THE MIRACULOUS is in the eye of the beholder. For some, the parting of the Red Sea is a sign not of God’s power, but of the eccentricity of nature; the Talmud regards the love of a family for one of its members in distress as being quite as wonderful as the miracle of the burning bush; and, to my mind, it is a miracle that a programme as consistently intelligent and engaging as In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursdays) can still be broadcast in a media world whose content is declining as fast as a bank’s share-price.
To mark the start of the miracle that is a new series, Melvyn Bragg discussed the miraculous with three typically astute and articulate guests.
In a journey that took us from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of miracles up to the 19th-century rationalists, we took in Augustine and the Golden Legend, St Francis and St Catharine of Alexandria, Hegel, and Feuerbach — enough to keep you going at the average Oxbridge High Table dinner.
What emerged was a history of tension between scepticism and belief which dates back to the early Christian era. “The Age of Reason” cannot, as Janet Soskice admirably explained, be easily distinguished from “The Age of Belief”. The same St Francis who carried the miraculous stigmata encouraged his followers to investigate and question the natural world, and to regard miracles not necessarily as contrary to nature so much as contrary to what we know about nature.
Nevertheless, it is from Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume that the West inherits a stricter polarisation between nature as a self-sustaining order and the miraculous intervention of the divine. Were we to regard nature as entirely co-existent with God’s will, then the miraculous would not be a sign of specific divine intervention but of continuing divine participation. We can then return to the word “miracle” its proper sense of wonder.
Conversely, in a secular world, the miracle becomes a sort of cosmic trick or illusion. This is the world of Fin Kennedy’s challenging Afternoon Play: Caesar Price our Lord (Radio 4, Friday), in which the eponymous hero builds up a cult following by performing the miracles of Jesus. Is he an illusionist, a delusionist, or the real thing?
Caesar himself thinks he is for real; his girlfriend knows him to be psychotic; and the doctor treating him cannot be sure. “I’m a scientist. . . . I deal in fact, not faith,” is one of her more clichéd lines. The play could easily have tipped over into a made-for-radio version of The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, but just managed to keep itself on the right side of the absurd by some genuinely poetic, resonant writing.
Not least of this is the sense that here is a Jesus-figure who, rather than casting demons out, seems to put them into people. Crowds and individuals alike become possessed in his presence. Yet this possession is of a distinctly 21st-century kind, using the power of celebrity. The modern version of Doubting Thomas is a man who declares that if he pulls off his ultimate stunt — to rise from the dead — “then I suppose I’ll have to convert.”
But to what effect are all these miracles? As one bishop in the drama sagely points out, “where is this man’s gospel? He is all style, no substance.” Such is the modern miracle-worker.