Miracles and sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha

Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God got me thinking about miracles, because Miller believes in them and believes he understands how they can occur. And now we have the Catholic Church canonizing a bunch of new saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She becomes the first Native American saint.

Kateri was noted for her chastity and her “mortification of the flesh”:

Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals

Good job, seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries!

I can recall her name from my parochial-school history book long ago–she probably showed up in a sidebar as an example of how even American Indians could become good Catholics.  (I recall the name, I think, because it has a nice rhythm to it, like an Indian chant.) There’s a Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha down the road from me in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the parishioners are of course excited.

The Church, like Miller, also believes in miracles, and it requires them before making someone a saint.  Nowadays you need one to be beatified, and another to be canonized.  The miracle that brought Kateri over the finish line happened to a kid from Washington state, who recovered from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed to her.

I read a good book once called Making Saints about the careful process the Vatican undertakes to investigate the miracles needed for canonization.  It is one example, among many, of very smart, very dedicated, very religious people spending their lives doing something entirely worthless. The miracles, as I recall, were pretty much all inexplicable medical cures, like the one attributed to Kateri.  The problem, of course, is that inexplicable medical cures happen all the time.  Why?  Because we have only an imperfect understanding of medicine.  For the stuff we do understand–like, you don’t grow a new leg when one gets cut off–well, there aren’t any miracles in that neck of the woods.

I read a few news accounts of the canonization and the related miracle, and none of them questioned the miraculousness of the miracle.  The family was convinced, the Vatican was convinced, so what more do you want?  People, in fact, want miracles.  They make life more interesting; they give us hope.  I will note that my novel Pontiff is suffused with miracles — they make novels more interesting, too!  So I guess I’m not one to complain.  But it does seem like some reporter should quote a medical authority expressing some skepticism about the whole thing.  I suppose an editor would just lose the quote, though.

(A person I work with has been to one Mass in her life — the canonization of one of her relatives at the Vatican. That’s pretty cool, although her relative’s death was anything but cool.  Saints don’t generally lead happy lives, or have happy deaths.)

Finding Kenneth Miller’s God

As I have in the past, I’m teaching Sunday School for the combined Unitarian churches in my little town.  (Unitarians are presumably the only folks who would let me teach Sunday School, and I know they are the only ones I’d teach Sunday School for.)  We’re doing a “Coming of Age” curriculum for eighth and ninth graders, and the other day we had a little discussion of evolution with the kids.  I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that two of my fellow teachers had a lot of sympathy for intelligent design.

These folks are religious in the way Unitarians are religious–they are comfortable recognizing a spiritual dimension to life, but they aren’t comfortable with religious dogma.  They seemed to have an instinctive dislike for evolution because it didn’t have a spiritual dimension; they liked the idea that evolution couldn’t explain everything, and that some parts of life required God (or a spiritual force, or something beyond blind chance).

I thought of them as I read Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God.  Miller is a biology professor at Brown and a committed supporter of evolution who has testified in trials against ID and creationism.  He’s also a devout Catholic. In Finding Darwin’s God, he makes the case that a belief in evolution can be completely reconciled with belief in a personal God who actively intervenes in His creation.

Miller is an appealing writer, and he certainly seems like an appealing person.   On the other hand, I don’t think I was the target audience for his book.  He begins by making the case for evolution, which I didn’t have to have made for me.  Then he made the case against creationism and intelligent design.  Don’t need to be convinced about that, either.  So I skimmed quite a bit through those chapters.  Finally at around page 200 he gets to the part where he reconciles God with evolution.  His case is that atheist scientists oversell materialism and determinism, and that in fact, quantum-induced uncertainty means that there is no determinism:

The natural history of evolution is unrepeatable because the nature of matter is unpredictable in the first place.  Wind that tape back, and it will surely come out differently next time around, not just for the Burgess shale, but for every important event in the evolutionary history of life.

And it’s in this unpredictability that God can work his wonders, choosing one probability over another to guide the world in the direction of creatures like us.

Well, for me what’s frustrating about the book is that Miller summarizes all this in about five pages.  He doesn’t engage with anyone who might disagree with his interpretation of quantum theory, determinism, and free will.  He just asserts the truth of his interpretation, and then he’s off to the theological races.  Indeterminacy gives you free will, gives you the possibility of miracles, gives you everything you need for a personal God like the one described in Western monotheism. So Miller can do the usual theological thing of making unprovable (or disprovable) arguments in favor of what he already believes:

Of course a loving God would create a Universe in just this way, so that it would contain creatures who have the ability to know, love, and serve Him (as the Baltimore catechism puts it), and if they fail to do so, He will consign them to eternal torment.

Of course a loving God would create the possibility of evil in such a Universe, to give these free creatures a choice, and if as a result some children happen to get tortured, raped, and killed by their stepfathers, it’s certainly not His fault.

I’m being snarky here, but only to make the point that, if you don’t buy into Miller’s beliefs, your surely not going to be convinced by his theological arguments. So I skimmed through that section as well.

Would my co-teachers get something from the book?  Maybe, but I can’t imagine they’d find Miller’s view of God as satisfying as intelligent design. With intelligent design and, of course, creationism, God (or a higher power) is a necessity.  Miller’s book only makes the case that God is a possibility — that His existence can’t be disproved by the fact of evolution.  He certainly doesn’t propose any way of proving that his God exists in the way that science proves hypotheses.  So we’re back to faith, which either works for you or it doesn’t.  Miller is sure of the truth of his God, and maybe his book will make it easier for others like him to reconcile their God with the scientific truth of evolution.  If so, I suppose that’s a good thing.  But I imagine that the vast majority of the faithful would still prefer it if evolution would just go away.