Monday, August 29, 2011

On miracles

Saint Augustine was a complex fellow, both loving the world and hating it, and he bequeathed something of that love/hate to Roman Catholicism in particular and to Christianity in general. I have seldom had good words for him in these posts, preferring instead the more enthusiastic embrace of nature that characterized his Celtic nemesis Pelagius.

But then there are these words from Augustine's City of God:
Nor are those to be listened to who say that the invisible God does not perform visible miracles; for even according to them he made the world, which surely they cannot deny to be visible. Indeed, whatever miracle may occur in this world, truly it is far less than the whole of the world, heaven and earth and all things that are in them, which God certainly made. But just like the Maker himself, even so the mode of his making is hidden and incomprehensible to man. And so, although those who constantly behold the miracles of visible nature hold them in small regard, nevertheless, when we consider them wisely, they are greater than the rarest and most unheard of things.
I was thinking of this the other day as I watched the YouTube life-cycle of a monarch butterfly linked by Paul. Here is something that happens all around us every day, so common that we hold it "in small regard" -- the metamorphosis of creepy-crawly leaf-eating caterpillar into nectar-sipping winged angel -- yet, when we consider it wisely, it is a thing of far greater wonder than the supposed "miracles" of Lourdes or Fatima. Why do we go looking for divinely-instigated exceptions to nature's laws when nature itself is a miracle, day in and day out? Why this hunger for the efficacy of magic?

The answer, I think, applies even to Augustine. We want to believe that the universe (or its Maker) pays particular attention to each of us individually. We want to believe that we have efficacious commerce with the gods by spells, incantations or petitionary prayers. In short, we want to extend into adulthood the experience of the child with the parent.