Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:22-23 NRSV)
Christians are about to celebrate a resurrection. And a resurrection, it would appear, is a kind of miracle. But what is a resurrection, and, perhaps more generally, what is a miracle? One extremely common understanding is that miracles are a kind of divine intervention wherein God, as creator and sustainer of the natural universe, does something remarkable. This remarkable something appears to defy the laws of nature and so when we see it happen, if we have the privilege of witnessing miracles or believe the testimony of those who have, we infer that there must be some transcendent God whose great power is beyond understanding. We rejoice and establish solemnities.
I do not want to say that this view is mistaken. Every piece of religious language is important, so presumably there is a reason this image of miracles captivates so many people. But I think it is incomplete. Every buoyant cataphasis needs a sober apophasis. But rather than discuss the resurrection Christians prepare to commemorate, I will bring up another. But first, some clarification.
The common view of miracles make them out to be a kind of activity – i.e. a kind of divine activity. So most people when they think of miracles, are led to consider God’s great power. But what is wrong with this? Is God not Omnipotent? Surely God is omnipotent, but what does this mean? Does God, for instance, not create? Is he not the creator of the universe? And if he is the creator of the universe, surely he can intervene in it? And surely that is what we call a “miracle?”
But notice, if one thinks of God’s power only in terms of omnipotence, one may be thereby led (via a trick of language) to think about divine potency – i.e. potential. And one obvious problem is that this conflicts (at least for sober philosophical Christians) with the thought of God as pure actuality (actus purus). That is, God has no potential. Potential belongs to the realm of becoming. But if God is fullness of Being, there is nothing for him to become. To say that God “acts” therefore, even for traditionalists, does not mean that God “does” something. Case in point – Christians have long eschewed the Gnostic portrayal of the Demiurge. The Gnostics reviled the Demiurge (from Greek demiourgos – craftsman) as the incompetent Artificer of the material universe. Since matter was opposed to spirit, the literal production of the material universe was thought to be a very bad thing. Christians deny this, and affirm the goodness of creation – but not because they believe in the Demiurge. “Demiurge” is not a word Christians have ever been comfortable applying to God. Because God is not a craftsman, artisan, or tinker. He is not a Deistic clockmaker.
But surely, inasmuch as we say in the creeds that we believe in the “maker of heaven and earth,” we believe God really is a “maker.” Perhaps he is not a demiurge, but assuredly he is a creator. Unfortunately, all the words for “creation” in the classical Christian languages, are derivatives of words for reproduction and growth. When Christians use them, we make language take a new turn. We give a new use to ancient forms. For when Christians affirm that God created the universe, they do not mean that he generated, emitted, emanated, or gave birth to it.
So what do Christians mean when we say God “created?” We ought consult the scriptures.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:6, 8-9)
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created. (Psalm 148:5)
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)
Among the many titles of God, along with “maker” and “creator” is another odd one: Author. And by the same linguistic trick that leads you from “omnipotence” to “potency” and from “creation” to “created” and so forth, you can be led from “Author” to its obvious derivative – authority. Christians should note that when God “creates” in scripture, it is not that he does something, it is that he commands and it is done. Notice that when Christians end all of their prayers with the word “Amen” (genitthito in Greek) they are not issuing a command to God such as “Do it now!!!” Rather, they are saying “Let it be done.” And when the Blessed Virgin submits to the annunciation, she does not say “Now do it!” but “Let it be done to me according to your word.” What we have here is not nature being overwhelmed or overridden by a divine power. What we have here is nature submitting, “willingly” we might say, to divine authority. God does not do anything. He commands, and it is done.
Remember that there are (at least) four kinds of “causes.” That is, there are at least (hang your head in shame for not having read Aristotle’s Metaphysics) four kinds of answers to the question “Why?” Four “becauses:” material, formal, efficient, final. If I ask why there is a vase on the table it could be because it is made of glass (as apposed to being a cloud shape), it may be because it is shaped a certain way such that it doesn’t fall off the table, it could be because a glassblower just made it, or, seemingly trivially, to hold flowers. We know that vases are for holding flowers. That is their final cause. But a final cause is not the process that the vase had to go through to get there. We might say that a final cause is not strictly a cause at all (at least in our everyday usage). A final cause is a purpose, or we might say, a reason for something.
Now at the beginning of the so-called Enlightenment, because of the scientific and later industrial revolutions, all kinds of cause were reduced to efficient causes. The universe came to be seen as a (splendid) machine, and living organisms became mechanisms. So miracles came to be seen as modifications or interventions in the mechanics of the laws of nature. And so naturally, most people ceased believing in them. Those who continued to believe, forgot that miracles, like the miracle of creation, is not a matter of divine machinery, and God a mighty Engineer, but a sign of authority. We became interested in power – a power increasingly magnified by science – so we came to see miracles as a matter of power.
God is not the material cause of creation, because God is immaterial. God is not the formal cause of creation, because the universe is not made in God’s “form” or image. God is not the efficient cause of the universe, because God did not do anything to create it. What about final causality? Jesus, as God, says “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 22:13). What does this mean? Orthodox Christians know nothing of the barbaric language that imputes material, formal, or efficient causality to God. But we do think he is the First Cause, and Final Cause. In other words, He is both the reason that we exist, and the reason why we exist. He is our purpose. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have to go through millions of years of evolution, struggle, survival, birth, growth, and maturation, to get to where we are now. But it means that wherever we are now, it is not because He has put us here, but because he has called us.
So one shortcoming of understanding miracles, or for that matter any of God’s creative activity, as a kind of activity (part of the logical genus of acts) is that it makes miracles seem hard. Because they seem hard, we infer it must take a great deal of power to accomplish them. But this is not true. Miracles are not properly ascribed to Gods power but to his authority. God does not need to do anything to bring anything about. He simply commands and it is done. How it is done is unimportant. And in fact, that is why miracles are miraculous (from Latin mirari – to wonder). Miracles are not simply uncanny – as they would be if they were mere violations of natural laws wreaked by a merely powerful being – miracles are wonderful, they prompt awe. And the wonder they incite is at God’s authority – not his power.
One obvious reason we may be averse to this assertion is that we dislike authority. And of course we should dislike it in some sense. The thing that passes for “authority” in most human affairs is not in fact true authority. Nobody might have true authority unless it is given them. And to be given authority would precisely to be under authority. Many of those who wield “authority” are really just exercising power. Authority, in this unfortunate way, is a kind of manipulation. And manipulation is a kind of doing, an activity. So if someone is attempting to use authority to manipulate, they are eo ipso not really exercising authority at all. Authority would be expressed by the fact that they do not have to manipulate to achieve their end. So we are indeed right to be averse to many who claim to have authority. Too many religious, political, and intellectual figures (and too many of them Christian) have pretended to have authority when in fact they were merely doing some kind of manipulative activity (perhaps by claiming to have authority). True Authority (of which there is only one kind) is not like that. But nevertheless, it is real.
What does all this have to do with resurrection? Jesus was God. But this does not mean that He was powerful. He is the Son of Man, but assuredly He was a man. He possesses both complete divine and complete human natures in his Person. But it is necessary for Christians to believe that in His life, the divine nature does what is proper to divinity and that human nature does what is proper to humanity. There is (a rarity) no linguistic confusion here. So when we read of the miracles of Jesus we encounter the following:
Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:26-27).
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (Mark 2:10-11)
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:6-10)
And to the apostles Jesus says,
See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. (Luke 10:19)
Why should one need authority to tread on snakes and scorpions? Could you not just wear heavy boots? Why should one need authority to forgive sins, heal the sick, or calm a storm? (Instead of for instance establishing criminal justice, modern medicine, or meteorology?) If Jesus made these things happen (i.e. if he did anything) he proves to be a very mighty hero – but it would not prove that he was God. We would know that, as in the pagan days, there were powerful and potentate beings who could strike us with lightning bolts or floods or diseases. But Christians are not afraid of the old gods (that is – of angels and demons) and what they might do to us. Our only concern is what our Master commands. Like the centurion, Jesus simply says “go” and things happen of their own accord in response to Him.
But wait, is this not distressing news? Might He not command us to do awful things? Might his emissaries (apostoloi in Greek) not lord it over us and manipulate us? And most importantly, could he not, as a cruel and dreadful Lord, command us to do the impossible and punish us without end when we fail? No. These worries, while distressing and dreadful (and the torment of many minds), are illusions. And there is a reason why. But to that later.
Does Jesus have to speak to exercise authority? Apparently not. For we do not always hear voices when miraculous occurrences happen. So importantly, although a command brings about the occurrence, the command is not a catalyst. Commands do not stand in relation to outcomes as causes do to effects. What is important is that the one being commanded, respond in obedience. A great king does not need to vocalize anything to be obeyed by his servants. Perhaps he need only wave a hand, or incline his head, or some other predetermined sign. So in other words, God may, in a sense, make a gesture and the response is significant. This is what Wittgenstein says about miracles in Culture and Value (1944).
A miracle is, as it were, a gesture which God makes. As a man sits quietly and then makes an impressive gesture, God lets the world run on smoothly and then accompanies the words of a saint by a symbolic occurrence, a gesture of nature. It would be an instance if, when a saint has spoken, the trees around him bowed, as if in reverence…
The only way for me to believe in a miracle in this sense would be to be impressed by an occurrence in this particular way. So that I should say e.g.: “It was impossible to see these trees and not feel that they were responding to the words.” (Remarks on Culture & Value, [CV] 45e)
When we are so struck by a miraculous occurrence, something pregnant with significance, we feel impelled to say “This is an act of God.” So when the centurion witnesses Jesus on the cross, he exclaims “Surely this man was the Son of God,” not because he infers via logical inference (having quickly read all the Jewish scriptures and taken courses on metaphysics) that Jesus is God, but because he is struck by what is before his eyes – the earthquake, the darkness, the pathos of it all. Similarly, when ancient men venerated the site of a lightning strike, it is not because they inferred that there was a being called Zeus, but because they were thunderstruck (a word that must be restored to English religious usage). Something similar might be said as when Catholics exclaim in the Mass “my Lord and my God,” not because they detect via inference per impossibile that God is now present, but because the priest performs certain gestures that are significant. This is neither here nor there.
I have promised to speak on resurrection. But not Christ’s. Christ raised many people from the dead. But it is not that he “brought them back to life” as if he were Dr. Frankenstein. There is no technique of resurrection which Jesus, as a holy but mad scientist employs. Resurrection is not a science, but a miracle. It is a kind of gesture. But why is this particular gesture so significant?
At the beginning of this piece I begin the account of Jairus’ daughter. It is in Mark 5. There are three miracles recounted in Mark 5. First, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus casts a legion of demons into a herd of swine (once again, he does nothing – he commands and they obey). Afterward, when the restored man tries to follow Him, he says,
“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (5:19-20)
This miracle is a gesture of compassion on the part of Jesus. It prompts amazement in others and gratitude in the man. He begged that he might be with Jesus, but Jesus refused. So this chapter sets us up for something many religious believers have experienced – the feeling of being denied something. God has done something remarkable in their life, or the life of someone they know, but He does not give the blessing for them to immediately follow him. And this, is indeed cause for distress. “Why can’t I?” “Why him and not me?” “Why don’t you want me?” As Wittgenstein asks of himself (he had good reason: he was gay),
Is it some frustrated longing that makes a man mad? (CV 44e)
So it can indeed be hard to witness a miracle in someone else, all the while wondering “when is it my turn?” But remember that miracles are not just divine activities. They are not, in other words, strictly speaking, favors. For God to “do” a miracle for one, does not thereby show that the other is not loved. A miracle is a gesture, and only the one who responds to it understands the proper context which gives the sign its significance.
What you have achieved cannot mean more to others than it does to you. Whatever it has cost you, that’s what they will pay. (CV 13e)
We move on in Mark to the hemorrhaging woman. Jairus has just sought Jesus, for his daughter is dying. They must make haste. But they are interrupted, for a hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus as he passes through the crowd and is healed after many years of waiting. She has received her miracle – one she has been waiting for a long time. But is this not unbearably frustrating for Jairus? Does it not seem that in a sense, the hemorrhaging woman has stolen his miracle? Has her neediness and brazenness not put an unbearable hold and moratorium on his expectation? Could she not have waited a little longer before importuning Jesus? What is waiting a little longer (oh I don’t know another academic year) to someone who has waited 12 years? Especially when someone else much weaker is dying?
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” (5:35-36).
If miracles were a species of divine activity, if they were hard or took divine power or energy (as might, by the way, be tempted to surmised from “power” going out of Jesus), we should worry that there are not enough miracles to go around. We could speak with jealousy that Jesus chose to attend to one pathetic, miserable, human being over another and that he got the timing wrong. But that’s not how things stand. For miracles are not something God does. Miracles are something that happen to us when we respond to God’s gesture. Some of us take longer to respond than others, but the timing is never wrong. It is only because we respond exactly when we do, that the gesture has significance. For the miracle is not a task on a timetable. There is no clocking in or out. Nobody is working. No hidden gears are turning. All one has to do is wait expectantly. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.
He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha qum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. (5:41-42).
The little girl was 12 years old. The woman had been bleeding for 12 years. Her problems began when the girl was born. But the girl was not the cause of the woman’s suffering. And the woman was healed when the girl died. But the woman did not cause the girl’s death. The universe is not a machine and God is not a mechanic. God “doing” one thing does not “cause” another. His doing a miracle for one person is not depriving another of their miracle. His giving something to one person is not taking from another. He is not just one more link in a causal chain. He is trying to break the chain that holds your tired heart captive.
Because when God does a miracle, He is not, as if He were Zeus or Poseidon, doing things to fuck with you. God is trying to show you something! He is not trying to compel you to do something you can’t. There is no question of your untapped or unused potential. God is not making a demand. He is beckoning you. Like a wink, like a smile, like a kiss on the cheek, like a hug from behind, like arms opened infinitely wide. And it is not a heavy task for you to go to Him. You need no power to make it happen. For all authority in heaven and earth belongs to Him. He need only open His arms and everything you are will go rushing further up and and further into Him – if you want.
If you offer a sacrifice and are pleased with yourself about it, both you and your sacrifice will be cursed. The edifice of your pride has to be dismantled. And that is terribly hard work. The horrors of hell can be experienced within a single day; that’s plenty of time. (Culture & Value 26e)
One more thing about resurrection and miracles. One reason it is hard to believe in miracles (especially when we conceive of believing as doing something) might be as follows. Even if you grant that I am right and that miracles are not God doing something, but rather, created things doing something in response to Him, that leaves us in mystery about the world around us. How can we believe that Jesus commanded the winds and the clouds when they are not alive or intelligent? It makes perfect sense to say that we can respond in obedience to God. But how could a disease respond to Jesus and leave when Jesus says, “your faith has healed you”? How can our sins respond and flee from us like smoke from a fire when Jesus says “Your sins are forgiven”? Or, more to the point, how can creation just “come to be” ex nihilo when God says so, unless God really did do something to make it?
I’ll do you one better.
The idea that one can beckon a lifeless object to come, just as one would beckon a person. Here is the principle of personification. (Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Golden Bough 4e).
Why is resurrection such a superb miracle? It is not because it is the most excellent kind of a genus of divine actions called miracles, but because it is the only kind of miracle. God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Notice, He does not make them. He calls them into being. They respond by being exactly what they are. This principle applies when he tells the 12 year old girl “little one arise.”
We sometimes speak as if death was not real. Indeed, the Lord himself says the girl is “sleeping.” And indeed, whether you are a continental philosopher following Heidegger in saying no one experiences their own death (what or who would be “experiencing” it?), or an analytic quoting Wittgenstein that death is not a “fact” of the world, death is very real. Pace Dominum, the little girl was not pretending to be dead but “really” sleeping. More to the point, Christ did not pretend to die on the Cross. Language is taking a new turn. Christians do speak of “falling asleep” in the Lord, but that does not mean they do not really die. The use of speaking of death as “dormition” and praying that the dead “rest in peace” is that it allows us to think of there being something dormant in us. What lies dormant in us? The image and likeness of God – not completely destroyed by Adam’s sin, but hidden deep within us, so deep not even we can reach it without grace.
So the little girl really was dead. Yet when Jesus says “little girl arise” she rises in obedience. When you die, you become nothing. But God is the one who can call something out of nothingness. And when God calls you out of nothingness, it is not that you become some thing. You become Someone. You become who He calls you to be. And that is the only kind of miracle that ever need be or has ever been. It is indeed as Wittgenstein says. For God to beckon a lifeless object to come to Him is the principle of personification. Because His Resurrection personifies you. If you were a thing, an object, He could do whatever He liked with you. You could be a means to His ends as a cause to an effect. But that is not how God is. He beckons you to life with divine gestures and makes you a person. He gives you a name that only He knows but that you will hear when He calls. He works a miracle through you that only you understand – for only you have gone through what you have to understand its significance. No one can take that from you – but no one will try either. For everything in heaven or earth or below is subject to his authority.
The old gods have been defeated. Not one of them will ever have power to imprison us again.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-38).
The great ascesis is over and through Jesus we have overcome the Great Ascetic. The Great Feast is upon us, and we must make haste to the tomb. Little one arise – He beckons!