The stories in our narratives
Grow stranger in re-telling—
Man, you should have seen the fish that got away!
And a parent’s tale of family lore
Can often be compelling—
You’d have seen it, if you hadn’t slept that day!
They promote a faith in fantasy
They should, perhaps, be quelling
So they see their child’s thinking led astray
But it seems to serve a purpose:
It’s the Catholic faith they’re selling
So a miracle’s a miracle, ok?
It’s always fun reading Father Longenecker’s stuff from Rome–“Of Miracles and Atheists“:
Miracles and atheists don’t mix. They are oil and water.
A religious person and an atheist discussing miracles is like two people playing tennis on adjacent courts. This is because the religious believer and the atheist start with two very opposite basic assumptions. The atheist assumes that miracles can’t happen because well…miracles can’t happen. In other words, he believes that the natural order is closed. The laws are set. They can’t be altered. That’s that.
Well, close, Father. The fun part is in testing that assumption. What are the laws? How well do they explain our observations? They are descriptive, after all, and subject to change if we find better ones. If something we observe systematically and consistently violates those laws, we have to change the laws (think Newton and Einstein). The laws are not held by faith; they are not assumptions, but conclusions, and always provisional conclusions (even when we are very confident in them).
The atheist admits that there are strange phenomena–that there are unexplained events, but he would say if there is something that we can’t explain it’s because we haven’t learned how that part of nature works yet. He does not want to admit the existence of God because he thinks the Christian God is the “God of the Gaps”–the supernatural being people usher in when they can’t explain something.
The believer, on the other hand, thinks God does interact with the natural order and that he has a right to do so from time to time because he made the natural order and he can interrupt it if he likes. The ordinary believer thinks that God and angels interrupt the natural order to do good things like heal people, protect them from danger and provide for them in time of need–and sometimes they interrupt the natural order to do strange things that help people to believe in them like answers to prayer or stigmata or angels appearing to people or incorrupt bodies of saints.
So, yeah, believers see miracles all the time. But Fr. Longenecker isn’t gullible:
I believe in miracles. However, I am critical of those believers who are too gullible and too ready to proclaim a miracle when there may be a perfectly natural explanation. In this attitude I am simply being a good Catholic.
This is the Catholic position: we believe in the supernatural and we believe in miracles. However, we also only proclaim a miracle as a last option. We look for every natural explanation first. We consider natural explanations, psychological explanations and natural psychic explanations. We expect there to be a natural explanation and only when there is not other way to explain what has happened to we open up the possibility of a miracle.
According to the official Catholic view, therefore, most “miracles” have a natural explanation. Many cases of healing, for example, which some claim to be miraculous are probably due to human suggestion, the power of the mind and faith and belief over matter, and the support and positive power of human love and friendship.
He goes on to list some possible natural explanations for stigmata. Skeptical guy, Fr. Longenecker. Just ask him. He is going to explore every possibility before giving up and concluding “it was a miracle, unexplainable in any other way”.
However, sometimes there are other occurrences which cannot be explained in any other way than a miracle. Here’s one: One night when I was a young child asleep in the back of the car my parents were on the way home from leading a youth group. They were traveling down a country lane only wide enough for one car. Steep banks rose up on either side. They crested a hill and saw another car speeding down the lane towards them. They knew as they went down into the next dip in the road the oncoming driver would not see them. There was nowhere to go to the right or the left and no room for the two cars to pass. My parents said later that in a split second what they feared was upon them. The other car was in front of them.
They braced for the head on collision. My mother said she could see the terrified face of the other driver. Then it was over. They looked out the back window of the car to see the tail lights of the other car receding into the distance. My parents were both very sane and spoke about this in a matter of fact way. The two cars went through each other, or time was suspended or one car (or both) de materialized.
Given the laws of nature, there is no other explanation than what we would call a miracle. Furthermore, my parents’ story is not the only story like this. I know of at least two other instances amongst my friends, and when you tell a story like this immediately half a dozen other people step forward and share similar experiences. Even allowing that some are deluded, that there were other explanations or that some were exaggerating, there are enough stories from enough reliable, sensible and sane people to conclude that something miraculous took place.
As described, the laws of physics were suspended–and that would truly be miraculous. But didn’t Fr. Longenecker specifically mention “psychological explanations”? There is no violation of physics needed for devout parents to see a miracle in a near-accident, and to embellish the story in the retelling. This is an incredibly low bar for a miracle, but it is Fr. Longenecker’s open-and-shut case for divine intervention.
It is true, atheists and Catholics (he says “believers”, but he paints with too broad a brush) have very different views of miracles. (Actually, I would argue that his beef is with naturalists rather than atheists, but no matter.) But here’s the thing: the Catholic church’s use of miracles as evidence in the process of canonizing saints means they are trying to play on our tennis court (to borrow Fr. Longenecker’s metaphor from earlier). And if they wish to play with evidence, they have an obligation to treat it properly. Skeptically. Critically. And they might want to look to the people who work with evidence for a living–scientists–to see how this particular game of tennis is played. Because you can have a lot of fun when you take the net down and ignore the foul lines, but when you do, you’re not actually playing tennis.