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January 25, 2022

Ethics and miracles

That it is difficult to talk today about the Jesus of two millennia ago is proven by films. More specific than other arts as a type of expression that measures up to contemporaneity, cinematography apparently has all premises to be convincing: the panorama of a minute “scenographic” reconstruction of other eras, a polyphonic potentiating of the epic character, spectacular dramatism, portraiture as realistic as possible. Nevertheless, the results are disappointing. “Risen,” directed by Kevin Reynolds, who also signs the screenplay alongside Paul Aiello, combines the hippie imaginary, which Franco Zeffirelli had used before, with the violence specific to war films, which Mel Gibson had amply resorted to as well.

In this case, the apostles are cheerful harebrained persons who react to threats only by laughing, refusing with hysterical candour any form of conflict. On the other hand, the Roman tribune who supervises the crucifixion of Jesus is living in a culture of exacerbated violence, pragmatic without being sadist. Cruelty that seems to be inherent to a history marred by men’s political ambitions. Overwhelmed by the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection and of his subsequent apparitions, the Roman tribune becomes the protector of apostles and leaves the world of violence behind – however, not without putting other military skills in the service of his new comrades. Of course, such a story can only generate smiles from those slightly familiarised with Christian culture. While the details about the cruelty of crucifixions are welcome, because we often forget that it was not a commonplace death – some artists, throughout time, insisted precisely upon the dramatism of this “shameful” death, such as Matthias Grunewald –, the other aspects of the film are unconvincing caricatures.

The real apostles were not even preoccupied with the issue of violence, Jesus trying to discourage them from resorting to arms. The tribune’s preoccupation is rather similar to that of many of our contemporaries down-crested with the multitude of wars and the murderous violence in so many places today. As much as we would like to see them like this, the apostles were not pacifists, although Jesus had managed, with difficulty, to shift, in their consciousness, the emphasis on the more spiritual dimension of life, which for some will represent also another perspective on the use of violence. But while it is not persuasive, Reynolds’s film can be food for thought from a certain standpoint.

The tribune “converts” because of miracles that overturn his realistic convictions. The truth is Jesus was extremely popular during his earthly lifetime because he was a successful thaumaturge. He was performing miracles, particularly healings, some of them spectacular, and he even brought dead people back to life. His teaching was difficult to assimilate at first, being rather unappealing, and the number of apprentices dropped after a while. We could even suspect that without miracles he would have failed, like many other religious “reformers” of that era’s Judaism. It is not by chance that those looking at him nailed to the cross were mockingly asking him to perform a miracle.

The issue of miracles is decisive in Christianity. Many stances were taken on this issue, situated at the extremes being those who gave privilege, as a criterion of real Christianity, to the capacity to continue performing miracles, and, respectively, those who radically criticised this aspect.

For the former, holiness was linked to such a capacity, while sanctification, at least for the Catholics, is conditioned by confirmed miracles today too. In other words, someone could be a consummate philanthropist, but without a miracle, even a posthumous one, he would never be considered a saint. On the other hand, if someone were to endorse doubtful opinions, but miracles would not be lacking, holiness would be cherished more, even in contradiction with human understanding. In other words, there is a tension between the “rational” dimension of Christian life and the thaumaturgic one, which contradicts “naturalness.” Because the thaumaturge saints’ pretensions call into question the realism of acting morally in the world’s limited conditions.

To counteract them, other Christians looked on miracles in an extremely critical manner, discouraging their expectation and even looking on them with radical scepticism. Maybe a more balanced approach would not reject their significance but would subject them to a nuanced criticism.

What is the point of a miracle? Why is there the need for a certain miracle? The appetence for miracles can seriously undermine an ethical programme, but certain miracles can draw us into a different understanding of the dynamics of reality.

Precisely because they call into question a self-sufficient thinking. God gave autonomy to the world, so that is subsists on account of its own laws. But that does not mean God is a “deus otiosus” that cannot intervene in the way things flow naturally.

Let us not consider that he is at our disposal when and how we want to, neither that he is absent.

Precisely because this type of unusual presence is the great challenge of Christian life. Unfortunately, however, most of the time we are satisfied with a deceiving and comfortable conformity.

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