One point Bynum continually makes in this chapter is that the mysterious occurrences (real or imagined) elicited reactions from people. In the section “Change as Threat and Opportunity”, what sorts of questions do miracles raise? How can you relate this to the concept of “thing power” that we discussed in “Vibrant Matter”?
In the section, “Change as Threat and Opportunity,” of Bynum’s chapter on “Matter and Miracles” miracles do indeed present a number of questions because matter is so powerful, or was deemed so powerful. The large question Bynum mentions is: “If things were always coming to be, were they not also always passing away?” (239). This question derives from issues of miracles’ physical presence. In addition to that questions of miracle’s, as those made from the matter of saint’s or Christ’s bodies, the purity if left on Earth rather than go transcend into heaven also appear. The big question seems to be: “God cannot change; how then can matter, if it has been impregnated by the divine?” (240). There is this idea that matter of the divine or miraculous should be just as pure and incorruptible as God and heaven, so the issue of transubstantiation and miraculous objects becomes questionable due to nature of their being as a metamorphosing thing. Some reconciled this notion with the idea that “holy matter was a means of access, not itself divine” (240). This relates to Bennett’s idea of “thing power” in that these miraculous objects may not be of the divine but their presence and significance people place on them allow them to have an impact, even on a miraculous level.
This section of the chapter notes that “materiality needed to be controlled conceptually and ecclesiastically. Church authorities and theorists could hardly tolerate a world in which anything might erupt at any moment” (240). It seems that the Church authorities were not comfortable with matter having too much power. Because of this they attempted to “direct attention to the God who operated through” the material relics. In this way they put the power material things seemed to have in miracles and places it solely in the divine power, thus demoting the matter into a “means” through which the divine power is revealed and not a thing with power in and of itself. Matter’s ability to change was put under the control of the theories of theologians and contained “as much as possible without denying the ability of God to act supra-naturally” (241).
These mysterious occurrences, whether real or imagined, hold agentic capacity in the affect they create in the masses. Miracles are an interesting phenomena in that they are as much a threat to the established religious order as they are an opportunity. Miracles become a spontaneous eruption of divine power outside of clerical control. There is a randomness here that implies a lack of control, an instability in the ‘real’ nature or power of ‘things’. My own instincts would beg the question of where miracles end and magic begins, and how religious personal negotiate the difference. That too, is where the threat of the miracle is evidenced. Because there is potential threat, there is simultaneously and subsequently a potential for opportunity. To take control of the miracle and to appropriate it within the religious framework, the unexplainable becomes a tool to ensnare and to inspire awe. As Elizabeth mentioned about the transient stability of God as pervasive and everlasting, the threat of the miracle is rooted in the then suggested instability of matter. If we adhere to the perspective of vital materialist ‘thing power’ then the miraculous and transforming object has both a positive and negative affect within the religious assemblage. As Cohen spoke about the neutralizing capacity of the assemblage, so the appropriation of miracle works to shush the mystery of objects whose matter is unstable and compromised and to therein utilize the awe-inspiring affect of miraculous objects to create an opportunity for (real or imagined) divine materiality.