Miracles and Creation

Southwest Trip 116There is an aspect of the modern use of the word “miracle,” that is more than a little problematic. While it is true that a number of Orthodox hymns in referring to certain dramatic events use the phrase, “the order of nature is overthrown,” this is far from being a complete theological account of what we know as the miraculous. A common understanding in the secular world of the miraculous is that it is somehow a disruption of the natural order – something that does not belong in our world. The classic “proof” of a miracle used in some parts of the Christian world is that it must not have any “natural” or “scientific” explanation. It seems to me that this approach makes an inappropriate and radical distinction between the actions of God and the actions of nature: it is more of the “two-storey universe” about which I have written at length.

The two animal stories I have posted to the site are both explainable by natural means. Thus many, both believers and non-believers, would say, “These are not miracles.” However, in our secularized two-storey universe this is tantamount to saying, “It has nothing to do with God.” And this is problematic.

The redemption for which we await is not a redemption that destroys nature or discards nature. Our redemption is equally a redemption of the material order:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance (Romans 8:18-25).

The redemption of the world does not make it into something other than the world – though it raises it to a new manner of existence. So, too, we do not cease to be human in the resurrection, nor do we cease to have bodies: our bodies, however, exist in a new manner.

Miracles as the world understands them are things that prove the existence of God – and thus become points of argumentation with those who do not believe. Such argumentation based on miraculous proofs is not the foundation of true faith. The God who has made Himself known to us in Christ is “everywhere present and filling all things” as is said in the prayer, “O Heavenly King.”  Isaiah says that “the whole earth is full of Thy glory” (Is. 6:3). The present age has so constructed its worldview that the glory of God is nowhere to be seen. But this is a perversion of sight – a modern manifestation of the fall.

With such limitations even well-meaning efforts can be misdirected. Thus there is a tendency in our present moment to equate global warming with the apocalypse and imagine that failure to control and manage this phenomenon will bring the judgment of God down on our heads. That we should live rightly with creation and as stewards of what we have been given is true. But our hope is not to be found in a new technology or ecology by which we manage to control the climate. No God is needed for such imaginative projects – though many will use His name to underwrite their efforts.

A more radical transformation (as well as stewardship) is asked of us. That transformation is first made known to us in the incarnation of Christ in which “matter becomes the means of my salvation” (in the writings of St. John of Damascus). It is daily made known to us in the mysteries of the Church in which the simple elements of bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands and other actions are means by which our salvation is made effective within us and made known to us. It is the transformation of Creation that beckons to us and the transformation of our very selves by the mercies of God.

The blessing of objects in this world does not make them to be something other than what they are (I make an exception of the Eucharistic elements which must be reserved for a different discussion). It reveals them to be in a unique position with God and His Divine Energies. But the Great Blessing of the Waters or the blessing of Water at Holy Baptism does not make the water to be something that is not water. This was strongly emphasized in my heart when, standing at the Jordan River last year, I heard the words of the Great Blessing from the Bishop who was presiding, “Send the blessing of Jordan…” Do we pray to make the Jordan River to be the Jordan River? Yes, in an important sense, we do.

Our redemption in the course of this life is, among other things, a recovery of our true humanity. Christ is “fully human” (and “fully Divine”). In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware, and He is the first “fully human.” At the least we may say that in comparison to the humanity of Christ – our humanity is broken. Thus this life is lived in a recovery of the glory that is proper to human beings.

I believe that glory is revealed in many ways – most of which might not be recognized as “miraculous.” Love of enemy, which is probably “miraculous” when it actually occurs, is one of the ways in which that glory is revealed. Love of friend – love of wolf and bird (and all creation) are also revelatory. The icon of the New Creation is made manifest in such moments.

I believe a proper view of our world is to see its iconic character. Creation is a “window” to heaven – the glory that is being made manifest. St. John Chrysostom once said that “he who gives to the poor is greater than he who raises a man from the dead.” It is a simple echo of St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 13  (“if I have not love…”).

I do not know the truly full account of St. Seraphim and the Bear or of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio (and similar stories). But they contain more than the story of a circus performance. The friendship of man and nature is a reflection of the God who saw creation and said, “It is good.”

I know that when I see a monk walking with a wolf, friend to friend, something in my heart leaps and says, “It is good.”

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25 Responses to “Miracles and Creation”

  1. Epiphanist Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen. It is a natural consequence of humility to appreciate the Glory of God even in the mundane parts of the miraculous creation. This is in contrast to the creation being made subject to Adam in the creation story, an attitude more prevalent in man’s approach to the world.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    It is interesting that St Maximos the Confessor interpreted the “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth” to mean “go forth and spread paradise.” It is, after all, a commandment given in the garden before the fall and thus bears no resemblance to the treatment creation has generally received at our hands.

  3. FrGregACCA Says:

    There is an idea found in the Tradition, not often discussed these days, that creation is a “second book” of revelation, alongside the Bible (and the rest of the Tradition). Further, the Tradition also tells us that gaining a deep understanding of creation is a stage on the road to the vision of the Uncreated Light. Finally, again, the Tradition tells us that what we see in St. Seraphim, St. Francis, and others in their relationships with animals is a return to Adamic innocence as well as a foretaste of the world to come, in which “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and “a little child will lead them”.

  4. Damaris Says:

    Kyrgyzstan is a spectacularly beautiful place, and yet it was not until Kyrgyz people became Christians that they noticed and loved its beauty. In fact, many people told me that their sudden appreciation for nature was for them the most surprising thing about their conversion.

  5. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Father Stephen, I wonder if you might speak to the groaning and the brokenness of creation. The akithist of thanksgiving and your podcast on engaging creation speaks of “creation giving thanks, and only us not”. How do you understand this, in the face of the enslavement of creation to death? The image I think of is of a spider poisoning a caterpillar and binding it with cords, and then slowly sucking the lifeblood from it until it is a dry lifeless shell. This, at least, seems to me to be far from an offer of thanksgiving to God – and yet such behavior permeates the created order. In the face of such horrors, how does one say “I alone do not give thanks as I ought”?

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Wonders,
    The general approach in the Fathers is to see creation’s fall as described in Ro 8:20: ” for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by
    the will of him who subjected it in hope…” that is, that creation is subject to the fall on account of us, and not on its own account. Thus the “sin” of creation is a manifestation of humanity’s fall. A spider does not “will” to “sin.” It is only a spider and it fulfills itself as a spider wondrously – even though spiders are subject to futility (corruption and death) like all of creation. But the original goodness in which it is created is not lost. Creation’s groaning, as described by St. Paul, is not simply a groaning to be free from corruption and death, but a groaning that awaits the manifestation of the sons of God. There will be no redemption of creation that is not first a redemption of man. But what we should see is not creation’s fall, but our own. No spider chose to rebel against God, nor does it rebel even now, though it has been made subject to futility. It groans – but it waits…

    I reference as well a meditation by Met. Kallistos Ware from an earlier post…

  7. Дејан Says:

    Father,

    In his book “Thoughts about good and evil”, St. Nikolai Velimirovich wrote a lot about nature, using various examples. Here I quote something of it, in my translation (don’t know if that book is translated already in English)

    Отуда и не можеш наћи бољег израза – ван ћутања – за царство морално од природе.
    Отуда ми и не можемо никада јасно говорити о царству моралном док не позајмимо од природе факта, то јест најизразитије слике онога вишега, ћутљивога царства. Јер језик наш стоји у односу према природи као природа према једном вишем царству. Природа много јасније изражава царство морално него што то може човечји језик. Зато је природа и створена, тј. да буде савршено сликован израз царства моралног.
    Зато ми и позајмљујемо факта из природе (јер та факта за то ту и јесу), да помогну нашем језику изразити, поред осталога, и ужас греха. И за то ми, дакле, и питамо:
    Ко ће извадити црва из храста?
    Ко ће очистити коров из пшенице?
    Ко ће ишчупати грех из душе?

    Therefore you cannot find better expression – except of being silent – for moral kingdom than the nature.
    Therefore we can never clearly speak about moral kingdom unless we borrow from nature the facts, that is the most expressive pictures of that higher, silent kingdom. Because our language stands in relation to the nature as nature to one higher kingdom. Nature much more clearly expresses the moral kingdom, than the human language is capable of. That is why the nature is created, i.e. to be perfectly picturesque expression of the moral kingdom.
    Thus we borrow the facts from nature (because that is why those facts are there for), to help our language to express, beside everything else, the horror of sin. And thus so we ask:
    Who will take the worm out of the oak?
    Who will cleanse the tare out of the wheat?
    Who will pull the sin out of the soul?

  8. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Monday Highlights Says:

    […] miracles and creation … for myself I think an awful lot of real miracles are very […]

  9. Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e76v1 Says:

    […] miracles and creation … for myself I think an awful lot of real miracles are very prosaic. Share the […]

  10. Wesley J. Smith Says:

    Father bless:

    Yes, but we must be careful, it seems to me. There is clearly a distinction between humans and animals. As moral beings we have a duty to treat animals humanely. But I don’t think that precludes us from using them in proper fashion for human benefit.

    For example, some Christians say that the faith pushes us toward vegetarianism. But Christ’s Last Supper was surely lamb, as it was the Passover Feast. He cooked and ate fish after the Resurrection. He did not rail at the animal sacrifice happening at the Temple, but at the money changing. St. Paul called vegetarianism the weaker approach to food. Etc.

    So certainly we should all abhor animal abuse. But let us not conflate human life and its value with those of animals.

    Similarly, there are those who would stop human thriving and flourishing in the name of “saving the planet.” It seems to me we also have to be careful that stewardship doesn’t slouch to a neo earth religion.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    As a meat-eater who has never even considered vegetarianism I would say that I certainly don’t think about that when I think of our stewardship of the planet. I grew up with grandparents down the road on a farm. There are strange spiritualities out there today. People who worry about the carbon-footprint but do not oppose abortion (there was a tragic story of such in a recent Orthodox podcast). There is a proper Orthodox theology of creation that has consequences for how we live. But I do not find it useful to describe the Church as “green” (though some do). Green is a growing political position with some very strange ideas about creation and humanity.

  12. Mary Says:

    Did St. Paul really call vegetarianism the weaker approach to food or was he teaching something else?

  13. Greg Says:

    It seems to me that Wonders question remains unaddressed: how is God revealed in a natural order where the primary mode of flourishing is to kill, often horrifically, other beings. Or more generally, where a creature like the spider evolved to perfection through death (selection) as a creature of venom and death?

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Mary,

    I am not aware of St. Paul actually discussing vegetarianism at all. When St. Paul writes about “not eating meat,” first – “meat” simply means food, and it is food which has been sacrificed to idols that he is discussing, not food in general. Vegetarianism was not a topic of controversy or discussion particularly in the Churches to which he wrote. I let the comment go in the earlier post because it was not germane to the question asked.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Several points:
    What you are describing, as Wonders asked, is not the glory of God revealed but the “futility” of creation, according to the Biblical witness.
    The glory that “shall be revealed” is eschatological – it does not yet appear. There are certainly saints – and Christ Himself – whose encounters with nature yield glimpses of the glory that shall be. I would readily agree that the glory that shall be will not be built on corruption and death.

    I think it is problematic to suggest that the spider has developed solely through death. Orthodoxy believes that creation is sustained at every moment by God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). I trust that He is at work in what I cannot see or know as yet.

    The primary revelation of God at work in creation is and always has been the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the “first fruits” of creation that we now see. There are, as I’ve noted, glimpses that are afforded in the lives of some saints. Those glimpses include a transfiguration of nature – or a transfiguration of the character of nature in which the “lion lies down with the lamb” etc. Though it is still but a shadow of what we have been promised.

    Some of the Fathers speak about the “logos” of each created thing that is a reflection of the Logos who created everything. And they speak of these logoi as something that can be mystically perceived. I trust this teaching, but have no experience of it. But those so gifted seem to have about them a witness that I cannot see and a quality of relationship with nature that is not yet mine.

    I simply try to live from the commandments and the canons. And I take what crumbs fall from the King’s table. Even so, it is a rich banquet.

    A last emphasis – the “glory” that is revealed in creation will not be and is not an idea – one more thing to put in our brain. What we now see is “futility.” But I meditate even on the futility and consider the wisdom of God inasmuch as I can.

  16. coffeezombie Says:

    I believe the reference was to Romans 14:2, “For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.” Other translations will say “vegetables” rather than “herbs”.

    I would guess, though, that reading modern vegetarianism into that would be inaccurate.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Ah, that helps me.

    Yes. The “eat all things” means “eat even meats that are sacrificed to idols.” In many places the “meat market” of pagan cities was wholly controlled by the pagan temples. There was no other meat to be had. But the issue here of weakness is St. Paul’s reference to the conscience, in which some, of “weaker conscience,” cannot bring themselves to eat anything sacrificed to an idol even though the idol is nothing. The only option in such a situation would have been to eat “herbs.”

    But the question is not about avoiding meat for some other reason.

    Monastics in Orthodoxy do not eat meat. Only fish or certain festal occasions. Some describe this practice as eating “as though in the Garden,” doing no harm to animals or killing (fish really seem to lose out in these discussions). Of course their way of life is an asceticism of obedience and not a fastidiousness of conscience. Those who would preach an abstinence from meat for any reason other than fasting are teaching contrary to Scripture and the canons.

    I do not mean that one cannot be a vegetarian (I know plenty of them) but such a one cannot claim to be a vegetarian in obedience to the teaching of Christ or the Church. It’s a choice.

  18. Wesley J. Smith Says:

    Fr. bless: Yes, I was thinking of Romans 14:1-4, where St. Paul is not writing (as I see it) about food sacrificed to idols, but about those who will only eat vegetables being a weaker approach. This is from the Orthodox Study Bible: “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak only eats ONLY [emphasis in the text] vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him…”

    The note about that passage states:

    In Orthodox Christianity, there are things that cannot be compromised, and there are areas of flexibility. God is gracious and allows diversity in doubtful things, matters not related to essential doctrines and moral teachings. The weak in faith are people who assign primary importance to secondary matters. The two examples of flexible areas here involved food restrictions and the observance of liturgical calendars [later in v. 5], things the weak might try to use to judge others or to divide the Church, in both cases, we are commended to flexibility to others, just as God himself does.

    Thus, I don’t see how one can argue for vegetarianism as a Christian obligation, when Paul called it a matter of being weak in the faith (but about which we should not judge each other).

    As to monastics, as you pointed out Fr., their forbearing from meat isn’t from weakness, but strength. For ascetic reasons they choose not to eat what they would be legally allowed to eat. It is self denial for themselves only. It is not a statement that the Church as a whole is morally required or best off doing likewise. Indeed, isn’t that the point of general fasts?

    You put my point well, Fr., when you wrote: that one cannot “claim to be a vegetarian in obedience to the teaching of Christ or the Church. It’s a choice.”

  19. Alexander Says:

    As a side note, a thought struck me that we, more or less, see things as “normal” although they’re temporary, although their time spans our lifetimes.
    I’m in IT and we’re working on a “Disaster Recovery plan”. And as I was reading this post just now, I thought: our lives here, on Earth, are a disaster recovery process. We’re not functioning in a “normal mode”, we’re in “disaster recovery mode”. Once the recovery is complete, many things will change back to normal – although for most of us they will be new and unknown before.🙂

    Please pray about me, travelling to Jordanville tonight.

    P.S. Father, I sent you an email on the 21st, did you receive it? Just checking, so I’m not expecting your answers while you’re not even aware of my questions.

  20. Reid Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I especially appreciate your comment, “The redemption of the world does not make it into something other than the world.”. It reminds me of David Bentley Hart’s description of “freedom” as “nature perfectly realized” (If I understand him aright, he says this is the freedom which Doestoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor charges Christ with bringing to the world, a freedom too hard for man to bear). In particular, then, a man is free not to the extent that his will is unfettered, but rather to the extent that he resembles Christ, in Whose image he is made. Your comment seems to extend this thought to all creation, which waits to be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21)

  21. Steve Says:

    Thank you very much for this. I asked about something similar on my blog at What is a miracle? Khanya, and someone pointed me to this post, and I think you have expressed it very well. I was involved in a discussion about it, and most of my interlocutors thought that the Scholastic understanding of “miracle” was the “old” and “original” one. I agreed that it could be old, but I do not agree that it is original, but I’;ve not been able to locate any Patristic or other sources on the topic. Do you know of any?

  22. What is a miracle? « Khanya Says:

    […] ____ PS Since I wrote this, someone has pointed me to this post by Fr Stephen Freeman, which suggests something similar: Miracles and Creation — Glory to God for All Things […]

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Steve,
    I can’t think of any Patristic sources on the topic that go in the direction that I took in my post. For one reason, the questions of the fathers are generally asked in a cultural setting far different from our own. The secularism of our culture, it seems to me, forces us to be careful in speaking of miracles not to underwrite the culture’s separation of the world into sacred/secular, supernatural/natural, etc. Most of those issues have been important in the posts I’ve done on the “one-storey universe.” Modern secularism is a relatively new challenge. I think the answers are all there within the faith of the Church, if we ask the right questions – which is what I’ve tried to do in this post. An example is in the implications of the prayer for the blessing of waters (which I cited). It is certainly patristic, but somewhat oblique.

  24. Steve Says:

    Yes, I think a large part of the problem is the mindset of modernity, of which Scholasticism was the precursor. It is modernity that is wedded to the dichotomy of secular and sacred, natural and supernatural, and those too were distinctions that were promoted by Scholastic theology in the 13th century.

    It seems to me that Orthodoxy draws the line in a different place. It is not between natural and supernatural, but between creator and creature. In the former view, God, angels and demons are on the far side of the line and not on ours. In the latter, we can see angels and demons as being on our side of the line, for they, like us, are creatures.

    In my post I too quoted from the blessing of the waters at baptism, that when Christ entered the waters of the Jordan, he trampled upon the heads of the dragons that lurked there. It is both miracle and myth. But both are inaccessible to the secularist mindset. No “law of nature” was visibly broken, yet the world is changed and water is transformed.

    In the incarnation, part of the miracle is that a Virgin gives birth, but the secularist mindset doesn’t see half of it, because our hymnody rejoices in paradox and conundrums — the greater part of the miracle is that the Uncontainable is contained, and that the womb of the virgin is more spacious than the heavens.

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed! well said

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

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