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Walking on Water (and Other Tricks Jesus Pulled)

In a letter to a friend in 1955, Flannery O’Connor wrote:

For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.

~ The Habit of Being

I shared this in a previous post (see Time Out of Mind: बोधिचित्त [Part II]), and I share it again here because it speaks to the present moment, and by that I mean, it always speaks, in every present moment, in every moment we are present. What if she’s right? And by that, I only mean to say, what if the gospels are right? What if they aren’t some sort of revisionist history written by folks with an axe to grind? What if what the gospels tell, the four versions that they are, tell a reasonably accurate picture of what actually happened?

What if?

And that, my fellow believers, is all we have to go on. A simple “what if.” But isn’t that enough? Isn’t that, after all, what faith actually is, believing in a “what if”? And isn’t that all that atheism can really claim? What if God isn’t real? What if the scientific method really can explain all reality accurately? What if what see is all there is? But of course, that’s not what atheism claims to claim. It claims in no uncertain terms that God is not real, and then spends the rest of its time backing up this unsupportable claim. And by calling atheism’s claim of God’s non-existence “unsupportable,” I only mean to say that it cannot prove that God does not exist. It may counter by saying that science is not about proving what isn’t real but only what is. Fair enough. But then why make the claim that God is not real in the first place? Isn't that claiming to prove what isn't real? Isn’t that, in other words, doing precisely what it denies it does? And if it counters, on the other hand, that science has not proven that God exists, therefore we cannot claim He does, I say again, fair enough. Which is precisely why believers – at least the ones you ought to trust – do not say, “God exists,” which would be to make a categorical claim about something that cannot be categorically claimed. All the Christian faith claims is its belief in God’s existence: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth..." and so on. As the book of Hebrews puts it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s all the orthodox faith of the Church has ever claimed. It has never offered proof of God's existence, which would be, after all, an oxymoron. Something you can prove doesn't require faith.

So atheism, every bit as much as Christian fundamentalism, makes claims that it cannot itself prove, which is ultimately irrational and unscientific. Which is to say, atheism makes a statement that is a matter of belief (and, likely, preference) and turns it into a matter of certainty. It does the very thing, in other words, that it blames Christian belief of doing, which Christian belief doesn’t actually do. Atheism is, at best, What if?

Atheism isn't only bad science, it’s bad philosophy, and bad news. It just doesn’t make much sense to believe it, unless, of course, you have reasons for not wanting a God to answer to in the first place, which life provides in spades. There are all kinds of reasons for not wanting to be told what to do, what to believe, what to feel, how to act., etc. I saw a guy pull out of our local post office the other day with a bumper sticker that read, “Do not comply!” The car proceed to stop at the stop sign, flash its turn signal, and proceed down the road at the established speed limit. And, of course, we can be quite sure that the driver of said vehicle carried auto insurance, had his driver’s license on his person, and stopped at the first red light he encountered. Do not comply, indeed!

But back to O’Connor’s point about the true laws of this world, which are what allowed Jesus to talk on water. He wasn’t defying the laws of nature, he was manifesting them. But nature, after the Fall, hasn't been itself. I mean, I’ve actually tried walking on water, just for fun of course (and at least in a couple of instances, because I was drunk), and I sank like a millstone. So why couldn’t I do it? For the same reason that my death won’t secure your eternal life. I’m not God. And nature isn't what it was created to be. But what Jesus showed us – and I think this is O’Connor’s point – is that the reality of heaven, which is the ultimate reality this world is moving towards, allows for water-walking, as it allows for eternal life, and the cessation of suffering, and the flight of angels, and so many other things we find... well, simply unbelievable.

My 10 year-old son has lately been completely freaked out by heaven and eternity and the prospect of living forever. He has, alas, inherited my primal fear from childhood. I do my best to comfort him while he sits on my lap, telling him what I think he needs to hear, but ultimately I’m reduced to a simple truth: the reality of heaven is something we only catch glimpses because it is a truth too heavy for us to bear in our present condition – or perhaps it’s a burden too light for us to bear. Either way, we can’t understand the glories of heaven because we are trapped in time – it is the only reality we know, and the only reality, not incidentally, that science can work within. We are bound by the frame.

I say all this to say that the present realities of our world, be they political, social, financial, or physical, are only realities with a small “r.” They do not define life at its deepest levels, nor were they meant to. That was a trick the modern world pulled, convincing us that the only realities worth believing in are the ones you can measure (and thus, prove). But who says? I don’t buy it, not for a minute, and I think I’ve got the lion’s share of evidence on my side, which leads me to believe in what I consider to be, if not quite obvious, at least downright sensible: that a living God, who is not a micro-manager, got this whole ball of what we call “existence” rolling, and this God, who created us out of love, wouldn’t have bothered doing so if he didn’t mean to go all the way, which he did by dying on the cross for us in the substance of his Son, Jesus.

And that changes everything. And this is what Jesus showed us when he walked across the water to his disciples who were trapped in the middle of a storm. He wasn’t showing off, wasn’t pulling tricks. He was just being himself, something some day we're all called to become: the selves we were created to be. And how cool is that?

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach before stepping onto the first wave. Soon I am walking across the Atlantic thinking about Spain, checking for whales, waterspouts. I feel the water holding up my shifting weight. Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface. But for now I try to imagine what this must look like to the fish below, the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

~ Billy Collins, from The Apple that Astonished Paris

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