “So what do you think really happened there?”. Having tried for a while to side-step the question, P. Lagrange is supposed to have finally answered: “Something did happen”.
Over the years, I have increasingly realized that this was not a witticism but a pearl of wisdom. I have returned to it especially whenever I had to deal with the miracle narrative in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. Did these miracles really happen? And if they did, why they do not happen any more today. I know there are plenty of Christians hell-bent (if I may be forgiven to say so) on arguing that miracles happen today just as freely as they are supposed to have happened among the first Christians and I am not going to dispute their claims - even though in over thirty years of ministry I have never seen any, to which they might answer that this is because of my little faith, which is certainly true – although I find myself in good company here, since the favourite nickname Jesus fondly gave to his disciples was micropistoi, “micro-believers”.
Would not the present demise of Christianity be staved off and counter-balanced if we found a way of re-activating the power Jesus gave to his disciples at the end of Mark’s Gospel of picking serpents with our hands and drinking deadly poisons without being hurt, and of laying hands on sick people and healing them (Mk 16.18)?
On the other hand, are not miracles an egregious example of magical thinking, typical of our four-year old children who, when they wish for a unicorn, truly believe that it will appear in their bedroom? We might have outgrown this early stage of our psychic development, but we do not have to dig deep in us to find out that a part of us has never resigned itself to let go of this attitude, and if its forms are not as patent as in childhood, they are nonetheless unmistakeable. Don’t we all cherish small objects or perform tiny rituals (often known only to ourselves) to soothe our anxiety especially when we are facing something unknown or waiting for a result that might determine the course of our lives?
So what about miracles? Are those described in the New Testament real and should we expect, nay, perform them in our days so that people might believe? Is the only reason why they seem not to be happening any more simply our “micro-faith”?
I am grateful to P. Lagrange’s purported sentence because it has prevented me from scepticism when dealing with miracle stories. When I read that Peter decided to baptise gentiles because he saw this elaborate vision of a large sheet filled with all sorts of reptiles and birds let down to earth by its four corners (Acts 10.12f) I know that “something happened” to persuade him to do the unconceivable, namely baptise non Jewish people, thus opening Christianity to potentially welcoming the whole of humanity. Similarly, when I read that during a life-threatening crossing of a lake, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the waters, again I know that “something happened” in their relation with Jesus that helped them to overcome their fears and trust him: “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Mk 6.50).
However, I find just as crucial that despite the ease with which he could perform all sorts of miracles, Jesus refused to make one to come down from the cross or when he was challenged to give a proof of his divinity. Whether or not miracles happened in the way they are reported in the literary genre of the texts that have been handed over to us as divinely inspired Scriptures, the “something that happened” for sure is this: the way God saves us is not by magic but by patience, both in the etymological sense of pati, taking our sufferings on himself, and in the more common sense of not be afraid of the unbearable long time it takes for us to learn how to trust him.
Whether or not miracles happened, one thing is sure: they are not the way in which God acts in our lives, unless, that is, we change our understanding of what a miracle is.
We all know the charming device we inherited from ancient Greek theatre called Deus ex machina, literally the “God who lowers himself down on a crane” at a critical moment of the plot to supernaturally resolve our problems and put an end to the drama. This device perfectly typifies magical thinking and the wrong interpretation of the meaning of miracles - or of “whatever happened” that biblical narrative presents under the guise of miracles. We might disagree on what miracles are, but I think that all Christians, whether inclined to literalism or to more drastic forms of biblical criticism, would agree on what miracles are not. They are not God showing off, trying to impress or even intimidated us; they are not meant to make us believe that the solution to illness, poverty, disbelief is to be simply entrusted to a God lowering himself down on a crane and solving the problems we are unwilling to take responsibility for.
I also think that Christians of all stripes and colour would not dispute that our God is not fond of cranes but much prefers tents instead. John’s Gospel says the he eschenosen, “planted his tent among us” or, as it is often translated, “came to dwell among us” (John 1.14). He does not unexpectedly and conveniently pop in and out of our lives. He has been part of the plot throughout, often unnoticed, often silently, but sharing absolutely every moment of it.
As Christians we believe in miracles not as a form of magical thinking but as the most effective antidote against it. And, in this sense, miracles happen all the time.
The miracle is that we discover ourselves capable of believing in a God unheard of. The miracle is that even if we do not see this God, we find comfort and strength in the knowledge that he is faithful, loves us more than we love ourselves, and is ready to forgive us more than we will ever be willing to forgive ourselves. The miracle is that we are not eager for magic any more because magic diminishes our agency, and deprives us of the treasures of endurance and patience indispensable to authentic growth. The miracle is that, instead of relying on a fictional Deus ex machina, we prefer to take responsibility and play our part in the plot fully – eager and delighted to discern the countless ways in which the Father sustains and inspires our every step.