Microscopic Faith

Early last week I was at my university when a colleague asked me to meet him to talk about several items. So, we walked around our campus, a rather attractive place which is often a draw for students, discussing various matters. He asked me, in the course of our wide-ranging conversation, whether I believed the bread and wine of the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ. “Of course I do,” I replied, “I’m Orthodox.” He knew this. Then he asked me a rather odd question: “You do know that if you put that wine under a microscope that it’s just wine?” This part of the conversation quickly was boring me, for this is a well educated fellow and it flummoxed me why he would pose such a rhetorical question. I answered him rather quickly, though I don’t think curtly, that I didn’t believe in microscopes. We then moved on to other matters simply because I changed the subject, and the Eucharist was not what we had met to discuss.

But as I have thought about it, this is something I am going to take back up with him. First, I would ask him, aside from giving Holy Things to the dogs, would he ask our Lord for a piece of skin from His resurrected body so that they could see how it could pass through doors and stone? When once I asked a priest about the multiplicity of pieces of the cross, and the numerous pieces of bone from the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul across Christendom, he looked at me and asked if I believed in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, or the turning of the water into wine. If God gives grace through the multiplication of loaves, why not through the multiplication of the True Cross? One of the aspects of a miracle is that it is beyond the empirical or scientific. It is not repeatable (at least in a lab) and it is does not fall within the parameters of the so-called laws of science. The truth is (and this is another whole question and another whole post), science has no laws, for nothing in science is not beyond revision, and everything by “definition” has to be falsifiable. Of course, the dictums that all has to be empirically valid and falsifiable, are themselves beyond the empirical and falsifiable.

To put this another way, faith draws its reality not merely from the observable. When we look at St. Paul’s statement that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (love how the KJV puts that)” we see that faith itself has a substantial quality which arises from, e.g., the resurrection, angels, inter alia. That is, faith is not the mere ascent to something I cannot otherwise prove, such as Jesus’ resurrected body is present to me in the elements of bread and wine. Instead, it is the other way round: faith is made a reality by the risen Christ, and is itself the evidence of the unseen powers.

This is something we should keep in mind in a world that seeks to drive a wedge between faith and reason, nature and grace, the supernatural and the natural. As an Orthodox these things are not in tension, for from our creation God has ordered us to a supernatural end, union with Him (grace) is the presupposition of our very existence (even as sinners), and faith itself is epistemic. I do know some people (a few in Biblical studies no less) that think that facts speak, and that evidence drives us to conclusions about reality. But this is hardly the case for most of the people I know. We have come long ago to embrace that most insightful of Mark Twain’s dogmas: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Evidence only demands the verdict that it is evident of something, but that something needs itself a greater context and a story into which it must fit. This leads to the second item.

When Christ told St. Thomas to put his hand into His side, and to look at the nail prints in His hands, he was upbraiding him for not listening to the testimony of the Apostles, but also. Truth is, all the other Apostles were little different than St. Thomas, for they had hardly believed the myrrh-bearing women when they first brought the news of the resurrection. St. Thomas wanted the same benefit that the other Apostles had, to see Christ himself. Now, we should not think that St. Thomas was somehow singled out, but his case is amplified since he was not present that first time when Christ appeared. What St. Thomas needed was not faith to see the unseen, but to see as the others had within the context of Christ’s resurrected life. He needed to see from within the Tradition. This is in contrast to Mary Magdalene. We know little of Mary, except that our Lord cast out of her seven demons. We know also that she was a woman of some material means, for following her deliverance she supported the ministry of Christ and his disciples from her wealth. Like our Lord’s other disciples, she did not comprehend what Christ meant when He talked about his coming resurrection, for her thoughts in the garden were that Chris was the gardener. But she was quick to believe. Perhaps it was because she had already had an existential experience of the Divine power in her life that she believed at Christ calling her name, or perhaps it was her love, that had brought her to the tomb on that Sunday morning. What is important is that Jesus is at first hidden from her, and reveals Himself by the calling of her name. Similarly, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is hidden until He breaks bread with them (the Eucharist). In both these instances, the facts needed interpretation, and we cannot understand the truth apart from this interpretation. This inevitably leads to yet another discussion about the Tradition of the Church, but more anon.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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9 Responses to Microscopic Faith

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. David Fraser says:

    Interesting blog. I for one also believe in miracles (and do so partly from personal experience of them). Nor do I think science as constituted is the final judge. Eastern’s former professor Craig Keener has written a powerful argument: Miracles: The Credibility of the NT Accounts (2 vols. 2011). Motivated in part by the fact that his wife who is African comes from a context where miracles occur “regularly.”

    I did wonder at your priest’s answer (to a historian who must also work with “probable” explanations based on evidence). The “multiplication” of relics is a strange miracle (giving us more pieces of Peter, John the Baptist, Paul, the shroud of Jesus, the robe of Mary, the true Cross etc. than the “original.” This time not an “invisible” miracle of transubstantiation that transcends science and clearly cannot be judged by it but real physical, tangible items that can be carbon dated!) God does take the loaves and fishes we have and extend grace to the needy through them by multiplication, no doubt. But I would have thought, in this case, the more likely historical explanation is some combination of true pieces, misguided identifications due to religious zeal (or ecclesiastical politics), and sheer charlatanism on the part of some — in the later cases all to make money and secure prestige.

    I had an uncle who was a devotee of the Shroud of Turin and published a book on it. Was it or wasn’t it? He was fully convinced partly because Edgar Cayce said so in a trance. Does it matter? Is our faith dependent on such objects (sort of like Gideon’s ephod — Judges 8:22-29 — Israelites getting close to this relic of the powerful deliverer of Israel)? Most recent “microscopic” examination seems to date this Shroud to the Middle Ages (3 labs, all agree: 1260-1390), not the time of Jesus. In this case the “miracle” is and can be subject to some sort of scientific and critical examination. Or do we say: the Shroud is Jesus was multiplied miraculously and the radio carbon dating is irrelevant? When does faith get polluted by credulity?

    Some of this multiplication of relics smacks of what happened with Cathedrals (and economics): my town’s Cathedral is bigger and better than yours! Our relics are more prestigious than yours (and generate large pilgrimages with all their accompanying inflow to our coffers). Who would not like to have had the status of Santiago de Compostela! So relics multiply to meet the market.

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  4. Karen says:

    I read that a study was done accounting for the weight of all the pieces of the true Cross that are known. The full weight of the known pieces (relics) of the true Cross amount to only about a third of what would have been the total weight of such a cross if it was complete. No need for multiplication there at least, apparently. Sorry, I don’t now remember where I read this.

  5. Cyril says:

    David, on the Shroud, a number of good studies have come out in the past several years, most notably Ian Wilson’s several studies (cf. The Blood and the Shroud). I have a friend, Corrado Altomare, an MD and researcher who now works of Pfizer (he was bought from Wyeth) who was on commissions studying the shroud and knows Wilson, and Corrado himself is convinced of it. Wilson himself was an MD and an atheist who converted after studying the shroud. The problem with carbon dating is that it cannot account for the presence of pollutants (smoke), and the shroud not only survived a fire, but was constantly in the presence of smoke. See also Bennett’s study on the Sudarium of Ovieto, a cloth attested from at least the sixth century, whose blood markings match exactly those of the Shroud.

    As for “evidence,” and the multiplication of relics, well, that hardly speaks against authentic ones. This sounds like Lessing and the Story of Nathan the Wise and the three rings (a story that Lessing pilfered from Boccaccio). After all, it is what was seen, and handled, that St. John declared to us.

    I have tried to get Corrado to campus, but for some reason, no one wants him to come.

  6. David Fraser says:

    I did not mean to speak against authentic relics, only to challenge the questionable answer to your question: If God can multiply the fish by the sea to feed the hungry, can He not multiply the teeth of John the Baptist? That seems a poor answer to the question legitimately raised about relics that can be studied scientifically (and are not in that sense analogous to the mystery of communion). That was my question.

    Beyond that I did want to point to the reality that you point to in your own comment: science can aid in the search for validation of relics. We could get DNA samples from a variety of claimants to be something from Saint X or Apostle J — and see whether they match. Carbon dating has its challenges, but still it is not nothing. We do need the confluence of a variety of lines of evidence and the Shroud (and sudarium of Ovieto) may be genuine. I’m not saying they are or aren’t. Just saying the Microscope and faith are not in different universes of discourse when we come to some matters of truth. Microscopes may not be able to validate or disvalidate transubstantiation (and thus settle the issue between different accounts of the meaning of “is”). But they help with claims about physical objects such as nails, jaw bones, robes, splinters of wood, spear heads, leather etc.

    As you know, we who are Reformed Catholics don’t see much “faith-value” in relics but I am not trying to comment on the place of even true relics in the life of faith. Only on the role of “microscopes” in faith-knowledge.

  7. Nick says:

    Just another note on the Shroud as I too was an atheist who was converted by studying it; the carbon dating was shown by Raymond N. Rogers to be faulty in 2005 in his peer-review study where he showed that it the piece was likely a re-weave. While there are some who have contested this, for the reasons Cyril listed the carbon dating shouldn’t have much stock put in it anyways.

  8. Cyril says:

    Microscopes could never address transubstantiation, David, as by definition, substance cannot be viewed with a microscope, only accidents. As for your point that the microscope and faith are not in two different universes, I whole-hardheartedly agree, for there is no division for the Orthodox of nature and grace. What grace does is act as the ground in which nature comes to fruition. In this regard we are of the same mind with de Lubac, or rather, as he himself said, he is of the mind with us. My point, perhaps not clearly made, is that “evidence” is always secondary to Tradition, or if you will, Theology. This was Luther’s point about interpreting the Bible, that when a passage admitted of no easy interpretation, always fall back on Theology. This kind of gives the game away for him, but that is another matter.

  9. Arimathean says:

    The thing that complicates the dating of the Shroud is that it underwent repairs in the Middle Ages, which entailed interweaving the original material with new threads to strengthen the edges. The material used in the carbon dating was from an edge. I believe the Shroud of Turin is really the burial cloth of Christ, but my faith does not depend on it in any way.

    I would have taken a very different tack in responding to the comment about the Eucharistic wine. Of course it would look like wine under a microscope. It looks like wine to the naked eye, and it tastes and smells like wine, as well. It is REALLY the blood of Christ, not PHYSICALLY the blood of Christ. If the Eucharistic transformation were physical, then it would not be a bloodless sacrifice, and we would be cannibals. We must not concede to the simple-minded equation of reality with mere physicality.

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