When Miracles Ceased

One of the stranger ideas that accompanied the Reformation, was the notion that miracles had ended at the time of the New Testament’s completion. Never stated as a doctrinal fact in the mainstream of Protestantism, it remained a quiet assumption, particularly when joined with an anti-Roman Catholicism in which the various visions, weeping statues, and saints lives were considered to be fabrications of a corrupt priesthood. Stories abounded during the Reformation about how this or that well-known miracle had been debunked. What replaced that Medieval world was the sober thought of the Bible as answer book.

Many held that miracles were quite unnecessary after the Bible was “completed,” since everything necessary for salvation was contained within its covers. Anglican ordinands (to this day) take an oath saying:

“I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.”

Miracles, visions or revelations from God were considered not only unnecessary but positively dangerous in that the faithful might imagine such things to carry an authority equal to or greater than the Scriptures.

Various groups within the Protestant world have actually codified this idea into a matter of their denominational doctrine. It is known as “Cessationism,” referring to the “cessation” of the gifts of the Spirit. The Modern Project itself, particularly in its secularized perception of the world, is a version of Cessationism. Indeed, the Cessationist ideas of early Protestantism were a primary force in the creation of the secular concept.

A secular worldview holds that things are just that – things. The world consists of a collection of self-existing objects (some of which breathe and think), that live within the bounds and limits of the “laws” of nature. If God is to be known or perceived, then either He must disturb the laws of nature or become an object among objects. The modern world, in the words of Max Weber, is “disenchanted.” It is as if you found your way into Narnia, only none of the animals speak, the trees have fallen asleep, and magic seems to have ceased.

This is the context in which we live. It is also a perception that, to a great extent, shapes how we ourselves perceive the world, whether we intend it or not. Secularism is the default setting for those born into modern culture. The world is mute.

This is in stark contrast to the traditional (Orthodox) Christian understanding. Only God is self-existing. Everything else not only depends on Him for its existence and continuation but is moment-by-moment sustained only by the will and goodness of God. As such, the world itself is a manifestation of the “divine energies” (the actions and working of God). Those actions and working of God are not something done “at a distance,” for His actions and works are themselves God. He is both essence and energies. And though the effects of His actions and works are not themselves God (the tree that He sustains is not Him), nevertheless, the effects cannot exist apart from Him (“in Him, we live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28). Cessationism would be non-existence. Miracles not only continue, everything we see is a constant abiding miracle (including ourselves). There is only miracle.

The perception of God and our relationship with Him are inherently difficult for a modern or secular mind. For us, the world is mute, and we perceive God to be equally mute. As such, we think that He either does not exist or doesn’t wish to make Himself known. From the position of classical Christianity, just as there is only miracle, so there is only the action and working of God everywhere.

And so, we read such things in Scripture:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of Your glory!

Confessing this to be the case slowly brings a shift in our perception and represents the renunciation of the Modern Project. Another way of describing this would be to say that the whole of creation is a sacrament. The bread and wine of the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ, are not exceptions: they reveal the truth of creation. The whole of everything is given to us for communion.

The Eucharist also reveals something of the nature or character of God’s divine energies (His actions and will). The God made known in the Eucharist is Christ crucified and risen. It is the Paschal mystery, the God who empties Himself and enters the depth and emptiness of our suffering that He might fill all things with His love. The modern person, upon being told that everything is sustained by the will and action of God often leaps to the many tragic sufferings within the world – as though they contradict that reality or suggest God’s incompetence. But they imagine a God other than Christ crucified, a God apart from His Pascha.

The Resurrection of Christ is the revelation of the goodwill of God, the promise of the final outcome of all things. The world that is being “gathered together in one in Christ Jesus,” is, through His suffering and death (within them), being united to His resurrection.

This is the context in which we pray and worship and in which we come to perceive God (with what the fathers describe as the “noetic” faculty). We pray and we listen and we think there is only silence. This itself is the secular perception. Everything around us and we ourselves exist, sustained by the voice of God. Their existence is the eloquence of His good will.

But what of miracles? If the whole world is a miracle, then what of those things that are commonly described as miracles? First, they do not belong to a separate category. That someone is instantaneously healed of a disease does not belong to a category of exception: it is a miracle among miracles that happen in a way such that we see the truth that might otherwise seem hidden. The danger in miracles for the modern mind is to think of them as exceptional. In doing so, we imagine the world as divided into the miraculous and the ordinary.

When we pray, if we expect the “miraculous” (in the modern sense), we will grow weary with the ordinariness of our experience. We imagine that we hear nothing, for we have already decided that the sound of the ordinary is nothing miraculous. I always caution inquirers and catechumens in the Church to be prepared to be bored. Though Orthodox services can be beautiful and profound, they are no more beautiful and profound than the world around us. The modern mind becomes bored by the so-called “ordinary,” because it has become accustomed to distractions that play to our passions. “Boredom” is what you get when you are not being entertained – it is a modern phenomenon.

Christianity does not begin as a discussion of the inner life. The Christian faith begins with the death and resurrection of Christ. That reality, which spans and unifies all things, is both present as a point in history with abundant testimony of eye witnesses, and as an eternal and ever-present moment that exists before all things and for which all things exist. Regardless of our subjective questions, the concrete reality of Christ’s death and resurrection remains.

Subjectivity itself, the world as we experience it inside our heads, is notoriously changeable and fails every test of reliability. It is the chimera of our existence, and can never be its foundation.

Years ago, when I was in college, I suffered a severe bout of depression. I was hospitalized for a week. After the hospital, I “white-knuckled” my way through the world and found a path back to sanity. One of those paths was to distrust my subjective experience. Nothing “sounded like fun” (that’s the nature of depression). But I reasoned that I needed to have fun and decided to treat fun as an objective activity. My now-wife and I began doing things that were the “kind of things people do for fun,” in an effort to teach my brain and body how to do something they had lost. It was very therapeutic.

It is a great joy when our inner and outer world agree. The tradition describes a pattern of life that strengthens “noetic” perception, and thus our awareness of communion with God. Largely, that pattern consists of the quieting of the passions and the acquisition of inner stillness. But this pattern, or its result, is simply a description of something within the spiritual life that is of value – it is not its basis or foundation.

To a great extent, modern skepticism presumes a world whose “ordinary” existence has nothing to do with the miraculous. Our existence and the providential character of the world are thus reduced to the random workings of chance. The world is inert and opaque and says nothing about God. As such, only the extraordinary, the “miraculous” (in the modern sense), can reveal God. It is a demand that God should agree to be a secular God, to reject His world as sacrament.

The Orthodox life is a consent to the world as sacrament, inasmuch as it is revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. We do not believe in the death and resurrection of Christ because we see the world as sacrament, but the other way around. It teaches us that the fullness of our existence reaches beneath the surface into the providence of God’s goodwill at work everywhere and in all things. That we “see” this is always a gift and a joy. It is also a difficult thing in a world whose self-explanation has been 500 years of unrelenting disenchantment and anti-sacramentalism.

Will wonders ever cease?

 

 

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