Turin Turnabout

Turn about, they say, is fair play.  Turin, on the other hand, is a city in Italy.  Its claim to fame is a shroud housed there that is believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth.  Tests have been done over the years, most authoritatively a carbon-dating done by three independent laboratories, with the results suggesting a medieval origin to the cloth itself.  In case your chronology is a little hazy, the medieval period comes centuries after the time Jesus lived.  Now, some thirty years after the definitive study, some scientists are questioning the results.  They’re being skeptical of the skeptics.  Turn about.  According to a story in The Catholic Register, a Freedom of Information Act request, honored only by one of the three labs (the one at Oxford University) has revealed that the bits of the shroud subjected to analysis were the worst possible parts of the cloth to test.  Herein lies the rub: scientists like to poke holes in credulousness—what do you do when your science is itself the subject of skepticism?

The Shroud of Turin, like Donald Trump, is one of those utterly arcane artifacts that unites Catholics and Evangelicals.  When I was growing up these two groups were the cats and dogs of the theological world.  They united under the umbrella of conservative social causes during the Bush years and have been sleeping together ever since (while both convinced that the other is going straight to Hell when it’s all over).  You see, the Shroud is a Catholic possession and allegedly bears wounds that support the Catholic narrative.  (The Vatican has never declared it an authentic relic, however.)  Evangelicals see it as proof positive that Jesus was resurrected, and so they tend to go further than the Catholics in citing it as proof.  We live in odd times when believers successfully out-skeptic the skeptics.

Since the other two laboratories (the University of Arizona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) haven’t released the raw data, the grounds for a conspiracy theory grow fertile.  When information is kept secret, that’s a natural enough response.  The conspiracy-prone mind asks why the data isn’t being made public.  They do have a point.  The claims of religion are often hoisted on the petard of “no evidence” and when evidence (such as the lab results) exists but isn’t shown, that suggests somebody’s hiding something.  I have no vested interest in the authenticity of the shroud, but we all should have such an interest in getting at the truth.  The turnabout in this case, however, was completely unexpected.

To Nature, and Beyond

VaticanProphIt might seem odd to differentiate the supernatural from an established world religion like Roman Catholicism. After all, be premise of traditional Christianity is based on a miracle or two. Church officials, however, are not naive. It has been known from the early centuries of the church that although miracles are still from time-to-time proclaimed, they are a relative rarity. Few are claimed, like Jesus of Nazareth, to have the ability to summon the supernatural at will. When my wife gave me a copy of John Thavis’s The Vatican Prophecies, I wondered if this might be a sensationalist exploration of “the hidden Vatican” and its penchant for keeping things hushed. After all, the subtitle is Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. Thavis, however, is one of the most even-handed writers on the topic I might imagine. Clearly respectful of the Catholic faith, he doesn’t go after any pet theories or conspiracies. He lets those in the church answer with their own words. And those words paint a fascinating picture.

Beginning with the concept of holiness, Thavis shows that the point of the spiritual life is not to seek signs. Nevertheless, signs are reported. Apparitions of Mary have a long history, as does the shroud of Turin. Those who write about such things often have a clear bias, but Thavis gives the facts, interviews those who know, and offers a narrative full of possibilities. The supernatural can take a darker turn, however, as his chapter on demons and angels demonstrates. Although demons have been cast into the outer darkness by science, it doesn’t prevent people from apparently being possessed. And of course miracles come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of making saints. Prophecy, in the sense of knowing the future, is the last major topic up for discussion.

The Vatican Prophecies is a curious book that seems neither credulous or overly skeptical. It’s more like reporting than it is declaring what is or isn’t possible. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church does still profess miracles, but a vast number of them that come up for testing fail. Scientists serve as expert witnesses and personal claims are not sufficient to win the day. Although there are a few characters in this account, the majority of those mentioned in the book are understated, thoughtful individuals who happen to know they can’t decide what really happens or not. Instead, they simply deal with it. For those of use who live in a world of uncertainty, this book is a most apt introduction to topics taken seriously by some very intelligent people.

Popes and Props

Something to believe in?

Like the pain from an old sports injury (or Sarah Palin), the Shroud of Turin just won’t go away. Decades after radio-carbon dating demonstrated what many had suspected all along – the shroud is a medieval devotional replica – true believers are still trying to find ways to prove that the cloth is physical evidence of the resurrection. Never one to shy from controversy, Pope Benedict XVI has endorsed the authenticity of the forged artifact. No matter how far science goes, it seems, it just can’t pry the hands of a needy faith off that piece of fabric.

The Shroud of Turin first appears in the historical record only in the sixteenth century. Prior to that a back-story has been composed that takes it all the way to the first century in Jerusalem. Hungry for proof of the truth of their conviction, thousands of Christians fervently believe this sheet is the tangible evidence of resurrection. What seems to have been forgotten in this whole debate is the Bible itself. Not one of the four divergent Gospel accounts of the resurrection (some of the most wildly disparate material in the whole of Sacred Writ) mentions the miraculous capture of a resurrection photograph. The Gospel writers, never shy about flashing miracles across their narratives, do not tout an artifact as proving the resurrection. The force of apostolic conviction was enough for the first century crowd.

Believers in the modern world lack such conviction. Too many forces in the natural world conspire against the supernatural. A faith shaken by science and the competition of hundreds of other religions desperately needs a sky-hook on which to hang certitude. Yet the Bible itself speaks to this very issue. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the writer of Hebrews declares. It seems, however, that true believers throughout history feel a little more comfortable with something palpable, just in case faith is not enough.