Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps

Sometimes it’s hard to be a theist. You work hard to show the intellectual credentials of theism and then this happens:

In Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland 2000 people have signed a petition to prevent the removal of a tree stump from the grounds of the church. Are they diehard environmentalists? Nope. Eccentric tree-huggers? Nope. Hippies with a respect for every square inch of Mother Earth? Alas, no. They reason they’ve signed a petition – and set-up a makeshift shrine – and held prayer vigils complete with Rosary beads and candles – is because the tree stump bears the image of the Blessed Virgin herself. Allegedly.

Of course it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Several years ago the Mother of God appeared to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. Did she appear in a blinding light before the masses gathered in St. Peters square? Apparently not. Did she descend over Poland with a heavenly choir singing a thousand hallelujahs? Not quite. Instead the blessed virgin chose a more humble – albeit rather obscure – means of giving the divine thumbs-up to the deceased pontiff.

Mary appeared on a concrete wall of a grimy Chicago underpass. The human-sized yellow and white image seemed to have formed from road salt and rainwater that over time had spilt from the Kennedy Expressway overhead. Nonetheless, believers insisted that the stain was miraculous. To my eyes the stain looked fairly unremarkable; not so to the eyes of many faithful Catholics. To them it was most certainly a picture of Mary with her hands clasped in prayerful thanks and adoration. I tried as hard as I could – even with the help of an artists impression – I still couldn’t see how this water stain resembled what it was supposed to resemble. The best I could do was to see a man with a long beard and rather sinister eyes (much more Bin Laden than Blessed Virgin), and then only by holding the picture diagonally and squinting a bit.

Anyhow, 1000’s of people had eyes – and imagination – to see, and flocked en masse to the subway to pay tribute. The underpass was transformed into a shrine, complete with flowers and candles, and the faithful were found kneeling before the wall, praying and clutching rosary beads. Moreover, in an age in which traditional religious adherence is plummeting in western countries, church leaders on this occasion were more than happy to sit back and allow the hysterical idiocy to continue unchallenged and unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago even contended that the apparition reaffirms people’s faith, whether it is real or not. “These things don’t happen every day,” Jim Dwyer, a spokesman, added. Indeed they don’t, but they could if people wanted them to. Just look at the clouds, close one eye, and before long you could see a white fluffy image resembling God himself on his throne (perhaps with Elvis sitting on his right hand side).

Such things may indeed encourage people’s faith, but they do little for the credibility of religious believers. Moreover, many religious folks are shown to display a rather cavalier approach to truth: in effect they’re implying that they don’t give a toss if something is true or not, just whether or not it builds the faith of the brethren. But, shouldn’t truth be much more important than that?

Such phenomena are merely the latest in a long line of supposed theophanies. In years gone by we have had the name of Allah make an appearance inside a tomato, a hindu cow-god statue drinking milk (gotta love that porous rock, eh?), the face of the devil coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre buildings in the billowing smoke and fire, and, my personal favourite: the image of Mary gazing lovingly out at the faithful from a partly eaten ten year old cheese toastie, that was subsequently auctioned on Ebay, bought for $28,000 by an internet casino company, wrapped in plastic, and sent on a nationwide celebrity tour of the USA. The virgin Mary obviously likes her food as she has also been found lurking in a knob of popcorn and on a bacon flavoured potato crisp.

The truth is that people will see what they want to see, and we learn this fairly early on in life. Most of us as children have been out one day with a parent who decides to play the age-old “cloud game” – to see what shapes you can find up in the sky. We can find all sorts of things, but as any sane and rational person knows full well the things we see are not real. There isn’t really a giant mile-wide seagull in the sky. Just a big fluffy white cloud. Human beings, due to some weird quirk of psychology, are particularly adept at seeing faces in things. There’s a wonderful Twitter account called “faces in things” which testifies to some wonderful examples of this – many much clearer than divine tree stumps and cheese toasties.

It’s certainly not unusual to have a fascination for the mysterious. I can’t remember a time in my life when religious matters didn’t fascinate me. But I’d like to think that my approach was and is rational: investigating religious claims, studying religious practices, and reflecting on the phenomena of religious experience. Unfortunately a rational approach is of little interest to vast numbers of people who can’t be bothered putting the time and effort in. Instead they want a quick fix, an easy answer, an instant miracle to be a part of; and they want it so desperately that they’ll dive at any report – however wacky – so they can feel like they’re part of a generation that witnessed the miraculous. They care not for the leaps of logic required to reach their conclusions. Such types are highly frustrating, as reason simply will not penetrate the dark caverns of their credulous minds.

To be fair, in the case of the tree stump the church in question is officially taking a stance of scepticism. The parish priest has warned against worship of the tree, saying: “There’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree. You can’t worship a tree.” Indeed, but other locals are more than willing to brush that off. One parishioner offered: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together, from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers so what’s wrong with that?” And there we have that same old cavalier attitude to truth raise its ugly head again.

Noel White, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council’s graveyard committee has since given assurances that the stump will not be removed – despite only being a stump, right? Well, he adds: “Nature has a funny way of showing things up and let it be a freak of nature or something else but whatever it is, surely it is a wonderful thing to see so many people coming out to pray, especially young people who have been saying the Rosary in the church for the past few nights.” And thus I suspect the local church authorities are perhaps quite happy with the superstition. It’s swelling the ranks of the faithful, and probably bringing a significant cash benefit in its wake too.

“Maybe this is Our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”

Maybe that’s your way of not speaking the truth because the superstitious nonsense is bringing you congregants and cash?

It strikes me a really rather silly. Surely even just a smidge of rudimentary thinking can dispel the illusion. To those who think they see Mary: I’d really love to know how you have any idea what she looks like. Did I miss that part of the Bible that provides her vital statistics? Or did Saint Luke release an illustrated version of his Gospel? We are told that she was a young Jewish woman, but that hardly narrows it down. Presumably some young Jewish women were fat, some thin, some tall, some small, some hideously ugly, others stunningly attractive. For all you know you could actually be bowing before a Hindu goddess of destruction. Lets face it, this apparition is only Mary because a Catholic saw it first and said it was.

And just how well does this kind of thing build your faith? Do you believe in God even more now that you have looked at a tree stump and have seen an obscure image that you dubiously assume to be Mary? The next time a sceptic asks you to defend your grounds for believing in God, or challenges your faith in some way, it probably isn’t wise to open your defence with, “ah, well I saw this tree stump once that looked like the Virgin Mary.”

The reaction to this fluke of nature illustrates perfectly what so many people find distasteful about religion. Rather than engage in rational discourse too many religious people are happy to resort to illogical mental gymnastics. In this instance there’s a dodgy starting premise – that this stump is, objectively speaking, the image of a woman. From this highly questionable position we are asked to make the leap to believing that it is there as a result of design rather than accident, when there are no grounds whatsoever for believing it to be so. Only when we can say it was not a result of accident can we raise the question of who actually designed it. But such issues simply don’t arise in the minds of the miracle-hunters. It is simply assumed that it wasn’t a human being, but rather a certain God who is responsible. Again, there is no rational basis given for this belief. In fact, it might much more plausibly be a joke on the part of a lumberjack. Next, we are expected to leap further into supposing that this woman carved by the hand of God is indeed the virgin Mary rather than someone else. And finally, we are to presume that she is there to call people back to the church. None of this testifies to anything remotely like a reasonable approach to religion, and until such religious folks drop the silliness they will fail to convince anyone other than the most gullible.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Faith, Miracles

5 responses to “Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps

  1. Dear Stephen,

    Beyond the basic points you’re making concerning the validity of the truth claims about the miraculous appearance of the Blessed Virgin, it’s hard to decipher what this post is about or if it’s about miracles at all. Between the sarcasm-soaked remarks about “beads and candles,” which you repeated several times, I can vaguely discern anything at all that resembles a “rational approach to religious studies and the religious experience.” The title of this piece alone shows that you are not at all concerned with any approach that can be perceived by a community of others humans curious about the supernatural as well, about why we humans look beyond our sensory experiences to reflect on beings that we cannot see but choose to believe. This apriori rejection of the supernatural makes any meaningful talk about the religious experience empty and vacuous. It appears to me that the primary purpose of this article is to show your utter contempt for Mary. I am sure if “Christ alone” were present to these observers on that tree, you would be a less likely to title the post “The Messiah of Illogical Leaps.”

    However, I must step back for a moment on that last statement. I take it back. The most fascinating thing about this post is how completely secular it sounds. I would not be surprised if you called it that. It is an anti-Christ, anti-Christian, and anti-Religion article. I know you to be a Protestant Christian through our affiliation via Facebook. This is the irony about this post. I know you wouldn’t intentionally do this. Nevertheless, you’re probably wondering how I came to this conclusion. Let me explain.

    You begin the post by lamenting on the difficulties of being a theist, albiet sarcastically. This is all in good fun, because you wish to lend to the discourse your “rational approach” to understanding the religious experience. This rationalism is contrasted with several cases of the superstitious people believing to see the mother of Jesus Christ. You ultimately want to defend theism from the naturalist who claims that the belief in God is a superstition or a fiction due to the false claims of divine intevention in the world through seeming “miracles.” And with situationsn like the Chicago underpass or the Holy Mary Parish Church or heck, growing up in America, I’ve seen this many times. It came on the news a lot when I was little. Someone claimed that the face of Christ was on a muffin once, and it made the news. And so, it is “hard work to show the intellectual credentials of theism” when stuff like this hits the news. Nevertheless, I’ve digressed.

    But, what happened to your rational approach? Or, was your intention never to present the subject rationally? Did you just want to engender more skepticism about Christianity by making this post one implicitly about the Catholic Church and Mary, and not really about a rational curiousity? Did you just want to call these people hacks? If so, why use so many words? The takeaway from this article is that the “rational approach” to anything excludes the “religious experience” for the sake of what “any sane and rational person knows full well.” In fact, this is your great naturalistic assumption. You seem to believe that you can reduce the religious experience to what science and naturalism can disclose, because what these sane and “rational” people know full well is that the religious experience is an illusion, that the things we “see” are not real. You should have called this post “Our Mother of Illusions,” which would suggest that Christ Himself is one great illusion too.

    This is the greatest flaw of the Protestant. Lurking behind the Scripture-alone, Grace-alone, Faith-alone is the belief that without an institution, without a political community with meaningful practices to reinforce deeply set ontological convictions, you could unite a church. Instead, when people are left to interpret Scripture for themselves, you get a radical pluralism. A rational person understands the principle of non-contradiction, but within the Protestant churches, you get the exact opposite of a consensus on what Christianity is. Instead, you get 40,000+ denominations, and growing day by day. You get Mormonism, a terrible blasphemy that purports to be Christianity. You get faith-healing. You get abortions, gay marriage, and the rejection of modern scientific thought for the belief that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. It is the utmost irrationalism, unintended by the original reformers. Protestantism cannot be true, because it rejects the community for the sake of one’s individualized, personal relationship with Christ by solely reading the text.

    You see, the Catholic Church formed the public and private horizons of Western civilization for over 1000 years before the reformation. Unlike our modern Liberal states with governments that act as neutral arbiters of political disputes between lifestyle differences, there was one lifestyle enforced by the state. By rejecting the authority of the church, the significance of the moral exemplars (the saints), and the sacramental view of nature, which the divine enters into during the Eucharist, what became of Christianity became for the sake of an individualized personal relationship with Christ, which can only gained by reading the text. The belief that the text “speaks for itself” and the communal attachment of Christianity to Christ Himself lost its value. The idea of Christ and his suffering became the only exemplar for the faith, and the followers of Christ became but bags of sin doomed to act against God in spite of their own efforts. From this, church authorities can only direct, but not lead, in one’s interpretive development. Church authorities have no ‘special’ authority after the reformation. The result of this is a fragmentation of church doctrine. Churches are not restricted in what they preach, as long as they can misconstrue passages, emphasize things a little differently, in order to start their own church, from which THEY can collect money, power, and esteem in evangelism, a big business in America (whose pastors become big public figures, bring in millions of dollars each year, and whose interpretation largely goes unquestioned by adherents.)

    With 40,000 denominations making radically different, contradictory truth claims about what Christian life is about, and what it allows or does not allow, it only makes sense to think that if a Protestant has any view at all of the Bible, it’s simply by accident. All these denominations claim the same authority, viz. The Bible (although, an abridged one). Yet, no legitimate check on the expression the Holy Spirit gives to the pastors in these communities exists. In this sense, this is a result of the Protestant rejection of authority besides the text and communal practices that are sacred, whether handed down by Christ or not. The Protestant rejection of Church authority blossomed into the later rejection of Christianity completely for the “rational” and “scientific” approach that reduced nature, and humanity, into a mere purposeless collision of atoms within which God, if he exists, could never be a part. Along with Aristotelean thought, the notion that matter could some how have a purpose was also lost, the teleological conception of human nature was also lost. With the rejection of transubstantiation and the sacraments, you leave Christians to create their own meaning in Scripture even if the longstanding authority on Scripture says otherwise, even though the Scripture makes no sense when interpreted that way–regardless of whether the “sense” in which the text is read is “common sense.”

    When the Mother of Jesus Christ is seen as just another woman worth nothing but sarcastic scorn from bloggers and believer in her appearance at just superstitious hacks, what makes you think anyone reading your post would be more likely to believe in the incarnation? The time in which God became a man? Denial of the pardon of original sin from Mary, and her blessedness as the Mother of Our Lord Jesus, denies the faith as the servant of God’s Will–remember, we all have free will. By denying the blessedness of Mary, I cannot see how the incarnation just becomes some flight of fancy, a superstition left over that the reformation never had a chance to remove. The unintended consequence of the reformation is the widespread gnosticism that comes from denying the traditional Christian view. The rejection of community for the private, individualized experience of the concept of Christ gained by reading simply the text and not looking at the community of followers and their success and devotion in spreading the Gospel loves not the humanity of Christ, but rejects it for the idea of Christ; in other words, when you reject the traditional Christian view and the transgenerational communal traditions that preserve the ancient beliefs of the apostles, you abstract away from Christ his humanity, the value of His tradition, and create simply an object of contemplation pulled away from the text with no coherent body of followers and no coherent church. By reducing Christ to an idea, a disembodied object, the Protestant can only have a superstition about the miraculous involvedment when God became man and freed his creation from the death of sin. The continual Mary bashing only leads to more doubts about theism and Christianity.

  2. I didn’t bash Mary, and huge tracts of your response simply misfire. But one question: do you, contrary to your Church, accept the veridicality of this supposed appearance?

  3. Two points of correction here:

    “Denial of the pardon of original sin from Mary, and her blessedness as the Mother of Our Lord Jesus, denies the faith as the servant of God’s Will–remember, we all have free will.” Should read:

    “Denial of the pardon of original sin from Mary, and her blessedness as the Mother of Our Lord Jesus, denies *her* the faith *she had* as the servant of God’s Will–remember, we all have free will.”


    “By denying the blessedness of Mary, I cannot see how the incarnation just becomes some flight of fancy, a superstition left over that the reformation never had a chance to remove.” Should read:

    “By denying the blessedness of Mary, I cannot see how the incarnation *could avoid being considered* some flight of fancy, a superstition left over that the reformation never had a chance to remove.”

  4. I do not speak or accept contrary position to the church on this “miracle.” My response was, as your post was not, a response to the subject of whether the “miracle” was a “miracle.” I argued that your post was not about miracles at all, that it was to make sarcastic quips about “beads and candles” and the construction of “alters.” In making this argument, I showed that your method excludes these spiritual experiences at all, which is not a rational approach to the study of religion, which you claimed to be following, but not utilizing.

    You can say you didn’t bash Mary in this article, but that doesn’t show that you weren’t. The title of your article speaks for itself.

    If parts of my response misfired, then tell me…where? I think this post fails to even discuss even the virtues of spiritual experiences like those Christians have had for centuries. Whether or not the Catholic authorities are or are not skeptical, your post is still wrong, through and through, about the nature of religious experiences. Why would this not engender curiosity about human beings and their desire to know something beyond? The thought was completely written off apriori, prior to even seeing it. Your disdain for people who supported it as a meaningful time to reflect on God and his incarnation, you think it’s a time to make money with no actual good consequences. The priests warned against worshiping the tree. But why not reflect on the incarnation?

  5. Pingback: The Charismania Collection | stephenjgraham

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