Hey, Are Those Real Miracles?

April 22, 2009 | 22 comments
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It happens every year. I’m walking past the library, or some other building loaded with windows, and one of my students bursts out the door and runs toward me with eyes dilating, hair frazzling, nerves fraying, arms waving, and body quaking to ask, out of breath, did these things really happen?

“Things” referring to the miracles and visions we have been reading about in the sixteenth-century autobiography assigned that week.

What the student means is this: did the miracles or visions happen in an objective sense, so that if I or other witnesses would have been there we would have seen them too? Or was the author just Nuts? For how else to explain that she saw Jesus everywhere she went, including at the breakfast table?

The autobiography in question this year was written by Ana de San Bartolomé, a Spanish nun who lived from 1549 to 1626 and who toward the end of her life, at the behest of her confessor, put down her spiritual odyssey on paper. Or in Mormon lingo, she wrote her personal history.

A lot of other nuns and mystics did the same thing, including the most famous authors of this genre, St. Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola. Most are chock full of visions and miracles and the otherworldly—which makes perfect sense when you understand that the point was to show God at work in their lives. But students, including Mormon students, are puzzled about how to read them. More specifically, they want to know, were the fantastic events described “real?”

My job isn’t to answer that question, of course, but to suggest approaches to such accounts, and especially to draw approaches out of the students. After all, I’m not sure that my reading is any more right than theirs. I’m also not sure, after years of exposure to such accounts, that the “reality” of the miracles or vision is the right question to ask, at least in the way “real” is usually understood.

It’s a perfectly understandable question, of course, for people of various backgrounds. I asked it myself when I first read some miracle stories, because I had learned when young, through word or cultural osmosis, that the heavens were closed until around 1820 and that most people before and even after that date thought the same thing. It didn’t take long to figure out that more than a millennium of Catholics certainly did believe in miracles and visions, but still, they couldn’t actually be “real,” could they?

My early response was similar to what my students still go through, though they might be a little more inclined to view such experiences as “partially real.” As in “partially true,” or a “portion” of the truth or the spirit. Just not the full deal. Just God granting a tiny sliver of light to keep people going until the full light emerged. (I’m not guessing here, as this is the idea that initially prevails in the discussion of such readings.)

When I was a student, I began to open up to the idea that other believers’ claimed encounters with the divine might be just as real as my own, thanks largely to an old religion professor at BYU named Burt Horsley. He must have been 65 or 70 by the time I took his class on Christian History, but he had a mind far more supple than those of his overwhelmingly returned-missionary students, and a grounding markedly different from that of other religion professors I’d known. For he calmly responded with contrary evidence whenever some student confidently pronounced that only someone holding the priesthood could possibly receive a genuine vision, or whenever someone scoffed at the claim that the bones of Peter might actually lie in St. Peter’s in Rome.

His openness to the reality of the experiences of other-believers was reinforced when I started reading for myself thousands of claimed miracles from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, especially when I read them in their original handwritten form. Such documents were produced in mountainous quantities by the Catholic hierarchy, which went to a lot of trouble and expense to interview witnesses, doctors, and the alleged beneficiaries of every claimed miracle and vision because the Church wanted believers to believe only in the “true.”

Sorting out the true from the untrue was trickier than it might seem. It came to focus on distinguishing between events that had either natural or supernatural causes. Yes, nature too was a miracle, said Augustine, for it was created by God, but when God worked through the ordinary course of nature most experts regarded Him as working only indirectly. What we have come to call miracles involved events in which God could be said to work directly, or in other words, supernaturally (“above nature”).

This is where the Church’s investigators devoted their energies when they went about judging claims of direct divine intervention: was it real or unreal, natural or supernatural? And it’s also the approach that still dominates today, including for Mormon students, even if they don’t see any juridical process at work around the miracles people claim in their own culture. They still want to know: did the event really happen (in an objective sense) and was its cause divine?

But maybe there’s a better question to ask about claimed miracles. While writing a book about miracles, I came across the work of a Catholic psychologist named J. H. van der Berg, whose 1956 book Metabletica offered something beyond the usual “natural” and “supernatural” dichotomy.

Such an approach was unsatisfactory to him because understanding of what is “natural” changes all the time, thus changing as well understanding of what is “supernatural.” Moreover, this approach tends to severely limit the number of miracles and visions regarded as genuine, as possible natural explanations can often be found. In fact, of the hundreds of thousands of miracles claimed over the centuries, only a small fraction have been judged as genuine.

Better, argued Van den Berg, is to regard a miracle as a sense of nearness to God—and that sense is inherently highly subjective. It does not fret about an objective and scientific distinction between nature and super nature.

In other words, the reality of a miracle or vision does not lie in the thing observed, but in the observer.

To illustrate he uses an example from the French writer André Gide, who as a child went walking in a valley with a young girl; at a certain moment he lost sight of her, but then suddenly she stepped from the trees into the meadow, and with the light shining on her face in such a way as she smiled that suddenly for Gide the valley was filled with love and happiness. Someone else walking past the valley might have looked and seen merely a geological cleft in a geographical landscape. But Gide saw something else that to him was absolutely real, and that made him feel God.

That miracles are rooted within us rather than in God (for again according to Augustine nothing is a miracle to God) is confirmed, according to Van den Berg, in Jesus’s saying in Mark that he could do no miracles in Nazareth, for no one believed; he didn’t say he would not do them, or that he would do miracles and people just wouldn’t see them, but rather that he could do no miracles.

This helps to explain why there will never be consensus as to whether this event or that is a miracle or not: because the miracle depends on the viewpoint of the person looking. And it’s not merely about faith—yes, you must believe in a miracle to see it, but how you believe also matters. For people believe in different ways, and God speaks to them in their own language, according to the Book of Mormon.

Which means not only that God may speak to people in ways we find strange (Balaam’s ass, anyone?), but that the way God speaks to us is strange as well.

And if our miracles and visions are strange, and subjective, but real, then there is no reason that the apparently strange encounters of a Spanish nun in the sixteenth century were any less real.

The key is whether a person feels the nearness of God, and who but the person can judge that? Maybe we feel it in silly ways sometimes, or fool ourselves into thinking that this or that is God. But we learn from such experience and perhaps find the nearness more easily as we go.

Maybe this highly subjective approach is also inherently wishy-washy: “then people can claim anything as a miracle or vision!” This is certainly how I feel sometimes listening to claimed miracles in church, when I start longing for the sort of juridical process that would greatly restrict such claims. But then I remember Gide, and the boy in the magical valley in France. And I think of Emerson’s insistence that a true religious experience must be an original religious experience—thus your own encounter with God, not someone else’s encounter with God.

By the end of the discussion, most students have come to this conclusion themselves, and the distress has abated. Until the next interesting time around.

22 Responses to Hey, Are Those Real Miracles?

  1. Mark Brown on April 22, 2009 at 9:59 am

    To bring this all a little closer to home, let’s think of the visions of Joseph Smith in these terms.

    We know that the Smith kids all shared a bedroom, but none of the others report being visited by Moroni that night. And it is worthwhile for me to wonder if I had chanced to be in a certain grove of trees near Palmyra on a certain Spring day if I also would have seen the Father and the Son.

  2. J. Stapley on April 22, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Mark, the Improvement Era in the early 20th century even raised the idea that the first vision might have been just that – a vision.

    Craig, what is your volume on 16th and 17th miracles in Catholic Europe? Most my reading has been on the Protestant side of the miracle debates (Shaw’s volume on the English Enlightenment is excellent), but I would like to read on the Catholic side. Does the zeal for documentation stem from the Catholic desire to evidence their primacy over Protestant cessationism?

  3. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Mark, when crowds gather at Catholic shrines in anticipation of an upcoming vision, some do claim to see a vision, and others don’t; and those who don’t therefore claim it false.

    J., my book is called Miracles at the Jesus Oak, and it focuses on Catholic miracles from that time. The zeal wasn’t so much about the production of documents, but to investigate and hold up true miracles in the face of Protestant attacks. Catholics didn’t mind defending miracles they thought were genuine, but they hated cases that were considered fraudulent, or the result of gullibility, thus all the investigations to sort out true miracles from false. Catholics certainly believed in miracles more than Protestants did (though Protestants continued to have miracles of their own type) and so it was a distinguishing feature between them.

  4. Hunter on April 22, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Fascinating post, Craig H. Thanks.

    Like you, “I had learned most of my life through word or cultural osmosis that the heavens were closed until around 1820.” However, isn’t there another way of reconciling the competing claims? Couldn’t the “Catholic” visions/miracles be real in every sense of the word (i.e., not just “beholden by the beholder”), without taking anything away from the Restoration? I suppose that’s not exactly the point of this post, but I really wanted to ask it. I’m just wondering if part of your answer to your students isn’t, “Well, they certainly could be.”

  5. Kari on April 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    All miracles are subjective. Anyone can claim a miracle. It’s up to us to accept or reject those claims based upon nothing more than “faith” and “belief.”

  6. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Hunter, maybe it’s possible to say that both the Catholic and the Mormon were real, in the objective sense, but I’m not sure how that wouldn’t “take something away” from one of them. Maybe that’s what induces the stress in students, at first. But maybe the subjective approach can take something away from each too. That’s not the point though, of Van den Berg, which is to increase the sense of the divine. I’m not sure what the “they could be” refers to in the last clause of your comment, sorry.

  7. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Kari, I’d say that Van den Berg’s main point is not to fret about accepting or rejecting another’s miracle but to find your own.

  8. Hunter on April 22, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Re No. 6: “I’m not sure what the “they could be” refers to in the last clause of your comment, sorry.”

    I should have asked, “I’m just wondering if part of your answer to your students isn’t, “Well, [the sixteenth-century miracles] certainly could be [objectively real].” Sorry.

  9. DavidH on April 22, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    “Couldn’t the ‘Catholic’ visions/miracles be real in every sense of the word (i.e., not just ‘beholden by the beholder’), without taking anything away from the Restoration?”

    I do not have any problem believing this and believing that the miracles were from God.

    “The idea that with the Crucifixion of Christ the heavens were closed and that they opened in the First Vision is not true. The Light of Christ would be everywhere present to attend the children of God; the Holy Ghost would visit seeking souls. The prayers of the righteous would not go unanswered.”

    Boyd K. Packer, “The Light of Christ,” Ensign, Apr 2005, 8–14

  10. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Hunter, as I said in the post, I’m not positive that my approach is right. But it’s been more satisfying than the other.

    DavidH, of course Van den Berg would go further and say that the divine is always present in the same measure, and the degree of nearness you sense is up to you.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on April 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Craig, I think Van den Berg’s is a useful framework for introducing students to a new way of thinking about miracles. The question of objective empiricism is an especially unhelpful way to approach early modern accounts of miracles precisely because the entire notion of objective empiricism is a modern artifact; the witnesses themselves would not have understood the objective/subjective heuristic as a way to describe their experience. But it seems to me that Van den Berg’s framework is ultimately a modern construct, as well: the radical individualism and relativism at its center would probably not have made sense in an early modern context, do you think?

    When it comes to contemporary accounts of miracles, I think Van den Berg’s is a helpful way to preserve an atmosphere of tolerance, if that is one’s primary objective. But I don’t think it’s particularly helpful if one is deciding whether or not to shape one’s worldview and behavior around claims rooted in a miraculous experience. In other words, Van den Berg’s is a useful framework for people to whom miracles are ultimately not very important.

  12. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Rosalynde, well that is a way to look at it. I don’t agree that it necessarily means miracles aren’t important, in fact I think it does just the opposite. I don’t think his point is to promote tolerance, but to expand the meaning and reality of miracles. Is there a way to look at miracles that isn’t constructed? I don’t know one. And is a constructed method inherently without meaning? I don’t think so.

    As for whether early modern people might have understood them this way: I don’t think they would have. And most of how I approach the past is in fact rooted in the notion of seeing past people’s point of view. The book I wrote is dedicated to that, in fact. But my point here is, once that task is accomplished of finding past meaning, making sense of them today, especially for a believing Mormon kid.

  13. Aloysiusmiller on April 22, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I think that there had to be some manifestations of the spirit to keep Christianity from spinning completely put of control. The genetic differences of Mormon and Catholic doctrine are clear and significant but the commonalities are also huge.

  14. Craig H. on April 22, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Agreed, Aloysius, but Van den Berg’s approach argues that there weren’t just “some” manifestations of the spirit, if by that you mean in the sense a “portion” of the spirit, or “occasional” graces by God, but rather a constant nearness of God that was up to people to see.

  15. Aloysiusmiller on April 22, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Some, many, whatever it takes.

  16. Nate J on April 22, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I think that people in all different faiths have had and do have genuine encounters with God which could be termed miracles. These experiences logically lead people to assume that their beliefs about God are correct (a large portion of which probably are). But then the thorny issue arises regarding which church, if there must be only one, has the power to save. This, to me, is the reason why revelation is so important. People of all faiths (and people of no faith) have spiritual experiences in which they encounter the divine. But in order to figure out which church has the correct doctrinal foundation and the power to save we must be able to ask God a specific question and receive an answer. However, many people believe that their previous spiritual experiences are the answer to that specific question.

  17. Rameumptom on April 23, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Thanks for the great post. I believe that people receive miracles according to what they are ready to receive. Alma 29:8 tells us that God deals with everyone in their own way. I do believe many Catholics and others saw miracles, because they believed they occurred. And they saw saints and virgins often, because that was the basis and focus of their faith.

    Meanwhile, many Protestants did not receive any such visions or miracles, because they had put away such “childish things” and focused on obedience and strict observance of the Bible teachings (in their own view).

    Even for Mormons, God reveals to us as we understand. The way God reveals himself to me today is very different in some ways than how he did it 30 years ago, when I just joined the Church.

    Nephi and Lehi had the same vision of the Tree of Life, but saw differently. Nephi notes the filthy river (wadi), but Lehi did not notice its filth, because he was focused on other things. Since they had different questions, the vision was different for each of them.

    But as you stated, it was real to them as the observer.

  18. Craig H. on April 23, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Thanks for comments, which remind me of comment 1 again. I think more LDS now are willing to take seriously the experiences of other-believers than when I was growing up (at least based on my surely selective memory). What varies is how seriously they take them—are they equal, or a scrap from the table–and whether they’re willing to regard them as legitimately as their own.

  19. Hunter on April 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Great post, and loved the comments. Thanks everyone.

  20. bfwebster on April 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

    And because [Christ has ascended to the Father], my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men. For behold, they are subject unto him, to minister according to the word of his command, showing themselves unto them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness. — Mormon, writing about 350 AD (Moroni 7:29-30)

    I think there have been plenty of miracles throughout history among those “of strong faith and a firm mind.” In fact, I would argue that they may well have been more common after the splintering of the early Christian Church and before the Restoration, because the sincere and faithful were operating without access to priesthood keys and other blessings of the restored Church and thus needed more direct (and miraculous) intervention from God. ..bruce..

  21. Kirsten M. Christensen on April 24, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Craig — many thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’ve been an admirer of your scholarship for years (in fact, _The Burdens of Sister Margaret_ is on the table beside me…. It is a great read.) Very interesting to read your thoughts about your work from within the context of your faith.

    As a medievalist at a small Protestant university who occasionally has opportunities to teach mystical and visionary texts, I have also seen students struggle with the ‘real’ question. Although, for most of my students, there is probably not as much at stake as LDS students probably perceive there to be (i.e. if these things _did_ happen, what does that say about what I thought was true?), they still want to know how to understand them, particularly the more outrageous or bold ones. (The 14th-century German sister books, for example, with their descriptions of a Christ who showed up regularly in the convent, appearing to sisters at all times of day and night, as a baby, boy and man, and everywhere from the choir to the kitchen, always make for unusually lively discussion.)

    Although I haven’t read Van den Berg, I suppose both my students and I have inherently used his approach, on some level, mostly out of respect — i.e. who are we to claim something _did not_ happen? As Rosalynde says, his approach is useful for creating space for tolerance. In the intro to his book _Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism_, Moshe Sluhovsky describes encounters with the supernatural as “always intersubjective, always interior, and always not accessible for external scrutiny” (7), and I suppose this is also the foundation on which I teach — that we cannot determine their realness anyway, so that should not be our goal.

    As a literary scholar, I think I’ve mostly been able to avoid the drama of grappling with real-ness (at least in the classroom) by focusing on the rich textuality of the accounts I teach, the constructedness you describe. As you say, though, ‘constructed’ needn’t equate to ‘without meaning.’ I do always feel the question of whether the described events _could_ have been real lingering in the room over the head of at least one student, although good feminist outrage at the lengths (both literary and bureaucratic) to which the women had to go to get their texts ‘out there’ in the first place often dominates discussion.

    A few years back, when I was teaching at Notre Dame, discussions of miracles, visions and even mortifications of the flesh were met with an interesting openness. I recall one discussion, in a freshman seminar, on Henry Suso’s _Life of the Servant_, esp. the graphic descriptions of his various self-torture techniques. Although some students found them disgusting, I recall one student saying that he understood the body-spirit connection Suso was experiencing or working toward and that he didn’t see it as strictly medieval. This student then told us that his roommate was wearing small rocks in his shoes throughout Lent that year as a way to better understand Christ. Although there were a few eye rolls and at least one comment about how weird that was, I was impressed at the thoughtfulness and at least seeming lack of judgment of most of the students.

    I found myself wishing for similar lack of judgment when we had a group of LDS students come to campus on their way back from a Church History tour. (This happened annually, at least for a while.) They were interested in seeing Notre Dame’s famed campus and meeting with LDS faculty and students (only three of us on the faculty, students mostly graduate) and to learn what it was like to be LDS in this Catholic environment. There was a Q/A session, then we took them on a tour of campus, including a visit to the grotto, a stunning spot on campus (esp. at night), beloved by students and visitors as a place for reflection, designed to replicate the shrine at Lourdes, where Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette.

    As one of my LDS colleagues led the tour and described the historical context of the grotto while pointing out the statue of Mary, the students closest to me scoffed quietly and one of them said (I paraphrase): “They actually believe that?” It was all I could do not to say, “Well, _we_ actually believe that God himself appeared to a 14 year-old boy in upstate New York! Imagine how _that_ sounds to outsiders!” Mostly I wish I had had the opportunity to say that we have nothing to fear and much to learn by acknowledging that the divine can be made manifest in many ways, in many traditions. And we can acknowledge that and still believe that authority and correct doctrine have been restored within our particular tradition. I hope your students appreciate the opportunities you are offering them to know this.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  22. Craig H. on April 24, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks Kirsten, that was very interesting, and the response at the grotto fairly predictable (not that every Mormon kid would react that way, but that it’s what you would guess might occur; lots of my students along in Paris were pretty respectful of the religious sites we visited, however).

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