Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Apparitions and Atheists

Baggini over at the Gardian reacts to a Vatican document on apparitions.
The latest publication of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the body once known as the Inquisition) seems designed to provide cheap entertainment for atheists. "Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations" contains guidelines for deciding whether to validate "apparitions and the revelations often connected with them". While the infidels giggle, those among the theological intelligentsia who insist on the unimportance of superstition for religion and the primacy of practice over doctrines can only despair.
Those two reactions to apparitions are common. One is "giggles." That is not because there is anything to laugh at. It is because they are terrified people won't laugh. It is like a murderer giggling when an eye witness explains that he saw who committed the crime. It is a desperate attempt to discredit someone just because you don't like what they say.

Then there are the anti-supernatural Christians who don't feel comfortable with miracles. They might accept miracles in the bible but they have bought into materialist assumptions. These things just don't happen. Mostly the don't. But when they do they can strengthen our faith. In a society that suffers from a crisis of faith we should not feel we are somehow above these things.
There's little point in rehearsing the reasons why many laugh this off as evidently absurd. In this case, many of the criteria applied to apparitions are perfectly sensible, in so far as the whole enterprise can be seen as sensible. You have to check whether the witnesses display "honesty", "sincerity" and "rectitude of moral life"; that they are free from "psychological disorder or psychopathic tendencies"; that there is no "evidence of a search for profit or gain"; and that the sighting is inspiring "healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit".
So why is there no point in saying why you don't take apparitions seriously? The church is saying all the things that atheists might say. The people might be lying. They might be untrustworthy. They might be after money. They might be crazy. If there is evidence that is the case then don't pay much attention. But if there is no evidence of any of those things then what is the reason they can "laugh this off as evidently absurd." The reason is their dogma. They believe this can't be real not based on evidence but based on their personal faith in an atheist world and life view. But they don't want to admit that is their source of knowledge. That would be quite awkward. So laughing is in order.
What's more interesting are the subtler paradoxes of faith that are found in those key tests which maintain the authority of the church to determine truth and doctrine, paradoxes thoughtful believers are well aware of. Sound witnesses are those who show "habitual docility towards ecclesiastical authority". Any revelations offered by apparitions must be of "true theological and spiritual doctrine and immune from error". It is negative evidence against a sighting if any revelations offered in it contain "doctrinal errors attributed to God himself, or to the blessed virgin Mary, or to some saint in their manifestations".
Not all apparitions are real. Some might be someone's pious imagination. One way we can know something is not real is of it makes God seem to contradict Himself. God does not do that. This goes back to Deuteronomy 13 and 18 about false and true prophets. 
Herein contains what we might call the paradox of revelation, which is confronted by any organised religion that is based on revelation, in whole or part. As its meaning makes clear, you can't have a "revelation" that tells everyone what they already know. The supposed revelations of God to humanity through Christ, or the word of God to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel, had the power they did because they indicated new truths, new directions for followers.
This is a false choice. Either a revelation repeats what we already know or it contradicts what we already know. But most things are not known with certainty. Our Lady of Fatima telling us to pray for Russia is a good example. They would not have known the spiritual significance of what was going on in Russia at that time without her telling them. But it did not contradict anything the church taught.

The appearance of Gabriel to Mohammed is a good example the other way. Mohammed claims Gabriel told him Christianity was all wrong. For example, that Jesus was never crucified. So the church would reject that. Either you believe Mohammed or you believe the church. They both can't be right.
However, having established a religion on those revelations, the teachings revealed through them become non-negotiable, and the ecclesiastical authorities become the arbiters of their interpretation. And so that means no further revelation is admissible if it contradicts what is already believed. Revelation of radical new truths, if accepted as real, thus makes future revelation of radical new truths impossible. To put it another way, what was absolutely valid for the establishing of a religion becomes by necessity invalid once it already exists.
This depends on whether you are looking for a new religion or a radically altered religion. This document is not being addressed to people like that. It is addressed to Catholics. Catholics expect God to work through His church and consistent with the way He has worked in the past. So when we process new revelation we interpret it in that way. That is true of new scientific discoveries, new theological ideas, and new supernatural revelations. It is not going to change the faith as it has already been revealed by Jesus through the church. Jesus is God so nothing and no one can correct Him on anything.
This isn't trivial. Although the Catholic church exists to further God's will on earth, the criteria set out by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith make it impossible for the church to accept God's will as being anything other than what they already believe. So while in theory entirely subservient to God's will, God's will actually turns out to be subservient to that of the church.
But you are assuming Catholicism is false. We don't. Jesus is God and is, in a way, bound by what He has said so far. He claims to never lie and never be mistaken. But these are things that describe God more than bind God. God is not love because He said so once and now He can't get out of it. That is just His nature and He revealed it to us. That means we reject any doctrine that contradicts that.
The Sacred Congregation comes so close to seeing what is wrong with this. It says that we must, in assessing the veracity of an apparition, take into account "the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation". All it needs to do is take into the account that the church might indeed be such a subject and it would realise it is too fallible to judge the truth of revelation by comparison with what it already believes.
The church is fallible except when she isn't. I don't see any contradiction between believing  there are valid apparitions and believing the doctrine of infallibility. If you believe in the law of non-contradiction, which almost everyone does, then you would reject revelations that are self-contradictory. But you could still be open to revelations that are not. There is nothing about apparitions as a mode of revelation that contradicts it. But the content might or might not. If it does you have a choice. Reject the apparition or reject your previously held belief in the law of non-contradiction or Catholicism or whatever.
A religion that has a place for revelation therefore must not be dogmatic, sure that it knows God's will. Organised religion, however, is not very good at achieving this required level of open-mindedness, perhaps because it requires a severe restriction of ecclesiastical authority. This runs counter to the baroque institutional hierarchy of the church, which in this case gives different levels of authority to ordinaries, the regional or national Conference of Bishops, the Apostolic See and the universal jurisdiction of the supreme pontiff can intervene. Divine revelation has become the property of a very human collection of committees and experts. The irony is that if God agrees, the rules humans have made for validating his revelations mean that he would not be believed even if he told us.
This is startling inability to grasp the facts. He is the one who has a dogma against apparitions. The Catholic church is open-minded. It isn't open minded about all things but about the possibility that God might and has worked in this way it is very open minded. It is not surprising because the evidence that true apparitions have occurred is so strong. The surprising thing is that atheists can ignore what evidence and reason tells us and still proclaim themselves to be the rational ones.

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