Sunday, September 20, 2009

INTERFAITH REFLECTIONS ON THE SHROUD



One needs to pause before this image with reverence and respect.


Between 10 April 2010 through 23 May 2010,  the Shroud of Turin will go on display for the first time since 2000. It was scheduled to be displayed in 2025, but Papa Razzi has acceded to a request from the Archbishop of Turin to move the date ahead, though one suspects that  it might have been Papa Razzi who first asked the Archbishop of Turin to officially ask the Vatican to move the date ahead. Whatever the case, I will be among the first in line to view the ancient icon (reservations made here: http://www.sindone.org/

Ever since Ray Rogers, of Los Alamos Laboratories, reversed his opinion on the Shroud, between 2002 and 2004, and following the further disclosures of impeccable scientific articles in peer reviewed journals, (Thermochimica Acta 2005, Chemistry Today, 2008, and the peer reviewed conference paper last May at Ohio State University) I've come to believe that the Shroud is authentic, both as a first century burial cloth of a crucified man (supported by growing scientific evidence) and as the authentic burial shroud of the historic Jesus of Nazareth (an opinion beyond the reach of science, but within the realm of faith).

For those interested in the highly complex scientific issues involved here, these are the two leading sites on the web that discuss the Shroud: Shroud Story (more user friendly) and Shroud of Turin Website (highly technical), both sites offer numerous links.

To briefly summarize the latest scientific findings, the 1988 carbon dating results have now been discredited and that judgment has been confirmed by the scientific community. The sample chosen by the Vatican in 1988 was from a medieval repair patch and not from the original linen cloth of the shroud. Had the Vatican followed the protocols as asked and cut four small samples from four different areas of the Shroud, the mistake would not have occurred. After being considered a 'fake' for the past twenty years, the Shroud is now being increasingly seen as a genuine 1st century burial cloth. It would seem that in recent years the Shroud has passed through a startling 'death and resurrection' experience of its own. Secondly, among a host of other recent discoveries, the most significant has been the existence of a second image of the face of the Man of the Shroud found on the reverse side of the cloth. According to expert scientific opinion, this simply re-confirms in the strongest terms that the Shroud is not a human artifact or painting. Secondly, and most importantly, it strongly suggests a natural explanation for the initial creation of the image on the Shroud. What still confounds scientists and what some of them find the most interesting question is how the body could have been removed (since it was clearly removed within days of burial before decomposition could have damaged the image) without smearing the image, since the blood clots would have adhered to the cloth. Some scientists have seriously suggested, using language from the New Physics that is way over my head (and which invites scoffing and guffaws from the most hardened skeptics and at least raised eyebrows from the most tolerant of the rest of us),  that the body passed through the shroud in a moment of instantaneous dematerialization. This is enough of a suggestion to place one squarely in the realm of "Ha Ha Land" and one's views from that point on are no longer worthy of serious consideration.

Scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan had this to say about such theories:

We assume, dichotomously,  if the Shroud is not fake then the images we see on the cloth must have been miraculously produced as a byproduct of a resurrection event. This overwhelms modern sensibilities. Sensational theories in polemic writings—theories such as dematerialization or radiation coming from the body of Jesusonly magnifies our incredulity. 
 
It needs to be pointed out to the distinguished scholar that suggestions of dematerialization  or radiation are coming from credible scientists of impeccable credentials (see websites) and not simply found in 'polemical writings', though such writings may take up such theories and exaggerate them. But as I have already mentioned, it is not the production of the images that seems to be 'miraculous,' but the 'fact' that the images were not damaged upon the removal of the body. Bishop N.T. Wright, in his monumental work of scriptural scholarship, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (a book which despite it's 800 pages has not succeeded in convincing many) reaches a similar conclusion. From the point of view of biblical scholarship, he concludes that the early  Christians themselves believed that something very strange had happened to the body, but a transformation that did not result in the resuscitation of the corpse. From the point of view of faith, Wright concludes that the body underwent a transformation in the tomb, taken up into a new mode of existence and leaving behind an empty space. I have to say I find the good Bishop's arguments cogent and sound. He argues quite strongly that the early Christians had words in their vocabulary for a spiritual experience that a loved one was 'alive' in the Spirit, but instead deliberately chose the more radical language of 'Resurrection' which clearly implies a physical transformation. The spiritual interpretation of the Resurrection (a purely interior experience that Jesus is 'alive' in a new way in the Spirit) has always seemed a bit too 'thin' an explanation for the extraordinary transformation of the early disciples of the Risen Lord. We are in the realm of faith here, of course,  and there is ample room for belief in both positions, but I have always personally felt that the Resurrection of the Lord was accompanied by an extraordinary physical sign.
 
This is such an enormous issue, which I crudely summarize, but I only raise it in order to make the following foray into interfaith reflection on the Shroud and the Resurrection. In 1936, the great Indian sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi, whom I've featured on this blog,  was asked to comment on the Resurrection of Jesus. He said simply,
 
"Sometimes the Guru disappears." 
 
He then made reference to two of Indian's greatest saints from the past. "Manickavasagar is one of those whose body finally resolved itself in a blazing light, without leaving a corpse behind...The gross body is only the concrete form of the subtle stuff-the mind. When the mind melts away and blazes forth as light, the body is consumed in that process. Nandanar is another whose body disappeared in blazing light." (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, page 186-188)
 
Seventy years have passed since these comments were made and we have seen the advance of 'form criticism' and the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' and a whole host of intellectual tools which were probably not available to the saintly Indian guru, who was self-taught. After all, rumors abound in India to this day that Nandanar had been burnt by jealous Brahmins who then  covered up the murder by a miraculous tale of 'merging with the Lord." Nonetheless, Sri Ramana was a man of vast erudition where his own traditions were concerned and would have heard of such rumors and obviously dismissed them. One should also not discount the profound insight afforded to such a realized master.  His opinion clearly deserves consideration and respect. These are tantalizing mysteries, but in light of recent Shroud studies they offer a possible window into another dimension, and suggest a possible explanation for the mystery of the Resurrection. After all, the paranormal has always accompanied religious figures throughout history. In the Roman Catholic tradition, no one denies that Saint Teresa of Avila had to be restrained by her nuns from levitating in Church or that when visitors went in search of Saint Joseph of Cupertino the first place they looked was up at the ceiling! Padre Pio is on record commenting on his own powers of 'teleportation,' his ability to move his body instantaneously from one side of the monastery to another. Skeptics may guffaw, but the phenomenon was observed by too many credible witnesses. The Dalai Lama has also said (in a statement I read years ago and cannot source), that there are ancient Tibetan legends of very high Lamas capable of dematerializing their bodies at death. It seems that the highly realized spiritual master can access certain  spiritual laws of the universe which science in it's present state of development does not yet understand, and this rare access seems to involve the manipulation of matter. The suggestion that the corpse of a 'Divine Master' might be transformed in a blaze of light - does such a suggestion 'magnify our incredulity' - or does it leave us suspended in awe before a profound mystery of faith?

As a final comment, I've always been very moved by the number of Jewish scientists and scholars who have come out publicly affirming their belief in the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. None of these distinguished figures, some of them Nobel laureates, is lining up for Christian baptism. Belief in the authenticity of the Shroud as an indirect testimony to the mystery surrounding the death of the Nazarene does not automatically lead to acceptance of all of the Christian interpretations: Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the World. 

Barrie Schwarz, the Jewish scholar who runs the most prestigious scientific journal on the web devoted to the shroud,  has commented:
 
God must have a great sense of humor, because for the past thirty years, I've been trying to convince Christians that the Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth....Frankly, I am still Jewish, yet I believe the Shroud of Turin is the cloth that wrapped the man Jesus after he was crucified. That is not meant as a religious statement, but one based on my privileged position of direct involvement with many of the serious Shroud researchers in the world, and a thorough knowledge of the scientific data, unclouded by media exaggeration and hype. The only reason I am still involved with the Shroud of Turin is because knowing the unbiased facts continues to convince me of its authenticity. And I believe only a handful of people have really ever had access to all the unbiased facts. Most of the public has had to depend on the media, who always seem to sensationalize the story or reduce the facts to two minute sound bites from so-called experts who have "solved the mystery." Very few of these "experts" ever took the time to research the subject, perhaps in part because so much of the information was hard to find.
 
And in response to the endless doubts about the identity of the Man of the Shroud, Barrie exclaims with some degree of exasperation:



Who else could it possibly be?

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