The Social Skill of Mocking God
Admittedly, it is a scene difficult to envision. If you were a Hollywood producer you would know how to depict Jesus walking on water, healing the sick and the blind, raising Lazarus from the dead, the Resurrection and Ascension. But the best of the special effects departments would have trouble enacting the feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes.
What phenomenon would you instruct the special effects folks to replicate? Did new loaves pop out of the bottom of the basket as each loaf was removed? Or did the loaves regenerate themselves as chunks were ripped from them? How did the new fish appear? In the original basket, or as they were distributed among the crowd? Why were not the crowds too stunned by what was happening to eat? These difficulties are what lead the progressives to tell us the story should not be read literally, that it represents the power of the Lord’s words to feed a spiritual hunger in the crowds that listened to Him that day.
Of course, the progressives interpret all the miracles in this manner. They tell us that Jesus’s walking on water and calming the seas represent the Apostles’ experience of the uniqueness of His relationship with the Creator; that a camera would not have noted anything different at the Transfiguration because the Divine Light was actually an interior reaction in the minds and hearts of the Apostles, who first grasped the divine nature of Jesus’s words that night. A camera would not have picked up anything out of the ordinary on Easter morning either, they assure us. The Resurrection symbolizes the Spirit coming to life in the minds and hearts of the Apostles. It is this interpretation of the Resurrection that led Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to state a few years back, “I can tell you frankly that while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived and that He was certainly crucified on the Cross, we cannot with the same certainty say that we know He was raised by God from the dead.”
I can recall the first time I heard updating clerics deal with the miracle stories in the New Testament in this dismissive manner. It was back in the late 1960s, when I was a recent college graduate teaching history and religion at a Catholic high school in the Bronx. The setting was usually a faculty meeting or social gathering in the brothers’ residence.
Some of those social gatherings were among the most enjoyable evenings in my life. The conversation was lively and informative, the laughter spontaneous and good-natured, even boisterous at times. In these relaxed settings, the brothers who were caught up in the modernist mood of the time felt free to run through the list of the New Testament miracles they no longer accepted as factual occurrences. They knew precisely what “literary form” to use to categorize each story.
The experience was a valuable one for me. I was too young to challenge anyone vigorously. Some of these brothers had been my own teachers a few years before. So I tended to just sit and listen, and compare what I heard to what I was reading in publications such as The Wanderer and Triumph and in essays by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I discovered the extent of the progressives’ rejection of Church teachings.
Puffed Up with Pride
It is not as easy to do that by reading the professional theologians. They know how to phrase their challenge to the Magisterium in a manner that makes it difficult to pin them down all that talk about “immanence” and Teilhard’s “Christofied noosphere,” for example. Their disciples are more direct: the miracles did not happen. There was no Virgin Birth. Jesus’s body is still in the earth somewhere in Israel.
How could anyone say these things and still consider himself a Catholic? Well, the liberal brothers I used to work with maintained that they could. They held that their faith did not “require miracle stories.” They insisted that they believed that there is a God; that Jesus is His “Son” the unique and complete embodiment of the Divine will, the Word made Flesh; that this is how He “saves” us.
Many of these men have since left the brotherhood. Others left the Church altogether. But not all. Some still practice their faith, receive the sacraments, and attend daily Mass. It remains their conviction that while some Catholics may thrive in an atmosphere of miracles and relics and apparitions, there is room within the Church for those who require a more “mature” understanding of the way the Creator interacts with the creation. They like to use the line about “my Father’s house” having “many mansions” to make their point.
They also argue that the Church will not be able to hold the allegiance of young and educated Catholics if it insists upon a literal reading of the New Testament accounts; that modern educated Catholics will not accept, for example, that Mary remained a virgin in a physical sense or that Jesus actually turned water into wine and drove devils into a herd of swine. Such occurrences do not fit within their experience of how the world works. The progressives insist that they are seeking a way to keep Catholicism plausible and relevant for a Catholic population that is worlds apart from the peasants of medieval Europe who needed a literal understanding of sacred Scripture to grasp the contours of salvation history.
Sincere or not, those who take this position confront two problems. First of all, Pope Pius X clearly condemned these naturalistic presumptions in his 1907 encyclicals on modernism (Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentabili Sane). He warned against “the pride which puffs up” the modernists and “that vainglory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and which makes them say, elated and inflated with presumption, ‘We are not as the rest of men.’” He specifically condemned the modernist proposition that, “While He was exercising His ministry, Jesus did not speak with the object of teaching He was the Messiah, nor did His miracles tend to prove it.”
Who Needs All These Miracles Anyway?
Of course, the progressives are as dismissive of the authority of the encyclicals as they are of biblical accounts. They prefer to use reason as a guide. So let’s reason with them. Why are the miracle stories important? For precisely the reason given by Pius X: “His miracles tend to prove” Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah.
The progressives tell us they don’t “need” the miracle stories to accept the divine nature of Christ’s words. Maybe they don’t. But the rest of us do. Jesus came to save us all, not just professional theologians and poets and drama critics perceptive enough to grasp the lofty nature of His message. Indeed, He came to save even those who would opt to worship other gods Odin and Thor, perhaps if their messages were presented as equally valid alternatives to Jesus’s teachings.
The miracles are there to stack the deck. Jesus presents Himself in a category separate and distinct from the other gurus and preachers with the power to inspire the masses through the power of the spoken word. He did not rely solely upon the power of His message to demonstrate that He is the Word made Flesh.
C.S. Lewis understood why:
The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.
“It is either lunacy or lies.”
The miracles are needed to substantiate that Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus understood that they would lead His followers to ask: “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey Him?” The goal was to lead His followers to the same conclusion that Peter reached after witnessing the scene: “Truly Thou art the Son of God” (Mt 14:33).
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)