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The Testimony Of The Holy Water Flowers

Wesley J. Smith writes about what appears to have been a small miracle at his church last year. [1] I can attest to the fact that his photo wasn’t faked; I saw it last year, shortly after the event it documents. In fact, though Wes and I have never met, we were party to a similar kind of thing during Lent last year, I think it was. Our mutual friend Frederica Mathewes-Green had sent both of us a cotton ball into which oil of myrrh streaming from what is believed by many to be a miraculous icon of the Virgin [2] had been captured. The cotton came in small glass vials, a keepsake from when the icon visited Frederica’s Orthodox parish.

One day, Frederica, who lives near Baltimore, noticed that a bunch of beads of myrrh appeared on the inside of the vial where her cotton ball was stored. They had not been there before, and nobody had opened the vial. She soaked other cotton balls in olive oil and put them in similar vials, to see if they would bead up. Nothing. She mentioned it to Wes, who lives in California, and Louisiana-based me. To our astonishment, we examined our vials, and found the same thing, which neither of us had observed before in those vials. Three people in three different climates, experiencing this at the same time. It abated after a few days, and I’ve never seen it again.

Was that a “miracle” in the sense that it was something that cannot be explained naturally? I don’t know. I don’t really care. My faith doesn’t depend on this being true or not. I believe it could have been; I believe miracles, both big and small, are possible. I regard them as a sign of God’s constant presence, a reminder that we are not alone. Maybe there’s something more meant to be communicated by these events. I don’t know. I think one should cultivate a general attitude of skepticism, simply to avoid being misled, as I have been in the past when confronted with things like this.

But there’s skepticism, and there’s skepticism. There’s a certain kind of person who would dismiss the Holy Water and the Flowers as meaningless because it doesn’t happen every time you put flowers in Holy Water, and therefore cannot be scientifically verified (never mind that the essence of a miracle is that it is a temporary suspension of the ordinary laws of nature). There are others who would dismiss it because if God worked miracles, then something as trivial as this is not the kind of miracle He would work. “Why doesn’t He cure cancer? Why is He fooling around with flowers on an altar?” they say. The answer is: I don’t know. I do know that the Creator of the Universe not acting in ways that make sense to me is not evidence that He hasn’t done so.

And there are some scientists and scientific types who purport to be open-minded, but who are as epistemically closed to data that violate their belief structure as religious people are. Wes Smith writes:

According to the meme, religious believers reject science if it conflicts with their faith. But science also has its prejudices. Steven Pinker and his wife Rebecca Goldstein recounted in a Salon interview [3] their refusal to explore a potentially supernatural experience:

Q: I know neither of you believes in paranormal experiences like telepathy or clairvoyant dreams or contact with the dead. But hypothetically, suppose even one of these experiences were proven beyond a doubt to be real. Would the materialist position on the mind-brain question collapse in a single stroke?

PINKER: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, if there was no other explanation. We’d need to have such clear evidence. I have to tell you, I’ve had some uncanny experiences. Once, in fact, I had a very strange experience where I seemed to be getting information from a dead person. I racked my brain trying to figure out how this could be happening. I did come up with an explanation for how I could reason this away . But it was a very powerful experience.

“How I could reason this away.” Rather than being open to all possibilities—with potentially uncomfortable ideological implications—Goldstein fled from grappling with a mystical experience that might undermine her worldview. How is that fundamentally different from religionists rejecting a scientific hypothesis out of hand because it would materially challenge their faith?

Smith says there is a middle ground between total credulity and its opposite. Read his column for more. Here’s a thought question for the room: What evidence would convince you that your belief system — religious/supernatural, or atheist/materialist — would be wrong?

I’m not asking something like, “What would convince you that Christianity is wrong?” It is entirely possible that Christianity is wrong, and that theism itself is wrong, but that a world of spirit exists.

I am, of course, a Believer, and at this point, I can’t imagine anything that would make me believe in a purely materialist model. I have had too many personal experiences with the miraculous and the supernatural to believe otherwise. I don’t know why I have had these things happen to me, but most people I know have not. But they did happen, and in at least two of the most dramatic instances, I radically changed my life in response, because I could not explain them away.

But that’s me. What about you? Is there anything that would falsify your belief? If your belief cannot be falsified, as mine cannot be, then by Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle [4], it qualifies as faith, not science. If it is not possible to falsify materialism — that is, if there’s no possible evidence that would convince you to abandon a purely materialistic view of the universe — then, ironically, you have made a religion of materialism.

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110 Comments To "The Testimony Of The Holy Water Flowers"

#1 Comment By VikingLS On January 26, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

MH Well honestly I can’t speak to a great degree on what Anglicans believe, not being one. However I think an observation of contemporary Episcopal practice would suggest a pretty wide difference in attitude from Calvinism.

Now having said that, if you’re stuck in the idea of damnation as a form of divine punishment you’re not getting it.

I presume with the angelic fall that Lucifer and his followers genuinely believed that as powerful spiritual beings they really could overthrow God. I wasn’t there and I don’t really know how the mind of an angel works so that’s speculating on my part.

As to mankind’s evolution. At some point we became self-aware, aware of God and the universe and developed a sense of good and evil which to our knowledge animals don’t possess. The forbidden fruit was the knowledge of good and evil, and subsequently shame, guilt and moral fear despite residual animal urges that lead us to want to engage in instinctive behavior that our higher faculty of reason knows perfectly well are harmful to ourselves or those around us. That’s falleness.

The “whole double predestination thing” alone is not a small break with Christian tradition nor are total depravity, the doctrine of the elect or irresistible grace.

If you’re not willing to acknowledge that I don’t think you’re discussing in good faith, which I think is a bit out of character for you.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 26, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

VikingLS, I’m not trying to argue in bad faith about how much of a departure John Calvin took. Obviously he took the concept of omniscience and omnipotence to their logical and hopefully absurd conclusion. But it’s not like his theology is completely off in left field either. It was built on a core of Christian thinking and when I read what other Christians believe it seems like they have more in common than not. That commonality that really stands out as compared to something even more different like Mormonism, or even further afield like Hinduism.

Now both of us come from a background that had Calvinist roots, and it’s safe to say neither of us are fans of it. So I can see why you might chafe at my seeing the commonality while you see the differences. But you are a Christian so you might be more attuned to the difference between your denomination and the Calvinist ones, while I am not. I tend to see it as a series of box checks for every point in common. God yes, Jesus yes, sin yes, substitutiary atonement yes, etc.

I also think it is safe to say that I spent most of my time in Sunday school and church not getting it. I think I’m a reasonably intelligent person and what was presented seemed contradictory and unclear to me. Asking questions wasn’t exactly welcomed either and that sort of behavior tends to peg my BS meter. So in the end I concluded that I couldn’t believe it because it just seemed to hopelessly muddled to me.

But obviously you came to an entirely different conclusion so it must make sense to you.

#3 Comment By VikingLS On January 27, 2014 @ 10:18 am

MH

I think you’re trying not to see something that should be obvious.

When you approach pre-Calvinist forms of Christianity the logical way to look at them fresh, not to view them through the lens of a movement that was both developed centuries later and was a self-conscious break with pre-Calvinist forms of Christianity.

If you insist on viewing them through the lens of Calvinism you’re going to bring all that baggage with you, which might affirm your current beliefs but isn’t a particularly good way to understand the actual ideas.

#4 Comment By KD On January 27, 2014 @ 11:40 am

Andy:

KD: “Obviously, the meaning of something cannot be the efficient physical cause of anything” That is not obvious. If what a person experiences as meaning is itself a physical process or structure, then it can be the physical cause of something. It seems like believers often make imaginability a criteria for something being a valid explanation. If you can’t imagine how a meaning could be physical in nature, then it isn’t possible. If you can imagine water turning into wine, then it could be possible. In my view that is elevating your imagination a little bit higher than it aught to be.

Andy, silly boy, obviously something physical in nature can have a meaning, such as a bone used to kill a man in a magical ritual. However, the operation of the bone, how it kills a man, has no explanation in terms of Newtonian physics (in which cultural belief systems are not inputs). The phenomenon of “voodoo death” is not explainable in terms of physics, period. Certainly, if they stabbed the man through the heart with the bone, it would be explainable.

Now does this imply Cartesianism, supernaturalism, etc.? I certainly did not say that. It does, however, rule out reductive materialism and eliminative materialism, because if reductionism or eliminativism were true, then “voodoo death” is impossible (as well as the placebo effect).

And I say it’s obvious Andy, because any intelligent person can study physics at university (like I did) and determine that the laws of physics are not dependent on cultural beliefs. That doesn’t mean that an intelligent person can’t ignore the facts, or deny the obvious. That is precisely what we generally do when we are confronted with something that doesn’t fit in with our pre-existing belief system.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 27, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

VikingLS, I think you are underestimating how differently two people can see things, and how a difference to people within a belief system is more significant than people outside of it.

For example I brought up the issue of how the angelic fall shows how knowledge is compatible with free choice. You wrapped a speculative narrative around it which explains to you how this is incorrect, and this seems perfectly reasonable to you. But to me it seems like a glaring logical inconsistency which I can’t get past. Same with the problem of evil.

Also, when I took a comparative religion class the instructor explained the difference between two sects of Buddhism. Now I’m sure that Buddhist see these differences as important, but to an outside they frankly don’t seem that big. It’s reincarnation, suffering, attachment as the cause, eight fold path, etc. I couldn’t and still can’t see how they were different.

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 27, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

Although thinking a bit more about it. It’s probably true that we always analyze new things in terms of reference points of things we’ve encountered previously. So knowledge builds up like a layer cake. If you could go back and build the layers over from the ground up you might come up with a different set of reference points and a new layer cake.

#7 Comment By VikingLS On January 28, 2014 @ 8:31 am

MH I would not say that knowledge is not compatible with free choice. It appeared to me like you were arguing the opposite. The whole reason that the angelic fall is plausible is that angels as sentient beings have free agency. The “problem of evil” comes down to free agency as well, almost all the evil in the world goes back to human beings making bad decisions.

I think your metaphor of a layer cake is a decent one and it’s what I would ask you to do if you actually want to have an informed opinion.

#8 Comment By VikingLS On January 28, 2014 @ 8:31 am

BTW We once again find ourselves on thread that’s getting buried chronologically so we might want to wrap this up.

#9 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 28, 2014 @ 9:49 am

I was thinking the same thing about wrapping this one up. Next time it might be more productive to focus on where in the layer cake Calvinism interferes with belief systems that came before it.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 28, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

IF the demons in Indiana are real, I sure hope this story is too.