The healing of Bernadette McKenzieJanuary 28, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Boy, I leave town for a few days and the comments go nuts! Oh well, that’s a good thing, so bear with me while I try and dig myself out again. It’s a bit dated at this point, but I wanted to use the Bernadette McKenzie story as a practical illustration of the point I was making in my earlier post about miracles. For reference, here is the story, as quoted by Jayman:
A decade ago, at the age of 12, Bernadette McKenzie found that she could no longer stand upright, even after three operations. She suffered from a tethered spinal cord, a rare congenital condition causing constant pain. The nuns at her school in suburban Philadelphia began a series of prayers, seeking the intercession of their deceased founder, Mother Frances de Sales Aviat, whom they regard as a saint. On the fourth day, Bernadette herself knelt by her bed, telling God that if this was to be her life she would accept it. But she wanted to know–a sign. If she were to walk again, she pleaded, let her favorite song, “Forever Young,” play next on the radio. It did. She immediately jumped up and ran downstairs to tell her family. Bernadette didn’t even notice that her physical symptoms had disappeared, something her doctors say is medically inexplicable. Her recovery is currently being evaluated by the Vatican as a possible miracle [it's since been accepted].
Notice, this is what’s considered a real miracle, as defined by the Vatican, so it’s fair to assume that other alleged miracles will have similar traits. And yet, it’s easy to show that this does not constitute an instance of God showing up in real life, nor is there any particular reason to suppose that anything supernatural is involved. Bernadette’s experience is a textbook example of superstition: “explaining” something by ascribing it to a purported cause even though you not only cannot show any actual connection between the two, but cannot even describe what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. And if this is a fair sample, then we are justified in concluding that the others are not actual supernatural manifestations either. If the Vatican had real miracles to offer, would they tarnish the value of the term “miracle” by applying it to a mere superstitious attribution?
Notice first of all what the evidence actually consists of. In this case we have what we might call the “major miracle” (the healing itself) and the “minor miracle” (the coincidence of the requested song playing on the radio as she was praying for it). The “minor miracle” is actually pretty unremarkable. There’s nothing supernatural about a radio station playing a popular tune, even if the timing seems a bit coincidental. Isn’t it a funny request, though? If you’re going to ask God to intervene in your life and prove His existence via an undeniable and powerful miracle, is it too much to ask that He show up and say “Ok, you’re good”? What’s with the mysterious please-work-a-miracle-to-tell-me-you’re-going-to-work-a-miracle stuff?
Obviously, even as a believer attending a parochial school, under the instruction of devout and faithful nuns, Bernadette had no serious expectation that it was even possible that God might show up in real life and give her some clear guidance, so she resorted instead to the ancient and pagan practice of divination. Not, of course, that she is the first person to do so with God’s implied blessing. But it is no less an occult magical practice, like palmistry, tarot, and reading tea leaves, for all its Biblical precedent.
So the “minor miracle” is really just a subjective and superstitious interpretation of an ordinary event, heightened by the occult and superstitious nature of the request. There are any number of perfectly natural ways the event itself could happen: she could have been generous (and forgetful) in her estimation of which song the “next” one was, she could have been praying for a while and made the request more than once, or she could have subconsciously heard the DJ announce that the song was coming up soon while her conscious mind was focused on praying.
Or it could have been just plain coincidence. I once prayed to my left little finger, asking, “If you are truly the One True God, please let my wife find her car keys,” and I no sooner said “Amen” than she found them. Since I’ve never asked for anything else, my left little finger has a 100% success rate in granting me what I’ve asked it for. You think that is just a coincidence?
The “major miracle” fares no better. Notice, it’s not that we know that this was a miraculous healing, it’s that we don’t know what caused her symptoms to improve (or at least abate). If indeed she had endured three separate operations whose goal was to produce the relief she eventually ended up with, it could just be that the last one was indeed successful, and her continued symptoms merely the psychosomatic product of her own fears that she would never be healed. Or, more ominously, it could be that the symptoms have only been masked, and that the underlying problem is still there.
Which brings us to the moral problem of miracles. Suppose, first of all, that God does indeed have the power to heal. If that’s the case, then Bernadette’s healing proves that there is no particular obstacle (such as free will) that would prevent God from healing people, otherwise He couldn’t have healed Bernadette either. Since He clearly does not help most of those who need it, however, His ability to provide relief means He is morally responsible for the suffering of all those He does not heal, just as He is morally responsible for all the other crimes, tragedies, and evil which He could (allegedly) prevent and/or relieve, and manifestly does not.
Or take the other possibility: that God did not heal, and that Bernadette’s experience has a natural explanation. In that case, science would be very interested in discovering what that explanation is. It could be extremely important to someone else suffering similar symptoms, you see, if doctors could learn from Bernadette’s experience how to relieve seemingly intractable problems with tethered spinal cords. Or conversely, it could be extremely important to Bernadette, should the “cure” turn out to be a malfunction of painful symptoms that might otherwise alert her to a dangerously deteriorating condition.
Yet so long as Bernadette insists on treating her experience as a miracle (i.e. as magic that has no scientific explanation), scientists will be denied access to the detailed facts, or at least hindered in their attempts to discover the natural causes involved. Superstition opposes science, because superstition requires scientific ignorance in order to make its claims. Bernadette may not want doctors to figure out what really happened, since finding a natural explanation would rob her of her special status as a Christian uniquely blessed by God Himself.
In any case, though, ignorance is the absence of knowledge, not the source of it. The fact that doctors don’t know how Bernadette’s symptoms were relieved is ignorance: they don’t now what they don’t know. And there’s nothing shameful about not knowing, so long as you admit that it’s ignorance. It’s only when ignorance pretends to be knowledge (as in, “We don’t know what caused it, therefore we know Who caused it”), that it becomes superstition.
And that’s what Bernadette’s “miracle” does. It’s a superstitious attribution, nothing more. There is no actual, demonstrable connection between her purported cause (God) and the observed effect (the relief of her symptoms). If healing the sick were a crime, there would not be enough evidence to convict God as the perpetrator. It could, for example, have been Santa Claus, who also allegedly possesses magical powers. You will respond, of course, that Santa couldn’t have done it, since his is not real. But I will retort, “He must be real if he’s going around healing people.” After all, isn’t that the argument you are giving me? that God must be real if He’s healing people?
So Bernadette’s “miracle,” as astonishing and urban-legend-worthy as it is, is not a case of God showing up in real life, but is merely an example of people being unable to understand all the causes of what they see. And it certainly requires no supernatural miracle for people to fail to understand all the causes of what they see! That is a very ordinary event, and one that requires only the ordinary proofs that we see all the time.
This example also falls under the principle that the truth is consistent with itself, for if God were permitted, by His own abilities and the general circumstances, to intervene in people’s lives in such a public, manifest, doctor-stumping miraculous way, then He ought also be willing and able to take the lesser, more fundamental, and yet more significant steps of showing up in real life and preaching the Gospel Himself. This would produce a huge increase in the number of saved souls simply by eliminating the heresies, atheisms, and other distractions that prevent men from knowing Him. And yet, though this is what He wants badly enough to die for (literally), we do not see Him doing this. Should we believe that the greater miracles are being performed by a God unwilling and/or unable to do even the most trivial and obvious of the lesser supernatural signs?
I want to close by addressing a specific comment of Jayman’s in relation to miracles in general.
On the other hand, you are making an extraordinary claim when you say God never intervenes in history. In essence you are saying that 48% of Americans were mistaken, deceived, or deluded. And not just some of those people, but each and every one of them. That is an extraordinary claim and you have provided no evidence to support it, let alone extraordinary evidence. If you were to try and explain many of the miracles you would offer extraordinary explanations as well.
The laws of nature are, by definition, ordinary, which is why we call them laws of nature and not “things that nature might possibly do once in a great while if it feels like it.” When I claim that unknown causes are most likely to be consistent with natural laws (i.e. with the way we ordinarly observe things working), I am necessarily making the ordinary claim for which there exists the ordinary proof that we see nature work this way all the time. In fact, we would not have any of knowing what the laws of nature were, if it were not for the fact that they always make things happen in the same way.
What’s more, we know that the laws of nature continue to function consistently even when they are poorly understood by men, or not understood at all. The self-consistent nature of real world truth is what has made it possible for us to progress from our initial ignorance of natural law to a greater understanding of things we used to explain superstitiously. People can be fooled, and can even fool themselves. Even 48% of the people. But you can’t fool nature, it just keeps working the same old way no matter what people believe. So by definition, the natural explanation is necessarily the ordinary explanation, and comes pre-loaded with the ordinary proof that consists of the real world behaving normally. It is those who want to make the extraordinary claims (i.e. of supernatural intervention) who need to provide the corresponding proof.