Monday, November 10, 2014

Miracles Under the Reign of Quantity

It seems that Jesus' first temptation is food, being that he fasts for forty days and nights while undergoing the other Big Three. This number, according to Benedict, is not arbitrary, but has symbolic resonance with Israel's forty years of wandering in the bewilderness and Moses' forty days on Mount Sinai, and perhaps even Abraham's forty days on the way to Mount Horeb, where the sacrifice of Isaac was to take place.

It can admittedly be difficult for we moderns, who live under the Reign of Quantity -- not to mention Obama's IRS -- to appreciate a more playful approach to numbers. Think of all the numbers that convey a qualitative meaning; in fact, now that I think about it, numbers one through nine all have highly symbolic resonance, and now that I think about it a little bit more, quantities must stand for concrete qualities or else they are just airy and abstract platonic nothings. Math is just a highly symbolic language, but it's still a language.

The early Fathers, according to Benedict, "regarded forty as a cosmic number, as the numerical sign for this world. The four 'corners' encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the commandments." Multiply them and we have "a symbolic statement about the history of the world as a whole," which "Jesus takes into himself and bears all the way through to the end."

Even before the specific temptations comes the trash talking if you are the Son of God... This is like Bill Maher-level trolling: if your God is so great, why doesn't he prove it to me? It also previews the later mockery of "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!"

Well? Is there any truth to the charge? On the one hand, one might well ask: is this any way for a God to appear in history? No, it is not. It is probably accurate to say that no human being would have anticipated or even fantasized about it occurring in such a seemingly feeble manner.

However, this obviously cuts two ways, because it emphasizes that no human being would have concocted such a counter-intuitive script. Why? What would be the point? It seems to be the very opposite of what anyone would have wanted or thought they needed.

This "demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the history of Jesus' life; again and again he is reproached for having failed to prove himself sufficiently," and clearing up any and all ambiguity about his identity and mission -- in short, for having failed the Bill Maher test.

The other day, the Happy Acres Guy made a passing comment to the effect that (I'm paraphrasing) a "miracle" is not a cause, but a consequence, of faith. Seen with the eyes of faith, all sorts of things suddenly appear as miraculous. Conversely, seen through the eyes of a corrosive cynicism, nothing is miraculous. Everything just is what it is, and couldn't be otherwise. For such a person, a miracle is a priori impossible, so even if one were to occur, it would be explained away.

Indeed we know this is true, because contrary to the sacred dogma of the Reign of Quantity, existence is a non-stop miracle. Once one starts believing this, then the knowledge follows -- you know, give me faith that I may believe. It's just we are so conditioned by the modern world to not think in this way. But imagine the ancient mind, which had no such difficulty.

Now admittedly, it is entirely possible that they overshot too far in the opposite direction, regarding as miraculous things that have banal scientific explanations. But this doesn't undermine the principle that miracles not only can occur, but must occur, given the fabric of reality.

Fabric of reality? You mean physics? There you go again, trying to reduce quality to quantity! You really must stop doing that. Abstractions are fine, but don't start with them, rather, start with the real world.

I would also say that the miraculous is at the edge of articulation. The typical infertile egghead conflates the linguistically mappable world with the world itself, and therefore excludes himself from the miraculous. Much of Christian dogma is designed, so to speak, to prevent this constriction from occurring, because it can in no way be "contained" by the mind or by language. The "unexpectedness" of Jesus is just one example of this.

As usual, Schuon has some very helpful things to say on this subject. The miraculous, he writes, is "an interference of the marvelous in the sensory realm." And I say, if this weren't happening all the time, the world would be a rather boring place indeed. Even the fact that it is not boring is evidence of the miraculous. In other words, from where does all this novelty, creativity, and upside surprise come?

How did life appear out of matter? Consciousness from biology? Truth and beauty from monkeys? "This phenomenon has in itself nothing mysterious or problematical about it: the so-called natural laws of a lower degree of Existence can always be suspended through the intervention of a higher degree, whence the perfectly logical term 'supernatural'" (Schuon). "Scientists," he adds, "confuse the miraculous with the irrational and the arbitrary."

In other words, what is natural on one level might be supernatural on another. Looked at this way, from the standpoint of mere physics, biology is supernatural. It is trans-physics, just as the human person is trans-biology.

Thus, each "degree also has its laws, which means that the miracle is 'natural' on the universal scale, while being 'supernatural' on the earthly scale." Assuming there is a scale above the human, then from its perspective, the miraculous vertical ingressions herebelow are quite "natural," as natural as when an artist decides to create something beautiful. Which is to say, supernatural.

In Eric Metaxes' new book on the subject, he points out that the Greek word for what we translate as "miracle" is sign. Thus, in the words of Schuon, "The purpose of the miraculous phenomenon is the same as that of the Revelation which it accompanies or as a result of which, or in the shadow of which, it is produced: to elicit or to confirm faith."


mushroom said...

...if your God is so great, why doesn't he prove it to me?

That could be the heart of every atheist/agnostic argument.

It's almost funny, in the story Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus, when Dives asks that Lazarus be sent back to convince his brothers, Abraham says, They won't believe even if one rises from the dead.

God will never meet their standard.

mushroom said...

...things that have banal scientific explanations

I'm not sure that disqualifies them as miracles. It kind of goes to the "irrational" argument. "Rational" itself is a miracle.

I may be overboard.

Sound check -- for the joy of it.

Rick said...

Would it be helpful to define what is a miracle? Or unhelpful. It seems there are categories of them or that what one person means at one time is different than what another person means at another time. Watching Eric's interview/video about his book, some of the things he describes sound more like what we call synchronicities.
Are the Moses miracles different than the Jesus miracles, and so forth?
Seems to be a tiny term for wide application. Everything is a miracle, yet we don't at all mean everything when we use it.

Rick said...

You can watch the interview (requires entering an email address) here.
Today may be the last day that the video is for free..

julie said...

The four 'corners' encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the commandments." Multiply them and we have "a symbolic statement about the history of the world as a whole,"

Interesting. Is that like horizontal and vertical, but with a couple of added dimensions? And if so, what are those dimensions?

Or maybe a better question is, what are the four corners?

julie said...

I guess what I mean is, I can see applying the Decalog to the horizontal and the vertical (realizing of course that's probably not quite what was meant), but are there a couple of dimensions we are missing, if so what are they, and how would the Decalog interact with them?

Probably too many questions...

Rick said...

Marty, you're not thinking fourth dimensionally!

Rick said...

A cross has 4 points. And a compass rose.

julie said...

So speaking of miracles, I just saw this story on the local news. She was dead, undergoing chest compressions and getting zapped by the paddles with no pulse for 45 minutes, then her heart started beating and she recovered - according to the doctors I saw interviewed - with no bruising, no burns, no neurological damage. The people who were working on her believe it was a genuine miracle.

So cut back to the local news anchors finishing up the story and preparing to move on to the next, the anchorwoman just shrugs her shoulders and says, "Well, it happens!" As though such events are as mundane as rain in Florida.

Rick said...

Yes, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. There seems to be some necessary faith element to the equation.
Related, does Jesus ever use the word miracle?
I think only to condemn those who demand them (if condemn's not too strong a word). But I don't think He points them out, or says plainly, I will do a miracle, and so forth. It seems left up to us to declare them or not. Similar to how He asks, "who do they say I am?... What do you say..?, and so forth...

Magister said...

Two days ago, my son was in the car with my wife and said, unprompted, "Mom, Mrs. Thwaites makes us keep a prayer journal in Theology class. Two of my prayers lately have been answered." My wife replied, "That's great, son," and waited to see if he'd say more. My son was silent for a few moments and then said, "Maybe I should become a priest."


I think his priestly vocation has more to do with his getting his butt kicked lately in Honors Biology, but I'm glad to see he's thinking about the intersection of the vertical and horizontal.

Thanks, Mrs. Thwaites.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Speaking of jump-starts:

"You, all-accomplishing Word of the Father are the light of primordial daybreak over the spheres. You, the foreknowing mind of divinity, foresaw all your works as you willed them, your prescience hidden in the heart of your power, your power like a wheel around the world, whose circling never began and never slides to an end." - Hildegard Von Bingen

nightfly said...

I hadn't noticed before, but I now recall that the Doctor's TARDIS is a Type 40.

Now, the program's current caretakers aren't about to lead a prayer revival with all the extras. I can imagine that in 1963, however, that Sydney Newman would at least have been hip to the symbolism.

And even if not, we can call it a happy bit of coincidence. So many things are bigger once you get inside...