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Questions miracles raise

12 Comments
Andrew Hamilton |  04 November 2010

In the 1970s Latin American theologians began to explore the connections of faith to a public world marked by great injustice. Some of them initially criticised such popular expressions of faith such as devotions, fiestas and processions. They saw them as sentimental and preoccupied with individual salvation to the neglect of the call to change an unjust world.

For a while a gap opened between popular religion and the more focused account of faith given by the educated. But as theologians began to study the popular experience of faith more deeply, they came to see its complexities and its resources for developing a more just society. The coverage of Mary MacKillop's recent canonisation disclosed a similar tension between popular expressions of faith and more reflective accounts of religion. The tension was reflected in different ways of viewing sainthood.

The criteria for the canonisation of Catholic saints include three elements. Saints must have lived in ways that totally embodied their faith, and so be appropriate models for imitation. A pattern must have developed of people praying through them to God. And authenticated miracles, usually healings, must have been associated with prayer through them.

Most educated Catholics give priority to the heroic and exemplary life of saints and see them as models to be imitated. They also find the emphasis on miracles unhelpful because it suggests that God intervenes at will in the natural world. Instead of remarkable cures, they emphasise moral miracles inspired by the saint's example. The courage people find in suffering, conversion from a vicious to a virtuous life, and enthusiasm in the service of others are seen as more remarkable.

Generally, too, they downplay prayer to the saints because asking for things can assume a manipulative view of prayer and a God who responds in crude ways to our requests. We pray more purely when we give thanks to God and entrust lives into God's hands.

These attitudes echo those of the broader culture. They were seen in the media coverage of Mary MacKillop, particularly of miracles, the most dramatic part of the story of her canonisation. But when ordinary Catholics were asked to speak of the miracles claimed for her, and to describe what her sainthood meant for them, their replies generally brought together in a natural and down to earth way all the aspects of sainthood.

They saw Mary as a model to be imitated in typically Australian pragmatic and sleeves-rolled-up ways. They had no difficulty with miracles. Friends of those cured accepted the miracles without fuss. They saw them as signs of God's work in people's lives, complementary to other more ordinary events through which Christians understand God to work in their lives. They focused less on the spectacular aspects of the miracles than on the faith which formed their context.

Many people, too, spoke of prayer through the saints as a natural part of life. They prayed lightly and humorously for small and concrete things, and with greater investment for the things that really mattered. Overall, they fitted prayer and miracles into their world in comfortable and discriminating ways.

The interesting thing about the encounter between the educated and the popular approaches to sainthood was that, as in Latin America, the popular approach seemed more interesting and potentially subversive. The easy accommodation of miracles and prayer was seen as strange, but also as attractively liberating because it addressed a hidden disquiet that the world is entirely worked out, and that the only questions that now matter are ones of technique. Within this view, pervasive in our culture, miracles and prayer are primitive survivals. The discussion of miracles focuses narrowly on whether they can be proved to violate scientific laws and to be an intervention of God.

Against such a constricted view of the world, miracles and prayers are signs of a larger world and of a reality which is much greater than we can ever comprehend. They do not prove the existence of God or that God intervenes from outside, but they point to a reality beyond what we can know and to a God who cares for it. That relaxed and open view of reality is valuable because it encourages curiosity about what we do not know.

Once miracles are seen, not as events outside the order of nature that prove God's existence, but as inexplicable and non-replicable events that take place in the context of faith, they raise interesting questions. Spontaneous cures involve physical processes – tumours are absorbed into the body, lesions are healed and malignant cells lose their power. Intellectual passion and energy would surely be better deployed in research into such events and into the prima facie connection between them and mental states than in dismissing them in the interests of a narrow and controlled view of the world. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

 


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I have grappled long and hard at the idea of an interventionist God. I can believe miracles are accelerated natural processes rather than temporary violations of natural law - but I still resile from the notion that God answers particular prayers and not others.

I am one who believes in canonisation for the life and example of the saint. I understand why it might bring comfort for people to pray through a saint. But I see the necessity for medical miracles as a corollary to superstition and an overhang of the predestination doctrine.

By implication of the necessity for miracles, all those who pray for miracles that do not occur are unheeded by a God who permits injustice and suffering and only listens to a select few.

In my experience, those who argue otherwise have never dealt with a tragedy.

MBG 04 November 2010

Yes, I think MBG makes compelling points. I appreciated the general thrust of Andrew’s article but feel he mischaracterised the objections to miracles - as anything more than a hoped for but unexpected event - when he wrote that they were a dismissal “in the interests of a narrow and controlled world”. A view that the non-comprehended or marvellous ought not to be attributed to God does not necessarily or always have to be accompanied by a denial that there will always be things not understood by humans.

It might equally be argued for example that a belief that an atypical event is the result of intercessory prayer and divine intervention represents or is derived from another particular model of cosmic control.

I also feel Andrew perpetuates - perhaps just a little, and perhaps unconsciously - a convenient division between popular faith and ‘educated’ faith, that reflects the Catholic Church’s traditional contentment with faithful who don’t make waves and can be diverted or satisfied with devotional bread-and-circuses. How else to explain the Church’s insistence on medical recoveries as a criterion for holiness?

It is hard to escape the impression that Catholicism has become encumbered with its own theological exoticism owing more to paganism than it has the honesty to admit.

Stephen Kellett 04 November 2010

It seems to me the miracle requirement in the canonisation process may have been introduced to prevent the profusion of local saints being declared such by popular acclamation.

When the subject of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop's miracles came up in conversation in my little seaside village most people, Catholic and non-Catholic, thought they were surplus to requirements.

She was a living saint during her time on earth and as far as they were concerned she deserved to be recognised for that. A bit like getting a posthumous VC.

She shouldn't have to prove that she has intercessory power with God in the after life. Nor should God be required to demonstrate his attentiveness to her requests on behalf of us earthlings by effecting miracle cures.

I think a great opportunity for church leaders/teachers to talk about the doctrine of the communion of saints was lost.

Instead they opted for A Media Special Event which to many exhibited the Catholic religion as being highly emotive and grandiose.

Whereas for me two of the many endearing characteristics Mary MacKillop showed throughout her life were her practicality and her humility.

Uncle Pat 04 November 2010

Thank you Andrew! What a splendid summary . . . I have often been bothered by the whole idea of miracles (as it is usually presented), as it suggests that God favours this person over that.

This idea of favouring some and not others contradicts the concept of a God most of whose faith expressions (at least nominally) suggests that justice and balance are important aspects of the lives of God's creatures.

Like MBG, I have problems with the whole idea of an interventionist God, for all the reasons he/she has listed.

Robert Rennick 04 November 2010

My understanding is that God answers all prayers, albeit according to his own wisdom and will. Sometimes the answer is obvious to the one praying, sometimes not. The change prayer is designed to bring about is in ourselves, in our recognition that we are dependent on God for everything. He is our breath. He wants us to ask: the Our Father contains many petitions. He decides how and when to answer.

Helga Jones 04 November 2010

Thanks for the comments, Stephen and Robert.

Helga, I admire the simplicity of your faith. I think such a simplicity that 'God answers all prayer' (just not how we may think) brings comfort to many believers. Yet this appears to be a doctrine of many non-Catholic Christians. I perceive that Catholicism is more nuanced than that.

I completely agree that prayer changes the praying person (see Catechism 2739) but prayer needs to be prayed with God's own will (see Catechism 2559-2565). In other words, to love as God loves. This means that when I pray to God to feed the hungry, I need to be receptive to the spirit prompting me to go and feed the hungry. ('We live as we pray' - Catechism 2725, 2745). I don't like the 'name it and claim it' prayers of many of our Christian brethren. God is not a Gift List at David Jones.

I think answers to 'Gift List' prayers are coincidence and circumstance, not God. God only does what God can (and is) - love.

MBG 04 November 2010

Stephen Kellett's courteous and reasoned arguments, as always, lead me take me beyond the limits of my previous thinking. In particular he shows that there can be many forms of scepticism about the miraculous, not all of which are closed to mystery.

In my argument I had in mind the position that claims that the non-comprehended or marvellous must never on principle be attributed to God in any way. This is a closed position, just as the argument that such events must always be attributed directly to God would also be closed to further helpful observation of human events. Both positions seem to arise from a predetermined control over enquiry.

I was not particularly happy with my own terminology of 'educated' faith as opposed to popular faith, but could not think of anything better. And I concede that to privilege popular faith could be as self-serving for Catholic apologists as Stephen describes. But that is not really where I was coming from. I have been struck by the richness and complexity of very different ways of looking at the world I have found in a variety of refugee and ethnic communities I have come to know. I have also been struck by the common assumption that where these make different assumptions and make different judgments about the world than those made in contemporary Western intellectual culture, they are to be seen as primitive or narrow.

The question of miracles is interesting in that context because in the Catholic Church many cultures are accommodated, and there is the opportunity to see one's Western rationality in a relative way.



Andy Hamilton 04 November 2010

Thank you, Andrew, for your gracious rejoinder to my post. I understand your theme more clearly. For my part I did not intend to impugn the value a person might derive from their belief in miracles, so much as to defend the decision not to believe in them. Your cautionary remark that it’s a common assumption that alternative views of the world are primitive or narrow is salutary. We should, therefore, never lose sight of the likelihood that what one does not believe one will never see, which means, I suppose, that the best approach is never to hold to anything as other than a working hypothesis (albeit one that makes most “sense” to date). And in which case, it is not a belief in miracles which is necessarily the problem, but the dogmatic affirmation or denial of them.

Stephen Kellett 05 November 2010

Stephen, you have reflected my thoughts too.

Belief in a non-interventionist God does not preclude my belief in miracles.

However, I would consider the abrupt change in a particular person (perhaps due to conversion), a sudden change of ethics in a dubious corporation or peace in the Middle East (due to changes in the governance or people involved) and other such occurrences as miraculous.

I am much more comfortable of this notion of the miraculous than the idea that God chooses to answer the petitions for medical miracles in particular people (but not others).

MBG 05 November 2010

I write with some deep feeling.

Perhaps our best prayer at any time is "Thy will be done". And my long experience as a priest has made clear to me that healings and cures happen often to Christians and others with others outnumbering Christians.

I was one of the most extremely premature babies to live in the 1930s, placed in a shoebox on top of a hot water bottle, baptised with a syringe by the obstetrician and again, later by a nurse who kept caring for me for fifty years or more.

I was said to be a miracle baby.I was named Gerard because Gerard Majella was said to be the patron saint for difficult pregnancies. A repulsive picture of him was later hung on the wall of my bedroom -- piety gone over the top.

And hearing myself described as a miracle baby did not help me.

Years later, members of my parish in Caulfield prayed novenas to a potential saint for the cure of a practical down to earth woman. At the end of one novena she got out of bed feeling well. That was quickly claimed to be a miracle, but my father, a dedicated Catholic physician, did not sign documents attesting to this "miracle". He had seen other patients likewise cured, although noone had prayed to prospective saints for them to be cured.

Gerry Costigan 06 November 2010

I write with some deep feeling.

Perhaps our best prayer at any time is "Thy will be done". And my long experience as a priest has made clear to me that healings and cures happen often to Christians and others.

I was one of the most extremely premature babies to live in the 1930s, placed in a shoebox on top of a hotwater bottle, baptised with a syringe by the obstetrician and again, later by a nurse who kept caring for me for fifty years or more.

I was said to be a mirical baby.I was named Gerard because Gerard Majella was said to be the patron saint for difficult pregnancies. A repulsive picture of him was later hung on the wall of my bedroom -- piety gone over the top.

And hearing myself described as a miracle baby did not help me.

Years later, members of my parish in Caulfield prayed novenas to a potential saint for the cure of a practical down to earth woman.At the end of one novena she got out of bed feeling well. That was quickly claimed to be a miracle, but my father, a dedicated Catholic physician, did not sign documents attesting to this "miracle". He had seen and read about other patients likewise ill and likewise cured, although noone had prayed to or through prospective saints for them.

Gerry Costigan 06 November 2010

Saint Mary MacKillop is to be modelled and imitated, only. If we all became nuns the whole point of love would be lost. The issue of miracles is a by-product of her existence. For Australia though, the miracles are a stepping-stone to belief and faith.Imo.

Jodie 13 November 2010

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