Above us, the sky was suddenly untenanted, uninscribed. It was the lack of vapour trails in those clear March afternoons that first alerted many of us to the enormity of the virus’s impact. Tempting too, wasn’t it, to see the empty sky as a return to nature.
Tempting, but not quite right. The aeroplanes we fly in are amazing, but they’re not supernatural. An aeroplane is as natural as a butterfly. The former is artificial, made by humans, the latter isn’t. Human beings are natural too, of course. So are ice particles, sulphur, and the combustion by-products of hydrocarbon fuels: the constituents of a vapour trail. It’s all part of nature.
Were an alien to visit Earth, they’d quickly be able to infer that an intelligent species was in residence by the presence, among other things, of vapour trails in the troposphere and Saturday night celebrity dancing shows playing on ultra-high frequency segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. Both signs of intelligence. Both perhaps undesirable. But both natural.
This apparently opposing pair: natural or human-made has cropped up close to home recently. My brother-in-law, Johnny, told me about the Kinwardstone or Kenward Stone, an ancient sarsen lying just south of the Chute causeway, a mile or two from the village where we live. It gave its name to the medieval administrative district of which we are a part: the Kinwardstone Hundred. These days the stone is almost completely forgotten.
After a certain amount of tramping and hacking and clearing, Johnny and I managed to find the stone itself. It lies in a cup-shaped depression, just below the summit of the down. The depression itself may be the remains of a quarry dug out by the Romans to build their road a few metres up the hill. Lying half lost in the long grass and cow parsley and nettles, the flat Kinwardstone is covered in strange markings: a regular pattern of parallel indentations, like a labyrinth, or a brain, or the surface of a vinyl record under a microscope.
Also known as The Devil’s Waistcoat, the stone has unsurpsingly accrued a portfolio of legends: it’s cursed; the markings depict human entrails; when someone tried to drag it away with a team of horses, the horses all dropped down dead. And so on.
But it’s the argument concerning what caused the markings that fascinates me. Geologists at the beginning of the twentieth century concluded they were the result of glaciation, and deemed them ‘natural.’ Nature is full of regularities, of course. You only have to think of the ripples in the sand on the beach, or the patterns formed by ice on your windows in the winter. (On the inside of your windows if you live in an old cottage like ours.) Or the endless iterations of the Fibonacci sequence: a flower’s petal, a lazy wave’s surrender, our own DNA, the fragments of snail shell on the church wall. Nature is patterned.
But even if the patterns were made by one of our ancestors, they’d still be natural. We are part of the pattern as much as glaciers. To think, like the geologists, that our work, our regularities are somehow outside of nature, or beyond nature, is arrogance of the grandest, blindest sort.
It’s the underlying naturalness of Jesus’ miracles that makes them so powerful. I know that sounds like an oxymoron: a natural miracle. But bear with me.
Any talk of miracles, and we inevitably run up against David Hume. Here he is:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and because firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the case against a miracle is—just because it is a miracle—as complete as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined to be.An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding § 10.1
Hume’s argument is sound (although open to a charge of circularity). It rests, however, on the contestable assumption that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature as they are established by our experience. (Is nature is a matter of legislation? I think it’s a matter of glory.) And I don’t think of Jesus’ miracles as violations or breaches; they are fulfilments. Jesus goes with the grain of nature, not against it.
Look at the miracles more closely; they are all responses to absence: they have no wine, they have no food, he has no sight, he has lost his mind, they have lost their daughter.
Jesus returns what has been lost. Restoring sight, sustenance, health, life. And so Jesus’ miracles take place at an intersection between what we have been given, and what we have lost, or can lose. It’s a very human place. Precarious, and precious. The opposite of Hume’s hubristic ‘firm and unaltereable.’ It’s a place marked out by faith. Often Jesus stands back, refuses to take credit for the miracle. To the woman who touches the hem of his cloak in the crowd and is healed, He says:
Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.Mark 5:34
To the grateful leper who, unlike his friends, returns to Jesus to praise God and give thanks, Jesus says:
Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.Luke 17:19
Or Peter’s climbing out of the boat to walk with Jesus on the water. Peter is able to take a few steps before growing frightened; he begins to sink. Jesus’ rebuke, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:31) reveals how a miracle, according to Jesus’ definition (as opposed to Hume’s), is not supernatural, not a matter of His superpower, but of our faith.
By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.1 John 2:6
Walk as he walked, and each step is a miracle.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was an experimental American composer who explored ideas of indeterminacy and thematic evolution in his deceptively simple music; he was hugely influential on what came to be called New York Minimalism. Skeletal melodies evolve then dissolve; motifs and patterns emerge, repeat and then fade, only to recur in slightly altered form at a later point. This is Why Patterns? for flute, percussion and piano from 1978.
send your Holy Spirit on your people,
call us out of the boat of our own convictions and certainties:
embolden us to step across the boundaries of habit and convention:
inspire us, heal us, restore us, sustain us, and forgive us
And give us the strength faithfully to pattern ourselves on the Pattern,
your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.