I’ll be talking about miracles today. Also religious art and kitsch, the Mayan apocalypse, and why folks occasionally see faces that aren’t there. Even by my standards, this post rambles a bit.
Quite a few folks act as if they think faith and reason, religion and science, have about as much to do with each other as cheese and Wednesday.
Some go a step further, and blame the world’s woes on religion.
The antics of loudly-religious folks don’t help make faith look like a reasonable, or safe, part of today’s world.
I think faith isn’t reason, but that it’s reasonable. I also think that an honest search for truth doesn’t threaten faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 31–35, 159; “Fides et Ratio;” “Gaudium et Spes,” 36)
Folks have been talking about faith and reason for centuries:
“…Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity…”
(“Cartias in Vertitate,” Pope Benedict XVI, (June 29, 2009))
“…Another threat to be reckoned with is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy….
“…Regrettably, it must be noted, scientism consigns all that has to do with the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary. No less disappointing is the way in which it approaches the other great problems of philosophy which, if they are not ignored, are subjected to analyses based on superficial analogies, lacking all rational foundation….”
(“Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998))
“…man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such person, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.”
(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Smith (1822))
“If Reason seems to have any Power against Religion, it is only where Religion is become a dead Form, has lost its true State, and is dwindled into Opinion … If therefore you are afraid of Reason hurting your Religion, it is a Sign, that your Religion is not yet as it should be, is not a self-evident Growth of Nature and Life within you, but has much of mere Opinion in it.”
(“The Way to Divine Knowledge,” William Law (1762))
“…Now one who has faith can be enlightened in his mind concerning what he has heard; thus it is written (Lk. 24:27,32) that Our Lord opened the scriptures to His disciples, that they might understand them. Therefore understanding is compatible with faith….”
(“Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 8, Article 2 (ca. 1265-1274))
Some things are “miraculous” without being miracles.
And some “miracles” aren’t miraculous: they’re just “wonderful or surpassing” examples of some quality.
The Miraculous Medal, for example, isn’t miraculous. It’s an oval bit of metal with a particular design stamped on each side.
For folks who know what it is and what it’s for, it’s a sacramental.
Sacramentals like the Miraculous Medal can help me cooperate with God. (Catechism, 1667–1673)
Or I can watch a movie, read a book, whatever. I’ve got free will. (March 5, 2017)
Art for the Rest of Us
Religious art ranges from masterpieces like Strasbourg Cathedral’s rose window to breathtakingly cheesy Jesus junk.
Most of us don’t have the purchasing power of folks like Lorenzo de’ Medici, which may help explain the high kitsch/masterpiece ratio. I like kitsch, some of it. (July 4, 2017)
Ever since folks like Currier and Ives started mass-producing “colored engravings for the people,” most of us can have art in our homes.
Currier and Ives sold over a million affordable pictures before the company closed in 1907.
These days, places like the Philadelphia Print Shop offer original Currier and Ives prints for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $8,000. And that’s another topic.
Those rosary beads “GLOW in the Dark,” according to their product description. But they’re not “miraculous,” even in the “wonderful example” sense. Not today.
I don’t know who made the first luminous plastics. The earliest glow-in-the-dark collectibles I found are from the 1950s.
That hasn’t kept some outfits from advertising religious items that “miraculously glow in the dark!” I don’t mind folks making and selling ‘religious’ stuff. I’m not particularly pleased with how it’s occasionally marketed.
An ad I saw on television, many years back, was particularly egregious.
The product seemed nice enough. It was like a small kaleidoscope, but without mirrors. A lens at one end enlarged a picture at the other. Think a monocular View-Master, with only one image.
I don’t remember what the picture was: something like a Bible verse, or maybe a Biblical figure. The toy might have made a good stocking stuffer.
That’s not what etched the commercial into my memory. It was the product’s description.
A woman’s voice, with an excitement usually reserved for hawking psychic readings and painkillers, extolled the virtues of this “miraculous” product and its “miraculous” picture.
I have no idea how many viewers thought it really was “miraculous.” What still bothers me, a little, is that an advertising agency thought the ‘it’s a miracle’ approach would work. Sadly, some folks with sincere religious beliefs also seem to be profoundly gullible.
Harold Camping, End Times, and the Mayan Apocalypse
It’s been about six years since Harold Camping made headlines, and several million dollars, predicting End Times.
I might enjoy watching America’s recurring End Times Bible Prophecy nonsense and the secular counterparts more, but some folks take them very seriously.
Lethal results, like the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, are rare. But I don’t think doomsayers do much good, whether they’re selling faith-based prognostications or the teachings of Ehrlich.
‘True believers’ aren’t always yokels like Non Sequitur’s Eddie. A television producer was among Camping’s followers.1
My favorite End Times prognostication, in terms of showing imagination, is still Swedenborg’s. In 1758 he announced that the Last Judgment had happened: from January through December, 1757.
He said it was “in the spiritual world,” so nobody’s likely to disprove the claim. (“Heaven and Hell,” 45; Swedenborg (1758))
Lots of folks announce End Time Bible Prophecies: with the main event somewhere in the future. Swedenborg’s is the only one I know of who claimed it had already happened.
I think he gets points for originality.
Christians aren’t the only ones with apocalyptic predictions. Heaven’s Gate was a UFO religion. It apparently got started after its founders read parts of the King James Bible and science fiction stories.
Doomsday predictions invoking climate change aren’t usually listed as “apocalyptic” — maybe because quite a few prominent folks still take Ehrlich and Malthus seriously.
I think there might be more support for environmental issues if the rhetoric was turned down several notches. (August 11, 2017; July 14, 2017; August 12, 2016)
In the years leading up to 2012, an assortment of New Age, ancient astronaut, and other folks got excited about a rollover in a Mayan Calendar.
By the time the hoopla ended, we’d gotten a movie, “2012;” an X-Files episode; and 2012-themed tours in Guatemala.
Like many dire predictions, the 2012 Mayan calendar excitement made unwarranted assumptions about something that actually exists. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is real, and so is the a 5,126-year-long cycle that got folks excited.2
We use a base-10, or decimal, numbering system; so some folks in my culture got excited around years that were even multiples of 1,000. The Y2K bug — is yet another topic.
Using our Brains
The “miracle of the peanut butter” gag started August 6, 1992, when Dogbert saw a news item about someone seeing a face of Saint Theresa in a can of varnish.
A few folks seem convinced they saw the face of Jesus or a Saint “miraculously” appear. Others see similar faces, think it’s interesting, and take a ‘wait and see’ attitude.
Oddly enough, the face isn’t always in a jar of mayonnaise: or peanut butter, as Dogbert claimed. The two ‘face of Jesus’ news items I found, from 2014 and 1987, involved a piece of chicken and the side of a freezer.
I suspect more than a few of the ‘face of someone’ perceptions happen because the human brain is remarkably good at recognizing faces. Sometimes even when the face isn’t there.
Pareidolia is the five-dollar name for it. Parts of our brains are wired to recognize faces before we’re aware of them.
I don’t doubt that some folks sincerely believe they saw a miraculous face. But our brains aren’t entirely hardwired. What we decide to accept is up to us.
As I keep saying, we’re expected to think. (Catechism, 1762–1775, 1776)
God gave us brains. Using them makes sense. (February 26, 2017; July 29, 2016)
Sometimes God Loads the Dice
One time our Lord told a crippled man to get up and walk. That’s not a miracle. I could do the same thing.
What flabbergasted folks in Capernaum was that the cripple got up and walked.
He couldn’t do that before. (Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26)
That was a miracle.
I think miracles happen. When they do, it’s for a reason. Sometimes it’s God’s way of saying ‘yes, it’s really me: now pay attention.’ (Acts 2:22; Catechism, 156, 515, 547–549, 2003)
Accepting miracles does not mean I expect God to perform tricks on cue, so I can impress my friends and neighbors.
That sort of thing strikes me as more than a trifle impertinent.
When I say something is a “miracle” in the Catholic sense, I mean the event is something entirely outside the normal operation of nature and natural forces.
“MIRACLE: A sign or wonder, such as a healing or the control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power. The miracles of Jesus were messianic signs of the presence of God’s kingdom (547).”
Outright miracles aren’t the only sort of sign folks expected from God. A footnote to Exodus 3 discusses ‘signs’ seen as a display of the power of God. Almost any phenomenon could be a ‘sign,’ if the context showed that it was from God.
One way I think of it is to imagine rolling dice. If I roll snake eyes once, I’m lucky — or not. If I roll it twelve times in a row, there’s something unusual about the dice or the situation.
I don’t expect to be on hand during a “Biblical” miracle, one of those very high-profile interventions familiar in Hollywood’s Bible Epics. Those films are another reason I don’t miss the 1950s, and that’s yet again another topic.
The Bible covers highlights from something like 3,000 years of recorded history, plus a few oral traditions that are much older.
We had a cluster of miracles during the 40 year trek out of Egypt. Some of those may have been ‘loaded dice’ situations. But if so, Moses was rolling snake eyes. Consistently.
There was another cluster while our Lord was here, about two millennia back. Let’s say that one lasted 33 years.
Taken together, it’s about 73 years when miracles were happening a lot. During most of the other 2,927-odd years of our history, leading up to our Lord’s arrival, not so much.
Faith and Reason, Science and Religion
I don’t see a problem with accepting miracles and that thinking that science is okay. Science and religion, faith and reason, get along: or should. (May 7, 2017; May 21, 2017)
And that’s still another topic: one I keep discussing.
Bob Kurland’s view of miracles, from his Reflections of a Catholic Scientist:
Some of my take on miracles and using our brains:
1 About Harold Camping’s End Times campaign:
“Okay, I have a serious bone to pick with the news media.
“It is being widely reported that the evangelical Christian broadcaster whose Judgment Day prophecy went embarrassingly unfulfilled on Saturday has explained that he miscalculated, and the actual Apocalypse will happen later.
“So my question is, why are we even still quoting this man? Why are we spreading his hogwash?
“In my book, he’s moved to the very, very bottom of the list, under every other person on earth, when it comes to credibility about Apocalypses, yet here we are running stories about his newest prediction.
“Really? How many chances does he GET?
“And while I’m on the subject, a ‘miscalculation’ is like when you leave too small a tip for your waiter, and so he beats you up in the parking lot.
“It’s NOT the word you use to explain why you got sad, gullible people to rearrange their lives around going to heaven….”
(Oddly Enough, Robert Basler)
“…Follower Jeff Hopkins also spent a good deal of his own retirement savings on gas money to power his car so people would see its ominous lighted sign showcasing Camping’s May 21 warning. As the appointed day drew nearer, Hopkins started making the 100-mile round trip from Long Island to New York City twice a day, spending at least $15 on gas each trip.
“‘I’ve been mocked and scoffed and cursed at and I’ve been through a lot with this lighted sign on top of my car,’ said Hopkins, 52, a former television producer who lives in Great River, NY. ‘I was doing what I’ve been instructed to do through the Bible, but now I’ve been stymied. It’s like getting slapped in the face.’…”
(Associated Press, via FoxNews.com)
2 More about Mayan calendars, as seen by historians and astronomers: