Our Gospel this Sunday has at its centre an archetypal miracle of Jesus – the healing of a blind man. If you want to hear my take on the meaning of this particular miracle, I invite you to join me at 11 this Sunday for the livestream (https://www.facebook.com/stpatricksnz/) of our mass, where my homily will be discussing just that. But before we can consider the meaning we perhaps need to examine our understanding of miracles in general. I have found the work of the English theologian Aidan Nichols helpful in this.
He notes that since the eighteenth century, miracles have had a bad press in European thought. The position of the Scottish philosopher David Hume is typical. Hume doesn’t try to prove that in a world set up by a Creator miracles are impossible. To claim that, he thought, would imply a hot line to the mind of God quite as dogmatic as the one claimed by believers. Hume simply points out how it is part and parcel of being reasonable, being rational, to accept that the world is orderly and predictable: that the sun will rise each morning and my toothbrush will not have changed overnight into a tortoise. So, Hume concludes, it’s always more reasonable to suppose that something has gone wrong with the evidence than to accept that a miracle actually happened – unless, that is, we have absolutely overwhelming evidence in the miracle’s favour which in practice we never do have.
The question to put to Hume, and to all who reject miracles, is this: what kind of order, in the last analysis, is the order of the world? Only by answering that question can we find our way to the kind of rationality appropriate to understanding an ‘orderly’ world.
Might it not be the case that the order of the world is ultimately the order of the purposes of a good God, a loving God, who has chosen to intervene in history so as to draw human beings to Himself? If that is the order of the world, then a miracle might be supremely orderly: it might fit in beautifully with the long-term or structural purposes of the Creator. And only biblical thought, then, would be adequate to living in such a world where God is active.
So a miracle is a rational concept after all. It is an event – unusual but by no means unknown – where the personal God intervenes in nature so as to show His hand, to give us a direct glimpse of His goals in history. A miracle is not then a party trick, to demonstrate the existence of God, but always an act of teaching. What then does this particular miracle, the healing of Bartimaeus teach us? Well, join me on Sunday, and perhaps we can find out together.
Fr Chris Denham