“Horatio’s Philosophy”

  1. Mk4:35-41

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This year, I’ve been reading a long commentary on the Gospel of St. Mark that a friend gave me for my birthday last winter. The writer of the commentary deals with the many passages in the book about miracles, such as the text I just read.

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus performs what scholars term, a “nature miracle.” Jesus shows his power over the forces of nature—in this instance, he is able to calm violent winds that threaten the boats that he and his disciples are riding in.

St. Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus “rebukes” the wind; he says, “Peace! Be still!” The wind immediately dies down, and the disciples exclaim, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Over the centuries, the church has had different ideas about these occasional events in the life of Jesus. Early Christian writings indicate that after Jesus rose from the dead and returned to Heaven, his disciples were able to duplicate some of the miracles he performed during his ministry.

St. Paul, for example, seems to have demonstrated a power that granted God’s protection over him and his fellow shipmates during a violent storm in the Mediterranean Sea. Early Church leaders were sometimes able to heal sick persons.

By and large, though, it seems that the apostles eventually lost any power they might have had over natural events like winds and storms.

Some church theologians even came to argue that the age of miracles was over. They felt that Christians could no longer expect that their leaders would have powers like Jesus had; these gifts had only been given to the early church.

But during the Middle Ages, miracles seemed to come back. People prayed to saints for particular favors. For example, fishermen offered prayers to St. Andrew that they would get a larger catch. Andrew was himself a fisherman before he became a full-time disciple of Jesus.

Then, during the Protestant Reformation, the pendulum again seemed to swing. The new Protestant churches were skeptical about many Catholic claims that such miracles really take place. Some Protestant biblical scholars now questioned the miracles in the Bible.

But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the pendulum swung back. In the opposite direction, Christians in the charismatic movement declared that God once again was giving his church the power to perform miracles. The “charismatic” or spiritual phenomena for which these churches became known included apparently miraculous healings of physical illness as well as speaking in tongues and foretelling the future.

So I imagine that more than once, these Pentecostals have prayed for deliverance when they were threatened by storms. And if they then happened to escape harm, they would have given credit to God for their safety.

What would I personally believe about reports of such miracles? I believe that on occasion God does heal the sick. In this parish, we maintain a prayer list of people we know who need healing. It’s not unusual for persons to be removed from that list because they have regained their health.

I’m less sure about nature miracles—like praying that you’ll be safe during a hurricane. As a modern person who accepts the many truths of science, I tend to be skeptical of assertions that disagree with science. Scientists say that storms will do damage, whether humans pray or not.

On the other hand, I know that there are limits to science. For one thing, scientists have often changed their minds about the world, as their research brought them new discoveries. In the 1970’s, the big worry expressed by climate experts was global cooling! Scientists in those days had evidence for their views—but not, it seems, enough evidence –for, as we know, climate scientists today fear global warming!

The world remains a mysterious place. As Hamlet said to his old friend, Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Today, these words from Shakespeare’s play remind us that no human philosophy is able to predict or explain everything that happens. New scientific discoveries are announced every day. The number of patents for new inventions granted by the U.S. Patent Office increases every year.

And, not only are there gaps in most scientific systems, but new answers to questions can arise that undermine what seem to be certain explanations of common phenomena.

I mentioned the perplexities of quantum theory a couple of weeks ago. According to that theory, what look like “solid” objects are mostly composed of space!

But there are numerous other examples of theories where mysteries abound. Take ideas about how to cure drug addiction.

One drug or another has been a problem in this country for decades. Today numerous people in rural areas have become addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin.

There are many theories about how to free addicts from their habit. Some doctors once thought that the best way to address addicts’ psychological problems was by Freudian analysis. Patients would meet with psychiatrists up to five times a week for years in order to understand the sources of their compulsions.

Today, though, there are countless other psychological approaches. The severely addicted may be sent to residential rehabilitation centers. Others might try simpler forms of treatment, like cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy.

Yet science remains far from discovering a fool-proof cure for drug addiction. Despite the billions of dollars devoted to these forms of rehabilitation, some addicts still fail to conquer their dependence on drugs. Two years ago, I officiated at the funeral here of a twenty-five-year-old who overdosed with heroin on the couch of his parents’ living room.

The young man desperately wanted to give up his habit. His affluent Manhattan family had tried every treatment method they could find. Yet no cure for this person was found in time to save him.

“There are more things in heaven and earth” than are found in Horatio’s philosophy. All human theories are fallible. We are far from knowing everything there is to know about ourselves and our world.

We remain ignorant of many things. And we can’t conjure up miracles when we need them. As the Bible says, the devil “still prowls around like a roaring lion.” (We saw the power of evil this past week with the massacre in Charleston.)

Yet as the Gospel lesson reminds us, whatever we think of miracles, we can’t conquer fear without faith.

And when we ask in faith for God’s help, we may be surprised to see that, against our expectations, “even the wind and sea obey him!”

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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