The following speech has been adapted and was delivered by Michael Knowles at the Legatus National Summit in Orlando, Florida, on February 11, 2023.
Thank you for having me! It is an honor to be here at Legatus, this esteemed and influential organization of Catholic laymen and laywomen. But it isn’t only the laity here with us today. I know that we are also joined by a number of priests, nuns, and — if news reports are to be believed — undercover federal agents.
Many Catholics have expressed dismay over the recently leaked memo from the FBI outlining plans to infiltrate and monitor certain Catholic parishes, particularly parishes that celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. According to the memo, the traditional Mass attracts radical, violent extremists, which, I think we have to admit, is true. Anyone who has ever attended one of these parishes knows that they are teeming with toddlers. And as the father of a two-year-old and a seven-month-old, I can attest that little boys are some of the most radical, violent, and extreme people on the face of the earth.
Many Catholics disapprove of the surveillance. I, for one, welcome our visitors from Quantico. It’s a great opportunity for evangelization. As far as I’m concerned, anything that gets people through the doors of the church and into the pews is fine by me. Our Lord works in mysterious ways.
That is the topic of this conference: ‘Signs and Wonders.’ It is coincidentally a topic dear to my heart because the very notion of ‘signs and wonders’ played a pivotal role in my reversion to the faith. After about 10 years in the desert of atheism and agnosticism, it was a little book called “Coincidentally” — coincidentally written by the former national chaplain of this organization, Fr. George Rutler — that impelled me, when I came upon it unexpectedly, to return to church. I could speak for probably an hour about the many improbable little signs and wonders that accompanied that moment — as well as the many more fantastical and improbable experiences that took place in the months that followed as I returned to the faith — but the attempt to convey the experience of these phenomena is a lot like trying to describe a dream to a friend: endlessly fascinating to the person who has had the experience and lexical chloroform to everyone else.
The book, “Coincidentally” is full of wisdom on this topic, beginning at the very top of the front cover, which includes an epitaph from Alexander Pope: “All nature is but art unknown to thee; all chance, direction which thou canst not see.” As one opens the cover, on the inside flap, one finds Fr. Rutler’s more blunt observation: “An evil generation seeks signs and wonders, and I am not the first to say it. But a stupid generation ignores signs and wonders.”
A Catholic cannot ignore signs and wonders. The Catholic vision is essentially semiotic. There is no neutrality, no emptiness. Everything means something; nothing means nothing. To a modern man without faith, even the most spectacular miracle can be nothing more than a coincidence. To a Catholic, there can never be any such thing as mere coincidence, no matter how trivial the phenomenon, because we know God governs all things and has ordered the entire cosmos according to his Providence down to the minutest detail.
Hence, the Catholic focus on history. To a modern man without faith, history is just one damned thing after another. To a Catholic, history is allegorical. Every moment in history is pregnant with meaning. False religions and ideologies necessarily distort history. Hindus, for example, deny the linearity of time and instead view history as cyclical. Buddhists, similarly, deny the objective reality of time independent of the human mind. Modern progressives, for their part, pretend to control not only the movement of time, but also its meaning.
The handful of people who watch “Morning Joe” on MSNBC will have observed this fact just the other day when Joe Scarborough’s guest Nikole Hannah-Jones declared, “The arc of the universe doesn’t bend one way or the other. We bend it.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, for those of you fortunate enough to be unaware, is the progressive fabulist behind The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which endeavors to reset America’s founding away from 1776, when the Founding Fathers declared independence from Britain; and away from 1620, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Harbor; and away even from 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue for gold and the glory of God. Jones wishes to reset America’s founding at 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in Virginia, thereby recasting the American tradition as a rotten thing to be rejected.
Modern progressives such as Hannah-Jones accept the linear movement of history. They’re not Hindus or Buddhists; they emerge out of the Western tradition, which is animated by Christianity. But they deny a key aspect of that conception of time: namely, that it is objective. These modern progressives embrace the radical subjectivism that we see in Buddhists. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, history moves forward, but it doesn’t mean anything apart from the human mind. This is why neither Hannah-Jones nor her employers at The New York Times expressed any embarrassment when the central thesis of the 1619 Project — that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery — was refuted by even Leftist academic historians. For these modern progressives, history doesn’t have any objective meaning at all, which is why it can be reset and rewritten at will.
The socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw dramatized this view in a series of plays called “Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch” — that is, his own version of the five books of Moses. In his rewriting of Genesis, Shaw depicts the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tells Eve, “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.” If that line sounds familiar, it’s because it was quoted admiringly by President Kennedy in 1963, by his brother Robert in 1968, and by countless liberal politicians ever since. Kennedy had the unfortunate habit of quoting great writers he had never read. Had he understood the origin of that line, I like to think he would have refrained from celebrating it. Maybe he would have used it anyway. In any case, it tells you quite a lot about the political vision of the people to whom it appeals.
The Christian conception of history — the Catholic conception of history — is quite different. We prefer real things that are to delusions that never were. Christians believe that, while we participate in history, we do not ultimately control it. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” We play our part in the unfolding of events — we cooperate or refuse to cooperate with God’s grace — but history ultimately belongs to God. And while the details might remain obscure to us in time and space, the story is already written, and we know the broad outlines of how it goes. We know how history begins, we know its pivotal event — the incarnation — and we know how, though not when, the story will end. This presents a paradox. In the words of the great Dante scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta, describing the Divine Poet’s vision, “History has come to a closure, but we still wait for the end; the sense of history has been revealed, but we still see through a glass darkly. In this suspended time of history the Church is to speak the word of God and preach the message of the kingdom. The task attendant on the Christian wayfarer, by the same token, is to scrutinize the signs of the times and decipher the figures that God has stamped on the face of the earth.”
We are called to act; but more than that, we are called to interpret. For the modern progressive who denies any objective meaning in history — for whom history is not the unfolding of providence but merely a senseless struggle for power between people destined finally for the dust — only action matters. Hence, the obsession among modern progressives with activism. In a meaningless world, even intellectual activity becomes nothing more than a thinly disguised expression of the irrational will. The New York Times will not reinterpret the history of the United States in light of newly discovered facts. The New York Times will not interpret history at all. It will simply construct a new, baseless story according to the vindictive preferences of a political activist who pretends that she can bend history according to her will.
Christians, in addition to acting in the world, must also interpret it. It is in fact more important that we interpret than that we act, as our Lord himself showed us during his visit to Mary and Martha. Martha spent the visit in the kitchen, preparing and serving the meal; Mary spent the time sitting at our Lord’s feet listening to him. Eventually, Martha became exasperated. “Lord,” she said, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” To which our Lord replied, “‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.’”
Mary and Martha, like our Lord, are real people. They lived in a real place, Bethany, at a real time in the first century. The visit really happened. But history is also allegorical, so Mary and Martha symbolize something too. Martha symbolizes the active life; Mary, the contemplative. Mary’s contemplative life is better. This is not to denounce Martha. Without Martha’s activity, there would have been no lunch. Without Martha’s activity, there would have been no house. We must engage in certain activities, at the very least for the maintenance of our bodies. But more importantly, we must contemplate, interpret, and scrutinize the signs of the times.
So what exactly are these signs? I mentioned earlier that modern progressive people tend not to value or engage in interpretation. That is not entirely fair. They engage in the same rudimentary interpretations we all engage in. When their babies cry, they interpret what the cry signifies: Does baby need a nap, a bottle, or a new diaper? When modern progressives acquire money, they interpret the signs of the stock market to make the money grow. When modern progressives walk out of the house in the morning, they try to interpret the signs from the sky — or more likely the weather apps on their cell phones — to determine whether or not to take an umbrella.
This is probably their favorite set of signs to interpret: the weather. They never stop yammering on about the weather: the temperature and the ice caps and how we’re all going to die if we don’t give a young Swedish woman a lot of money, or something. This is the nearest the modern progressives come to a vision of eschatology.
Our Lord calls us to look for more important signs. In fact, our Lord specifically reveals as ridiculous the sort of people who obsess over interpreting the weather to the exclusion of more important signs. He tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, “‘When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’”
And what is the sign of Jonah? It is the sign of Christ, prophesied centuries before the incarnation. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
This is the pivot of history. It seems almost like a little joke lost on the crowd that our Lord is having with his antagonists. They demand a sign, and he castigates them. He says, “You evil and adulterous generation! You shall not be given a sign — except the sign of Jonah.” — which is kind of a big exception, wouldn’t you say? It’s akin to saying, “You shall not be given a car — except a Ferrari.” “You shall not be given a vacation — except to Hawaii.” “You shall not be given a sign — except for the most significant sign that ever has been and ever could be.”
In the face of this sign, all other signs and wonders seem trivial, including the other miracles performed by our Lord, as St. John shows us in the final chapters of his Gospel. St. John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” I remember my reaction when I first read that verse, which was, ‘Why not? I’ve got time. Don’t keep it pithy for my sake! Why would you exclude any of the miracles that God the Son worked on earth?’ And St. John, naturally, anticipated my reaction because he gives the answer in the very next verse: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Our Lord does not give us signs and wonders merely for our amusement; he gives us signs and wonders to point us to our final end, which is him.
If some of the public miracles performed by God the Son during his brief sojourn on earth do not merit retelling in the eyes of the apostle whom he loved, then the private signs and wonders that we all experience throughout our lives probably don’t make the cut either, right? I don’t mean to belittle these signs and wonders. I’ve experienced many, some of which have transformed my life and still give me goosebumps when I think of them even years later. But I no longer feel the burning need to tell people every time these coincidences occur. I no longer feel frustrated by the difficulty of putting into words these ineffable little glimpses beyond nature.
There have been plenty of public miracles throughout history so people “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they may have life in his name.” The little signs and wonders we are at times privileged to see are for us; we don’t need to call the newspapers over every coincidence. I no longer even feel much need to scrutinize the specific import of these signs when they occur. The bare fact that they occur, it seems to me, sufficiently explains their purpose.
C.S. Lewis gets at this intuition in “The Problem of Pain” when he describes the difference between fear arising from being told there is a tiger in the next room and the fear arising from being told there is a ghost in the next room. In the first case, you feel a sense of fear that the tiger could eat you; in the second case, you feel a sense of fear, not that the ghost will hurt you, but that there are ghosts. In the latter case we perceive, not danger precisely, but the uncanny. And we feel, not fear precisely, but dread. Lewis takes these categories further to include a perception higher still than the uncanny. If one were told that, rather than a tiger or a ghost, there were instead a ‘great spirit’ in the room, one would sense, not the uncanny, but what Lewis calls the ‘numinous’; and one would feel, not fear or dread but wonder: ‘a certain shrinking,’ ‘a sense of inadequacy,’ ‘awe.’
The tiger in the other room focuses your thoughts on yourself: You lock the door, you look for a window, you try to game out how you’ll outfox the senseless beast and save your skin if he comes barreling into the room. The Great Spirit, on the contrary, turns your thoughts away from yourself and puts them entirely on Him, against whom you are no match and whom you cannot even comprehend. This is the point of the signs and wonders — of all the signs and wonders: to direct your attention away from yourself and toward the only miracle that ultimately matters, which we see represented on the altar in the Eucharist at every Holy Mass.
There is no shortage of signs and wonders. And yet some people still do not believe. My friend Andrew Klavan put it well in his conversion memoir: “God is not susceptible to proofs and disproofs. If you believe, the evidence is all around you. If you don’t believe, no evidence can be enough.” Those who do not want to believe will write off every sign, every wonder as mere chance.
We see this today among the disciples of ‘Science’ — and I don’t just mean disciples of Dr. Fauci, who calls himself the ‘representative of science,’ the vicar of science of earth — I mean everyone who insists there is nothing beyond natural science. Even when they are presented with scientific evidence, such as the fine tuning of the cosmological constant — that if the cosmological constant differed from what it is by even one part in 10 to the 90th power, life in the universe could not exist — even then, they attempt to explain this fact away by concocting a theory based on precisely nothing: There are, in fact, multiple or infinite universes, and, therefore, we just happen to be in the universe that permits life.
But even this nonsense — this desperate, pseudo-scientific excuse to deny reality — is not a new idea. It is a very old idea, an idea dating back to antiquity that St. Thomas Aquinas mocked in the 13th century. As St. Thomas writes in the “Summa Theologica, Prima Pars,” Question 47, Article 3: “Those only can assert that many worlds exist who do not acknowledge any ordaining wisdom, but rather believe in chance, as Democritus, who said that this world, besides an infinite number of other worlds, was made from a casual concourse of atoms.” It is not that such people do not see signs; they simply refuse to acknowledge their meaning.
The stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger exemplified this thick-headedness when he boasted of the Romans’ superiority over the Etruscans — a boast made, coincidentally, during the very same era in which our Lord walked on earth. Seneca said, “This is the difference between us Romans and the Etruscans…: We believe that lightning is caused by clouds colliding, whereas they believe that clouds collide in order to create lightning. Since they attribute everything to the divine, they are led to believe not that events have a meaning because they have happened, but that they happen in order to express a meaning.”
But the Etruscans were right. Physical phenomena do not exist apart from — and certainly not prior to — meaning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
Meaning comes first, and the phenomena express that meaning whether people wish to admit it or not. But in the face of such intransigence on the part of modern skeptics, one begins to understand why St. John decided not to include all of our Lord’s miracles in his Gospel. He excludes some because we may believe without reading them. And he also excludes some out of necessity, as he explains in the final verse: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Is that a figure of speech? Yes. But it is also literally true. Of course the finite world could not contain an account of our Lord’s miracles. If the world could contain them, it would not be the world, and he would not be the Lord.
Our Lord, in fact, renders obsolete the distinction between the literal and the figurative, the physical and the metaphysical, the symbol and the symbolized. He is both, as are the sacraments that he gives us.
People tend to think of ‘literal’ as meaning the opposite of ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic.’ As I have mentioned before, that literally cannot be true because ‘literal’ refers to letters, which are symbols. This is not just some linguistic trick or glib observation. The fact that even ‘literal’ has a symbolic meaning tells us something about the nature of reality. This isn’t a novel use of the word. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and teenage girls everywhere have long used the word ‘literal’ to mean figurative. It isn’t an error; it is an insight that nothing is without meaning.
It is not the case, as many people today mistakenly believe, that the modern, scientific view of things is objectively true while the religious and symbolic view is merely an interesting representation. They’re all representations. They’re all just models and pictures. Whatever image you have in your mind right now of what the universe looks like is just that: an image. Even according to the most modern scientific models, only 5 percent of the universe is even visible. And whatever picture you have in your mind of the visible universe — the atoms, the protons, the photons, and all the rest of it — that’s not really what the universe is made of. It’s just a picture, and almost certainly not a particularly accurate one at that.
Whatever we picture in our heads is necessarily a representation — scientific, religious, anything in between. That’s not a bad thing. Representations are necessary for making sense of the world. But representations become idols when we mistake them for ultimate reality — a mistake that deceives us into denying the countless, constant signs and wonders with which our Lord blesses us. It is a mistake, worse yet, that flatters us into believing that we alone are the authors of whatever meaning there might be. It is the pretense of the mad scientist in the laboratory, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the lie that we shall be as gods. In reality, that appeal to our pride has brought with its technological trinkets overwhelming disenchantment and confusion — about who we are, what we’re for, and what it all means. “The world will never starve,” as Gilbert Keith Chesterton famously observed, “for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”
Every moment of our lives, ultimately, is a sign and a wonder. It is wondrous that the sun rises in the morning, not because we see a ball of gas in the sky but because the light and warmth of that symbol points us beyond itself to “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”