Sunday, December 12, 2010

Liar, lunatic, Lord ... or legend?

“In all my life,” C. S. Lewis wrote in the opening paragraph of Miracles, “I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves it after seeing it. She say that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.”

I remembered this paragraph after I first read of Emile Zola’s encounter with the miraculous. The defiantly atheistic journalist went to Lourdes, announcing that he wanted to see a miracle, even so small a healing as “a cut finger”. What he did see was a woman cured so thoroughly of lupus that patches of skin were still slightly red from healing. Zola was so horrified at the sight of a woman he had seen badly disfigured now whole and healthy that he turned away: “I cannot look at her; she is still too ugly.” He later stated that he would not believe in miracles even if confronted by all the miracles ever recorded.

These two incidents were brought back into my mind by a discussion on Father Z’s blog about the miraculous healing attributed to the intervention of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (“Talking Eagle”), the Aztec peasant to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared, and to whom the tilma which bears her icon belonged. Or at least to whom she is supposed to have appeared and the tilma is supposed to have belonged.

You see, the apparition is supposed to have taken place in December 1531. However, until 1995 the oldest known records of the apparition, and thus of Juan Diego, had been published in 1648 and 1649, one hundred years after his death; Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, who figures prominently in the story, mentioned nothing of either in his voluminous extant correspondence. So glaring was the gap in the record that the prevailing historical opinion held that Juan Diego never existed, like St. Christopher, which brought his fast-tracked cause for canonization to a halt.

Then a picture-book codex suddenly appeared in the possession of Fr. Xavier Escalada, a Jesuit writing a encyclopedia of the Guadalupe story, which appeared to date back to the sixteenth century and to have been signed by Antonio Valeriano and Bernardino de Sahagún. The lack of provenance for this evidence, combined with its suspiciously providential arrival, caused many scholars to reject it as a pro-canonization forgery just on principle alone. I’m almost certain that Fr. Escalada’s ordination in the Society didn’t help matters much.[1] Nevertheless, Ven. John Paul II, who wanted to canonize an indigenous Mexican—who canonized more saints than all of his predecessors combined—seized the opportunity the codex afforded to give the green light to Juan Diego’s cause, and declared him a saint in 2002.

What do I think?

The image on the tilma is fascinating, rich in symbolism, and is reported to have characteristics such that—like the Shroud of Turin—if it were a natural product of human ingenuity it would be more baffling and inexplicable than as a genuine miracle. Again like the Shroud, even if it’s a genuine miracle it wouldn’t conclusively prove Catholicism true … but it would be highly suggestive evidence. (Particularly suggestive is the fact that it still remains mostly intact long after it should have decomposed.)

As a Catholic, especially as a Knight of Columbus, I love and revere the Blessed Virgin Mother. However, I have no deep personal commitment to Our Lady of Guadalupe, even as an American with some roots among the conquistadors. I would like the story of Juan Diego and the miracle of the flowers to be true; it wouldn’t kill my faith to learn it was false.

But the tilma had to belong to someone; why couldn’t it have belonged to a pious Aztec convert named by his own people Talking Eagle? And why couldn’t that pious convert have had a remarkable encounter with the Theotokos on that winter’s day so many years ago? If there’s no evidence for it, there’s also no evidence against it, save for the silence of Zumárraga, which isn’t necessarily conclusive. I don’t need to believe St. Juan Diego existed; but I don’t need to doubt it, either. Either way, the tilma still exists.

But this points out the curious liberty a Christian enjoys that is unavailable to the so-called freethinker. My faith starts with acceptance of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but leaves me free to doubt Guadalupe and Medjugorje if I have reason to do so. But because the freethinker begins with a presumption that rules out a Being capable of producing miracles, he can’t accept a miracle per se without undoing his whole system of thought. It must be something the universe is capable of producing on its own, or it must be some kind of human hoax; it can’t possibly be evidence of the Divine. I don’t have to accept every miracle reported, but he has to deny every last one … even if, like Zola, it happens right in front of his eyes.

In the last post, when we were discussing the inerrancy of Scripture, I brought up the recent discovery of Hebrew writing that dates back to the Davidic kingdom, and how it affected Jewish culture. About thirty-five years ago, a liberal Anglican bishop, J. A. T. Robinson, had a crucial insight: None of the books of the New Testament mention the Roman-Jewish war of 68-70 AD. While the Gospels record Jesus making prophecies that scholars have said refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during this war, none of the evangelists refer to it as a prophecy fulfilled … not even Matthew, who seemingly never missed a chance to point out even the least likely prophecy. This curious absence from the NT, like the dog in the night of the Sherlockismus,[2] is remarkable because of the gravity of the event it omits, like Zumárraga’s failure to mention the miracle of the roses.

Now, I said last week that the Jews weren’t illiterate rubes who depended solely on oral tradition for their education; the Old Testament doesn’t exhaust the totality of the Jewish literary world as it existed in 30 AD. Jewish education centered on the male’s ability to read the Law by the time he turned thirteen and became bar mitzvah, even if it didn’t require him to learn how to write. Most Jewish men throughout European history—at least, until the last eighty years—could read Hebrew; they often could read other languages, even if they were written in Hebrew letters, and often enough when written in the letters of the language. Saint Paul was not only fluent enough in Greek that he could quote poets but could also write Greek letters, though apparently in a childish scrawl. Of the 350 citations of the Old Testament in the New, 300 come from Greek translations. We have extant manuscripts of OT books paraphrased in Aramaic (called targums); many scholars believe that by the time of Jesus’ ministry Hebrew had become the mostly-dead “liturgical language” it would be until the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Why, then, do many liberal and skeptic scholars want to assign late dates to the Gospels and many of the letters of the New Testament? Simple: bad, agenda-driven scholarship. The later you can date the individual books of the New Testament, the better the pretext for dismissing whole chunks of it as legendary accretions to a misty historical core. You no longer have to content yourself with Jesus the merely human itinerant preacher; you can stuff him on the same shelf as King Arthur, Gilgamesh and Achilles. The contention that the first disciples were frauds willing to suffer and die for a hoax doesn’t stand up to much careful scrutiny, so you have to push the written record as far away from the actual events as you can without introducing naked anachronisms, like having Pope St. Clement I (r. 88?-97 AD) refer to letters of Paul that hadn’t been written yet.

Many atheists have been driven to calling Jesus a legend in order to escape the difficulty the gospels place them in, which Lewis summarized as a trilemma of “liar, lunatic or Lord”. However, of the four options the “legend” answer is the least credible, for it depends the most on begged questions, ahistorical assumptions and chronological snobbery. It’s a sure sign of irrationality when people find themselves driven to vociferously deny assertions it isn’t even necessary to doubt.

Like the existence of St. Juan Diego and the miracle of the flowers.


[1] Although my own experiences with the Jesuits were mainly positive, they have a slightly shady reputation among certain Catholics as theological liberals. Among anti-Catholics “Jesuitical” is synonymous with “deceptive” and “manipulative”, which is both unfair and uncharitable; whether it is undeserved, however, is another matter … one that I’m not prepared to discuss.
[2] In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”, the owner of the missing horse asks Holmes if there is anything to which he wishes to draw their attention. “To the curious matter of the dog in the night,” Holmes replies. “The dog did nothing in the night,” the owner objects. “That,” Holmes points out, “is what’s curious.”