21 December 2011

One Hour Dry Cleaning and the Shroud of Turin

I have awakened to the joyous news that well-qualified scientists now believe that the Shroud of Turin is authentic.

Authentic what?

The Shroud of Turin is a large cloth consistent with those used to wrap bodies in the Middle East in the first century. On the cloth, there is a negative image which appears to be that of a bearded man who fits the generally accepted images of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Some contend that this image also depicts the wounds suffered by Jesus as set out in the biblical account of the crucifixion.

There has long been some controversy over whether this is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified in Jerusalem (at the town dump, actually) some time between A.D. 25 and 35. (Archaeologists insist on using “C.E.” for “common era” rather than “A.D.” for Anni Domini. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.)

Some years ago, the Vatican permitted scientists to test (and destroy) a very small part of the cloth for radio carbon dating. The test showed that the sample tested was made from plant fibers which were harvested around the year 1300. (When plants or animals die, they cease taking in new carbon. The isotope Carbon 14 decays at a known rate, and how much carbon 14 is present gives a reasonably accurate estimate of age if the object is within a few thousand years old.)

The current claim that the Shroud is authentic is based upon a negative result and a theory. First, the scientists say that they cannot duplicate the image on the shroud by any currently know method. Second, they believed that the tiny sample tested years ago was from a patch used to repair the shroud, apparently around 1300.

These new conclusions are welcomed by many Christians who see this as anything from some welcome corroboration of Jesus to irrefutable proof of the historical accuracy of all parts of the New Testament, including those involving the supernatural.

To my brothers and sisters in faith: Come on, folks, if we end up making this some kind of a defining event, we're going to look like idiots.

Authentic WHAT?

Well, if the scientists are correct, it is a first century burial shroud with an image on the cloth put there by some process which they cannot now explain or duplicate.

That’s all.

It may indeed be the burial ground Jesus of Nazareth. The image may be on the cloth due to some flash of angelic light or something equally magnificent and holy.

Or not.

Or even if it’s authentic, it may be somebody else’s burial shroud with an unexplained image on it. It’s not autographed and it hasn’t come with a certificate of authenticity. Or we would have heard about it by now.

Even then, I would have to wonder. Every other commemorative doodad you can order off of TV or the Internet comes with a “certificate of authenticity.” It says, “This here’s an authentic doodad.” Is the certificate, well, authentic? Beats me.

Our faith would be pathetic if we needed the Shroud of Turin, the one true Grail, The Robe, a video, or any other physical manifestations in order to believe. And if we don’t have that, what do you plan to do, my fellow Christians? Say, “Oh, gee, must not be true! We’re outta here!”

As long as I can recall having read things about the Shroud, seldom have I read anything that was not shot through with “confirmation bias.” That’s just a label we put on the phenomenon celebrated in an old song lyric from the 60s, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Those opposed to faith embraced with confirmation bias the news of the radiocarbon dating. “Aha, you superstitious nitwits! This proves that your whole Jesus thing is a fairytale.” And now, boy, are they getting their comeuppance: “Aha, infidels! They were testing the wrong part of the cloth! This proves that the whole Jesus thing from virgin birth to ascension into Heaven is objectively true.”

People really are this dumb. The truth of the matter is, it just doesn’t matter. There is an objective truth out there. What physical manifestations there ever were are hidden by 2000 years of deterioration. The rest of the objective truth is not subject to quantitative or qualitative analysis by any scientific process we now have.

In truth, not a whole lot of the obvious mystery of this universe is subject to any sort of rational analysis.

Attached is an image from the Hubble space telescope. The Hubble is able to see fainter objects in greater detail than any other telescope in history, because it is outside of the atmosphere. This particular image is known as the “Hubble Deep Field.”

There were parts of the sky which, so far as astronomers knew, were vacant. And so astronomers picked a little tiny postage stamp sized piece and pointed the Hubble at it for many days in order to collect enough of the extraordinarily faint light to make an image, in case there was anything there. To their drop dead amazement, they saw the attached photograph which shows some thousands of heretofore unknown galaxies.

Based upon the population of galaxies in that little postage stamp the sky, these astronomers extrapolated the data to come up with a rough estimate of how many stars there are in the known universe. Their rough estimate? 70 sextillion stars. That’s 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of stars.

Okay, lovers of science – explain that one.

For that matter, people of faith – explain that one.

Is it starting to make sense that there are lots of questions out there for which we do not have any answers, let alone answers that can be proven by a junior high school science project?

That’s why it’s called Faith. There is some part of our mind that accepts our faith, or you can call it spirituality or whatever you want. And, darn it, we are right. Or we are wrong. Or I don’t know. Or I want my mommy.

That’s why it’s called Faith.

I don’t care what the shroud of Turin is. I don’t need it to be “real” to prove my own faith to me. I don’t need some confirmation so I can stick my thumbs in my ears and waggle my fingers toward unbelievers with a “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re going to Hell and I’m not!”

It just doesn’t matter.

How many times do I have to make the point? Eye on the ball, people. Eye on the ball.

Mizpah! (Thanks, Oce.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Roger. It reminds me (you may not appreciate this) in some ways of Bill Maher's ridicule of Christian adherence to myth, which many of us unthinkingly swallow whole hog--the Bible is literally true, etc. The reality is that we all are always gazing into the mystery, and to claim that we comprehend the mystery is to place ourselves on a par with God. It may be that the Eternal Source of Life, if indeed there be such, is capable to influence different people in different ways, but does that entitle any of us to confidently espouse our understanding as the only true way to believe and practice? As you know, my greatest struggle through many years in churches has been with those who claim such corners on the truth market.

Jim N.