Monday, September 02, 2013

A Protestant scholar on the miracles at Lourdes

There is no more comprehensive work on the credibility of New Testament's account of miracles (e.g., Jesus'), than the two-volume monograph written by Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

Keener, of course, is a Protestant. Yet one of my favorite aspects of his book is his treatment of the miracles at Lourdes, the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared (vol. 2, pp. 675-686).

Scholars have long turned to Lourdes as a stunning example of well-documented instances of miraculous healings. A great treatment can be found in John P. Meier's work. Meier writes that even though numerous cases have been certified by impartial medical examiners as inexplicable (1,300 between 1948 and 1993) only 18 have been recognized by the Catholic Church as legitimately “miraculous” (cf. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:528, n. 528).

I won't reproduce the whole section but Keener has numerous reports, including ones from non-Catholic sources (e.g., a Methodist source).

He concludes with the following:
Whether one feels free to count the religious context at Lourdes affects one's interpretation of the results. One scholar skeptical of supernatural approaches readily grants that the healings occur. He affirms that "some utterly extraordinary cures" have occurred there 1, noting that enemies of the Catholic Church and leading medical scientists like Alexis Carrel have been persuaded by the data.2 He concedes that some cases cannot even be explained psychosomatically;3 among examples, he lists "the instant healing of a terribly disfigured face, and the instantaneous healing of a club foot on a two and one half year old child," showed by non-Catholics to be permanent. Further, he cited a news article about a three-year old with terminal cancer and the bones being eaten away; after the healing, even "the bones in her skull grew back. Her doctor, a Protestant, said that 'miracle' would not be too strong a word to use."4

Yet this same scholar notes that scientists can reject the supernatural interpretation at Lourdes by suggesting that some sort of naturalistic interpretation would arise if only we had sufficient evidence. The collocation of natural factors in this case might occur together only one in ten million times, he argues, but, because he assumes the miraculous impossible, must have occurred here.5 Scientists need autonomy to do their work, he insists, not having to wait to see if theologians will pronounce some event miraculous.6 Some theologians might wish to retort that they need some autonomy to evaluate miracles without the theological premise of their entire discipline being ruled out by thinkers committed to antisupernaturalist assumptions. The scholar's antisupernatural assumptions in this case have made a fair evaluation of the data impossible.


1. Citing Malcom L. Diamond, "Miracles," Journal of Religious Studies 9/3 (1973): 311 [307-324].

2. Citing Diamond, "Miracles," 312; Keener writes: "he notes on 313 that scientists 'unanimously' concur that these healings take place there."

3. Citing Diamond, "Miracles," 312.

4. Citing Newsweek, Aug. 9, 1971 and Ruth Cranston, The Miracle of Lourdes: Updated and Expanded Edition by the Medical Bureau of Lourdes (New York: Image books, Doubleday, 1988), 227-246.
5. Citing Diamond, "Miracles," 314-315, 323.

6. Citing Diamond, "Miracles," 321.


Anonymous said...

Faith is a gift that knocks on the door of the mind, sometimes the knock is a miracle. The terminally skeptical -- whom I call the cynical -- never open the door. I can't help but wonder if it isn't out of fear -- fear of the upset in their lives; fear of having to give an accounting for their lives to a higher power. This kind of fear is at heart a kind of pride, a refusal to humble oneself before the possibility of the infinite. And, so I am put in mind of -- I believe it was C.S.Lewis who said it -- that hell is given to souls who would find the presence of God too painful to bear, revealing as it would the emptiness, the lack of love, that has filled them, and would cause them pain to view.

And, so, Lourdes -- like the miracle of the Shroud of Turin, and the tilma of Guadalupe -- serves as a kind reminder of God's sovereignty over the natural order to the faithful; and as a "conviction" for those who, out of free will, still refuse to believe in anything higher than their own egos.

Nick said...

I don't see the refusal to believe in God or miracles as materialism or anti-supernaturalism, since we Catholics don't believe in the alleged miracles of Mohammad, since we are not obligated to believe in miracles except those in Divine Revelation, since we don't believe in God based on proofs but based on God being Love and Truth, since we do not assume the existence of ghosts but consider doors closing themselves as the simply the wind, since miracles are external proofs of Divine Revelation and the Grace of God (not simply virtue) is needed to believe Divine Revelation, and since the God of the Bible is the God of Nature: there is no incompatibility between prudence and charity, reason and faith, science and philosophy, or the Universe and Divine Providence.

Howard said...

@Nick -- Contrary to what you imply with "we Catholics", you do not speak for the Church. The possibility of "lying miracles" worked by demons -- for instance for Pharaoh's magicians or the Antichrist -- has long been accepted. (I think you are right, though, that Christians have rarely believed that the so-called miracles of Mohammed were even that real.) Likewise, you will not find a definitive teaching against the possibility of ghosts, though (unsurprisingly), a serious Catholic treatment is quite different from what can be seen in the popular media.