Friday, March 20, 2020

Preview: Newman on Miracles and Faith

On Monday, March 23, we'll continue our Son Rise Morning Show series on Newman's Lenten themed sermons/meditations with one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons titled "Miracles No Remedy for Unbelief". Anna Mitchell and I will converse at about 7:50 a.m. Eastern/6:50 a.m. Central.

Please listen live here; the podcast will be archived here.

On the fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent in the Ordinary Form this year, we'll hear the Gospel stories of two of Jesus's greatest miracles: restoring the sight of the man born blind (Fourth Sunday of Lent) and the raising of Lazarus (Fifth Sunday of Lent), both from St. John's Gospel. Edward Elgar wrote an oratorio The Light of Life on the former story, which I listen to every year this Gospel is read (when a parish has Elect to receive at the Easter Vigil these Gospels are always proclaimed in Lent during the scrutinies, but this year they are part of the regular cycle). 

Both of those Gospel passages exemplify what Newman says of miracles at the beginning of this sermon:

NOTHING, I suppose, is more surprising to us at first reading, than the history of God's chosen people; nay, on second and third reading, and on every reading, till we learn to view it as God views it. It seems strange, indeed, to most persons, that the Israelites should have acted as they did, age after age, in spite of the miracles which were vouchsafed to them. The laws of nature were suspended again and again before their eyes; the most marvellous signs were wrought at the word of God's prophets, and for their deliverance; yet they did not obey their great Benefactor at all better than men now-a-days who have not these advantages, as we commonly consider them. Age after age God visited them by Angels, by inspired messengers; age after age they sinned. At last He sent His well-beloved Son; and He wrought miracles before them still more abundant, wonderful, and beneficent than any before Him. What was the effect upon them of His coming? St. John tells us, "Then gathered the Chief Priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this Man doeth many miracles … Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put Him to death." [John xi. 47, 53.]

Those verses follow the report of the raising of Lazarus. Newman goes to make a startling statement:

In matter of fact, then, whatever be the reason, nothing is gained by miracles, nothing comes of miracles, as regards our religious views, principles, and habits. Hard as it is to believe, miracles certainly do not make men better; the history of Israel proves it. . . .

We might be thinking now that a miracle cure of the Covid-19 virus might bring people back to the faith, believing in God's extraordinary actions in the world. Newman warns us that it might not and might not even move believers to greater faith:

I ask, why should the sight of a miracle make you better than you are? Do you doubt at all the being and power of God? No. Do you doubt what you ought to do? No. Do you doubt at all that the rain, for instance, and sunshine, come from Him? or that the fresh life of each year, as it comes, is His work, and that all nature bursts into beauty and richness at His bidding? You do not doubt it at all. Nor do you doubt, on the other hand, that it is your duty to obey Him who made the world and who made you. And yet, with the knowledge of all this, you find you cannot prevail upon yourselves to do what you know you should do. Knowledge is not what you want to make you obedient. You have knowledge enough already. Now what truth would a miracle convey to you which you do not learn from the works of God around you? What would it teach you concerning God which you do not already believe without having seen it?

He addresses objections to this statement:

But, you will say, a miracle would startle you; true: but would not the startling pass away? could you be startled for ever? And what sort of a religion is that which consists in a state of fright and disturbance? Are you not continually startled by the accidents of life? You see, you hear things suddenly, which bring before your minds the thoughts of God and judgment; calamities befall you which for the time sober you. Startling is not conversion, any more than knowledge is practice.

But you urge, that perhaps that startling might issue in amendment of life; that it might be the beginning of a new course, though it passed away itself; that a miracle would not indeed convert you, but it would be the first step towards thorough conversion; that it would be the turning point in your life, and would suddenly force your path into the right direction, and that in this way shocks and startlings, and all the agitation of the passions and affections, are really the means of conversion, though conversion be something more than they. This is very true: sudden emotions—fear, hope, gratitude, and the like, all do produce such effects sometimes; but why is a miracle necessary to produce such effects? Other things startle us besides miracles: we have a number of accidents sent us by God to startle us. He has not left us without warnings, though He has not given us miracles; and if we are not moved and converted by those which come upon us, the probability is, that, like the Jews, we should not be converted by miracles. 

In paragraphs not included in The Tears of Christ meditation for the Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent, Newman alludes to parable of another Lazarus and the Rich Man, who tells Father Abraham in the afterlife that if someone rose from the dead to give his brothers a message, they would believe and repent. Newman warns that even today it would not be as effective as the Rich Man thought--or we might think:

And thus our Saviour's words would come true of all those multitudes who have the Bible to read, and know what they ought to do, but do it not:—"If they hear not Moses and the Prophets," He says, "neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." Do we never recollect times when we have said, "We shall never forget this; it will be a warning all through our lives"? have we never implored God's forgiveness with the most eager promises of amendment? have we never felt as if we were brought quite into a new world, in gratitude and joy? Yet was the result what we had expected? We cannot anticipate more from miracles, than before now we have anticipated from warnings, which came to nought.

Newman also cites Psalm 95, the invitiatory psalm of the Breviary:

O that today you would hearken to his voice!
Harden not your hearts, as at Mer′ibah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who err in heart,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my anger
that they should not enter my rest. (RSV)

As you can see, Newman is able to describe our weaknesses in faith very well--because he knows the hardness of our hearts. He interweaves examples of the weak, yet hard, hearts of the Jews in the time of Samuel, when they wanted a king like all the other kingdoms, with our own weak, hard hearts:

We cannot serve God, because we want [lack] the will and the heart to serve Him. We like any thing better than religion, as the Jews before us. 

The Jews liked this world; they liked mirth and feasting. "The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play;" so do we. 

They liked glitter and show, and the world's fashions. "Give us a king like the nations," they said to Samuel; so do we. 

They wished to be let alone; they liked ease; they liked their own way; they disliked to make war against the natural impulses and leanings of their own minds; they disliked to attend to the state of their souls, to have to treat themselves as spiritually sick and infirm, to watch, and rule, and chasten, and refrain, and change themselves; and so do we. 

They disliked to think of God, and to observe and attend His ordinances, and to reverence Him; they called it a weariness to frequent His courts; and they found this or that false worship more pleasant, satisfactory, congenial to their feelings, than the service of the Judge of quick and dead; and so do we: and therefore we disobey God as they did,—not that we have not miracles; for they actually had them, and it made no difference. We act as they did, though they had miracles, and we have not; because there is one cause of it common both to them and us—heartlessness in religious matters, an evil heart of unbelief; both they and we disobey and disbelieve, because we do not love.

If you think that Newman is being hard on the Jews of the Old Covenant, he is even harder on Christians of the New Covenant, because we have the grace of the sacraments, effectively working miracles on our souls:

But this is not all; in another respect we are really far more favoured than they were; they had outward miracles; we too have miracles, but they are not outward but inward. Ours are not miracles of evidence, but of power and influence. They are secret, and more wonderful and efficacious because secret. Their miracles were wrought upon external nature; the sun stood still, and the sea parted. Ours are invisible, and are exercised upon the soul. They consist in the sacraments, and they just do that very thing which the Jewish miracles did not. They really touch the heart, though we so often resist their influence. If then we sin, as, alas! we do, if we do not love God more than the Jews did, if we have no heart for those "good things which pass men's understanding," we are not more excusable than they, but less so. For the supernatural works which God showed to them were wrought outwardly, not inwardly, and did not influence the will; they did but convey warnings; but the supernatural works which He does towards us are in the heart, and impart grace; and if we disobey, we are not disobeying His command only, but resisting His presence.

So what should we do? 

You know the answer as well as I do, but I'll post Newman's exhortation on Monday!

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