Miracles and the Scourge of Rationalism

Doug McManaman
Date: 2004
Reproduced with Permission

I was recently asked the following questions via email from someone I've never met: "Does a Catholic need to believe in the miracles of Chirst according to the Gospels? Is it against the Church's teaching to teach grade school children that the miracles of Christ are not historically true?"

Without question, it is contrary to Church teaching to tell grade school children that the miracles of Christ are not historically true. The Church has always maintained that the miracles of Christ are historically true. To teach kids the contrary is, if not scandal, to come very close to "scandalizing the little ones", something that Christ warned us about (Mt 18, 6). Revelation always involves both words and deeds. Let me quote from Vatican II: "the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them" (DV 2). As Theologian Germain Grisez writes: "Not all the words and deeds can constitute divine revelation, but only those that can be recognized as a personal communication from God and that the recipient, if reasonable, will accept as such. So, at least some of the deeds must be mighty and wondrous -- miraculous events that, because immanent causes cannot account for them, can be recognized as divine signs, signals from thecreator, God's signature on the message." (Chapter 1, "Clerical and Consecrated Life and Service", The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol 4, Unpublished. p. 20).

There is a school of thought that was popular in the 60s that is heavily influenced by Hegel (the most polite atheist in the history of philosophy). Hegel was a rationalist. He argued that philosophy can fully understand and explicate the tenets of religious faith. In fact, only when philosophy has done so are the tenets of religion fully understood, he thought. The problem is that there are many things in the Scriptures that simply cannot be reconciled with Hegel's philosophy, such as the transcendence of God, God's free decision to bring things other than Himself into existence, the perfection and unchanging nature of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity (at least as it was understood in the first and second centuries of the Church), the miracles of Christ, in particular the resurrection. In consequence, these are subject to deconstruction, or demythologization.

Hans Kueng (Kung), who is probably Hegel's most popular disciple, has labored to portray himself as one who has adopted the middle position between the two extremes of what he calls "fundamentalism" on the one hand, and rationalism on the other. Much of what he writes concerning the purpose of the miracle narratives is true. But in the end, the deconstructed product unveils nothing less than a thoroughgoing rationalism, which Kueng somehow believes he has avoided. As an example, he writes: "The story of the calming the storm, for instance, may have originated in a rescue from distress at sea after prayer and a call for help. The story of the coin in the fish's mouth may be based on Jesus' request to catch a fish in order to pay the temple tax." His rationalism is particularly evident in his treatment of the resurrection. He writes: "Corporeal resurrection? Yes and no, ...No, if "body" simply means the physiological identical body. Yes, if "body" means in the sense of the New Testament soma the identical personal reality, the same self with its whole history."

The irony here is that the biblical term soma means precisely the entire person in his corporeal identity. For a Jew, if there is no physical or bodily resurrection literally speaking, there is simply no resurrection; for you are your body. Faith in the bodily resurrection does not amount to fundamentalism any more than does faith in the Incarnation. Rather, it is the only conceivable position that follows from the non-dualist anthropology that regards matter as belonging to the very essence of man. A bodiless human person is nothing more than a dead one. Kueng's position is not the mean between extremes, but the extreme of unbelief (Hegelian pantheism) disguised as a balanced compromise. The notion of the resurrection simply does not fit into the framework of the necessary and dialectical evolution of the Absolute, ultimately identified with the whole of the physical universe.

It is possible for God, who is distinct from and the author of creation, to bring about an event that is outside the order of the laws of nature, that is, work a miracle if He so chooses. This is especially true if Jesus is the Incarnation of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. If all things came to be through the Word (Jn 1, 1): "And God said, "Let there be…and there was" (Gn 1, 1-31), and if Jesus is the Word who came into the world (Jn 1, 10), then the move from faith in the Incarnation to faith in the fact that Jesus spoke and the "wind and the sea obey him" (Mk 4, 41) is not a difficult step to take. Miracles are only difficult for the person who has chosen not to believe in them. Indeed the Greek word for "miracle" means "sign", and thus miracles are signs of the kingdom. But there is no signifying without a real existing sign. If Jesus did not actually heal the physical blindness of the blind man at Bethsaida, or actually heal the man with a withered hand, or cure Peter's mother-in-law, then nothing is actually signified. One cannot receive a ticket for driving above the speed limit that is signified by a sign that does not actually exist.

Teaching kids that the miracles did not happen can do nothing but destroy their faith. The damage resulting from such an approach is incalculable. Kids need the permission to believe above all, and they get that permission from seeing mature adults with real faith.