Once upon a time a little girl was going to test the existence of God. After breakfast one day, she took out of the breakfast dishes a handful of grapefruit seeds. She was of a scientific bent, so she took a half dozen old tin cans, filled them with dirt, planted a grapefruit seed in each and made herself a chart. She decided to pray over the first seed for one minute, the second seed a half minute, the third 15 seconds and so on until the last little seed got no prayer at all. She would graph the amount of prayer against the growth of the seed. “Dear Lord, if you exist, make this seed grow. Amen.” All well and good, right?
Problem was, the seeds never grew. Not a single one. She was crushed and decided that God didn’t exist. He mother noticed she was so very sad and discovered the whole story. She listened and made the appropriate noises and then she gently asked, “Did you water the seeds?”
“No, I decided God could do what ever God wanted to do.”
The little girl had decided to have her faith determined by these physical objects and when they didn’t grow, her faith was crushed.
Of course, there are problems with this little experiment – things like “Do not put the Lord your God to a test.” Things like that. And (yes, taken out of context but apropos) that verse about planting the seed, watering it and God giving the increase – maybe we have to do something too. I’m not talking your basic “Pelagianism” – pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, but we participate with God.
Later, this little girl was fascinated with the Shroud of Turin. There was an exhibit in the Omni International concourse in downtown Atlanta, near the World of Sid and Marty Croft – Come see the Shroud!! Slide down the Giant Slide!! She would go and stare at the photographs for hours, imagining the Resurrection. She read all the books and followed all the news releases – she just knew if the Shroud was REAL then Jesus just HAD to be real. She called herself a “Christian” on those days when the winds of fate blew in favor on the validity of the shroud and “Not a Christian” when they did not.
Many of her musings were about the resurrection itself – why was there blood on the shroud? Maybe the blood that Jesus shed before he died stayed on his body and rubbed off on the shroud. Did his fingernails continue to grow and his hair? Did he start to rot, like Lazarus? Did fluid begin to leak out of his body? What about that fluid? Since it leaked out after he died, was it included in the resurrection, somehow being slurped back into his body? Was the image a photo-flash of nuclear heat that seared the image into the fabric? Was it really old enough? Would Jesus have a complete set of DNA? Was it really the Shroud of Christ? The Devil sat on her shoulder, whispering and gibbering. She agonized, she doubted.
Back and forth she went until one morning her mother asked, “Well are you a Christian today or not?” That stopped her dead in her tracks. She was placing her trust in the immaterial world, her faith in a God both transcendent and imminent into a physical object, allowing that object to dictate her faith. If we use empirical science, could we EVER prove it was or was not the Shroud of Christ? And she came to the conclusion that no, we never would.
Science has deceived (innocently or not) many before her and will many after. 150 years ago, well-meaning scientists PROVED that you can distinguish “good people” from “bad people” by feeling the shape of their heads. It was a very well developed discipline and thousands of people had their heads analyzed. But the whole experiment was flawed; the scientists were making a moral judgment by using empirical science that had no vocabulary for morality or values. It was doomed to fail and fail it did.
Two separate questions: first we ask ourselves what data do we have today about the Talpiot Tomb? Then we ask, what are our theological claims? How can this data relate to these claims? Do they even fit together? In my humble opinion, debates about the existence of God and issues like the shroud or the Talpiot ossuaries swirl around each other and dance with each other but never enter the other’s sphere. The mystery about the existence of God is just that—mysterion, not to be known. And the not knowing is part of the entire mystery.
There are puzzles that have intrigued us for generations. People debated for centuries some of Euclid’s unsolvable problems. Generations of geometry students chewed on them, wrestled with them. The problems intrigued, they titillated the mind. Some people became obsessed with them. Most students of math could recite these famous unsolvable problems. Where are they now? Forgotten. The unsolvable problems were solved and now do not even enter our minds. They are not a part of our communal consciousness. They have been placed on a shelf: fini, finished, forgotten.
The question about God’s existence or lack of existence is part of the very mystery of God’s own self. God keeps us in suspense so that thinking about and talking about and debating about God stays fresh in our minds and not dusty on a shelf.
This data from the New East is intriguing. It titillates the mind. Does it matter? Yes. How does it matter? Will it substantively change Christianity? I think not. Will it change my faith or my faithing, my practice of faith? No. Will there be new data? Probably. Will this hypothesis stand? Who knows? So many times the theories just fade into obscurity and the debate withers up. Yet, no matter what the data is, what the debate is the mystery of God will remain, long after I am placed in a box and the flesh on my bones melts away.
The flowers fade and the grass withers, but the Word of our God stands forever.