Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Weeping Madonnas

And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain (Rev 13:15).

I'm going to comment on this article:

O'Connell raises some good objections to the mass hallucinatory interpretation of the Resurrection accounts:

i) Even assuming that his examples are best construed as mass hallucinations, these usually involve a religious expectation. So that introduces an autosuggestive dynamic. But the resurrection of Jesus was contrary to the expectation of the disciples. 

ii) He also makes the point that in the cited cases, the vision never carries on a conversation with the recipient. 

However, his case against the hallucinatory interpretation of the Resurrection accounts is far weaker than it could be, due to many dubious assumptions in his analysis.

i) As he himself admits, some reported Marian sightings could be optical illusions. That's different from a hallucination.

ii) There's no a priori reason to treat visions of Jesus (or Mary) as hallucinations. That's a prejudicial classification. There's no reason to assume that Jesus would never appear to someone in a vision. At least, I don't think there is, and O'Connell never offers a supporting argument for his assumption. He just takes it for granted. 

iii) A possible objection is that no one knows what Jesus looks like. So modern-day visions of Jesus (or medieval visions) necessarily mimic customary iconography. However, I don't think that, of itself, is a strong objection. Precisely because no one knows what Jesus looks like, if Jesus did appear to someone, he'd have to assume a recognizable appearance based on cultural expectations.

iii) The very fact that ancient Jews (and Gentile) believed in ghosts and visions means they'd distinguish ghosts and visions from a resurrection. When the Gospels record Jesus predicting his resurrection from the dead, it must mean something other than returning from the grave as a ghost or vision, since there'd be nothing special about a postmortem appearance in that respect. Rather, it has to stand in contrast to ghosts and visions. And that's already the case in Matthew and Mark, even before we get to the accounts in Luke, John, and 1 Corinthians which explicitly stress the physicality of his resurrection.

iv) I'd add that this undercuts O'Connell's angelic interpretation of some Resurrection appearances. Moreover, his angelic interpretation suffers from parallelomania. In addition, the luminosity of Christ in Acts 9 is no more angelic than his luminosity at the Transfiguration. 

v) It's a mistake to assume that sightings of Jesus and sightings of Mary must have the same explanation. To begin with, I'm automatically dubious about weeping or bleeding madonnas where the statue or icon is in the custody of a church or monastery. That's not subject to round the clock public surveillance. Rather, that provides after hours opportunities for monks and priests to touch up the statue or icon. In other words, it's easy to stage. 

vi) However, I don't necessarily assume that all Marian sightings must either be hoaxes or hallucinations. Before getting to my own explanation, let's consider another alternative. Is is possible that Mary sometimes does appear to people? It might be argued that this would be an encouragement to faith. It might also be argued that this would be a divine accommodation to culture. If that's the only religious culture which some people are in a position to know, and if God wishes to contact them, then it will be through their cultural categories. Or so goes the argument. 

vii) Having said that, I don't think it's theologically tenable in the case of Marian sightings. If some reportedly weeping or bleeding or animated madonnas are genuine, that would inevitably foster the kind of superstitious idolatry and totemism which the Bible constantly condemns. So we'd have conflicting revelations. Biblical revelations which condemn the veneration of images, and revelatory images of Mary. These don't mesh. 

viii) In addition, this fosters a Mary-centered piety that makes her a rival to Jesus in pious devotion. Indeed, the theological interpretation of weeping or bleeding madonnas is that Mary shares in the Passion of Christ. But that's wholly unacceptable from a Biblical standpoint. 

I realize that Catholic apologists rationalize Marian devotion on the grounds that this supposedly redounds to devotion to Jesus. But other issues aside, if Jesus is the ultimate object of devotion, why not more reports of weeping, bleeding, or animated icons and statues of Jesus rather than Mary? Why not cut to the chase? 

ix) Furthermore, you have reports of weeping or bleeding madonnas in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox settings. Yet these can't very well attest both theological traditions, inasmuch as these represent competing theological traditions.

x) In principle, there's a difference between a miracle that happens to Catholics, and a miracle that's inseparable from a Catholic theological paradigm. A reported miracle that, if authentic, inevitably lends credence to the theological tradition which sponsors it. 

A Catholic or Orthodox apologist might object that my interpretation of Scripture begs the question. They might accuse me of special pleading. But that won't work.

For one thing, we have to compare some religious claims to Biblical criteria. That's what the Biblical criteria is for. Take the classic criteria for a false prophet (Deut 13). And notice that this makes allowance for a bona fide miracle. 

Moreover, Catholics (and Orthodox) don't have a monopoly on reported miracles. You have Protestant parallels. So these can't be cited to uniquely evidence the claims of Rome. 

xi) In addition, we have an example of an animated statue in Rev 13:15. A statue that promotes veneration. Yet that's occultic. So there's biblical precedent for the possibility of phenomena analogous to weeping and bleeding madonnas, yet this doesn't imply that God caused the miracle. 

xii) It might be objected that attributing such phenomena to the dark side, if mistaken, borders on the unpardonable sin. However, we're not talking about Jesus, but Mary. Moreover, passages like Deut 13 and Gal 1:8 require us to make allowance for that explanation. And given conflicting evidence, we have no choice but to take sides. 

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