St. Thomas William Paley
In a previous entry on Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design, in which I link to the work of Gonzaga philosophy professor Michael Tkacz, I end with this comment: "I do wish, however, that Professor Tkacz had addressed the question of how the Christian should think of God's interventions in those events we call miraculous." Apparently, I am not the only one who raised this query or one similar to it. I know this because an associate editor of the periodical in which Professor Tkacz's appeared, This Rock (published by Catholic Answers), Sophia A. Sproule, was kind enough to send me the following email message just yesterday afternoon. It includes a response from Professor Tkacz. I am grateful to both Ms. Sproule and Professor Tkacz for taking the time to address this query.
Thank you for commenting on Michael Tkacz’ recent article in This Rock, “Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design,” on your blog. I see that it has spurred quite a debate with readers. You observe that “I do wish, however, that Professor Tkacz had addressed the question of how the Christian should think of God's interventions in those events we call miraculous.” You may be interested to know that we received several letters asking the very same – one reader, in fact, was sufficiently disturbed by Dr. Tkacz’ story to suggest that it was detrimental to the faith of our readers. That particular letter will appear in our April 2009 issue. As it directly pertains to your question, however, I submit Dr. Tkacz’ response to the letter below.
Michael T. Tkacz replies:I fully understand [letter writer] Mr. Kirby’s concern about what seems to him a denial of the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. I also understand how one may come to have such a concern after reading an account of St. Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of the doctrine of creation. This analysis is philosophically sophisticated and demands careful study to understand correctly. Let me reassure Mr. Kirby that nothing in St. Thomas’ analysis is contrary to church teaching on these issues, nor did I intend to defend any unorthodox position in my article. Indeed, I affirmed both the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer in the responses to my readers. Nonetheless, Mr. Kirby is quite correct that neither my article nor my responses provided an extended account of these subjects. My article focused on the correct understanding of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, naturally leaving many related issues unaddressed. One cannot do everything in one article, but perhaps I can put some of Mr. Kirby’s concerns to rest.
Regarding miracles, Thomas points out that God cannot do anything contrary to the order he established in nature. If he did, then God would be acting contrary to his own intention and goodness, which is impossible. So, whatever miracles are, they are not opposed to nature. Rather, says Thomas, miracles are God acting apart from nature. One way in which God reveals himself to us is through rarely occurring, unexplained events that trigger our admiration and draw our attention to his revelation. This is not God adjusting or fixing-up nature to make it better. God created nature to begin with and it is, therefore, already good. Rather, God is doing another good in addition to the good he is already doing in creating and sustaining nature. Thus, Thomas’ point, that creation is not a natural change, is confirmed by miracles, because miracles are no more a part of the natural order than is creation. As Thomas says about the raising of Lazarus, it is not as if something went wrong in nature and God intervened to fix it up. Lazarus’ death is a natural process operating precisely according to the order God gave nature in creation. In raising Lazarus, God is doing good by giving life in a way different from the way new life is caused in nature. God does this as a revelation, providing us with a type of the Resurrection of Christ. Thomas is hardly denying miracles here. Instead, he is providing a better understanding of them through a more consistent and correct account of divine action.
As for prayer, Thomas warns that we must avoid misunderstanding that may lead to false doctrine. God is absolutely unchangeable and his goodness is absolutely constant and pervasive. The purpose of prayer, then, cannot be to change God’s eternal providential disposition, for this is impossible. We cannot change God and we cannot move him to do what we want in any way. Rather, the purpose of prayer is to dispose us to receive the good God intends for us. This he already provides, not in the sense that he does so before the time we pray (there is no “before” in God’s actions), but in the sense that he does so independently of our prayer. God intends our good whether we pray or not. The point of the necessity of our being steadfast in prayer is not that we can thereby somehow force, pester, embarrass, or manipulate God into giving us what we want. God does not need our prayer, nor does he depend on it in order to intend our good. Rather, the point is that we need our prayer; we need to be constantly acknowledging our dependence on God for all good things.
A central doctrine of the faith is the absolute transcendence of God. He is the unchangeable absolute reality that is the source of all being and good. He created everything from nothing and makes it good. Yet, this very transcendence makes it difficult to understand what God is and how he acts. The best we limited human knowers can do is to use analogies with ourselves and the rest of the natural world. For this reason, we must, in speaking of God, be careful not to be mislead by our analogies. We cannot explain with scientific precision just how God does what he does, for God transcends human understanding. We can, however, be clear about what God is not: God is like nothing else; he acts in a way that is radically different from anything we know in nature. God does not act as natural causes do, nor does he from time to time substitute for a natural cause. What God does do is to create sustainingly in a single divine act of power and goodness. Thomas affirms that we can use our natural analogies for God, provided we are constantly aware of them as mere analogies. This is the point of Thomas’s analysis of the doctrine of creation and of my article: Failure to exercise proper care in our theological claims can result in the misunderstandings and inconsistencies that undermine true doctrine. Additionally, strongly to affirm God’s transcendence in the way Thomas does most certainly confirms the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer.