Aquinas: On Miracles

Only a couple more weeks with Aquinas now. I’ll round off with a few comments on Aquinas generally, just talking about some of his ideas that I like or don’t really like. Might get a few in-between articles on some contemporary issues after that, and then we’ll be into Calvin or Luther. Depends which I can get my hands on. We’ll worry about that later though – for now, let’s talk about miracles.

In 1a.105.6, Aquinas asks “whether God has the power to do anything outside the order inherent in creation.” Basically, can God do miracles? Obviously there’s a bunch of miracles and whatever in the Bible, so it seems like the answer’s probably going to be yes, but, uh, let’s try and make up some reasons why it might be no. I guess you could argue that God doesn’t do anything outside the order of creation because miracles are actually somehow inside the natural order. That is, God isn’t doing anything ‘supernatural’ with His miracles, they’re all just really super advanced and complicated scientific procedures that we could do if we just knew how. That’s my best shot. What’s Aquinas lined up?

Well, ah, his lot’s not great. First argument is an Augustine quote: “God, the founder and creator of all natures, does nothing outside nature.” If God does nothing outside nature, He can’t do anything supernatural. That seems a bit dodgy though – if God defines what’s natural, then any of God’s actions (such as miracles) would fall under that definition. Second argument extends that logic further: “as the order of justice originates with God, so does the order of nature. God has no power, however, to transgress the order of justice; by that fact He would be doing something unjust. Neither, then, does He have power to transgress the order of nature.” Same argument, same response. The third argument is pretty wet too – Aquinas suggests that God’s set down what nature is, so if He’s acting outside of nature, He’s somehow changing, and God’s not allowed to change. It’s just – I don’t know why God setting down nature also means that God is subject to all the laws and structures of the natural world. Surely He can create a reality and be like ‘these are all the rules y’all have to follow but I’m gonna do what I want because fuck you.’ Doesn’t seem that difficult.

Aquinas opens his response by talking about different sorts of order. It’s a pretty quick argument, this one, but the implications are kinda interesting. So there’s higher orders and lower orders, and the lower orders are, obviously, subject to the higher orders. Aquinas gives the example of a family: the dude is the head of the household, because it’s the thirteenth century, but then the whole family is subject to the king. The order of the household is inferior to the order of the kingdom – the father of a family obviously doesn’t have authority over the king. Aquinas then applies this logic to reality. We’re all subject to the rules of this physical reality, but the order of this physical reality is a lower order than the order of God’s own personal nature. It’s what I said before: reality is subject to God, not the other way round. Basically God can do magic because He created reality in the first place and He’s not really bound to its rules. He created the rules – so He can break them if He wants.

So the key difference between my pitch and Aquinas’s pitch is that he sees miracles as outside the natural order, whereas I see them as inside. I’m not really attached to that view, by the way, it was just the first thing that came to mind. I guess the distinction really depends on how you think about nature and the created order. Aquinas would say that there’s the universe, and it’s all been created by God, and there’s a set bunch of rules that define how the universe works. Remember a couple weeks back we talked about how God gives things the ability to cause effects – so for instance God creates this universal gravitational field and gives all things the ability to attract other objects within that field. But then out of nowhere, breaking the rules that He’s established, God might just be like ‘Yo you can defy gravity now,’ and that’s a miracle. It’s defying the established laws of the universe.

For me, I wonder more whether the term ‘miracle’ is really all that useful. I don’t have anything strictly worked out here, I’m just kinda spitballing. I think I’d approach from more of a subjective point of view – so for instance, uh, say you need a park, and you pray for a park, and a park appears just in front of you. Is that a miracle or not? On the one hand, we could write it off as simple coincidence. It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything, it holds no significance – it’s just something that happened accidentally. It’s not related to the prayer for a park. On the other hand, we could say that God orchestrated things in such a way that you saw a park just after you prayed for one. Here’s the point of distinction: if you hadn’t prayed for a park, would it still have appeared? If you take the first approach, the coincidence approach, you might say yeah, of course it would still be there. The park being there was independent of you needing a park, and it still would have been there at that moment even if you got a flat tyre and never left home. If you take the second approach, you might still acknowledge that the park would’ve been there, but you’d be more willing to attach meaning to the coincidence. It’s not about denying the integrity of the external world, it’s more about how the events out in the world bear significance for the interior relationship between the individual and the Divine. Maybe you were guided in such a way that you would drive past that park moments after praying for a park. And maybe someone else was originally going to get that park, but God showed them a different park closer to the mall so they would be in and out with less fuss, so they’d have just a little more energy for their kids after school. And the person who originally had that closer park got held up by unusually long roadworks, and that happened because otherwise they would’ve been killed by another driver running a red light a few blocks down.

I guess that’s my question, then – I don’t know how much God might nudge things. If He is nudging, we wouldn’t be able to tell necessarily, because everything is still technically operating within the fixed rules of the universe. But you can see how the label of ‘miracle’ might not have quite the same impact if you’re running this theory of God’s constant low-level intervention to just nudge things in a certain direction. The distinction between ‘inside the rules’ and ‘outside the rules’ becomes less important, and it becomes more important to conceptualise the events within a subjective framework of the relationship between the individual and the Divine. You need a park; God provides a park. The park is less important than the fact that God provides – although the park isn’t entirely unimportant, because the material conditions of our lives matter.

I’m running over, but I want to get this idea out. On the other half of the blog I’ve been letting the Wolfenstein articles run long, because that’s a long-form series anyway – it seems acceptable to have the articles run longer than the traditional 1000 words. But for this article I’m really just breaking the rules. Anyway: the big problem with this subjective approach is that you need to be conscious of social issues. You can imagine someone in poverty, right, and someone telling them ‘Well, really your poverty is a message to you within the context of your subjective relationship with the Divine.’ That seems really shitty. So if you want to run this suggestion that maybe God interferes with the day to day happenings of our lives as part of an ongoing internal dialogue with each of us, then you also need to think about how you explain poverty and starvation and all the other world problems. They aren’t just elements of a subjective internal relationship. They’re social and political and economic problems. I don’t have enough background (or space right now) to fit those problems into the same framework as this interior subjective approach. For now, we’ll just leave it unresolved. We’ve noted it, and that’s a start.

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