CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth




   photo Christ20on20the20Cross20162720s-1.jpg

A reader asks:

How can anyone really know if or how salvation is possible (or even necessary) if, to quote a certain blogger, "God is beyond human understanding because God is transcendent." It seems to me like the concept of a need for salvation in the first place is man-made. Isn't it a huge leap to get from "It's rational to believe in God due to the universality of mystical experiences" to "All humans are sinners in need of salvation?"

  ....In answering this questoin we can catch a glimpse of a phenomenologically oriented theological method in action. The short answer is the concept of  "salvation" must have evolved out of the sense of the numinous. Of course its "man made" in the sense that it's a theological response to a felt and perceived need. Theology is the participation and study of a faith tradition. Classically it's defined as "faith seeking understanding," the modern definition makes it seem more like a social scinece, with participant-observer overtones. Rather than "man made" in the sense that it's constructed out of "whole cloth" so to speak, it's more like "human understanding" striving to comprehend something all people have always felt at a certain level. What follows is my theory of how theology evolves from the sense of the numinous which dawned upon our pre-human ancestors in the way that instinct dawns upon animals, and culminates in higher rational abstract though in time, as it becomes theology.

from Numinous to religious development


stone age "Venus" figure: 
Probably fertility fetish

....Skeptics see religion as a question about empirical proofs of the existence of one additional thing in reality, besides all the things we regularly see in the universe; God, as opposed to a universe with everything in it that is in the God universe, but minus God. In other words for them God is just another object tin the universe to prove through empirical means. To them belief in God is just adding another fact to the universe. Belief in God is much more than that. Belief in God is not adding a fact to the universe; it’s an understanding of our relation to the universe. Belief in God is about understanding our relation to the universe, and that relation is as contingent beings, creatures whose being is derived form the ground of being. When we make this realization there is no more doubt. To realize the nature of being is to realize not only the reality of God but also the reality of oneself as creature of God. Of course this can’t have the same kind of verification that scientific work has, if it did it wouldn’t be a take on the basic nature of reality. This does not mean there are no methods that help secure the certainty that is found in the heart of one who has made such a realization. It is hoped that understanding this will lead others to seek that realization.
            We can see and understand this method looking at the nature of religious evolution in the evolution of humanity. Of course history of religions and comparative religion are extremely complex, time and space do not permit me to do them justice here. In a thumbnail sketch we can see the roots of Tillich’s concept of God as being itself coming out of this evolutionary development. Anthropologists understand religion as developing as man evolved. No one invented religion, no one decided one day to make up some entity called a God. Religion existed before gods existed. The instinctive realization toward integration into being was part of our ancient ancestors, part of our pre-human heritage. It grew up with us and began to down on us in ways that could be consciously pondered and portrayed as we began to grasp symbolic representation and to think about death and to wonder about the things around us. Atheists still use the old ninetieth century structural functionalist explanation for the origins of religion; the need to explain the thunder, the need to explain rain, the need to manipulate a higher power to make the crops grow. This explanation isn’t really accepted now days because now we realize there’s something more to it all; the sense of he numinous. To those outside looking in religion seems to be about ceremonies and the need to manipulate powers to those involved in It the reality is quite different. As I’ve already said atheists don’t listen to religious people as to why they believe, they are more concerned with assigning the explanations that flatter their own view point. The realization of the sense of the numinous the idea that there is a special quality to being that can be found all around us, the sense of the holy is the preferred explanation for thinkers such as Huston Smith:
"It is the experience of the transcendent, including the human response to that experience, that creates faith, or more precisely the life of faith. [Huston] Smith seems to regard human beings as having a propensity for faith, so that one speaks of their faith as "innate." In his analysis, faith and transcendence are more accurate descriptions of the lives of religious human beings than conventional uses of the word, religion. The reason for this has to do with the distinction between participant and observer. This is a fundamental distinction for Smith, separating religious people (the participants) from the detached, so-called objective students of religious people (the observers). Smith's argument is that religious persons do not ordinarily have "a religion." The word, religion, comes into usage not as the participant's word but as the observer's word, one that focuses on observable doctrines, institutions, ceremonies, and other practices. By contrast, faith is about the nonobservable, life-shaping vision of transcendence held by a participant..."

Smith considers transcendence to be the one dimension common to all peoples of religious faith: "what they have in common lies not in the tradition that introduces them to transcendence, [not in their faith by which they personally respond, but] in that to which they respond, the transcendent itself..."[1]
            The issue of religious adaptation to culture is most interesting because it illustrates the plastic nature of religion, and highlights the fact that belief is not just adding a fact to the universe but is actually an orientation to one’s own place in being. First we see humanity beginning to understand about pictures and representation, and in that same era, or before it perhaps but certainly in that era we began burying out dead with plants and herbs that would help them either because we expected them to have some sort of afterlife in which these things could be used, or we began to feel that they symbolically suggested our wishes for them. In this general era, the “pre historic” the “stone age” humans began to sense the presence of spiritual forces and began burying their dead [2] with herbs and drawing their hands on cave walls, because these things offered some sense of connection with spiritual forces. Some of the flowers put in the graves did not grow in the area; all are used in folk medicine with healing prosperities, indicating they had significance for a belief system.[3] Humans had a belief in sprits long before they believed in gods. What they were actually doing in all of this was coming to understand not only that the world and how they already knew to live in it, but the idea of its enchantment. The skeptic can only see that they were wrong, stupid ancient man so wrong about the existence of this extra object no one can see; what really seems to have been going on was a discovery about himself, we are living in a world filled with spiritual forces, he began to feel this. After several thousand years of pondering such things finally began to conceptualize these forces are personal and can be named and thus came up with the concept of gods. This concept was rooted in the first inklings of an understanding about our own lives and what it means to live in the world, to be part of being.
            Religious belief is an adaptation to culture because it is filtered through the lens of the cultural construct in order to be understood and shared in communication. The skeptic imagines the origin of religion to have been such as his/her observation of modern religion goes, a set of people try to understand why water falls out of the sky every so often and so they make up a story about a big man up there who pours water out of his huge boot, or whatever. The evolutionary practices of religious people as conform to their cultures have aided and abided this idea as it has been foisted upon the public. When we look at the nature of religion in the ancient world, even earlier we don’t an outside observer we see a practitioner who may resort to drawing upon a reservoir of knowledge that he already posses to explain the world, but he/she already posses that knowledge because it’s part of his/her way of life. Religion was not segmented factions battling to see whose set of doctrines came to dominate, in the ancient world religion was not about theology it was even “religion” that word was not used, it was ‘obedience.’ As human began sharpening their concepts they used the king as a model to represent deity because the king was the most powerful person around. Yet human understanding about life was already grasping the concept of the spirit and one’s place in being well before this understanding was ever called “religious belief.” The idea of God who is worshipped and has followers who chose one God over another a latter development, just as priest craft was a latter development.[4]
            Rudolph Otto coined the term “sense of the numinous, in his work The Idea of The Holy in order to capture the mysterious essence of the quality of feeling that stands behind all religion. He used words like “dread” and mysterium Tremendum to get across these are not ordinary feelings; words failed him in being able to describe what exactly he was talking, but this is the essence of mystical or “peak” experience. These terms are used to indicate a feeling or a sense that is beyond the ordinary sense in which we use them. It is non-rational, not irrational. It’s not “crazy” but can’t be analyzed or pinned down and distilled in reason. [5] The sense of the numinous is related to mystical experience and stands at the origin of religion in human thinking; this is essentially why religion exists. It is not hard to understand that this is the feeling related to the mysteries of life, death and the great beyond that led our ancient nameless primordial ancestors to draw their hands on cave walls and bury their dead with flowers to think about the other world and the forced that enchanted the universe with a sense they could not comprehend. At the center of this feeling is the sense of which we read above, of which Smith and Ideonopolis speak, “transcendence itself.” This is a realization about their place in the world, their being and their relation to the rest of being. They did not try to dissect it or psychoanalyze it away, they lived it out. The way to recapture it and live it again is to open up to the sense of wonder in being and allows the sense of being to suggest the categories into which we focus our understanding. There are methodologies that will allow us to do this.

The Universal Nature of Religion

What all people have done, all cultures have developed in my guises is the same basic set of questions and the same basic set of answers, but they come out in different forms. All religions seek to comprehend, identify and name the "human problematic." That is to say, the problem at the heart of being human. Some frame it in terms of sin, some cultures frame it in terms of "imbalance with nature" some frame it in terms of "disobeying natural law" some frame it in other terms, rebirth, impurity, whatever. They are all saying "there's a problem in the nature of being human, it's creates an estrangement form our source, it disrupts what is supposed to be harmonious and meaningful in our existence. This is the problem or set of problems at the hart of being human. In the very preparative understanding it's bad luck, breaking taboo, in the sophisticated understanding, as in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, its self transcendence. Niebuhr pretty much sums up what all of them are saying, he does it through his understanding of St. Augustine. Because we are able to think and to remember the past and predict the future, we can understand what will happen if we don't pay the rent. That's self transcendence. We can go beyond our momentary self and understand based upon the past the problems of the future. That creates anxiety, we fear, so we steal (for example) to pay the rent.
....Thus, we become willing to do injustice to others in order to alleviate our anxiety. This creates a new anxiety, we don't like doing unjust things to others so we feel guilt. Guilt produces estrangement from our sense of source. We seek relief and we find it in terms of Ultimate transformation experience. We can't just bliss out and forget what we did because of the guilt. So we need to have guilt assuaged. Nothing assuages guilt like being forgiven. We seek mediation, we seek a way to mediate between the need for forgiveness and the transformational power that brings a sense of being forgiven. That mediation is where organized religion comes in. This is not  pretending anything, it's administering a sense of forgiveness. When that sense is real and the relief is really delivered the transformational power is unleashed and we have off scale happiness. This is the essence of what religion is about. All religions have it.
....I've mixed two things up here. I stand by the senerio but it's nto all Niebuhr.[6] The bit about sin and self transcendence is, the big about identifying human problematic and transformation resolving the problematic (that's the ultimate point of the mediation) is from Dr. Neil MacFarland of Perkins school of theology. [7] The development of modern theological method and the doctrinal details of any religious tradition are just the playing out through time and the diversification and evolutionary development of human understanding in relation to a religious tradition. The purpose of tradition is serve as a guide, so we know where people have been in the past and what the pitfalls to avoid are, and we and we can develop and sharpen our understand. In another way they are like vocabularies, because they enable one to enter the ancinet conversation and to understand what has been contributed to the conversation over time. People use them as means of exclusion but that is a cultural development and one that has not always been around. The Ancient Hebrews did not consign their enemies to hell (they didn't have a conception of hell) on the basis that "they are not us." That's actually a somewhat modern development and probably came out of the Greco-Roman disdain for the barbarian.
,,,,Now one might ask if this contradicts my understanding of Christianity? No not at all. See my article on Salvation and other faiths. As long as we believe that understanding can grow our modern understanding can be deeper than our ancestor's understanding. Of course I've said that God is beyond our understanding, that's true. We can know God, we just can't put into words what we know. We know through mystical union. We can make metaphors. As long as we remember not to literalize the metaphors we will be OK. After all the idea is to experience not to understand words on paper. It's not about control, it's about letting go of control.

What about Romans 2?

Romans says that humans feel away form an understanding of who God was and began to worship the creature rather than the creator. Is my account of the origin of religion contradicting that idea? No, not at all. Notice what it means to shift from creator to creature. It means to change focus from the basis of all reality to objects in creation. Even Christians do this today if we aren't careful, we begin to thin of God as a big man in the sky, an amplification of humanity rather than the basis of all that is.


[1]Thomas Idinopulos,.”What is Religion” Cross Currents, Volume 48, no. 3(Fall 1998). Also see online URL: visited 10/28/10
[2] Paul Pettitt,  “When Burial Begins,” British Archaeology, Issue 66 August 2002. See Web versoin URL:, visited 10/14/08. Pettitt is research fellow at Keble college, Oxford.
[3] Richard Leaky  and Roger Lewin. Origins. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1977
[4] Willfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1991, Originally published 1962. on line google books page 51, URL: visited 9/28/10
[5] Rudolf Otto, and John W. Harvey.The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational factor in the Idea of the Divine, 1929. Kessinger Pulbisher’s rare prints, (John W. Harvey Trans)  2004 5-8 Online page number URL: visited 10/4/10, Originally published Oxford University Press 1926.
[6]. Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. I.Westminster: John Knox Press 1991(the original publication was in the 40s).
[7] Class notes at Perkins

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes about the dichotomy between natural and supernatural and how unnecessary it is. He quotes a question ask him form the general public, a question that shows the extent to which supernature has been discredited and slandered:
The supernatural seems irrational, superstitious, archaic and primitive. So far, the natural world has provided explanations for the previously mysterious unknown: social psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, mathematics, biology, medicine, physics, astronomy, geology and history have aided humanity and preserved our mental and physical health and extended our lives.
So why do we refer to G-d to as a supernatural being? Where is the evidence that the supernatural exists, or has any bearing on our lives? Does the word "supernatural" even mean anything, other than "I don't understand this (yet)"?[1]
Here we see several of these misconceptions about the supernatural, not only because it’s linked to superstition, which it clearly has nothing to do with, but also the idea that God is “a supernatural being” (whatever that is) and that there’s no evidence for it, when in reality the evidence everywhere, in the previous article Dawkins gives us a bunch of it, even though he thinks it’s disproving supernatrue. The questioner puts this dichotomy in terms of the known (nature) and the unknown (supernature). The Rabbi’s answer takes off along these very lines; known and unknown. “Superntural” he deduces is based upon whatever doesn’t’ fit the categories of knowledge listed; all of course are scientific categories. That’s the only form of knowledge that atheists will think about or accept. Everything must be scientific or it doesn’t exist. Dawkins concept of a rational form of religion is a scientific (“Einstein”) religion.
The Original Concept of Supernature
            All of these objections assume a certain version of the supernatural. The supernatural has become a catch-all for anything non materialistic or naturalistic that scientistic types want to snub without really having to disprove it. Supernatural today means anything from ghosts, Bigfoot, UFO to psychic powers, and angels and demons and God in heaven. Not so with the original concept. In the early centuries of Christian philosophy the original Greek fathers thought of God as transcendent but they did not necessarily conceive of that as “supernatural.” The Supernatural was something very different then than it is now. This is important because that original meaning, which Christian spiritually was predicated upon, is empirically probable and completely naturalistic and can be shown to be real by simple scientific means. We have to understand the original concept, there are two thinkers who tried to restore the concept to it’s original form and we need to listen to what they tried to say. The first one was Matthias Joseph Scheeben (born, 1 March, 1835; died at Cologne, 21 July, 1888.) His major work was Nature and Grace.[2] Scheeben was a mystic who contemplated and studied divine grace and hypostatic union. He was also of greatly accomplished academically and was a fine scholarly of scholastic theology. He studied at the Gregorian University at Rome and taught dogmatic theology at the Episcopal seminary
at Cologne. Scheeben was the chief defender of the faith against rationalism in the nineteenth century.
In the summer of 1888, Scheeben died in Cologne, having spent most of his fifty-three years teaching dogmatics and moral theology in the archdiocesan seminary there. He was Germany's most persuasive defender of Vatican Fs decision on papal infallibility and an impassioned advocate of religious freedom in the Kulturkampf, Bismarck's determined but finally unsuccessful effort to subject the Catholic Church to the control of his new German state. He was also the author of three major dogmatic works: Nature and Grace (1861), The Mysteries of Christianity (1865), and the massive Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, left unfinished at his death.
The generations that followed Scheeben regarded him as one of the greatest minds of modern Catholic theology. His books were repeatedly republished in Germany up into the 1960s and translated into other European languages, including English (the Dogmatics, alas, only in highly truncated form). Since the Second Vatican Council, though, he has mostly been neglected by theological teachers and students who have wrongly imagined the nineteenth-century Catholic tradition to be a period of antimodern darkness.
The Catholic world of a hundred or more years ago was quite right, I think, to see the Cologne seminary professor as perhaps the finest modern Catholic dogmatic theologian. His writings not only yield rare insight into the mysteries of Christian faith, they draw the attentive reader ever more deeply into the mysteries themselves. Scheeben is more important now than he has ever been. He can teach a theological generation that has sold its inestimable birthright how to restore and renew dogmatic theology.[3]
            The other thinker is Eugene R. Fairweather (2 November 1920-) was Anglican scholar and translator of Church fathers from Ottowa. MA in Philosophy form University of Toronto (1943) Ordained priest in 1944 and became tutor at Trinity college Toronto same year. He studied theology at Union theological seminary and earned his Th.D. in 1949. He had an honorary doctorate from McGill University. At the time he wrote his article “Christianity and the Supernatural” he was editor of the Canadian Journal of Theology and professor of dogmatic theology and ethics at Trinity College, Toronto.[4] Fairweather quotes Scheeben and bases part of his view upon Scheeben’s.
           Fairweather’s view of the supernatural is contrary to the notion of two opossing realms, or a dualism. He uses the phrase “two-sidedness,” there is a “two-sidedness” about reality but it’s not a real dualism. The Supernatural is that which is above the natural in a certain sense but it is also working in the natural. There are supernatural effects which in the natural realm and make up part of human life. Essentially we can that “the supernatural” (supernature) is an ontology. Fiarweather doesn’t use that term but that’s essentially what he’s describing. Ontology is a philological description of reality. Supernature describes reality in that it is the ground and end of the natural. What that means is unpacked by Fairweather to mean that it is an ordered relation of means to immediate ends with respect to their final ends. “The Essential structure of the Christian faith has a real two-sidedness about it, which may at first lead the unwary into a dualism and then encourage the attempt to resolve the dualism by an exclusive emphasis upon one or the other [side] of the severed element of completely Christianity.”[5] He explains the ordered relation several times through paring off opposites or supposed opposites: human/divine; immanent/transcendent; realm of Grace/realm of nature. All of these he refers to as “ordered relations.”[6] If this was Derrida we would call them binary oppositions. In calling them “ordered” he is surely saying one is ‘above’ the other in some sense. They are not necessary oppositions because that’s his whole point, not a true dualism.
            Supernature is working in nature. It’s not breaking in unwelcome but is drawing the workings of nature to a higher level. Fairweather describes it as the “ground and end of nature.” In other words is the basis upon which nature comes to be and the goal toward which nature moves. Now it’s true that science removes the teleological from nature it doesn’t see it as moving toward a goal but that’s because it can’t consider anything beyond its own domain. Science is supposed to be empirical consideration of the natural realm and is supposed to keep its nose out of the business of commentary on metaphysics. Of course modern science does the opposite it become a form of metaphysics by infusing itself with philosophical assumptions and then declaring there is nothing beyond the natural/material realm. That is to say, when it is dominated by secularist concerns that are the direction science is put in by ideological interests. Be that as it may, theological we can take a broader view and we see a goal oriented aspect to the natural. Supernatural effects draw the natural toward supernature. That is to say human nature responds to the calling of God in elevating humans to a higher level of consciousness. Another example of the ground and end of nature that Fairweather doesn’t give, but I like to use, is Martin Luther King’s statement about the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Nothing in nature bends toward justice, if by “nature” we mean rocks and trees but there more to the natural realm than just those aspects that science studies. Humans are part of the realm of the natural and it’s part of our social world that we understand concepts of justice. Due to our own purposive nature we bend the arch of the moral universe toward justice.
            The term Supernatural (SN) comes to us from Aquinas.[7] He gets it from John Scotus Erigena and Burgundio of Pisa, who in turn take it from Pseudo-Dionysius and John of Damascus.[8] The latter used the adverbial form Supernaturaliter. This is coming from the Greek hyperphuos.[9] “From an early period the concept of ‘that which is above nature’ had been seized upon by Christian Theologians as an appropriate means of stating the core of the gospel, so far example, Origen tells how God raises man above human nature…and makes him change into a better and divine nature.”[10] John Chrysostom speaks of speaks of humans having received grace “health beauty honor and dignities far exceeding our nature.”[11] “In the West the most concise expression of the idea is to be found in the Leonine prayer ‘grant us to be partakers of his divinity who deigned to become  partakers of our humanity.’”[12] “In these and a multitude of patristic texts the essential point is just this, that God, who is essentially superntrual perfects with a perfection beyond creaturely comprehension. Nevertheless elevates human creatures to a true participation in divine life an indwelling of God in man and man in God.”[13] The important point here is that human nature is being raised to the higher level of divine. We can see this manifests itself through the experience commonly known as “mystical.” That I will take up shortly, First, let’s turn to Scheeben to document further that is the nature of the supernatural. Supernatural is the power of God to raise us to this higher level.
            Scheeben deals with the distinction between natural and supernatural faith. Throughout his writings we see this typified in terms of the tendency of the power of God to elevate humanity to a higher spiritual level. This means consciousness as well as habit. He speaks of “supernatural effects,” the effect that the pull of the supernatural has upon the natural. This is why it’s valid to think of the supernatural as an ontology, it’s a description of reality, or what is. Empirically that description tends toward the realization of human consciousness reaching to a higher level as a result of certain kinds of experiences. Scheeben expresses this in terms of “higher nature.” Super nature is the higher nature to which human nature is being elevated.
If the lower nature is raised in all of these respects to the level of a higher nature, and especially if this nature modifies the lower nature so deeply and affects it so powerfully that the limits of possibility are reached; if God, purest light and mightiest fire, wishes through to permeate his creature with his energy, to flood it with brightness and warmth to transform it into his own splendor, to make the creature like the father of spirits and impart to it the fullness of his own divine life, if I say, the entire being of the soul is altered in the deepest recesses and in all its ramifications to the very last, not by annihilation, but by exaltation and transfiguration. Then we can affirm that a new higher nature has come to the lower nature, because it has been granted a participation in the essence of him to whom the higher nature properly belongs.[14]
He seeks in one point of his work to resolve a fine point of difficulty between the Thomist-Molinist dicthotomy. Scheeben didn’t like dichotomies and thus seeks a third way. His solution is to see the natural as a mirror of the divine. The dichotomy deals with predestination, grace and free will. That’s not the issue I don’t want to get off into that. For Scheeben the authority of God is the sole formal object of faith. Thus faith is divine both in its source and object.[15] According to this position faith is neither the result of rational self interest nor a consequence of the human spirit. We must not mistake the manifestation in experience for the motive of faith. Faith is the result of obedience to the drawing power and call of God.[16] Nature (Greek Physis, Latin natura) is the realm of life from life, according to Scheeben. Super nature is the overarching principle toward which nature strives
The whole point is that the life of the children of God is directed to such specific objects and ends as cannot be striven for or attained, at least in a way that corresponds to their loftiness, except by acts of a supernatural perfection, that is, of a perfection unattainable by nature, —in other words, by acts which are kindred and similar to the proper life of God in its loftiness.[17]
We can see in his answers to the Thoamsit/Molinist issue the basis of the claim that Super nature is the power of God to rise us to a higher level. This is how Schebeen construed it. In summarizing Murry speaks of  “power which flow from the new nature,”
that is his starting point(16). One conclusion follows immediately: the new powers which flow from the new nature must themselves be “an image of the divine vital powers”(17), i.e. the specific perfection of the divine vital powers must reflect itself in their working. That is Scheeben’s “Grundanschauung”, on which rests all his theorizing about supernatural acts. In a word, to the divinization of man’s nature corresponds a divinization of his activity(18). And Scheeben is occupied wholly in drawing out the nature of this divinization and its consequences. The immediate consequence, in which I am here interested, is that man’s divinized activity must be directed to objects of the specifically divine order. The essence of Scheeben’s thought is revealed in this sufficiently characteristic passage:[18]
The passage in Scheeben to which he refers:
If we have truly become partakers in the divine nature, and by this supernature have become most intimately akin to the divine nature.... then we are taken up into the sphere of its life; then the Godhead itself in its immediacy and in its own proper essence as it is in itself becomes the object of our activity. Then we shall know God Himself, illuminated by His light, without the mirror of creatures; then we shall love God immediately in Himself, no longer as the Creator of our nature, but as One Who communicates His own nature to us, —penetrated as we are by His fire, and made akin to Him in His divine eminence . . . In a word, if we become partakers of the divine nature, our life and our activity must be specifically similar to the divine. To this end it must’ have the same specific, formal, characteristic object as the divine activity has.[19]
Murray summarizes again:
This one passage, out of many(20), is sufficient to show how the theory of the supernatural object enters into Scheeben’s system, namely as a consequence of (or if you wish, as a postulate for the completion of) his favorite parallelism between the divine life of God Himself and the life of grace in His creature(21). That parallelism suggests the formula that man’s supernatural activity is “an image of the divine activity”, and this formula in turn commands on the one hand the introduction of a supernatural object (i.e. “God as He is in Himself”), and on the other hand dictates the consistent use of the term “immediate” to characterize the nature of the union with God that is effected by supernatural knowledge and love(22). In this last detail, — that supernatural activity unites the soul immediately to God, — Scheeben’s theory culminates. The idea appealed immensely to him, though practically speaking it merely means that “God as He is in Himself” is the immediate object of supernatural activity. Its contrary is that natural activity effects no immediate union with God, since it reaches God only through the medium of creatures, and not “as He is in Himself”[20]
            In all of these descriptions we see one standard concept: that supernature is a life, an experience, an inner relation between the divine and human nature. He says supernture is that which we partake of divine life. Human nature is elevated to the higher level by super nature and this primarily the way Scheeben speaks of supernature. This is what super nature is, the power of God to elevate to a higher level. There is an indication form what is said that “the supernatural” is a level of being above he realm of the natural. That must be the case because the power of God to elevate would surely be centered upon a higher level than then natural. That doesn’t mean that we are free to associate the supernatural with psychic powers and ghosts and unexplained phenomena and anything “x-files” like. The sense that the supernatural is above the nature is an implication of the ontology; the ground and end of the natural would sure be on some higher level in a sense. The more important aspect that all of these writers speak of is “participation” in divine life. Shceeben speaks directly of super nature just that, the divine life in which we are elevated to participate in.
            The important aspect of all of this in relation to science is that super nature is not some juxtaposed belief in the unseen that has no analogy in the empirical. The experience of being raised to a higher level through contact with the divine life is clearly empirical. It may be a matter of interpretation as to the cause of the effects, but the effects of what is called “religious experience” are certainly empirical. It’s not hard to link those experiences with the divine; the content of them is that of God and the divine relation to the world. This is what most of those who experiences these things think they experienced.

[1] a reader writing to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “What is the Supernatural?” Essentials. Blog URL:  visited 1/23/2012
[2] Matthias Joseph Scheeben, Nature and Grace, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009 (paperback) originally unpublished  1856.
[4] Editor’s introduction to Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural,” in New Theology no.1.  New York: Macmillian, Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman ed. 1964. 235-256.
[5] Ibid. 237
[6] ibid
[7] Fairweather,ibid, 239
[8] ibid
[9] ibid
Pseudo-Dionysius Ep 4, ad Caium (PG 3:1072)
[10] Fairweather, ibid (239).
[11] ibid
[12] Fairweather quoting Leonine prayer, ibid.
[13] ibid
[14] Maithias Jospeh Scheeben quoted in Fairweather (239-240). Fairwether fn Scheeben the version he uses. M.J. Scheeben, Nature and Grace, St. Lewis: Herder, 1954, 30.
[15] Avery Dulles, S.J. An Assurance of Things Hoped for: A Theology of Christian Faith. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 90.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Scheeben, quoted in Works by John Courtney Murray Chapter II “Natural and supernatural Faith.” Website, Woodstock Theological Center Library. P100 URL:  visited August 14, 2012
Mathias Joseph Scheeben on faith, Doctoral Dissertation of John Courtney Murry
Woodstock Theological Center Library.
This volume in the Toronto Studies in Theology reproduces the doctoral dissertation John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967) completed in the spring of 1937 at the Gregorian University in Rome. From then until now, the Gregorian University archives contained the original typescript of “Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s Doctrine on Supernatural, Divine Faith: A Critical Exposition”. A carbon-copy was incorporated into the Murray Archives housed by the Woodstock Theological Library in the Special Collections Room of the Joseph Mark Lauinger Library at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. John Courtney Murray eventually published the third chapter, modified and disengaged from its original context (1). The complete, original text is published here for the first time.
[18] John Courtney Murray summarizing Scheeben, ibid.
[19] Scheeben quoted in Muarry, ibdid, p101
[20] Murray, ibid.


In an article entitled “The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited” Bernard Francis, Ester M. Sternberg and Elizabeth Fee provide something closer to a scientific appraisal.[1] They studied 411 patents cured in 1909-14 and thoroughly reviewed 25 cures acknowledged between 1927 and 1976. By “acknowledged” they mean cures that were officially declared “Miracles” by the church. “the Lourdes Phenomena extraordinary in many respects still awaits scientific explanation.”[2] They took the 411 cures from the era known as “the golden age or Lourdes.” This is the period from 1909-14 which was the time when the popularity was at its height, the medical committee was functioning smoothly with new rules, and crowds were pouring in. In the early days right after the visions began there were many claims of miracles that went unrecorded, or that were not help up to a scrutiny of criteria or that weren’t recorded in a systematic fashion. This state of affairs evolved through the late ninetieth century with the imposition of rules and the evolution of the medical board. Since the 70’s the official miracles have stopped and the crowds are way down and these is less of sense of miracles going on. This is largely because of the great proficiency of medical diagnosis and treatment as well as the strident nature of the rules. The situation vastly improved as a fine tuned medical miracle documenting machine evolved out of the end of the ninetieth century.
            Data on the early period is found in the archives of the sanctuary of Notre Dame of Lourdes (April 1868-June 1944). Those archives provide mainly unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence. They also used Ruth Harris’s scholarly work Lourdes, Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. For the period 1885-1914 they also used Annales of Notre Dame de Lourdes vol 17-47, George Bertirins Historie Critique Des Evenments de Lourdes,  and a host of other materials.[3] The Authors set out to determine if Lourdes cures really were cures. Their working methodology for this task was to evaluate the nature of the disease and then to assess the nature of the diagnostic criteria and evidence used for deciding that cure had occurred. The criteria improved over the years as diagnostic ability improved. They studied 411 patents cured between 1911-1914 and thoroughly reviewed 25 cures between 1947 and present. Their conclusion “the Lourdes phenomena still extraordinary in many respects still awaits scientific explanation.”[4] The nature of the cures has changed over time. The medical committee was not in place in the beginning and it had different periods of improvement. Speaking of the “golden age” around 1914, Francis and his colleagues write, “led by talented position Boissarie, and his assistant Dr. Cox,  the medical Bureau is said to have improved its method and gained a reputation for excellence, but it faced a daunting task…150,000 pilgrims a year.”[5] Yet some of the cures of that era were deemed “remarkable.” Marie Lebranchu and Marie Lemarchand cured of Pulmonary Tuberculosis. That cure was attended by the famous atheist writer Emile Zola; Grabiel Gargam cured of post traumatic paraplegia in 1901 and several others.[6] Prior to the cure patents were described as being in decline or in an “alarming state of health.” After “patients confined to bed for years would stand and walk regain their weight resume their prior activity. 96 cured patients were evaluated again one year latter...they were found healthy and as far as we now the recoveries stood he test of time.”[7] Modern researchers reading the accounts of many female patents form this period can sense the neurotic nature of some symptoms. There were obvious cases hysteria. There are also cases of anatomical abnormalities. “Scores of visiting physicians witnessed the disappearance of macroscopic lesions, easy to identify such as external tumors, urine fibromass, and open wounds and suppurative fecal fistulae.”[8]
            The cures were said to be instantaneous is 59 percent of 382 cases for which they had adequate records; this is all within the gold age period.[9] During the golden age there were strange spontaneous healings in the town in such places as breakfast table, during a procession, in the hospital ward in town.[10] Apparently it was WWI that put the Kybosh on the golden age. The committee changed leadership many times and doctors were scarce due to the war.[11] 1947-2006 was marked by improved diagnostics, new young physicians more careful attitudes. The created an international committee designed to review the work of the Bureau.[12]  There are 25 patients cured and their cures analyzed form this period. The Francis article is extremely though with sound medical and scholarly caution. They take a critical view of the subject mater and the data. The data is very thorough. They use a huge number of sources. They tally the kinds of diagnosis and which diseases were the most cured and the most reported. TB was always the leading disease and GI tract problems were very common. The authors describe a development over time from an early phase of inadequate reporting and uncritical acceptance of cure, to a modern set up which is well regarded and scientific.[13] Those standards of excellence are now outdated, the rules have been upgraded. Modern controversy stems form the declining reports due to better diagnostics and the difficulty in finding someone who hasn’t sought medical cures. There is a controversy over relaxing the rules. Thus all of this leads Francis et al to speak of “cures” rather than Miracles.
The Critical assessment of the authors:
             If skeptics seek absolute scientific proof so strong that they can’t argue and if they seek to be completely won over such that they can no longer struggle with doubt, they are no going to find that kind of absolute proof in this article, and I suspect not at Lourdes or anywhere else. On the other hand there is more than enough here to totally do away with the knee jerk bigotry that says Lourdes miracles are nonsense, just laudable stupidity and a thing of derision to be classed with UFO abductions. That sort of view is totally disproved by the article. If one takes the article as evidence of supernatural reality its not without its problems. If one allows the article shed light on the question of supernatural effects, there’s more than enough evidence to see that one can reasonably place confidence in such notions.  In their critical assessment the authors find that the word “cure” is misunderstood. It is not taken as a euphemism for “miracle.” Nor does it imply absolute knowledge of a permanent state of removal of disease. They are improvements in the state of health. “By cross checking avaible data we arrived at a rough estimate of medical events acknowledged as ‘cures’ as 4,516, in the period 1858-1976.”[14] Now most of these cures occurred before WWII and were most of them were based upon what is described as “flimsy evidence.” There was an expectation of miracles and no follow up. For that reason the authors find that it is impossible to access the number of valid cures before 1947. that’s not to say that there aren’t cases that can’t be validated individually.  There has been a decline in the number of cures for the last one hundred years, and the authors list several factors as the reason for this: increasing efficiency of modern medicine (diagnostic equipment and better definitions for the nature of a condition), moreover Lambertini’s canons that had to be acknowledged to qualify a miracle have actually stood in the way of being able to declare many cases as miracles.
            The requirements for these canons are as follows: (a) must be sever, incurable, or difficult to treat, (b) not to be in a final stage (c) no curative treatment given (d) the cure must be instantaneous (d) cure must be complete without relapse. One can see this is so strict that’s one of the major reasons there are so few official miracles. There are examples from certain periods where Lambertini canons have just been violated, but in do doing they found remarkable cures. In their series of study of twenty five cured patients six were cured of terminally ill diseases, eight were cured in a matter of days or months, or some even years, this is a sharp departure. The canons “seem to have been rescinded” in 2006. They just made it too difficult to find anyone who fills the bill.” It was obvious they no longer applied to what was observed.”[15] That’s one thing that makes for the category I’ve spoken of before of the “remarkable case.” There are only 67 official miracles but 7000 remarkable cases. Those are based upon modern study of the committee not part of this study. Miracles are not for the Catholic Church on the same level as the sacraments or the creeds so belief in them is not obligatory.[16] A parallel is drawn by the author between their work and that of Jacquelyn Douffin. The Pathetical conditions are the same the proportion of tuberculosis neurological disorders and GI diseases were distributed in similar fashion and the manner of the cures were the same.
            The authors find that the history of Lourdes unfolds like the history of medicine itself. The diseases were diverse the accuracy of diagnosis and follow up badly done in the beginning and growing in sharpness and accuracy over time. That is no disproof of miracles. One of the findings of the authors is that “the Lourdes cures have been “beyond the natural course of nature, ” not “contrary to nature” or “breaking natural law.” To give an example they use the distinction between a case of pulmonary tuberculosis considered incurable, vs. growing back an amputated limb, which is contrary to nature, breaking the law of nature.[17] That’s a problematic statement as we will find in the next chapter. If physical laws are nothing more then descriptions of our observations about how the universe behaves than nothing we find can be contrary to that law because that’s what we find happening. On the other to make such a distinction between “the course” of nature, which is based upon our observations, and “laws” assumes form the outset the understanding of a higher law. For skeptic to make use of the distinction is acknowledge the need for a higher sense of order (“law”) as opposed to just they way we observe the universe.
            Mangiapan did the only retrospective study from 1947-76. “Thirteen patients out of twenty-five (tables 3 and 4) died nineteen to fifty-seven years after the cure and without relapse of the disease. For nine subjects living in 2008, the time elapsed since the cure was ten to fifty-four years.”[18] They find that four cases of multiple sclerosis had remissions of four year duration that is equivalent to assumed cure. Four cases of tb were actually cured. The speed of the curse is without known equivalent and makes for remarkable cases. Two were taken out of the study key requirements weren’t met. Of twenty-five they have misgivings about eight. The reasons for this are: (a) all the criteria were not met, (b) lack diagnostic evidence, (c) inadequate follow-up (d) possible influence of possible treatments (e) possible diagnostic error (f) possible diagnostic error (g) relapse (h) outcome in doubt.[19] This means that while eight can be doubted and two discarded seventeen are solidly documented cures. Further findings looking back over the entire history of the phenomena the researchers suggest that about 1/3 of the cases involve cures that were not spontaneous but required days or weeks. The researchers find that there are significant mental factors present and an atmosphere conducive to healing but they don’t make any conclusion about the influence of psychosomatic cures and they don’t try to make such an excuse to “explain” it all. It might also be worth pointing out even though they can’t be studied there’s an “underside” of Lourdes cures of people who are healed in connection prayers involving Lourdes or use of the water away form the shrine who never report in but send information so that a plaque can be put up. This number has been increasing was about ninety-four in 2008. While they cant’ really be claimed as cures they can’t be studied they suggest the possibly of healing outside the domain of Lourdes.[20]
The conclusion of the authors:
Their conclusion is basically: “We don’t really know if God is working miracles at Lourdes or not, the situation is not clear enough to affirm or deny such a cliam. “ Yet they make the frank admission that the way people see it will be determined by their view on religion and belief. While that may seem like a refutation to some, it’s all we need to undermine the closed realm of discourse on the subject. This will be seen in the next chapter.
…the least that can be stated is that the exposures to Lourdes and its representations (Lourdes water, mental images…) in a context of prayer have induced an exceptional usually instantaneous, symptomatic, and at best physical cures of widely different diseases. Although what follows is regarded by some as a hackneyed concept, any and all scholars of Lourdes have come to agree with one of two equally acceptable—but seemingly conflicting and irreconcilable—points of view on the core issue, are the Lourdes cures a matter of  divine intervention or not? Faith is set against science…uncanny and wired, the cures are currently beyond our ken but still impressive, incredibly effective and awaiting scientific explanation. Creating a theoretical explanatory framework could be within reach of neurophysiologists in the next decade…We reached the same conclusion as Carrel some 80 to one hundred years ago “instead of being a simple place of miracles of interest only to the pious Lourdes presents a considerable scientific interest….although uncommon the miraculous cures are evidence of somatic and mental processes we do not know.”[21]
While the findings of Francis et al do not provide conclusive proof of miracles do not allow us state that miracles are scientifically proved, the also reject and disprove the mocking assertions of skeptics that Lourdes miracles are just laughable nonsense to be dismissed with UFO abductions and Bigfoot.
            There are those who will argue that unless the causes are all uniform and proven and pile up a huge number they can’t be miracles because surely if there was a loving God working miracles he would have to succeed every time and have to work them every time he’s asked. We can’t subject God’s will to numbers. We can’t assume we control the process or that God is obligated to heal every time. That’s we should take it case by case and not attaches numbers. Lourdes does represent “extraordinary proof” in the sense that this concept if meaningful in connection with Bayes’s theorem. That concept does not refer to bizarre way out things such as UFO abductions but to whatever stands out form the statistical norm; seventeen out of twenty-five is not bad.

[1] Bernard Francis et al, “The Lourdes Medical Cures Re-visited,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10.1093/jhmas/jrs041) 2012 pdf downloaded SMU page 1-28  all the page numbers given are from pdf
Bernard Francis is former professor Emeritus of medicine, Unversite Claude Bernard Lyon. Elisabeth Sternberg taught at National Institute of Mental Health and The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. Elisabeth Fee was at National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ibid, abstract.
[5] Ibid, pdf page 8
[6] ibid
[7] ibid 9
[8] ibid 10
[9] ibid, 12
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] ibid, 13
[13] ibid 21
[14] ibid 19
[15] ibid 20
[16] ibid they sight Catechism of the Catholic Chruch part 3 section 1 chapter 3 article 2, grace 2003.The Catholic believer may reject all ecclesiastical miracles as pious fables and he may reject modern miracles as imagination.
[17] Ibid 21
[18i] ibid 23 Mangiapan  was president of the medical bureau
[19] ibid 24
[20] ibid, 25-27
[21] ibid 27

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