If you were lucky enough to have had a good teacher of humanities in high school or college, perhaps you learned that making an argument from silence is a bad thing. The Latin term is, of course, rather august: argumentum ex silentio. Such an argument is certainly less persuasive than an argument based on solid evidence. The absence of holes for the poles of a wigwam does not prove that there were no Indians.
But I want to talk a bit about another kind of argument from silence, one that is in fact based on silence. That is the argument for God. But I start with the argument against God: human suffering. Now I acknowledge that animal suffering is horrible, too. An abused dog, an uncared for cat, or a horse suffering from malnutrition are all horrendous to look upon. But among these, none presents evidence sufficiently contradictory for the idea of God. Rather, human suffering does, whether caused by natural disaster, war, or human malfeasance. “If there is a God,” it is often said, “why does He permit little children to starve to death in Africa, hundreds to die in a mudslide, terrorists to blow up little girls as they are leaving from an Ariana Grande concert?” These are the best arguments against God—not evolution, not the fact that the earth is but a speck in the universe, not even the very good anti-God argument based on the hypocrites who attend churches. Those are interesting, even entertaining to debate. But the really good argument against God is, without doubt, human suffering.
But what is the argument for God? The argument for God is nothing quite as convincing, for it is ultimately an argument from silence. Not the silence of a wigwam’s missing pole hole. Rather it is the argument from silence and invisibility, from not hearing a word but somehow knowing, at least strongly believing, that He is there, and sensing that that silent argument changes everything. For it gives you hope. Hope, I think, is the strongest argument from silence for God.
Now what do I mean by this? Let us begin with the notion that hope is as invisible as it is intangible. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it with your fingers. But you crave it perhaps more than an alcoholic his next drink. You can’t go on without it, or at least you feel certain that you can’t. You get up in the morning and on your drive to work you can think only of the cruel oppression of the world, knowing that your job, perhaps, is in the hands of some of those very oppressors.
That boss seems simply to want to make your job so difficult you can’t do it, let alone flourish in performing it. Rather, it is like one continuous fraternity hazing ritual, where every time you think you’ve accomplished something, done a task or prepared a report correctly, you are yet again chided, criticized, knocked down, made to feel small, made to feel worthless. Your work is never up to the standards which appear to you to shift at the will or whim of your boss. You’ve learned to live with that, but it is not a good situation and you know it. But it’s too late to change. You’re middle aged and you’re at the bottom rung of middle management.
This is where the argument from silence comes in, or rather bursts in. On that selfsame drive to work you think and think and think and wonder how you can get out of this situation, how you can extricate yourself, but you can’t come up with a way, not a natural way. And then you think of your faithful cousin, or your co-worker (the only one who actually cares about you), or your smiling and helpful neighbor, all of whom are cheerful, hopeful, encouraging people. “Why are they so?” you ruminate. And then it dons on you, in the silence of your car as you close your eyes for thirty seconds at a traffic light until the car behind you honks. They all believe in something greater than themselves, in a god, in God. The all have hope from on high. They all are convinced that the supernatural can and does happen. They get especially excited and exude their hopefulness on occasions such as Christmas or Easter, to the celebration of which holidays your smiling, helpful neighbor invariably invites you but you hitherto have invariably declined. Yet now, in a silent moment at this traffic light, hope breaks through, perhaps for the first time in a long time, since you were a kid, since you last bowed your head and said a prayer.
That’s just the beginning, not the end. And that’s the point of today’s blog, a beginning, a beginning in silence, based on silence. If you want to see where hope leads, keep reading each week. We’ll get there on another occasion. Another silent occasion.
I have a friend who has a beloved uncle whom I also know quite well—he might as well be my own uncle. Indeed, he allows me to call him by that familiar title. Yet he does not believe in miracles. I would like to say that it isn’t the case that he doesn’t believe they can happen as much as it is simply that he has never seen one. But, in fact, it is the case that he does not believe they can happen at all.
Now I myself am as skeptical as he is about faith healers on television who ask you to send money for a prayer cloth that they have anointed with some kind of healing oil. I am not sure whether this is just an American phenomenon; perhaps some of you who might be reading this in another country are not familiar with this phenomenon—I mean televised miracle workers, not miracles per se. Yet for those of you who may not know, I can tell you this much: at certain times of the evening in the States you might just flip to a certain television channel and find a certain man (for usually it is a male) who will touch some certain person in a crowd and (likely by some prearranged agreement) that person will throw their crutches aside and begin leaping about on the stage (for usually it is a stage) and declare that they have been healed.
Yet I don’t count such a spectacle as a miracle. Rather, it is precisely a spectacle, something that the (possibly well intentioned, possibly not) televangelist has put together (whether to entertain or, more likely, to obtain donations). This is not a miracle. Instead, I count as a miracle a baby.
I write this on the very date, twenty-three years ago to the day, that a friend of mine had to deliver his own child because the doctor had gone out to have a smoke—I say nothing here about doctors ought knowing better—at the very moment that the child was appearing. My friend told me that he had the unique opportunity of receiving nearly half of his daughter’s body before the nurses came charging in to help. The doctor, in the meantime, was enjoying an unsanctioned rendezvous with the Marlboro man. That, to me, is a miracle—not the smoking doctor, but the daughter, choking, gurgling, gasping for her first breath as she entered rapidly into this world.
To look closely at a newborn baby is a startling act, for it is to behold a miracle. It is amazing to think that the child has grown so rapidly in the mother’s womb. Indeed, it is more amazing to think that it has grown in another person at all. If you are lucky enough to behold it immediately after birth lying upon its mother’s chest, with tiny grasping hands, its look of new life, and the image of its mother’s love, you will witness perhaps an even greater miracle than the child’s birth. G.K. Chesterton once wrote “… we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.” In short, like that of the egg producing a chick, the idea of a human being, a mother, producing a baby is rather fantastic, at least if we suppose for a moment that we had never known how babies came into being. If we are not amazed by this, it is only because we take it for granted.
Now this is not the only kind of miracle that I believe exists, but I do believe that it is particularly miraculous. My friend has never quite gotten over his catching that child as she came into the world; he still talks about it, especially when he waxes nostalgic over a glass of wine and a bite of Swiss cheese, whose holes themselves, too, might just be particularly miraculous; else why would there be at least two theories about the holes in the cheese?).
But beyond the particularly miraculous, the “that’s-amazing-when-you-think-about-it” type of miracle, there are also miracles that are peculiarly miraculous. It is that type that the charlatan televangelist tries but fails to emulate with his smoke and mirrors on television every week. That type is the kind that people all too often crave, about which someone might say, “now if I saw that kind of (peculiar) miracle, I would believe that miracles can happen.” But of course those miracles, indeed any miracles, particular or peculiar, hardly ever appear to those folks. There are two reasons, I suppose, for that.
First, miracles are, by definition, miraculous. They don’t happen often or they wouldn’t be so. Second, the people about whom I am speaking can’t see the miracles when they’re right in front of them. They miss the particular miracles because they don’t recognize in the face of a baby a mind-boggling sight, a fantasy come alive. Nor would they see, of course, peculiar miracles, nor accept another’s account of them, such as Elaine Jakes catching the scent of cheese in a church in Stockton, NJ, and beginning to go to that church regularly soon after that. Nor would they accept a story, even from a known source, about someone encountering an angel. They may even believe that love is merely a chemical reaction of the brain and that forgiveness is something unachievable, especially in certain egregious circumstances. They might even say there are no such things as truth or justice. And they certainly don’t believe in Superman, or at least the archetype that he represents in the comics.
And my dear uncle might say, “Well, for every ‘miracle,’ you produce, I’ll show you ten non-miracles, and worse yet. How do you explain the Holocaust alongside your so-called miracles?” And he would be spot-on right. This is the most vexing question. What he is essentially asking is why children die, why genocide happens, why there is human suffering, why there is such sadness in the world.
I cannot answer these questions. Rather, I can only revert to miracles. I start with the Italian adverb-adjective combination, molto particolare. I learned this expression from a dear friend who studies art. He uses it to describe the finest workmanship. It is a kind of Italian code word for “very beautiful, very well made.” Now, perhaps I am but stating the obvious, but I believe particular (i.e. the Italian particolare) miracles are often overlooked simply because they are the rule.
One takes the beach for granted if one lives by the shore. One takes the Alps for granted if one lives on Mont Blanc. Babies are born every moment, colorful flowers bloom in green fields, peaches are succulent, and a true friend…—well you’ll know that when you find one. I made such a friend a long time ago at Dickinson College; his name is Tim, and he is a lawyer now in
Harrisburg. I spoke of him to a dear colleague just yesterday; even after all these years I described him as closer than a brother. Such friendship is a particular miracle, too.
I am not so far off topic as you might imagine. If human suffering somehow mars particular miracles—certainly it does for my dear uncle and I believe for many others with whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of life having meaning—peculiar miracles, if not quite offering an answer, nevertheless somehow offer a response to the problem of human suffering. Such miracles are no less beautiful than the particular, everyday miracles, but they are strange in a different way than a chicken coming from an egg is strange. They are peculiar precisely because they defy natural laws. I take one (click here) or two (click here for another) recent examples from the news. If you look at these clips, you’ll see that they both record children coming back to life when they were dead. Not near death; dead. Now one could say that that kind of thing happens somewhere in the world everyday. But, first of all, it does not. Secondly, it does not happen to you every day. It does not happen to your neighbor or friend every day. And when it does happen to you, there’s a chance then that you’ll recognize that you were party to a peculiar miracle.
If particular (i.e. beautiful) miracles are tarnished by humankind’s inhumanity and the grief engendered by natural disasters, peculiar miracles are not so much a response as perhaps an antidote to the vexing question of human suffering. This would be especially true if peculiar miracles should be construed as messages from another world. If that were to be the case, the adjective peculiar would indeed be a good descriptive term for them. But that is the stuff of another blog, a blog about life—and wine and cheese, of course. And now that I think about it, perhaps the holes in Swiss cheese are a peculiar miracle after all.
“May you be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living human being can escape.” Thus wrote St. Francis of Assisi some time just after 1200 AD. To St. Francis, my good friend Piergiacomo Petrioli assured me just yesterday, everything was good. “That’s the point,” he said as we sat in his living room in Bologna discussing how the Renaissance, which began almost precisely a century after St. Francis wrote this canticle, came about. “The point is that Francis cared about all of creation, saw everything as good because it came from God’s hand. And so,” he added, “even death could be seen as good, as a release from the troubles of this life.”
And that, we agreed later in the course of the conversation, was the beginning of the period of Western history in which the focus on repeating over and over in the cold echoing chamber of the high-ceilinged central nave of a Gothic cathedral, “God is Pankrator (Ruler of All)” reverted to the idea that “God is a human being, too.” Piergiacomo added, “The point is that the emphasis of the Renaissance is not that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’—he was quoting Browning, of course—“but that God, as a human being, suffers with us humans, participates in our humanity; that human suffering is thereby redeemed, dignified to the extent that even morte corporale can be nostra sora (i.e., sorella), our sister.” This he said, with my slight adaptation, of course, in a lovely Italian accent. St. Francis himself must have sounded like Piergiacomo, I thought to myself, gentle and warm.
But the title of this blog is not St. Francis’ views on death, but rather “Traveling,” and I come back to that now. For when I am traveling, one of the things I like to do best is to visit my friends on the continent and chat with them about things like the origin of the Renaissance, something I had never before connected with St. Francis. The reason for that is, perhaps, that somewhere in my mind the cautionary words of G.K. Chesterton were still rambling about, for he once wrote of St. Francis, “… it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”
What I think Chesterton is cautioning against is not the importance of the emphasis beginning with St. Francis on all created things being good that Piergiacomo and I were touting as foundational to the notion of humanity that the Renaissance would advance. In any case, such emphasis certainly owes itself much more to the rediscovery of ancient texts than to St. Francis’ memorable declarations about death or Brother Sun or Sister Moon. Rather, I think that Chesterton is railing against those who want to put St. Francis on a pedestal, or more precisely, those who would distort his views about the interaction of man and God. That same group might emphasize St. Francis’ love for animals as a part of creation to the exclusion of his view on redemption and humankind.
Elsewhere in his biography of that saint, Chesterton offers a vivid description of Francis that I think is likely to be precisely right:
“He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.”
As usual, Chesterton gives us more to ponder than we may have wanted. His challenge to his reader is to consider St. Francis not in general, but in particular. And this is the challenge that Chesterton and later C.S. Lewis would lay at the feet of every churchgoer, every human being, to consider God in particular and each person in particular. It is much easier to love the idea of humanity than to love your neighbor.
Which brings be back to traveling, for how can I love my neighbor when I’m journeying such a long way from home? Well, if you’ve been reading any of my other blogs so far, I imagine you may know my opinion about the answer to that question. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell one last story about traveling that might illustrate what I mean.
There once were two couples who went a traveling. One went to a large, impoverished city in Africa and bought bread and carried it with them everywhere they went in case they met any street children there. (As it turned out, they gave a great deal of bread away, and much more than food, as well. Indeed, I believe they would have surrendered their bodies to fire, were it necessary, to help those in need.) The other couple went to some other far more luxurious spot—Hawaii, I think it was—on vacation; that second couple gave money to world hunger relief organizations from time to time, especially when there was a crisis in the news. That same couple felt very good about their donations, and from time to time would tastefully mention their own generosity to their friends over dinner. But they could see no reason to encourage the other couple about their trip to Africa, or to help them in their admittedly limited-in-scope “humanitarian” effort. In fact, they gently rebuked them when they were having lunch together before they left. “You know, it’s a vain effort, you going there. It won’t cure all the ills in the world; you might even come back with one—a disease. Better to give money to some relief organization or something—that’s what we do,” they told the first couple in a well-intended, but condescending way.
The first couple was not taken aback. Rather they might even have expected as much, for they had long before come to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even to understand that Bodily Death, too, is the sister of the moon and sun, and our sister, too. They were not going to Africa to rebuke that sister. They were going to find and help their brothers and their sisters. They did not love the idea of humanity, they loved human beings.
Now I myself did not and still do not understand one thing about the first pair, the couple who actually went to Africa, for I do not understand St. Francis’ idea that death could ever be our sister. I am rather angered by death, with Herculean emotions welling up from deep within. When a friend or family member dies, I feel that something fundamentally bad has happened, something gone wrong in the universe. But that is me, not Chesterton, not the first couple, nor probably the second. But I wax mystical.
Yet I was speaking about traveling. St. Francis’ travels are well known. Now another Francis, a new Pontifex Maximus, to use a Latin (and quite ancient Roman) term, is traveling, as well. He has just left Italy, to build a bridge to the needy, the poor in another hemisphere, one with which he is quite familiar. I will leave Bologna for a different America, the one with which I am familiar, only a few days after him. This Francis is not voyaging to Africa, but to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, countries where life is rife with challenge, where in every valley death casts a long shadow, where there are needy and weeping souls, real people, about whom it seems to have been forgotten by far too many who could care (but don’t) that they are human beings. In his travels the Pope will—indeed, I believe, already has—like St. Francis, bring warmth and love for human beings, not just for “humanity.”
In the meantime, until I leave, Piergiacomo and I will sit by and by, eating Parmesan and raising a glass to TheCurious Autobiography, which he is now reading, and more especially and fittingly a cup running over to both the pope and the saint, whose love for humanity and human beings was and will be, I hope, remembered and, by the time this blog is posted, seen, as well. For our part, we shall consider the importance of the Renaissance again and again, admiring the work of artists, and reading a piece of literature or two—I hear Petrarch beckoning—and, before I leave, perhaps even visiting again Santa Maria della Vita here in Bologna. To the right of the altar of the central nave one can see the masterpiece of Niccolò dell’Arca, his Compianto, a sculpted work that portrays the humanity and pain of human beings in the face of the most horrific death in history, before history could be changed by a single naked act. But the nakedness of that act involves a trip I once took to Estonia, which will be the story of another blog about traveling, a blog I will write perhaps a long time from now.
For more on Renaissance Art, see Artsy’s website and follow your favorite artists. For example, see on Raphael.
Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare, from Michele Faloci Pulignani (ed.). Il Cantico del Sole di San Francesco di Assisi. Foligno: Tipografia di Pieter Sgariglia, 1888, pp. 10–11; http://www.prayerfoundation.org/canticle_of_brother_sun.htm. My translation.
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1986), 70, 29.