What Do We Believe?

Vladimirskaya - The TheotokosI once heard a story of two monks motoring a small boat one evening through a stormy bay. The fog around them was such that the monks quickly lost their bearings, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Reaching shore, no longer a certainty, became their prayer. In desperation, the men cried out, “Mother of God, save us!” Hearing their prayers, the Theotokos* guided the monks safely to land. Not only were the men safely out of the storm, but the Holy Mother had delivered them to their destination, the very dock at which they needed to arrive.

Other such stories have made their way to me in conversation and reading, and I’ve wanted to believe them all. I would even admit to longing for such an encounter—perhaps to meet an angel, or receive a message from a saint, to see the image of Christ Himself. Such things have always been attractive from the time I was a child. And I have heard it said by many individuals that Orthodoxy is what they always wanted to believe, but never knew it was okay to do so, for precisely such reasons.

The anecdote above was relayed to me by a friend of a friend, who incidentally was one of the monks on the bay that evening. I would never presume to call either man a liar, yet I face the difficulties of my western sensibilities. Many of you, I’m sure, can relate. Today, belief in such supernatural occurrences is often considered unfashionable at best and medieval, superstitious, primitive at worst.

Why are such tales so difficult to believe? My feeling is that many of us settle for what is to be safely believed about God and His interactions with humankind—it is reductionism for protection; minimalism to avoid foolishness, false teaching and supposed delusion. Our faith has suffered blows from the scientific method and rationalism. The supernatural has been abused by tele-charlatans, theatrical swindlers and false prophets. Those promising the extraordinary were unable to deliver. We find it harder and harder to believe anything at all.

A few years ago, some friends and I endeavored to read books together and meet to discuss their contents. One such book, The Heavenly Man, cataloged the experiences of an underground church leader in China—a man whose day-to-day existence was nothing if not miraculous. Leaping over walls impossibly too high for humans to leap, covering miles of ground in mere seconds—these and many other events fill the biography’s pages.

In all honesty, I couldn’t finish the book. I found it unbelievable, deciding that the author must have exaggerated or fabricated the accounts of this pastor’s life. I couldn’t allow myself to believe something so fantastic. I couldn’t stand the idea of being duped.

In the weeks that followed, in conversations with friends, it struck me that my skepticism about the pastor’s life amounted to unbelief. I realized that beneath my initial question, Why are such stories so difficult to believe? was yet another: What do I believe about God?

What do I believe about God? Is He capable of sending His saints to us for assistance, guidance? Could He assign to each of us a guardian angel? I can come to no other conclusion that God is capable to do whatever He chooses. There is no wall too high, no fog too dense. Yet, in my heart, difficulties remain.

I’m beginning to see all the more that my struggle not only lies within what I believe about God, but also what I believe about Tradition.

*For my Protestant readers, Theotokos is the name ascribed to Mary. Its meaning in Greek is the God-bearer.



5 responses to “What Do We Believe?

  1. Hi Cal,
    This post hits home with me. I am a MAJOR skeptic when it comes to miracles, even from my protestant days. Belief and gullibility look awfully similar in my mind. Almost every story I’ve ever heard about miracles were second hand (I have a friend who told me…), or they were stories of miracles from people I’d consider apt to confuse coincidences, natural events, lack of information and wrong interpretations of events as “miraculous”. GK Chesterton’s take on miracles rings true to me:

    No religion that thinks itself and true bothers about the miracles of another religion. It denies the doctrines of the other religions, it denies its morals ,but it never thinks it worth it to deny it signs and wonders. And why not ? Because these things men have always thought to be possible. Because any wandering gypsy may have miraculous powers. Because the general existence of the world of spirits and of strange mental powers is a part of the common sense of all mankind. The Pharisees did not dispute to the miracles of Christ they said they were worked by the devil. The Christians did not dispute the miracles of Mohammad. They said they were worked by the devil. The Roman world did not deny the possibility that Christ was A God. Rome was far too enlightened for that. In so far as the Church urges miracles as a reason for belief it is a fault. The fault is not that the church asks a man to believe in something so incredible, it is that she asks the man to be converted by something so commonplace. What matters about a religion is not whether it can work marvels like any ragged (Las Vegas) conjuror, but whether it has a true philosophy of the universe. The Romans were quite willing to admit that Christ was a God, what they did not it was that he was THE God. That is the highest truth of the cosmos. And this is the only point worth discussing about Christianity.

    Orthodoxy has its hagiography (stories of the saints) and its miracles for sure. But they are nothing I haven’t heard before in other Christian traditions. To me, Orthodoxy is true because its true, not because its miracles are better or more authentic.
    In the end I will not be judged for not believing in miracles, I will be judged for whether or not I loved human beings in a miraculous way in spite of their unlovliness. (PS. I wouldn’t have finished that book either. If those things really happened, and were of God, so what, it doesn’t make him any more a Christian or me any less of one. “The Spirit gives gifts to each individual as He wills.” And if they didn’t happen, I’m no better or worse off for not having believed it in the first place. In my mind, those who put their faith in the veracity of these events for their own faith are weak at best and fools at worst. Their faith is in miracles, not God. This mindset is a slam dunk for the demonic delusion of lying miracles. Its not that I don’t believe in miracles, I just don’t need them to justify having faith in God who can perform them if He wishes. The Fathers say there is no sin in doubting miracles, it is the safe path. If God is trying to prove something to you through them, He honor your caution and will confirm them in other ways for you.

  2. “The Fathers say there is no sin in doubting miracles, it is the safe path. If God is trying to prove something to you through them, He will honor your caution and will confirm them in other ways for you.”

    A sigh of relief. S-P, thanks so much for the response. It’s a comfort to know that I’m in good company! I’ve also heard it said that miracles are signs on the journey, not the destination. As in the Gospels, we can get so distracted by what’s miraculous that we miss the Miracle Worker.

  3. I just received my new OSB. The notes on John 20:24-29 say: The doubt of Thomas is described in the Church hymns as ‘blessed,’ for it was not a doubt of resistance to truth, but one that desperately desired a truthful answer – a ‘doubt which gave birth to faith’ when the answer was revealed. In hymns of the Church, Christ says to Thomas, “Your doubt will teach My Passion and Resurrection to all,” and we affirm that his doubt, “brought the hearts of all believers to knowledge.” The conversion of Thomas’ doubt into faith led him to the clearest confession of Christ’s Divinity, addressing Jesus as, “my Lord and my God!”
    And this was in regards to a huge miracle, Christ’s Resurrection!

  4. Encouraging words, Mary-Leah. Thank you.

  5. Miracles are possible as much as God is real and God is very real. But only people with open for God hearts experience them.

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