Sunday December 20th. Nativity Play in Dunblane Cathedral in the morning. Charming. I felt I was on the set of Love Actually, but did not run into Claudia Schiffer. In the evening, I dusted off my sadly neglected viola and played in a ceremony of Lessons and Carols in Glasgow. It was a day spent in contemplation of the miraculous. Dare I speak of the miraculous? I will sound like a self-appointed sage in a pub, like either Peter Cooke or Dudley Moore in the old Pete and Dud sketches. Why not?
I read in the papers this week that Mother Theresa is edging towards sainthood on the basis of her apparent posthumous intercession on behalf of a patient with stomach cancer, followed by a second patient with a brain tumour. Both are in remission. From time to time you hear a story like this. Two adolescent girls in a remote village in Andalusia see visions and cure people and a team of cardinals go to investigate, in precisely the way a team of scientists might visit a remote location to study any unusual phenomenon. The process has a rather medieval flavour to it. Not that the Roman Catholic Church is the only denomination solely preoccupied with the miraculous. Friday’s Herald devoted profligate column inches to the issue of whether incredible reports of shepherds and Magi following a wandering star to encounter a virgin birth (parthenogenesis) should be taken literally. The Reverend Andrew Frater of Cairns Church in Milngavie has described it all as a “fanciful fairy tale” and wants to “disentangle the truth from the tinsel.” Apparently, however, the Free Kirk are not best pleased at Rev Frater’s “offering inert, gelatinous, non-offensive niceness.” This is all part of an ongoing debate as to whether New Testament reportage should be taken literally or metaphorically. The Free Kirk are giving metaphor a bad press.
Yet metaphor is all we have. Everything is metaphor. Jesus spoke in metaphor all the time when he said “The kingdom of heaven is like…” in his many parables. Oddly enough, the people who understand best of all that everything is metaphor are scientists. Jacob Bronowski thought that the great triumph of quantum mechanics lay in its demonstration that absolute truth is unattainable. Our understanding of nature is uncertain not because our laboratory instruments are imperfect, but because uncertainty is knit into the fabric of the universe. (I can just hear Pete saying all that to Dud in a nasal whine, over his pint of bitter, and making Dud corpse with laughter.) It was Richard Feynman who pointed out that, while we can do sums involving energy, nobody actually knows what energy is. That makes “e = mc squared” a metaphor. Feynman said that the fact that he could never know anything for sure didn’t bother him. He was just happy to keep searching. Newton described his scientific work metaphorically. He said it was like turning up a nice pebble on the beach, while all the time the great ocean of truth lay out there, waiting. To do that which you are called upon to do, to the best of your ability, and not to get hung up about all the rest, is surely an act of faith.
I remember when I was about ten years old spending half a morning in my primary school sick bay with a belly ache. I drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke, the ache was gone. I lay still, with the hyperacusis of the newly wakened, listening to the banter of the school secretarial staff through the partition. It was perhaps the first time in my life that I felt a sense of wonder at the gift not only of consciousness, but of consciousness of an underlying moment to moment order in existence that meant that existence was neither chaotic, nor null.
It seems to me that the great miracle of existence, of the ordor essendi, is that miracles are precluded. Existence is subject to physical laws. If a law appears to be transgressed, then it merely means that our understanding of the law is incomplete. Is that an anti-religious sentiment? Not at all. Existence constantly shows itself to be infinitely more amazing and inspiring and – if you like – miraculous, than anything we have to date been able to conceive. We need to stop trying to quest for literal certainty in any matter. Get over it.
Faith, Hope, and Love. It’s enough.
Have a wonderful, and a safe Christmas.