Miracles and Apparitions

Tuesday, September 30, 2003



There is an old story that many of us may have heard before. Once upon a time, a man sat on his porch as a flood warning was beginning. His neigbor was pulling out of the driveway following the evacuation order from the community officials. The neigbor said, "Hey. Jump in. We can ride out together to avoid the flood." The man responded, "I have faith. God will save me from the impending flood."

A little while later, the water covered the street, and an SUV cut it's way through the flood. A stranger rolled down the window and said, "Hey fellow. Jump in, this flood is going to get worse." The man responded, "I have faith. God will save me from the impending flood."

As time passed, the water became high enough that the man had to move inside and look out his second floor window. A boat came by, and the man in the boat yelled out, "Jump in. This flood is going to get worse." The man responded, "I have faith. God will save me from the impending flood."

The man was forced to climb to the roof as the flood entered his second floor. A rescue helicopter whirled overhead and a voice came from a bull-horn yelling, "Grab this rope ladder. we'll save you." The man yelled back, "I have faith. God will save me from the impending flood."

The man drowned.

When he reached the pearly gates, the man said to Saint Peter, "I had faith. Why did God let me drown?" Saint Pete responded, "We sent you a car, an SUV, and boat and a helicopter. What else were we supposed to do?"

Conservative Catholics often criticize progressive and liberal Catholics for ignoring the supernatural element of faith. To some extent, this is an accurate criticism, because we don't like the language of the "supernatural".

The term "supernatural" can also imply that a thing or event is "unnatural", and a false dualism is set up, where the world is disdained, and "spiritual" things are considered more important.

Our Holy Father has written extensively about a theology of the body. Basically, this theology is rooted in the incarnation event. God became flesh in Jesus Christ, and in doing so, the concrete historical reality of fleshly existence is sanctified and made holy. Indeed, in the Apostles Creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body.

Catholics do not believe in ghosts. Our existence in the next life will be a bodily existence. Granted, the resurrected body will be a glorified body that may differ from our own existence in the here and now like a butterfly differs from a moth. Nevertheless, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the body that dies and the body that rises, and there is a sense in which glorified existence is physical.

Our reverence for the world and the body also expresses itself in the Catholic notion of sacraments. Grace is actualized in our lives through concrete bodily actions. Our worship is a sensual celebration of the goodness of the creator of the universe.

There is ultimately one, and only one reality. Reality belongs to God. In a God's eye view, there is no distinction between natural and supernatural, for all things that are real are natural to God. Thus, we say in the Creed of Nicea that we believe in the maker of things seen and unseen. Yet, those things that are unseen are no less natural than my left hand or my smelly foot!

God is omnipotent. If God wants to put a hole in the roof over my head, he can simply will that a hole appear, and the roof would open up. However, God can also allow a storm to come along and knock over a tree that puts a hole in the roof. We call the former primary causality, while the latter is called secondary causality.

God also can allow contingent realities in his creation. For example, he grants us free will. Yet, we believe that God works in human history through providence. What this means is that God, in his omniscience and omnipotence, can play off our moves like a master chess player. Though he correctly anticipates our move, and is several steps ahead of us, he is not directly controlling what we do. Our freedom is preserved.

Regarding miracles, it is my experience that God seems to work most of the time through secondary causality and providence such that our freedom is always preserved. God could directly intervene in a healing as a response to prayer. However, it seems to me that God usually works through a doctor in response to prayer.

Some Bible scholars look at the description of an event such as water turning to blood in the book of Exodus, and suggest that red clay may have mixed with a river at its source. To the ancients, this would appear to be a mighty sign of God's power. There is a perfectly natural explanation. However, what makes it a miracle is that it occurred at the exact time it needed to happen when Moses was trying to liberate the Hebrews from oppressive slavery in the name of God.

We tell stories of our faith to emphasize God's actions in our lives. The stories highlight to those with faith that God is revealing his love for us. Some Scipture scholars and Church historians even admit to the possibility that this method of faith sharing leads to some selective memory, use of literary devices, and even embellishment to make theological points. This does not mean the stories are not true. Rather, it means that the truth in the narrative sometimes lies behind and between the facts being narrated.

Many progressive Catholics believe that God always works through secondary causality such that there is always a natural explanation for miracles or the development of narratives about miraculous events. This does not mean that God is not at work in our history or our lives. Rather, it means that God is at work in all events, and some events become such striking signs of God's love that they stand out and become part of the narrative history of the People of God.

Miracles are not "proofs" of God's existence. The demons believe in the existence of God, but such belief is not saving faith. Faith is trusting God in difficult circumstances. Miracles are not simply unexplainable phenonemon. Miracles are signs that this trust is well placed.

It is not necessary to define a miracle as something that cannot be explained through natural science. This is a God of the gaps theology that gets us in trouble with atheists who can explain a particular phenomenon naturally. There are always mutliple interpretations of any given event. What makes an event a miracle is our faith that God was at work behind and between what is occurring naturally. Indeed, the Bible says that Jesus could not perform miracles where there was a lack of faith!

The Pharisees saw the miracles of Jesus and attributed them to the power of Beelzebub. Others saw the miracles of Jesus and saw that the reign of God was breaking into human existence. Miracles do not cause faith. Rather, faith allows one to see miracles for what they are. God always respects our freedom.

Conservatives sometimes ask us progressives what we think of apparitions of Mary and so forth.

The Church maintains that all revelation absolutely necessary to salvation was provided prior to the close of the canon of Scripture, and apparitions are judged partially by their consistency with the Gospels. What if apparitions are the visions of schizophrenics? Does it make the message of a valid apparition any less meaningful if the person who received the message has a neurobiological disorder? As I look at Scripture and Tradition, it seems that God has a habit of working most powerfully through the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and the meek of the world. Why wouldn't God permit his grace to work in a special way in a person with a neurobiological disorder? Grace builds on nature.

Sometimes, there appear to be events that are viewed by multiple witnesses with no known explanation. For example, there were apparently many people who saw the sun dance during an apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima. According to the stories, some of the people present were not Catholics. Doesn't this prove that miracles that violate science and have no natural explanation do occur, no matter what progressives say?

My response is that all sorts of things happen that I can't explain. Simply because something cannot be explained does not make it a miracle. I don't know exactly why what goes up must come down. I understand the mathematical calculations that determine how "gravity" works, but what the heck is gravity? Going into the less mundane, there may be people who have ESP, and we have no scientific explanation for this, but ESP is not necessarily a miracle either (in the sense of being a sign of God's love).

My point is that what makes an event a miracle is not that it is unexplainable. Rather, what makes an event a miracle is that the event serves as a sign to the believer that God is active and present in the world. In this sense, miracles are happening around us all the time. The friend who called you out of the blue when you really needed a shoulder to cry on is a miracle. The job that came through right on time is a miracle. The successful surgery you underwent is a miracle. The Mass you participate in every Sunday is a miracle!

Miracles do not cause faith. Rather, faith allows us to see miracles. Open your eyes. Miracles are happening all around you!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 9:19 AM

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