Critique of "An Evening with a Miracle Man"

by Niels Christian Hvidt

Dear Mr. Claus Larsen,

More than 2½ years have passed since we met at the occasion of one of my conferences in Denmark and you subsequently published your report. I did not feel the need to reply to it, but have learnt from Ole Hartling, Chairman of the Danish Council for Ethics, who was kind enough to establish this contact, that you were surprised I did not contact you and I thought you might like to know the reasons.

I remember the conversation we had following the conference. I recall dedicating more time talking with you and your colleague than with anyone else present who wished to talk to me as I could see that the issue was important to you. I remember us splitting with the conclusion that we came from two different backgrounds: in my world there is a belief in God who is present and active whereas the opposite “belief” is predominant in your world; and we left it there. On the basis of this, your “report” and its accusation that I do not accept criticism seemed odd at best, some would call it dishonest.

Further, your report diverts on some important aspects of language and method from what is expected in a serious dialogue. Your presentation builds on a one-sided and manipulative presentation of my work on Christian miracles, and the tone is aggressive against material related to Christian faith, full of sarcasm and irony. One example is your text under Fra Angelico’s depiction of The Annunciation: “Mary receiving the good news from her embryologist”. Another is your depiction of what you would expect a God to reveal: “… a cure for cancer, a practical zero-gravity toilet or the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.” As Rufus Choate said: “Neither irony nor sarcasm is argument.”

Finally, the methodology you apply on your web-site is problematic: It holds only one purpose: That of debunking any claim to a supernatural reality so that the “Amazing Randy” (who poses on your first page) may be proved clever in his pledge of 1 million dollar to any person who could prove the existence of supernatural realities. James Randy is a great example of a critical thinker and the purpose of wishing to disclose fraud is laudable. But it is a shame when you, who seek to follow his example, lower yourself to use the same manipulative methods as the people you attack. You accuse different matters and authors without an external objective editor who could check your assertions or moderate a blog-like dialogue between you and your opponents. If anyone were to reply to any of your postings, that person would not know a) whether you would alter your original piece, b) whether you would alter their reply, or c) whether you would block further responses to your possible response. The Internet is full of wonderful resources, but indeed it also contains the danger of manipulation.

These are some of the reasons why I have not found it necessary to reply to your report. People in Denmark are familiar with my work. As you write, the 80+ articles, reviews and interviews about my project on divine action have been positive, which is a surprise even to me given that the issue has not been raised before in Denmark. This was also a reason for the original Danish version of your page never bothering me. However, due to the fact that it is only your piece that appears in an English web context and that the book has not yet been translated into English people do not have a fair chance to check whether your presentation is accurate or not and I thus feel obliged to clarify the situation. I thank you for providing the space for it on your website.

Let us dwell for a moment with what you present as the most important and motivating issue, namely whether proof can be given for the authenticity of miracles so we can finally get the question clarified “whether a sovereign deity existed”.

In this regard, your presentation of the theological concept of miracle is inadequate: In your closing ironism you refer to the definition of miracle. Unfortunately, you leave out the most important of them all (pp 15-16 of Mirakler): Miracles need to carry a message of hope and love that builds up the community. There are reports of apparently supernatural events that do not build up humans or communities but rather destroy them. For such phenomena most Christian communities have used exorcists. I state the purpose of the book clearly in the preface:

The purpose of the book is neither to enforce a natural explanation on the accounts of miracles nor to provide irrefutable proof of their authenticity. The goal is more simple: To portray miracles such as they are discerned and experienced by humans in the most different places on earth. And to communicate the fascination of miracles that have enriched and at times even completely changed the lives of human beings (p 10).

The book covers a wide range of miracle stories, from those that have been the object of interest of the scientific community, as the Holy Shroud of Turin and the investigations by the Medical Board of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints of a healings. The book also covers more folkloristic ones that have not been the subject of scientific investigations such as the Trees of Saint Theodora. Yet the criterion for including the stories in my book has always been that they build up the community and give authentic and lasting joy and hope to believers all over the world. Further, the content of the book are not my “facts” but primarily those reported by people who have been touched by the events as well as priests or theologians who have been witnesses and have tried to clarify the meaning of the events.

The Catholic Church’s main purpose with the scientific investigation of alleged miracles such as crying statues is to investigate whether the occurrences constitute fraud or not. In the fraudulent cases, the Church strongly advises the faithful not to adhere to the matter. If the investigations do not indicate fraud, the Church does not venture to affirm that a miracle has occurred. Rather, it leaves it up to the individual believers whether they wish to consider it true or not. The notion of Miracle is not a scientific term, but one of religious faith. Hence, the purpose of Mirakler is not to provide proof for possible miracles, but rather to point to their religious significance. The reported scientific investigations serve to explain to critically minded modern people that miraculous events can be cleared of fraud to such an extent that they can be of relevance to religious faith.

Now a few concrete issues from your “report”. Each point you raise could be clarified at length and they are all discussed in the book, so I will limit myself to two cases: The Trees of Theodora and the case of Audrey Santo:

In the case of Theodora’s Trees, there is the possibility of the interviewee, Fr. Stamatis,, overestimating the size of the trees. But regarding the question of the roots, you propose a theory, i.e. that they might grow in the walls and obtain water from the source emanating from below the chapel. What you do is actually quoting Fr. Stamatis for he is saying exactly this in the interview: “Some have proposed the thesis that the roots might run in the walls and from there down in the ground from where they might get water. This could explain how the chapel can carry their weight since the roots thus could help armor the chapel” (again, not my “facts” but the words of the interviewee, a fact you ignore throughout your report). Fr. Stamitis does, however, personally believe that theory to be challenged by other circumstances. The folkloristic nature of Theodora’s story is further portrayed through the two competing vitae of St. Theodora portrayed in my book.

Regarding Audrey Santo, you write that the fate of Audrey Santo might be “exploited for some deity” and that “even the church does not accept the events as miracles”. However, the contrary is the case. The church has not arrived at any definite conclusion with regard to these events, but it has never said that “it does not accept the events as miracles” as you write. As we shall see, the Catholic Church will monitor events for possible fraud and abuse and such have not been found during the investigations of the commission appointed by Daniel P. Reilly, the bishop of Worcester, MA, where Audrey and her family live. In addition, the old argument against the story of Audrey that she might be abused is rejected by the commission. The bishop’s statement following the work of the investigative commission is very clear:

The most striking evidence of the presence of God in the Santo home is seen in the dedication of the family to Audrey. Their constant respect for her dignity as a child of God is a poignant reminder that God touches our lives through the love and devotion of others.

There are inexplicable manifestations of oils and other substances emanating from religious objects in the Santo home. They are still under study. The purpose of the Church’s investigation is not simply to become a promoter of claims of the miraculous. Rather, it is to review the theological foundations for such claims to assure that the faithful who follow them are not being misled…

Although we can’t explain why oils and claims of blood are appearing on religious articles in the home, there is no obvious evidence of chicanery. There is no evidence that the family has sought financial gain for themselves. On the contrary, they have not sold the oil, which appears in their home and the Apostolate request only nominal donations for videotapes and other materials about Audrey. These donations are used to assist the Apostolate in the costs incurred to correspond with those who have written to Audrey and to publish a periodic newsletter about Audrey.

As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, with miracles there is always enough light for the one who wishes to believe and enough shadow for the one who does not wish to believe. This makes perfect sense in a theological framework where the hiddenness of God constitutes one of the greatest mysteries and problems of faith, closely tied up with theodicy, and on which many excellent books have been written: God never wishes to impose himself on us through undeniable proof of his existence. This would not be faith at all. The way to God is not through proof but through love. In all the signs of God – even the Resurrection of Christ – there is evidence that point to the authenticity of them, but no hard core proof as you seem to require, just as the Pharisees did of Jesus. There will always remain a shadow of doubt. Why? Because God does not want to impose himself through proof. He seeks our adherence to him and such can only evolve in freedom. Believers may not be able to provide hard proof for the existence of God, but nor are you able to prove that he does not exist, nor that the miracles of Christianity, such as the Resurrection, are fraudulent. Both the believer and the atheist may find there are signs pointing towards the truth of their conviction. Both will remain in their faith.

Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,

Niels Christian Hvidt, Th.D.
Notre Dame, 24 December 2005
by Niels Christian Hvidt

This article is the second in a series of three. The first article can be read here, and the response to this second article can be read here.