07/8/13

Do you believe in magic?

The question of miracles has been in the news as of late because of the process of granting late Pope John Paul II sainthood.  To become a saint, the person in question has to have performed two miracles, and in the case of John Paul II, these were both posthumous. In one case, a nun praying to the late Pope was reportedly healed of Parkinson’s disease. Of course the case is not without critics, some of whom have suggested that the nun was misdiagnosed in the first place. While the particular case is interesting, I am more interested in the opportunity to reflect on miracles in general.

The term miracle is often used colloquially, but it has a specifically religious context. It denotes an event or occurrence that is not explainable by science and is consequently thought to involve divine agency. The problem with the attribution of miracles is that the first part is often hastily skipped over in favor of the second. I assume that the Vatican has a comparatively more rigorous process of verification than others when it comes to attributions of miracles, but I am doubtful that a little science will stand in the way of sainthood.

I guess I am a skeptic when it comes to science, and some of my skepticism is probably unjustified. Part of it is in reaction to what I perceive is a universalization of science over and against religion, a belief that Science has all the answers. But insofar as science represents our methods of verification for our best course of action in the world, and the methods that are grounded in what we know about the world from the world, I rely on the scientific method as much as anyone.

I heard many stories of miracles while growing up in the church, and I was told I was in the presence of miracles from time to time, but I never saw any myself. And this is not a case of deciding now that what I saw then must not have been a miracle after all. Like many Christians, I imagine, I really wanted to see a miracle for the verification of faith it would provide. I heard many stories from visiting missionaries, including one in which God told a missionary to lick the eyes of a blind woman, and it restored her sight. It was a good story, and I wanted to believe it, but I had no way to verify it.

Our church was also involved in the Toronto Vineyard “renewal” movement in the early ’90s. Several members from our church visited to see the supposed presence of God’s Spirit there, which was accompanied by many miracles, including paralytics rising from their wheelchairs and someone having their fillings turn to gold. Of course, none of those things happened at our church. The best we got were strange manifestations in which people would fall on the floor, sometimes writhe around, sometimes roar like lions, and do other strange things. I experienced being “slain in the Spirit” myself, a part of me wanting to believe, another part knowing I could easily be going with the flow.

Should we really believe in miracles? As early as the third century, a significant part of the growing church was already suggesting that miracles had been reserved for the Apostolic age and were no longer possible in the present. Many Christians still justify miracles in the Bible in the same way. God was doing something special back then that he is not now. This seems overall a disingenuous approach, although there is one thread of explanation that has some truth to it. Some argue that the reason we don’t see miracles in the present—or in the First World as opposed to the Third World—is that we don’t have enough faith. It is true that we have the benefit of advanced knowledge of how the world works, and past or comparatively primitive societies have had a much smaller body of knowledge against which to test to veracity of seemingly miraculous occurrences. However, it does little for religious traditions to suggest that we should be more willfully ignorant.

I suspect, then, that few Christians in the First World actually believe in the possibility of miracles, although few of those would admit to such. And it is possible to believe in the possibility of miracles. Science does not have an answer for all the questions in the universe, nor is it likely to for some time. Yet I would be hesitant, as a result, to ascribe a phenomenon to divine agency. And I don’t think it is harmless to do so either. Belief in miracles, especially when other potential means of assessment are available, can cause significant damage. If one takes, for example, any of the many cases of child neglect in the United States based on religious belief, we can see that a belief in the power of miracles corresponded to a lack of medical attention, attention which in many cases would have saved the life of the child in question.

The liberal Christian will protest, “Well that’s ridiculous! I would never refuse medical care to my children!” But if one believes in miracles, what exactly did those individuals do wrong? Are the rules for miracles that one must do everything humanly possible before praying for a miracle? Or is it perhaps that most do not really believe in miracles but continue to give them lip service? If so, why?

The role of miracles in the Bible is complicated to say the least. Miracles are considered proof of the divine at times, and at others they are considered a weak substitute for faith in spite of proof. I suspect that one of the primary reasons the language of miracles still survives is because we are indefatigably ego-centric. Miracles are used as easy explanation for coincidence. Lets say I’m having a terrible day. It’s cloudy and raining and I’m feeling down, doubting myself and my purpose. I pray and ask God for a sign that he loves me. At that moment, the rain stops and I hear a bird chirping in the distance. I conclude that God must be giving me a sign. When explaining this to someone else, I argue, “How else could it be that at the exact moment I was praying for a sign of God’s love, the rain stopped immediately and a bird chirped?”

I have experienced such conversations myself, and the institutional pressure to attribute such occurrences to miraculous intervention is strong, at least in the Christian context and combined with our egocentrism. Subject to scientific experimentation, however, such a scenario would certainly reveal that when people pray, much more often exactly nothing happens than something happens. Our explanation is the result of our limited ability to think of the world in other terms than revolving around our existence.

I am as willing as others to accept miracles if they fit the definition. A missing limb growing back, with documentation and verification, would seem to fit the requirements. But as the evidence and history of miracles is slim, we would do well to be skeptical. Those who cry “Ye of little faith” are not defending miracles against willful disbelief. Rather, they are defending the fragility of belief against the absence of evidence.

Your thoughts? Why/should we believe (or not) in miracles?

03/15/13

Brief Thoughts on a New Pope

Catholics of the world have a new pope. He is the first pope with the name Francis, the first Jesuit (an order that was on the Church’s bad list in the past), and the first from outside Europe. While these seem significant, they probably are not. They may even seem significant to the institution itself, but to the outside world, little will change.

If there is anything I could be encouraged by, it’s the connotations that the name Francis has for poorer socio-economic classes. It would be significant if the Catholic Church invested more effort in aiding the poor from the top-down. Latin and South American Catholicism in particular has been known in since the latter half of the twentieth century for a commitment to the poor, sometimes becoming the sole voice of resistance against capitalist exploitation that was often ignored by the official Church. It would not be new for Catholics to fight against economic exploitation, then, but it would be new for it to extend beyond words for the Catholic hierarchy. The institution cannot help but perpetuate itself, and this has meant an accumulation of wealth in the upper echelons of the church. There have been rumors that the papal transition was in part due to the potential loss of wealth because of impending prosecution.

It’s interesting to me, though, that we are so enamored by the whole process while holding, at the same time, that the pope really doesn’t matter and that we don’t really care what happens. Is it because we enjoy seeing the ceremonies and trappings of power? Is it only because we think that the pope doesn’t matter that we can enjoy watching people who obviously think he does? Or is it because we are worried that he may matter more than we let on? I am interested in the process, particularly because I can still remember when it took place less than a decade ago. I hold very little hope, however, for this pope being a harbinger for major changes either in the institution or the world.

What do you think? Does a new pope mean anything? Why are we so interested?

02/15/13

The Big Cheese

256px-Pope_Benedictus_XVI_january,20_2006_(2)

Pope Benedict in 2006 – Wikimedia Commons

The big news in religion over the last couple days is the planned retirement of the pope at the end of the month. It’s a windfall for the religious press because they can spin variants of the same stories until at least the end of the month, and probably through mid-March. I particularly enjoy the stories that explore the reason behind the pope’s retirement, even though he stated it was because of age and ill health. Yes, indeed, he could be lying, but he is old, and he probably will die soon, so I’ll take him at his word. Why give up a job that’s given for life? Unless it’s a conspiracy…

The transition process to elect a new pope is not quick, either, so we will have jokes about creative pope names and smoke colors for some months. We enjoy the somewhat mysterious process by which the new pope is elected, but our interest betrays a attachment we have with singular, visible sources of authority and the work we can do with them.

Blame, for example, is much easier with one visible figure at the top. Our presidents rise and fall based on personal charisma and promises to singlehandedly turn the country in a different direction. Yet we have repeatedly seen change fail to take place at the promised speed, if at all. Rather than lose faith in the rhetoric that promises much and delivers little, however, instead we locate the failure in the man himself and think, “Well, the next one will get it done.” It is easier to blame a single person at the top than take on the distributed bureaucracy that is the hallmark of large institutions or assess our own possible responsibilities for making change.

On the institutional note, there also seems to be significant organizational envy of Catholicism, particularly from the Protestant community, from which many of the barbs about the papacy originate. Catholicism is established on an old model, also seen, for example, in the Roman Empire. Despite accusations of rigidity and inflexibility, the system is designed to accommodate a notable amount of diversity and dissent while still maintaining its structure. In other words, a genuine (or even feigned) loyalty to the structure covers a multitude of other sins. Whereas the hallmark of Protestantism has been factionalism, splitting into separate sects over large and small issues, the Catholic Church has maintained largely a singular identity, much to the chagrin of the thousands of Protestant denominations whose structure doesn’t allow for such cohesion. While many have expressed the waning power of the church in the latter half of the twentieth century, it still commands a more globally distributed following than any other religious tradition. Its hierarchy also effectively mirrors the supposed supernatural hierarchy and the way governments have been structured for centuries. The idea of the big man at the top who lays out the rules and may enact punishment if you don’t follow them is more coherent than the idea of your best bud that wants to talk and hang out with you, and wants you to follows the rules but loves you even if you don’t. This sounds more appealing but may create weaker bonds of loyalty.

Problems such as the sex abuse scandals of the last several decades have plagued the Catholic Church. These have destroyed lives and should be taken very seriously. However, I think the demonization of the institution as an evil organization, or the pope as an evil individual, is a cheap and easy way out of a problem. For Protestants, there is a certain hypocrisy that comes with demonization of Catholicism, as it carried the mantle of Christianity for over a millennia. Without the Catholic Church it is safe to say there would be no Christianity. Consequently, the conclusion that they got it wrong all those years before Luther came along and fixed things up is ignorant. For secularists or atheists, I see a great deal of opportunism that rears its head whenever someone in the church makes an error. The vehemence with which many decry Catholicism is an expression of the very same alienation that originally caused many of them to leave the church.

Why not demonize your fellow Catholic for participating in an institution that allows sex abuse to take place? “It’s not their fault,” you might say. Whose fault is it, then? Is it the fault of those priests who take advantage of their position of power? If that is the case, then it is not just the institution at fault. If the institution is partly at fault, for not taking a more aggressive stance against abuse (a statement with which I agree), then there is a shared responsibility—albeit unequal—by all who call themselves its members.

I’ve never been Catholic. However, I did attend Catholic school through the sixth grade and I’ve attended my fair share of masses along the way. (I may have gotten away with one Communion before they found out I wasn’t Catholic. If we were good in mass, though, we got ten minutes extra recess. The motivating power of that promise was huge.) I enjoy the strong emphasis on ritual and the rich symbolism that is part of a long-standing tradition in contrast to the paucity of ritual in evangelical traditions. A couple summers ago while in Nice I visited several churches during my walks around town and was astonished at the beauty and majesty of the architecture, both inside and out. Few Protestant structures can compete with such grandeur, which adds to the believer’s experience in the same way other rituals do.

I am not a proponent of supporting the Catholic or any other church, necessarily, although I’m invested in the complicated history of Christianity and the effect it has had on Western society. I guess I’m arguing in part for more civility in discourse. Mockery, debasement, and generalizations are comparatively ineffective in coercing change, and for most of us who are indirectly connected to the issues at hand, it would be better to approach religion more even-handedly. It’s something I often have difficulty with, but try my best to do. In addition, we should be willing to confront our own share in the institutional structures in our social world and either be at peace with them or see our shared responsibility to change them.