Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Discourse on Miracles

Last week I acquired a spiritual advisor -- one of the monks with whom I'd been working on Episcopal church issues, who finally took me aside and asked me if I'd correspond with him. So we've been writing each other about miracles, and I began to tell him about my jellyfish experience (see below). He replied, Anglicans base their teachings on the theology of experience. You're having experiences. Have more.

Being of a secular/rationalist education and temperament, I always tended to circumscribe my miracles pretty severely : in the realm of life-changing events without precedent, or providential path that marks the whole course of a person's career, or idiotically sentimental moments of warmth. We professional historians tend to quarantine the miraculous in the pitifully every-day or the macrocosmic -- that is, in the realms of causality that we can't measure. So long as we can't measure cause, we're happy to acknowledge that superhuman forces may be at work.

But I've been feeling recently like this list simply won't do. Or better yet, that the realms of what we can't measure extend to slight changes in perception that cause one to radically recategorize all sorts of other phenomena: that the causal influence may be personal, but that the tweaking of God in my head ought very much to force me to look for new kinds of signs in whatever form they are capable of attracting my notice.

My conception of an educator-God (o Augustine and Derrida), the Great Communicator, is always trying to wake me up. So I shy away from remarking that *just* warmth or joy is a sign of God's presence: warmth or joy that wakes me out of my habits, that forces me to remark upon it is miraculous in a way that Hallmark sentimentality isn't. A bed of roses is a bed of roses, but a bed of roses in the course of a deep request for continuity of instruction in experiencing warmth is something like an answered prayer (at least part thereof).

God doesn't care, I'm sure, that a car license plate with "ESP-7890" appeared outside the café in Philadelphia in which I was drinking coffee as I looked up after finishing a remarkably strange 1930s book of essays on coincidences as I was processing those in my life. But if God is trying to wake me up, how better to do so than to make me attentive to an unlimited array of jokes in my own head about what I do and don't know.

I'm working with synchronicity right now, part of a prayer for open communication with God. I'm also working with a year-long arc of continuous experience of communication and direction in personal and professional activities, counting on synchronicity to vouch for the fact that I'm not making this up.

Discernment, calling, and direction are more elaborate and sustained messages than mere admonitions to pay attention. I compensate by trying to make sense of a specific narrative of causal divine intervention before I make boasts to myself about understanding God's influence in my life from the day of my birth. Increasingly the fundamentalist claim sounds to me like a kind of intellectual hubris -- have they *really* examined each part of their life, the downturns and temptations and missed opportunities, for a kind of celestial influence more sophisticated and meaningful than 'Satan tempted me with booze and God made me put it away'?

I mean, I'm sure God did intervene, Mr. Fundamentalist, but in terms of rules to follow in the world of mixed good and evil encountered daily in the confusion of well-educated good intentions in San Francisco, *I* seem to have the most awful time instantly telling which drink, book, romance, friendship, and ambition comes from God, and which doesn't, whilst still acknowledging the historian's rule of unforeseen consequences, and that indeed the unforeseen consequences of each drink, book, and romance are not yet played out even now as I cast a tentative judgment about them. God can't be against all drinks, books, and romances, not an educator, ecumenical God who wants us to love one another *and* learn from one another. Furthermore, as a professional historian (surely God doesn't forbid me from this), I am forced to forebear judgment about the final influence of any given drink or book on any given individual until the end of the day when both have driven him to more critical self-understanding of his designs. This law of hidden workings surely leaves all the more room for the workings of providence through them, trailing in unforeseen consequences, influences, people, reflections, all the way down through one's life.

I want to stop short of saying that all causality is unknowable or that God is only in one's head. I have indeed noticed that I'm back to forebearance to name divine intervention in any one event. Which is maybe appropriate for the miracles I've been naming: coincidences that snap me back into reflection in my head, moments of warmth that make me acknowledge that I don't know what I'm doing but that I crave the chance to embody and act out of love, unforeseen kinds of healing out of people and situations I didn't expect to act that way. I resist the idea that talking to God about miracles should make me a narrow historian, only interested in personal histories about Bubba turning away from alcohol. Talking to God about causality ought to make me *more* perceptive about how individual experiences (like drink or love) lead individuals towards or away from the ultimate good of Christian compassion.

Lest this lead me unto utter moral relativism, it seems clear to me that political movements are in a different category than phenomena. Education is not merely for the soul but also for the city, so that a godly individual should be seen and emulated by others. Along with coincidences and personal surprises in my sentimental education, I've been listing as miracles anything having to do with success or encouragement in line with shared political endeavors.

How our personal and professional lives stay quarantined is always a source of frustration to me, and the causality/miracle problem has been shelved behind Collingwood for the last year, kicking to get out.


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