The play--"Incorruptible," by Michael Hollinger--is a dark comedy set in the Dark Ages. All the action occurs inside a monastery in Priseaux, France, where the bones of St. Foy are on display--bones that have failed to produce a miracle in over a dozen years. The monks, their faith and finances failing them, embark on a mercenary plan to save their order: digging up bones from their churchyard and selling them as holy relics.
My character is, arguably, a monk who never had any faith to lose. The heir apparent to the abbot, Brother Martin sees the churchyard scam as a natural extension of what he does every day: make a living by peddling lies. At one point early in the play, the abbot and another monk are urgently hoping the Pope will see through a deception that sidetracked his planned trip to Priseaux. Brother Martin asks, "Why would he?" When they answer, because it's the truth, Martin dryly declares, "If the truth were always apparent, we'd be out of business."
Martin lives in a community looking for God. But where are they looking? The villagers have sick cows and sicker spouses, and so they turn their eyes towards the bones of St Foy, hoping for miraculous healings. When none come, their faith withers. Jack, the one-eyed minstrel, has begged and prayed to have his sight restored to his mangled eye (the result of an occupational hazard: juggling knives). But now, after years of unanswered prayers, his faith is gone.
Brother Martin, too, is in his own cynical way focused on miraculous healings. In his case it's because miracles (or the appearance of miracles) bring pilgrims, and pilgrims bring money. And the monastery is in rather desperate need of money. Others are readily caught up in Martin's way of thinking--or, more correctly, drawn down by it.
By "miracle," all of them mean a Deus ex Machina solution to their troubles--a breach in the regularities of nature that helps them achieve their desires. For all of them, this is what it means to believe in God: It means there is a power beyond the world that--if you pray hard enough, with enough faith--will break into the regularities of nature and, with cymbals and trumpets, take away some cause of pain or restore something lost.
Today we turn to technology to solve our troubles: medicine to heal the sick, pesticides to drive off the locusts. In the medieval world of "Incorruptible," miracles offer the fickle equivalent--and in such a world, the religions that promise miracles are, more often than not, valued simply to the extent that they can deliver on that promise. Such religion depends for its credibility and its survival on a cymbal-and-trumpet God who shatters the ordinary patterns of the world, perhaps in the form of an "incorruptible," a saint so holy that, in death, her body refuses to decay. Such religion relies on signs and wonders--or, in their absence, on the capacity to fabricate the illusion of one.
The contemporary purveyors of so-called "ID theory"--those who search through the annals of modern biology looking for some "irreducibly complex" organic structure that just can't be explained by the mechanisms described in evolutionary theory--are also, in their own way, placing their bets on this cymbal-and-trumpet God. And if they can't find their miraculous protein or organ, then there's always the Museum of Creation and Earth History to fabricate slick illusions.
What they all exemplify is one way to be religious, one way to conceive of what it means to believe in the divine. Hungry for miracles, they ignore the taste of chocolate and only shout the name of God when the chocolate drippings form a likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Miracle-seekers embody a species of "God of the gaps" theology. But they don't just believe in the God of the gaps. Their eyes are glued to the gaps, committed to the reality of gaps, disappointed when gaps are closed, disillusioned if they cannot find enough gaps for God to fill. A miracle isn't a miracle unless it's a gap, unless it's an inexplicable violation of the order of nature.
I'm reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admonition to those who "use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge." In Bonhoeffer's words, "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved." To see the presence of God in something is to experience it as miraculous. And when we restrict our understanding of the miraculous to the inexplicable, we leave God out of the rest of our lives--the majority of our lives. God becomes caulking in the wall, rather than the home in which we live and breathe and have our being.
The poet and scholar Frederick Turner makes a similar point, in a Dallas Institute lecture, when he says, "It is easy to deceive ourselves that something strange, something supernatural, is happening, as we know well from accounts of flying saucer enthusiasts, superstitious cultists, and ghost hunters. But perhaps our greater danger, our greater credulity, lies in deceiving ourselves that something strange and marvelous is not happening."
We stare up at the star-littered sky, waiting for fireworks. And when the ephemeral sparks don't come, we hiss and walk away, disappointed and disillusioned under the ceaseless stars. Fixated on the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the gap, we cannot experience the miraculous in the seamless beauty of the world. Our quest for miracles shuts out the miraculous in an ordinary day, an indrawn breath, the smile on a beloved face.
The problem for those monks in "Incorruptible" isn't that their saint's bones have failed to perform a miracle in recent memory. Their problem, rather, is that the miracle of existence eludes them. Caught up in the trials of life, the pain and loss, the worry for the future, they have lost sight of being itself, the unutterable mystery of what we take to be routine, the unfathomable depths that lie beneath the problems that have been solved.
This is what Schleiermacher had in mind when he spoke about "the intuition of the infinite in the finite," or that constant, unrelenting inkling that existence as we know it has a "whence."
There is the religion that clings to the promise of extraordinary miracles--violations of nature's laws that we imagine vividly and long to see. And then there is the religion that arises out of the experience of the world all around, when its miraculous character rips through the humdrum of life, lifts us out of our skins, and grants us inklings of truth beyond imagining.
Or in the more poetic language of Kahlil Gibran,
…if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather, look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the clouds, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending rain.
You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.