Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Talitha Cumi: A reflection on the healing of the daughter of Jairus

“And, behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue: and he fell down at Jesus' feet, and besought him that he would come into his house: For he had one only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she lay a dying. But as he went the people thronged him. And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any, Came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood stanched. And Jesus said, Who touched me? When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me? And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me. And when the woman saw that she was not hid, she came trembling, and falling down before him, she declared unto him before all the people for what cause she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately.And he said unto her, Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace. While he yet spake, there cometh one from the ruler of the synagogue's house, saying to him, Thy daughter is dead; trouble not the Master. But when Jesus heard it, he answered him, saying, Fear not: believe only, and she shall be made whole. And when he came into the house, he suffered no man to go in, save Peter, and James, and John, and the father and the mother of the maiden. And all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. And he put them all out, and took her by the hand, and called, saying, Maid, arise. And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway: and he commanded to give her meat.”
This passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 8 (also found in St. Mark and St. Matthew) is one of the most powerful, and most compelling, in the Gospels. I heard it read a few weeks ago, and have been planning a reflection on it in the weeks since- it has been a busy fieldwork season though, and I’ve only now had time. There is a lot we can learn from this episode in the life of Jesus (which, like the Gospels in general, I would accept as historical and truthful). Three things, though, especially stand out to me. This passage is important because of what it tells us about the reality of miracles, about the nature of love, and about the mystery of the Incarnation.
This passage purports to be nothing other than it is: a truthful and accurate account of two miracles, a miracle of healing and a miracle of raising the dead. The story makes that plain. To a lot of modern people, of course, including to some Christians, miracles are outmoded and embarrassing, something to be explained away. As enlightened people of today, we know that miracles don’t happen. They can’t happen for three reasons. The laws of nature dictate that when death happens, the chemical changes and loss of thermodynamic order that immediately begin to take place are completely irreversible. And the laws of nature are absolutely unbreakable, if not they wouldn’t be laws, and modern science and technology couldn’t exist. Furthermore even if we grant that the laws of nature are not totally unbreakable, no one has ever credibly seen a miracle, and all the experience of humanity is that when we are dead, we are dead for ever. That was Hume’s argument against miracles, and it is as strong today as it ever was. Right?
Wrong. I don’t have too much space here to explain why it’s wrong, and arguing with agnostic materialists is really the least interesting part of this essay, so I’ll say just a few words as to why strict materialists (those who deny the existence of anything supernatural, including miracles) are wrong. No less a scientist then Alfred Russell Wallace, the codiscoverer of evolution by natural selection, argued incisively in an essay that I’m currently reading, that Hume was full of sh*t. The laws of nature tell us how natural systems behave to the extent that they are self-contained. Conservation of energy and momentum, for example, can tell us how a ball will move around a pool table once we strike it. But they can’t take into account some joker passing by, picking up the ball, and placing it his pocket. The laws of nature work- infallibly and to the last decimal place- when natural systems are left to themselves. And almost always, they are. But not quite always. The existence of laws of nature- the fact that this universe is an orderly place, governed by laws of physics and chemistry that the mind of man can understand- is in itself evidence that there is something outside the physical universe. For you can’t have law without a lawgiver. Something must have caused the rational, explicable universe we live in that natural science has had so much success at explaining- some Person or set of Personal beings. And if that lawgiver is outside the universe, he isn’t bound by its laws, and can temporarily override them- in very rare instances, of course, for it is God’s nature to be orderly and discreet- but in important instances nonetheless. Like this one.
The tendency towards thermodynamic equilibrium that characterizes all systems- and that, in particular, describes what happens to us after we die, as we equilibrate with our environment- is a statistical law. As we know, chemical reactions are described in statistical terms: it’s not _impossible_ that, say, an iodide ion and a methanol molecule will react to produce methyl iodide and hydroxide: it’s just very, very, improbable and unlikely (such that only a tiny percentage of such products will be formed). But isn’t in the nature of God that He can make the improbable happen? God cannot overcome the laws of logic, He cannot make a sixth regular solid, or make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it, or calculate the last digit of the number e. But inasmuch as the laws of nature are more matters of probability than of logic- and this is true of most of them- He can intervene to override or reverse them. Science can never say that such rare, inexplicable, miraculous events don’t occur- it can only say that they are not part of science, and that science can have nothing to say about them, and can only be carried out during the 99% of the time that miracles don’t happen. The existence of miracles doesn’t contravene ‘science’ any more than the fact that we breed domestic animals contravenes the process of evolution, or any more than the existence of powered flight contravenes the law of gravity, or any more than the existence of electrolysis contravenes the fact that hydrogen and oxygen react “irreversibly” to produce water. Miracles are a temporary suspension of natural laws, not the denial of their existence.
That’s enough about miracles- read Wallace’s essay for more, including where he trenchantly said (I paraphrase) that if we were all as skeptical as Hume, we would never have credited the first man to describe a flying fish or a platypus: “Such a simple fact as the existence of flying fish could never be proved, if Hume's argument is a good one; for the first man who saw and described one, would have the universal experience against him that fish do not fly, or make any approach to flying, and his evidence being rejected, the same argument would apply to the second, and to every subsequent witness, and thus no man at the present day who has not seen a flying fish ought to believe that such things exist.” As the great book “Life of Pi” says, “Life is hard to believe, ask any biologist. Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.” Never deny something just because it seems unlikely. This story is an example of a miracle- two actually. The Gospels tell us- credibly, I think- that Christ performed many healing miracles. But He only performed miracles of raising the dead rarely, most notably with Lazarus. In both cases people who were recently dead. These were not corpses that had rotted away and disintegrated. God never carries out those kind of miracles- bringing back disembodied spirits, or half-disintegrated dead bodies. Those things _would_ actually be violations of nature, contraventions of the world the Lord has made; they would represent some alien power invading nature, not the coming home of the rightful sovereign of our earth. Whatever the return of Samuel represented it certainly wasn’t the power of God: “And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself” (1 Samuel 28:14). Christ brought back- twice, only twice- the souls of two people who had just passed away, at a moment when their bodies were still in good condition. The Acts of Thomas, describing the life of Thomas the Apostle after he went to India, suggest that he did the same, bringing back to life a girl who had just been killed by her lover out of misguided religious sentiment. “And immediately, as he drew her hand, she sprang up, and sat, looking at the great multitude standing round.” The fact that these miracles happened only on a handful of occasions, under very specific circumstances, lends them an air of plausibility, once we acknowledge the possibility of very rare instances in which a supernatural power overcomes the laws of nature. But that’s all I will say: I’m less interested in arguing that miracles are possible than in understanding why they are important.
Why did Christ heal the daughter of Jairus? To ask that is to answer the question itself. Christ healed because He loved us, and because He could not bear to see people suffer. He looked on death, and was overcome by sympathy for its victims, and He wept. “They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Now Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!” (John 11:34-36). We are told that even when He was being led to His execution, He felt pity less for himself than for the city of Jerusalem whose end He foretold forty years before it happened: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children” (Luke 23:28). He didn’t do it for show, or to make people overawed at his power. In fact he specifically overcame the temptation to do just that: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Luke 4:9-11). He tried, in fact, to downplay the miracle saying, “She is not dead but sleepeth”. He did it because He loved us, and because He had sympathy for our suffering and pity for our weakness. He could not, when asked, turn away those who truly sought him. And neither will he turn away anyone who seeks him: neither in this life, nor in the next. Whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Mandaean, Zoroastrian, even atheist or agnostic: all will, someday, find that which they truly seek, whether or not they know Him by name. As it is said: “To whoever asks, it will be opened.”
I haven’t even got to the most interesting question that this story raises in my mind, which is the question asked by Christ: “Who touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out of me.” Christ being God, does this mean he never asked a question to which He didn’t know the answer? Was He just kidding around when he asked this question- was it just rhetorical? I don’t think so- Christ was many things but He wasn’t ever a joker. And after some recent free-time reading I feel even more strongly that way- and hopefully I’ll explain why in a future blog post. But that is another story, for another time.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”