Monday, July 30, 2012

A Follow Up on Miracles

I did not expect the volume of feedback that I've received in 24 hours concerning my homily yesterday about whether or not Jesus worked a miracle when feeding the 5,000. Most of the feedback has been very positive, but there have been some that have asked questions that I feel like deserve to be followed up on.

A couple of different people asked me variations on the same question - "God works miracles, but aren't they always in line with the natural order?" One person put this question to me but confessed "I was Jesuit trained, if that tells you anything" (we both chuckled), the other questioner was much more combative, wearing his "I stand with the sisters" pin, and who, after I answered his miracle question, went on a rant about the bishops needing to clean up their act.

Anyway, this is an important question - do all miracles exist in line with the natural order? In one sense, yes, in another sense no. All miracles certainly OCCUR in the natural world around us...if they didn't we wouldn't be able to OBSERVE them taking place.  So in one sense, of course the miraculous HAS to occur in the natural order of things or we wouldn't see it or observe it. 

BUT, when people speak of miracles occurring in the natural order, I think they don't mean it in the sense of "being able to observe it", they mean "isn't God BOUND by the natural order." For example, I mentioned in my homily the Old Testament passage where the Jordan River ceases flowing so that the Israelites can cross - some people would say God couldn't simply make that happen, he'd have to use wind blowing really hard, or he'd have to use the moon or an earthquake or something to get the river to stop flowing. It is THIS idea that is nonsense. St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Summa that "God alone can change the order of nature; and this is what is meant by a miracle." (III, q.43, article 2). St. Thomas is noting that a miracle, by its VERY NATURE, is something that changes the natural order of things.  A miracle is a CHANGING of the natural order, but God is not BOUND to change the natural order through the natural order.

A miracle COULD be worked through the use of natural objects, such as the moon and/or wind, but it is completely wrong to suggest that the supernatural enters our world through miracles ONLY in ways that would seem natural to our eyes.

St. Thomas notes in the First Part of the Summa, question 25, article 4 that there is only one thing God CAN'T do - he can't change things that have happened in the past.  St. Thomas notes that only "one thing alone is God deprived--namely, to make undone the things that have been done."

If that is the only thing God can't do - he can't undo something that has already happened, then he can certainly stop the Jordan River in its tracks without a stiff breeze, and he can certainly have bread and fish multiply on the spot.


  1. Father John -- it was providential to have found your homily on Facebook last night. My family and I encountered a Jesuit on vacation who said Mass where we were yesterday. He told us in his homily that the miracle Jesus worked was that he got everyone to share. The people saw the little boy pull out his loves and fishes and all of a sudden remembered they had carried food with them (even though the Gospel tells us 'they were hungry') and they pulled it out. It was this 'multiplication that was the miracle, blah, blah, blah. My daughter confronted him after Mass and we challenged his assertions and he told us it was IRRATIONAL to believe that Jesus fed the multitude from those loaves and fishes and that basically we were not evolved enough yet in our spiritual journey to understand. We were so taken aback by his poor formation and sad that so many people are influenced by his errors. Thank you for this blog and for putting your homily online to counter these errors. God bless!

    1. Sorry you were subjected to such drivel; a good Jesuit is as awesome as they come, but the bad ones, well...

  2. It would seem to me that God's inability to change things that happened in the past is akin to doing the absurd, or in doing something that He has promised He would not; namely, forcing our free will.

    Would you say this is likely? Just curious.
    - Ron

    1. It isn't that God simply promised us free will, we were created with free will.

      God would never do something he has PROMISED to not do, although sometimes in the Old Testament he "changed His mind" from some things he was threatening to do (although there is a whole other post I did about how God can't actually change His Mind on something, but that we simply describe Him as having done such because we know no other way to describe it).

      God can't change the past because he can't do anything that would contradict itself, and something having happened in the past and not happened in the past is the only sure-fire contradiction.

    2. That's kindof what I was thinking. Thanks for expounding that. God bless!


  3. I certainly believe Jesus worked a physical miracle by multiply the fishes and the loaves.
    getting off the subject a little...

    What I find interesting is the great doctor Aquinas limits God by saying God won't change what has happened.
    Have you ever heard a tornado report that says people have been killed in such and such town without releasing the names, and immediately you start praying, it not be your relative in that town. Thats kind of praying that God change something thats already happened.

    C. S. Lewis argues that God timelessly sees
    the whole pattern of events in time and the whole pattern is subject to God’s will :
    so God can shape an event that comes earlier to fit in with a prayer that comes
    later. Basically Lewis says we can offer intercessory prayers for things that happened in the past. Kevin Timpe at the university of san diego philosophy department explores praying for things in the past, in his paper "Prayers for the Past". the paper is online.

    1. There is a distinction here that needs to be made. Aquinas makes it, and it sounds like Lewis and others make it as well.

      I can pray for events that have happened for which I don't know the results yet.

      Examples: If I know a tornado hit my hometown, I can pray Aunt Betty is okay. If I know report cards have been mailed, I can pray that I didn't flunk chemistry.

      Aquinas makes the distinction, though, that if I KNOW the results, I can no longer pray that anything different would happen because God can't change the past.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Thank you father! If we can't have faith that Christ could perform miracles while he walked the earth how can we begin to believe he is in every tabernacle of the world? P.S. Im not on facebook anymore so I must frequent your blog now!