By Antonio Lombatti
Deputazione di Storia Patria
The Shroud of Turin special 2010 Expo is over. We are told that about 2 million pilgrims have travelled there to see a medieval hoax. This is a miracle, indeed, even if the Vatican has never officially said it is the real burial cloth of Jesus -- they have defined it as an "icon" that recalls Jesus’ passion -- the way it is solemnly shown in a cathedral gives the people just the opposite sensation.
While pareidolia seems to be a psychological phenomenon of all Christianities, relics and weeping statues are confined to the Catholic universe. The best scholar who debunked many of these fake relics was a Christian: John Calvin. I consider him to be still the best ally in this battle against ignorance and superstition. It was he -- and not an agnostic or an atheist -- to show the absurdity of a cult, which brought his religion close to paganism.
In his native France, Calvin had come across so many abuses, so many palpably false claims that he concluded in his treatise on relics that there were more perversity and idolatry among Christians than ever was known among unbelievers. Calvin turned his considerable power of irony on some choice contemporary manifestations of the cult. He had heard that some treasured what they deemed “a piece of a broiled fish which Peter gave Jesus on the sea shore.” That fish, observed Calvin, “must have been thoroughly spiced to have been preserved so long.” On the amazing power of the Virgin Mary to produce milk, he commented that “had the Virgin been a wet-nurse for all her life, she could not have produced more milk that you can see in various parts of the land.”
So Calvin continued methodically considering the four lances that claimed to have pierced Jesus’ side, the three heads of John the Baptist, or the two bodies of Mary Magdalene. He perceived that a curious kind of bad faith operated when men and women of his time came to look at relics. Instead of using their brains or even their eyes, people preferred to bow down reverently and blindly. This is why still today faithful cannot see that the hair and the presumed blood of the man of the Shroud follow patterns as if he was standing up and not laying down in a tomb. Calvin said that an arm at Geneva, said to be St. Anthony's, was worshipped uncritically until it fell out of its shrine and was found to be the penis of a stag. In the same city, St Peter's brain was displayed on the high altar of one church until the profane discovered it to be in truth a lump of pumice-stone.
Just a week ago, I found out that after selling a feather of the Holy Spirit, you can now buy a 1 centimeter fragment of the True Cross of Jesus for $800 on eBay http://cgi.ebay.it/RELIQUIA-RELIC-RELICARIO-SS-CROCE-TRUE-CROSS-D-N-J-C-/130390677761 All these supposed biblical relics are inventions for deceiving silly folk and devout believers: pious frauds or honest deceits to stimulate the devotion of the people. Is this faith? I wonder why do some Christians still need material evidence of the life and death of Jesus? What is a believer looking for?
In this contemporary age, many are surprised to hear reports of extraordinary religious events and that there are people who take them seriously. After all, we seem to have passed beyond the age of miracles to enter a time when God does not communicate with humans. Especially in the modern West, people go about their daily business and only rarely hear about the spiritual side of existence. When we do hear of such reports, we typically strive for alternative explanations that affirm our skepticism and prove that the apparently dramatic is merely another example of the mundane.
Such an approach to relics, visions, or apparitions is consistent with the tenor of our times. What were once thought to be miracles no longer survive close scrutiny. Increasingly over the last century, scholars armed with scientific methodology and philological analysis have debunked presumed secrets behind supernatural claims or miraculous relics. These have been useful instruments for catching charlatans, Holy Grail seekers, or discoverers of Noah's Ark.
The divine is, by its very nature, not accessible to science, science being limited to what people can directly observe and measure. Some people claim to have seen the Virgin Mary, who often gives them messages to convey to the faithful. On occasion, however, some claims seem outside the bounds of acceptability even to believers. One example maybe Diana Duyser, a woman who possessed a grilled cheese sandwich that - she said - bore an image of the mother of Jesus. She kept it in her house for a decade with flocks of pilgrims going by to pray in front of a slice of grilled cheese. In the end, she sold it on eBay for $28,000. I am sure Calvin felt a cold shiver running down his spine, even if he is dead.
In a certain sense, the grilled cheese relic story challenges our understanding of what is the religious experience of a human being. And, on the other hand, it teaches us something else. It gives the answer to my question: believers want to see, need to see to turn their idea of the divine into an object which is here with us on Earth.