Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29 - NIV)

It has been interesting to watch Professor Susan Greenfield presenting her television series on the human brain. Her thesis is that one day everything about us will be explained as processes that take place in our brains; everything from falling in love to our ability to appreciate music, things we presently believe to be matters of choice or trained ability. Religious experience, on that day, will simply be a feature of some of us, in just the same way as some of us have blue eyes. Some people, Greenfield would argue, are religious because their brain chemistry, when combined with certain stimuli, simply takes them that way, even to the point of seeing God. Theophanies will be explicable in terms, for example, of temple-lobe epilepsy. Experiments have already taken place in which sight and hearing and electrical activity in the brain have been manipulated in order to give rise to the sense of the presence of Another. People have been interviewed and had their religious experiences analysed alongside their medical state, and are now persuaded that the one informed the other.

One such woman was very impressive. She had a form of epilepsy and in particular is vividly aware of colour. She had been inclined to describe this in religious terms, as God and Heaven encroaching closely on this world. She understands now that these experiences are, to put it crudely, simply due to the way her brain is wired. Interestingly, though, she continues to believe in God. She persists in her practice of religion, and treats the 'visions' she has, which she finds very pleasant, as simply 'one of those things'.

We've known for as long as we've known anything that it's perfectly simple to induce 'religious' experience. Long before the West discovered what drugs could do, shamans in the middle East and desert dwellers had been in the habit of mixing herbs and dancing themselves into an 'out-of-the-body' state in which to meet their God. Perhaps what needs explaining is not the feelings that can sometimes accompany the religious quest; it's the voluntary undertaking of the inconvenient practice of religion. There are self-evident reasons why people eat or drink particular substances, or abstain from food altogether; a sense of well-being can result, or a heightened awareness of self and the world around. What's less easy to understand is the thought-out, rational pursuit of God against one's better judgement. Loving God and seeking to serve God against one's interests, plus the sheer difficulty of the attempt to love one's neighbour, is, it seems to me, the best proof of religion.

There are for sure true visions from God and authenticated apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We are not arguing this. Perhaps our culture of logic and reason is limiting our understanding of God and how He acts in our world. But miracles still happen; we just need to know where to look for them.

God is still performing miracles TODAY, often in countries that need a dramatic display of His power. We may not get to witness the healings, but we hear reports and praise God He is working. Miracles still happen. We just need faith big enough to see them. We are not to get distracted by the miracles, but instead see them as signposts that point to the miracle-maker. He wants, and deserves, our praise. May God be glorified forever. Amen.

Our faith cannot rest on private revelations and apparitions. Even with properly approved apparitions, we must maintain a proper perspective -- viewing them as an assistance to nourish our faith in the central dogmas of the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Eucharist. In their 1973 pastoral letter, Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith, the American Catholic bishops called authenticated appearances of Mary "providential happenings [which] serve as reminders of basic Christian themes: such as prayer, penance, and the necessity of the sacraments."

Adapted from: OVER THE BRIDGE
The Newsletter of Southwark Cathedral (London, England)
July/August 2000

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