Stephen Wilson continues his considerations of Theology and the Art of the Possible 

We saw in Part I (New Directions June 2020) how the philosopher Gilbert Ryle identified a whole class of expressions (such as working, playing, or farming) as ‘polymorphous’ – as capable of a whole range of differently connected meanings, each making perfect sense in its immediate context. Ryle would appear to be adapting Aristotle’s account of ‘analogy of attribution’, or something close to it; certain ordinary words can behave ‘analogically’ across widely different contexts. We glimpse in these quite innocuous expressions a latent power in human speech to work in ever-new situations. 

‘Polymorphous Adaptation’

By way of example, Ryle reminds us that ‘Work is a polymorphous concept. …Nothing answers to the general description, ‘what work consists of’. None the less, each specific job is describable.’ (Ryle,Thinking and Language, 1951). We also saw how ‘polymorphous’ terms work in the ‘incorporative’ language St Paul uses to speak of divine mystery. 

So, in saying to the Colossians, ‘…you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3v.3), St Paul has recruited five fragments of everyday speech (died, life, hidden, with, in) for an extraordinary job – to capture transcendent meaning without presuming to fathom it. It allows him to ‘describe’ a mystery without presuming to ‘explain’ it.

Consider as an example the speech-fragment ‘in’. There is no natural limit to any imagined series of possible uses of ‘in’. For any such series – say for example ‘in the cupboard’, ‘in a temper’, ‘in good time’, ‘in flagrante delicto’, ‘in case of fire’… ‘in Christ’- there will always be indefinitely many other possible cases. 

We saw that this is one way at least in which human speech can allow us to ‘say more than we know’. (The concept of ‘saying more than we know’ is of wide-ranging relevance in contexts well beyond the scope of this essay.)

How Does God Act?

We might suppose that, almost in the way that ‘a crucified God’ was a scandal to some and a folly to others in St Paul’s time (see 1 Corinthians 1:17ff), might not the very notion of divine activity of any kind be so for us now? How does God act in the world? For if ordinary human speech is capable of ‘describing without explaining’ divine mystery, how might it then go on to capture divine activity in the world – including what are commonly called ‘miracles’?

Maurice Wiles’ landmark Bampton Lectures in 1986 sketched what I have called a ‘disjunctive’ account of divine action which denies to God any kind of ‘active’ role within the world. The creation is a single divine act, with no place for the miraculous ‘as traditionally understood’. 

The doctrine that Wiles set himself to oppose is not dissimilar from the kind of model described – and rejected – by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A.C. Grayling, or the physicist Victor Stenger (in e.g. God: the Failed Hypothesis, 2007). These are all of them deft and entertaining ‘explainers’ in their chosen fields, but woefully adrift in their dogged rejection of a model of divine action which bears no meaningful relation whatsoever to orthodox doctrine or the ‘Augustinian vision’ previously sketched out in these pages (Theology & Disenchantment, ND 2018 passim.) 

‘Nature’ & ‘Supernature’

In other words,  Wiles and the ‘New Atheists’ alike seem to imagine that orthodox doctrine mimics the language of the ‘supernatural’ that we find everywhere in popular culture – from faked Victorian fairy-photographs through The Exorcist to ghost sightings and spirit mediums – all of these seemingly based on a bogus, ‘two-tier’ model of ‘Nature’ and ‘Supernature’, and a universe susceptible of ‘supernatural’ intrusion.

At best this could be viewed as a parody of the Vatican’s vetting procedure for a candidate’s post mortem progress towards sainthood. This usually requires a minimum of two miracles (though only one in the case of a martyr) some of which may have occurred during the candidate’s lifetime – as in the case of St ‘Padre’ Pio of Pietrelcina (canonised in 2002) – though more usually after death. These will often involve ‘inexplicable’ recoveries from grave or mortal illness in answer to requests from the faithful. 

A French nun, Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, was said to have been healed of Parkinson’s disease through the recent Pope’s intercession. (John Paul II had himself suffered from Parkinson’s from 1992 onwards.) 

Aged 44 and working as a nurse in a hospital maternity unit near Arles, in southern France, she fell ill in 2001. The condition worsened dramatically around the time of the Pope’s death in April 2005. Pope Benedict had already accelerated the process of John Paul II’s cause, apparently because of the strength of feeling among many Catholics, and as soon as the special dispensation had been granted to allow John Paul II to be considered for beatification, Sr Marie’s community began to ask him for a miracle. 

In January 2011 BBC News reported that ‘…after a process that has involved both medical experts and Church officials, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that such a dramatic and scientifically inexplicable shift in her physical condition was indeed due to the intercession of John Paul II. The case fulfilled the criteria for a miracle – the healing was instant, without scientific explanation and long-lasting.’ (My emphasis.)

In June 2009, Jory Aebly, from Cleveland, Ohio, suffered a “non-survivable” injury in a shooting, and was said to have recovered through the Pope’s heavenly intercession. John Paul II was finally canonized in 2014.

At first sight the process of discernment does seem to depend on proving a negative, neglecting the maxim amongst historians (and biblical scholars) that an absence of proof is not a proof of absence. Finding no ‘natural’ explanation for (say) someone’s sudden recovery from a mortal illness could not of itself show that ‘supernatural’ agency has supervened upon natural causation. 

To be fair, much else besides is required by way of evidence of sainthood, but there is nevertheless the danger here of a lapse into a fatal dualism of ‘nature’ and ‘supernature’  (which also threatens, by the way, the ‘hypostatic union’ of divinity and humanity in Christ). 

For the beginnings of a remedy we might look first of all to the miracles of Jesus, reflected in all their diversity in the Gospel record, for some guidance as to how to understand the meaning and possibility of the miraculous.

The Gospel Record

The Synoptic Gospels present Jesus’ miracles as ‘acts of power’ or ‘mighty works’; in the fourth Gospel they are ‘works’ or ‘signs’ – though we must note that St Paul seems at first sight to take a cue from Jesus himself in 1 Corinthians 1:18ff in disparaging disingenuous requests for ‘signs’ – as if, in Jesus’ words, from an “evil and adulterous generation” (see Matthew 12:38ff). 

All the same, we can trace a theology of signs – a ‘semiology’ – in the Synoptic tradition. In Matthew 11:2ff John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he is ‘the one who is to come’. His reply, with its resonances with OT Messianic prophecy, also implies a close link between ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offence at me.” (RSV)

The saying places Jesus’ teaching as a ‘work’ and a ‘sign’ alongside his miracles. 

Signs of the ‘End-Time’

Jesus’ ‘mighty works’ figure in the Synoptic Gospels as tokens of a future ‘kingdom’ that is somehow already dawning. In Luke 11:14ff, to the charge that he “…casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons” Jesus replies, “… if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:19). References to this ‘kingdom’ or ‘reign’ of God (Basileia tou Theou) occur many times in the Synoptic Gospels – though Matthew tends to prefer Basileia tōn Ouranōn – ‘kingdom of heaven’ – an elliptical near-equivalent.  (Was the author avoiding use of the Holy Name in deference to a partly Jewish-Christian audience, as some have suggested? Possibly.)

Linking them to ‘the kingdom’ has led commentators to regard the miracles – and not least those which are tokens of Jesus’ authority over demons – as ‘eschatological signs’. The Lutheran theologian and ecumenist Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999) proposed an ‘eschatological tension’ between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom – an eschatology with elements both ‘future’ and ‘realized’. 

Cullmannn portrays Jesus as the pivotal midpoint of a sacred history which runs along a line from creation to eschaton – the ‘end time’ of the ‘last things’. This long-prophesied kingdom, proclaimed in Jesus’ words and works, witnessed then and there by those present, is somehow already present – when accepted in faith by those who ‘receive’ him – then and there or else later through believing the apostolic witness (see John 1:10ff and 20:29ff; contrast Luke 4:16ff). 

‘Kingdom’ or ‘Glory’?

John’s Gospel appears at first sight wholly in contrast to the synoptic tradition in its semiology of Jesus’ miracles. It refers explicitly to them as ‘signs’ – semeia; and it is Jesus’ ‘glory’ – doxa –  that is ‘revealed’ or ‘manifested’ through them (John 2:11), and notably so at the miracle at the wedding at Cana – the ‘first miracle that he did’ (ibid.). 

The ‘kingdom’ is mentioned in John on just two occasions (Jesus to Nicodemus in 3:5 and to Pilate in 18:36). This and other differences from the Synoptics could be understood – along with John’s references to ‘eternal life’ – as making that Gospel more to do with an individual’s destiny than with the Synoptics’ constant references to ‘the kingdom’ (see e.g. John 3:14ff & 36). 

This would be to over-simplify the many subtleties of difference in emphasis between these two traditions – let alone those found among the Synoptic Gospels themselves. Even so, some commentators have seen Johannine eschatology as the more ‘compressed’ – more individual and immediate, more ‘already’ than ‘not yet’ – since the glory which Jesus shares with his Father is to be realised in some fashion when he has been ‘lifted up’ (John 12:20-33). 

A Case of Compression

This ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man is intended by the Gospel’s author to refer specifically to the cross: ‘He said this to show by what death he was to die’ (v.33) – yet John’s ‘compressed’ eschatology seems inexorably to place the cross itself  on a single arc which begins with the Gospel’s Prologue, and takes us through Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to ‘(our) life in his name’ (John 20:31). 

‘Eschatological compression’ does occur elsewhere in the New Testament, at least (I suggest) at Hebrews 12:18ff, where one is led to wonder whether the author, in announcing (v.22) ‘…you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God….’, – with its aorist proselēluthate – ‘you have come’ – is here making a veiled reference to Eucharistic participation in a future promise. 

Mention of a sacramental dimension here suggests a complementary avenue of enquiry alongside analysis of Gospel sources, namely one of comparison across contexts within and among other possible forms of divine disclosure. One example might be the trio of miracle, parable and sacrament. An analysis of that kind must however await another occasion. 

Father Stephen Wilson is Assistant Priest at 

St Stephen’s Lewisham