The Beatitudes and what to make of miracles

Jean-Luc Marion, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Sorbonne and retired professor of Catholic studies, the philosophy of religions, and theology at the University of Chicago, in an interview with Commonweal in December:

KW: You also point to the paradoxical nature of the Beatitudes and many other sayings of Jesus, the paradox being that we cannot turn them into a moral code, much less a sociology. What, then, are we to do with them?

JLM: Part of the power of those paradoxes is that we cannot do much with them. It is as if Jesus is showing us how much his way of thinking of God differs from ours. And that that is how the Father thinks. But it is beyond our grasp. The point of the paradox is to make it clear that we all have a long way to go. We are not yet Christians.

KW: You say something similar about miracles. You write of miracles as we find them in the gospels that “they offer us the purest examples of phenomenological givenness.” Many people have trouble believing in miracles. And yet, you don’t.

JLM: Well, with a question like that, you have to go to the history of philosophy first, and deconstruct it a bit. The conception of miracles is a very modern concept. Miracles were discovered, so to speak, in the seventeenth century, not only among English philosophers like Locke and Hume, but also many in France. During that period, to have a miracle you had to have two conditions. First, that there are rules or laws of nature that are universal and unbreakable—no exceptions. Second, that a miracle is an exception to the rules of nature.

KW: So miracles were, by definition, irrational.

JLM: Yes, during the Enlightenment in France, there were even Catholic thinkers like Nicolas Malebranche who explained miracles by saying that in the past, God produced miracles because people were so stupid that God had to impress them with tricks. But now that we are rational, there is no need for miracles.

KW: What’s different now?

JLM: Today, we no longer have such laws of nature. We have only competing theories in fundamental physics and so on, but no unified rules.

KW: But we also have statistics that imply certain regularities in nature, don’t we?

JLM: Statistics give us approximate interpretations of laws of nature, not laws that are absolutely certain. Even in philosophy, I don’t know any serious philosopher today who endorses the position that there are a priori concepts like laws of nature. Not in phenomenology certainly, and not in analytical philosophy since the end of logical positivism, which was once so dominant here at the University of Chicago.

KW: So where does that leave the question of miracles?

JLM: In our postmodern society, I would say a miracle is something that apparently contradicts what we assume to be probably the rule. In fact, the category of miracles can be used, quite apart from religion, for anything that is exceptional, unexpected, or unexplained, but nevertheless makes sense and is trusted by people. It is simply a certain kind of what I call “events,” a certain kind of phenomenon.

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