Herewith, a guest post from commenter PBW:
I had a lot of trouble with the Ascension. Every time I recite the Rosary, to take the most frequent example, I start with a declaration of belief: The Apostles’ Creed.
In saying the Creed, I assert a series of beliefs that are jarring to modern sensibilities, but not, for the most part, to me. I believe in God, and in his only begotten Son. I believe in his conception, by divine intervention, in the womb of the Virgin. I believe that, his body in the tomb, Christ descended into Hell. There is much here to ponder, but it is all comfortably within the assent of faith.
“[T]he third day he rose again from the dead …” This is the fulcrum of the Faith. Whilst the work of our redemption was done in the Passion, the sign of our redemption is the Resurrection. It is the incontrovertible revelation of the nature of Jesus Christ. “My Lord and my God.” I believe, unreservedly.
What is it then, in the midst of all these wonders, that makes for awkwardness about the Ascension? For one thing, it is the staginess of it. It is the levitating Jesus, who “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9.) It is the convenient cloud; it is the trapdoor into Heaven.
One of the fascinating characteristics of the Gospels is their realism. There is a modernity, a contemporaneity, about the Gospels, which I do not think is an artefact of translation or familiarity. Indeed, familiarity pushes them into the unremarkable background. However, comparison with later documents like the Protoevangelium of James highlights their narrative freshness.
This very contemporaneity imposes contemporary expectations upon the documents. In a commentary on the story of the temple tax in Matthew – “[G]o to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel,” (Matthew 17:27) – the author wrote to the effect that “this passage is clearly legendary.” I was immediately sympathetic to that view, without being able to determine just why. The passage seems to break the compact with the modern reader in a way that the feeding of the five thousand or the raising to life of Jairus’ daughter does not. I think the awkwardness is that there is a touch of deus ex machina about it. The Ascension has about it much of this same quality. Therein lies the conflict with modern narrative taste. But just to speak that phrase is to reveal the hollowness and the embarrassment of any complaint about the means chosen by Jesus to express his will. The difficulty I experienced with the Ascension, however, is primarily of a different character.
Rudolph Bultmann was viewed by his academic contemporaries as a reactionary at a time when the German Christian academy was still enormously influential – an indication the parlous state of that academy from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. Bultmann regarded himself as a demythologiser, and one of the “myths” he took to dismantling was the three-tiered universe of the Bible; to wit, Heaven, Earth and Hell. Modern cosmology had relegated the Biblical view to an early Christian (and Hebrew) parochialism with no relation to the actual structure of the heavens and the Earth.
The trivial assumption here is that modern cosmology is true. But there is another, and more insidious, behind that. It is the foundation of materialist, or naturalist, ideology. That assumption is that the material universe, as explored and described by empirical methods, is self-consistent, coherent and closed. A consequence of this is that modern cosmology is not only true, but it is, apart from any blanks that might remain to be filled in by naturalism’s methodology, the complete truth. And a consequence of the consequence is that contemporary cosmology and the Biblical three-tiered cosmos cannot both be true. This conviction is held with religious fervour by materialists, but it also has a strong hold on the imagination of Christians of goodwill and of even the most rudimentary scientific education.
The description of the Ascension is one from the three-tiered cosmos. There’s a hole in the sky, in this model, which leads to Heaven. If we have come this far by way of the Gospels, we have already accepted that the risen and glorified body of Christ is not constrained in the way our earthly bodies are. Christ appears and disappears at will on terra firma; he likewise hides and reveals his identity at will. We accept these things, if for no other reason than that the very existence of Christianity is inconceivable apart from the Resurrection and the subsequent appearances of the Lord. In a similar way, Christ could have gathered the apostles and other disciples, announced that he was returning to the Father, and disappeared.
Even before the Ascension, the risen Christ was, in himself, dispositive for the naturalism that was to come. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39.) Naturalism has no purchase when confronted with the physical reality of the resurrected Christ. He whom the apostles saw, touched, heard and spoke to, naturalism cannot apprehend.
Yet Jesus did not go discreetly away. Instead, the manner of his departure was a re-affirmation of the reality of the three-tiered cosmos. The Father, he tells us, is up there.
On the 13th of October, 1917, at a place called Cova da Iria, near the village of Fatima, a crowd usually estimated at around 70,000 witnessed what became known as the miracle of the Sun. The ground, and the crowd, were sodden from the rain that had been falling since the day before. At the Sun’s zenith, around 1:30 PM, the sky cleared, and the Sun began to behave as no one had ever witnessed it behave before. Initially appearing as a gleaming, sharply defined disc, it began to whirl and throw out rays of various colours, bathing the landscape and crowd in a succession of colours. It zig-zagged and “danced,” then plummeted toward the earth, terrifying the observers, before resuming its place. The whole phenomenon lasted for up to ten minutes, during which time every eye was fixed on the Sun, without discomfort or damage. It was witnessed in villages up to 25 km away.
It was not witnessed in Lisbon, or London, or Madrid.
There were 70,000 witnesses because the time and place of some miraculous event, particulars unknown, had been predicted by three illiterate peasant children: Lucia, 10, and her cousins Francisco, 9, and Jacinta, 7. They had first encountered “The Lady of the Rosary” on the 13th of May of 2017. She asked them to return on the same day of the month for the next six months. The story soon got out. By June, over 50 people had gathered at the Cova for the 13th . From that nucleus, the crowd – the devout, the curious, the mockers, but overwhelmingly the devout – grew each month: by August, 18,000 to 20,000; by September, 25,000 to 30,000.
The Lady of the Rosary, as she identified herself to the children in October, appeared to none but the children, but other signs were manifested to the crowd.
Portugal’s constitutional monarchy had been overthrown in a coup d’état of 1910. It installed a republican, secular and strongly anti-Catholic government and administrators. The Administrator of Ourem, under whose jurisdiction Fatima came, was one such. Determined to put an end to the nonsense, he kidnapped the children on the 13th of August, to prevent their appearance at the Cova. Nonetheless, observers there reported some phenomena.
After the thunderclap came the flash of lightning, and then we began to see a little cloud, very delicate, very white, which stopped for a few moments over the tree and then rose in the air and disappeared.
Again, in September, the arrival and departure of the Lady was evident to many in of the observers. Father John Quaresma had come there incognito with two fellow priests. They observed events at a distance from the body of the crowd. Msgr. Quaresma later wrote:
Arms were raised pointing to something in the sky…There had not been a cloud in the deep blue sky and I too raised my eyes and scrutinized it… With great astonishment I saw, clearly and distinctly, a luminous globe, which moved from the east to the west, gliding slowly and majestically through space. My friends also looked and had the good fortune to enjoy the same unexpected and delightful vision. Suddenly the globe, with its extraordinary light, disappeared.
The privileges of the children included their being able to describe the manner of the Lady’s appearance and disappearance. On the evening of the first apparition, Jacinta related the story to her family, including this detail. “When she went back into Heaven the doors seemed to shut so quickly that I thought her feet would get caught….”
After the October events, a Dr. Formigao interviewed the children separately, starting with Lucia.
“How did she disappear?”
“Little by little.”
“What disappeared first?”
“Her head. Then her body, and the last thing I saw was her feet.”
He then interviewed Jacinta.
“What part of the Lady disappeared first?”
This testimony has relevance to the testimony of St. Luke concerning the Ascension. More particularly, it encourages Christians, notably those who have been cowed by the seeming certainty and irresistibility of scientific understandings, to explore again the implications of what we profess to profess.
The two instances are significantly different. As Christians, we accept the physical reality of Christ’s risen and glorified body. We are not so compelled in respect to the apparition of The Lady of the Rosary. Nonetheless, this Lady, according to a multitude of witnesses, was accompanied by signs and wonders. She, or if not she, the trio of children unaided, was able to predict and command the greatest religious prodigy of the twentieth century, and arguably the greatest since the first century. That alone makes the children’s reports of the manner of her appearing and disappearing worthy of note.
So many elements of ancient faith were re-asserted at Fatima, that the echoes of the Lord’s Ascension are only a fragment of its catechetical riches, but an extremely useful one. The report of the Ascension is all too easy for the sophisticated, scientific, skeptical and hubristic modern, supposedly Christian, imagination to dismiss as a fairy tale for illiterate peasant children. The echoes from Fatima brought that report face to face with the twentieth century at time when battle had been joined for the intellectual high ground of Christianity.
It has become popular, thanks to Karl Popper, to claim that the essential characteristic which qualifies an hypothesis as scientific is the inclusion of falsifiable predictions. These experiments interrogate the physical environment by means of our senses so that our flights of fancy may be constrained by external realities. The pre-pubescent scientists of Fatima made a prediction of unprecedented daring. That prediction was empirically fulfilled. What has been the response in the scientific community?
It goes without saying that there is a thriving cottage industry in “debunking” Fatima. These efforts generally have the level of rigour and integrity that one would expect. An exception to this rule is Richard Dawkins’ treatment of the miracle in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. Dawkins employs a criterion proposed by David Hume in a 1748 work, On Miracles.
[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.
This is one of Hume’s silly assertions, but Dawkins finds a plausible use for it.
It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?
Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth … an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima.
Fair enough. Isn’t this a reasonable objection? Doesn’t this fact – that the Sun was was observed to behave in such an unwonted manner in Fatima and environs, whilst simultaneously exciting no unusual attention outside that charmed circle – tell us with certainly that the Sun did not, in fact, play tricks that day? Doesn’t it tell us that, whatever was observed in Fatima, it was most definitely not some unique and unusual behaviour of the Sun?
This objection relies on the fore-mentioned assumption: that the material world is self-consistent, coherent and closed. It is closed in that any of its elements are influenced only by the elements of the same material universe. It is self-consistent in that, taking into account that different observers will note different aspects of any particular material object, it is the same object that is present to the senses across any set of observers. The object in question here is the Sun.
This assumption is a foundation of the Scientific Revolution. Empirical science and the logic of repeatable empirical validation and falsification depend upon it. The enterprise that has hung on it has been enormously fruitful, even if it does seem to have broken down at the margins in the last century.
After offering on objection based on the orbital mechanics of the solar system, Dawkins concludes.
We have no alternative but to follow Hume … and conclude … that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled.
It may not be clear to Dawkins, but it ought to be clear to anyone else. It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. They do indeed. The reality of these events cannot be denied on empirical grounds, as the logic of Richard Dawkins’ conclusion makes clear. What are the implications of accepting that evidence?
There is no remotely plausible explanation in terms of the scientific understanding of the solar system that can account for the testimony of the witnesses that day. Within a privileged circumference, at least 25 km from Cova da Iria, the only familiar aspects of the Sun were its circular projection, and its provision of heat and light. In none of its other aspects was it compatible with our understanding of the solar system of which it is the centre.
In his attempt to escape the contradiction in which he finds himself, Dawkins understandably elevates his unstated assumption, the same assumption that is at the base of centuries of empirical enquiry, into a dogmatic principle that requires the shredding – without need for explanation – of the very principle of empiricism. Admittedly, one or the other has to give. Dawkins eschews evidence. Science, Dawkins-style, is at war with empiricism.
May we not rather eschew dogma? We have an embarrassment of observational riches to support us. The simple but oh so traumatic requirement is that we accept that the observations from Fatima, Lisbon, London and Madrid were all accurate; that they were all true reports of what happened at that time on that day.
Those modern Christians who consider themselves scientifically literate and who are active in public discourse have, for the most part, entered into a de facto pact with naturalism and scientific materialism. They join with materialists in proclaiming that the natural universe is indeed self-consistent, coherent and, especially, closed. God has no part or interest in the moment-to-moment functioning of the natural world. A happy consequence for these Christians of this proclaimed belief is that they find a place at the various tables of scientific camaraderie. Such Christians experience no cognitive dissonance in these interactions with atheist colleagues because they are at one with them in their understanding of the natural universe, and they admit the sovereignty of naturalism even deep within the territory of human experience; within motivation, emotion, reason and mind itself.
Very few modern Christians are immune from a considerable degree of this particular idolatry. In the days before the scientific and naturalist mindset infiltrated the deepest recesses of both educated and popular imagination, the Christian imagination saw the hand of God in every aspect of the Creation; felt vividly the presence of the Church Triumphant and the Church Penitent and their continuity with the Church Militant; felt also the terrible reality of the souls condemned. They lived, that is, with the reality of the three-tiered universe. The modern mind, and all too often the mind of the modern Christian, reserves its sense of awe for the vastness of the universe as has been progressively unveiled to us over the past century in particular. In that vastness, human realities become infinitesimally small. The Sun, which is the gift of life-sustaining energy for us, dwindles to an insignificant speck lost in the vastness of our own galaxy, itself lost in the uncountable host of galaxies. In embracing our own insignificance, we unconsciously scale God down to match. Then we may adjust Him to suit our new-found wisdom and understanding, and cut from whole cloth a God shaped in our own image, though constrained as we see fit; a God into whose nostrils we blow the breath of our own spirit of creative superiority.
So, for example, there was an attack on the facts of Fatima from within some intellectual centres of the Church. A focus of this enlightened contempt was the vision of Hell vouchsafed the children on the 13th of July. As Lucia wrote later some years later:
The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me.) The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.
This was dismissed as having been imagined by Lucia (both Jacinta and Francisco having died during the Spanish Flu epidemic), on the grounds that it was “exaggeratedly mediaeval.” That is, it was a vision in continuity with the Church’s ancient teaching about Heaven and Hell.
When the millions of observers in Lisbon and London and Madrid had no reason to pay attention to the everyday Sun, while simultaneously 70,000 people were transfixed and terrified by it in Fatima and environs, both sets of experience were real and observable. But does one set of observations more accurately represent actuality than the other?
When Jesus walks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, hidden in plain sight, but causing their hearts to burn within them as he “opened to [them] the Scriptures,” only to reveal himself to them in the breaking of the bread, what is the more substantial reality? Is it the stranger walking beside them on the road the actuality? Or is it the hidden Christ the reality? Both are true, but which is the actuality? Is the locked upper room the actuality, or is Christ’s appearance, seemingly from nowhere, and his subsequent disappearance, the actuality? Are these exceptional events merely some kind of conjuring trick taking place on the stage of reality which itself remains unmoved and unmoving in the face of all of these showy performances, or is actuality largely hidden from view, to be revealed in glimpses as the curtain, so to speak, is momentarily parted?
“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Were these events shadows on reality, or are the daily realities, by which we toil our way through life, the shadow play?
The evidence of Fatima calls us back, if we are open to evidence, to the reality of the three-tiered universe. It calls us back to Scripture, and especially to the Gospels, to open our eyes anew to what they tell us; to what Christ tells us. The evidence of Fatima grabs us by the scruff of our neck, and confronts us with the utter dependence of the physical universe on its Creator. It illustrates the power of the Creator, delegated to the Mother of God, to set off from the rest of the physical universe a partition in which the so called laws of that universe are suspended. It peels away the misdirection of awe to the Creation, and redirects our wonder to the Creator, that we may worship rightly. It commands our attention away from appearances and back to the three tiered actuality upon which the aeviternal drama of each of our lives is being played out; to the three tiered reality illustrated by the description of the Ascension.
Even the mode of this revelation underlines the necessities.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.