What are miracles for?

Prof. Scott K. Taylor, guest blogger

This summer, Pope Francis II gave the go-ahead for the recognition of former Pope John Paul II to become a saint. The trigger was the second “verified” miracle by the late pope, even though the details are kept under wraps for now. In the case of the first miracle, a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease prayed to the late Karol Wojtyla and was apparently healed. If this sounds far fetched, remember that miracles are not objective. After all, they exist to confirm the truth of the Catholic Church – or whatever religious group claiming the miracle in question.

The only reason we know about miracles in the past is because people wanted to broadcast their existence. The life stories of medieval saints were explicit about this. A saintly missionary among the barbarians would be threatened by pagan priests, God would intervene in the form of a miracle, and the tribe would convert to Christianity. Hundreds of variations on this tale led to the conversion in the early middle ages of the Germanic peoples who took over the old Roman Empire. Descriptions of miracles were polemic exercises, furious attacks in the war of Christianity against unbelief.

The flip side of the miraculous powers of Catholic saints was demonstrated by the Protestant leaders and mobs during the Reformation. As Prof. Carlos Eire chronicled in his first book, War Against the Idols, Protestants in Germany and Switzerland targeted the holy relics and images of saints, and even the Eucharistic host, to demonstrate that these items had no power. If the Catholic Church was correct and God worked miracles through saints, why did not the saints’ former shin bones, and even the body and blood of Christ himself made present in the bread and wine, do something to stop the anti-Catholic mobs?

They did, countered Catholic apologists. Boys tearing statues off church walls were struck dumb until they recanted, or even struck dead. The broken host screamed, bled, or showed the face of Jesus to scare iconoclasts back into line. Protestants and Catholics waged pamphlet wars for decades, opposing each other with tales of relics destroyed without consequence, on the one hand, or with a terrible vengeance, on the other.

The polemic nature of miracles was one problem I had with the views of Carlos Eire and Brad Gregory on miracles. If they are not trying to convince their readers to become Catholics, then what is their point? What do we learn if some of the miracles of early modern Europe were true? Writing this essay was an attempt to try to answer that question, and my answer was that it could help us turn away from viewing religion as an ideology and more as an emotional and physical phenomenon.

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