One Sunday morning in the middle of last January, I was busily preparing my church for the coming liturgy as part of my sub-deacon duties. My friend Mark greeted me, pointed to flowers in vases on each side of the altar, and asked, “Can you tell the difference between the two bouquets?”
The flowers to which Mark referred were identical inexpensive bouquets from Safeway brought by an elderly parishioner before the December 23 liturgy. I had personally cut the stems, put them in water, placed them in their current locations, and given them no further thought.
I did now. After four weeks, one bouquet was, not surprisingly, withered. But its twin remained almost as fresh as when I first put it in the vase.
“What’s that all about?” I asked as we stood there marveling.
“On Theophany, I put my old holy water in the vase with the fresh flowers,” Mark replied, giving me an amazed look. (Theophany commemorates Christ’s baptism. In Orthodox churches, a service is held in which the coming year’s Holy Water is blessed and then distributed to the faithful.)
As far as I knew, neither bouquet had been touched. Both bouquets had absorbed most of the tap water in their respective vases, but the stem bottoms remained immersed. The only apparent difference was Mark’s holy water.
When I brought the contrasting flowers to the attention of the parish during the announcements, all were just as amazed.
That was Sunday, January 20, 2013. The “holy water flowers” were still fresh when I took the photo accompanying this article on February 3. They finally withered after an astonishing eight weeks.
Cheap, grocery store-bought flowers don’t last that long no matter how well they are cared for. Had we witnessed a tiny miracle?
Most readers would probably say no, noting the ease with which the contrast between the bouquets could be (but wasn’t) faked. So why bring it up here? That experience made me think about the handcuffs the secular mindset places on the objective search for knowledge.
According to the meme, religious believers reject science if it conflicts with their faith. But science also has its prejudices. Steven Pinker and his wife Rebecca Goldstein recounted in a Salon interview their refusal to explore a potentially supernatural experience:
Q: I know neither of you believes in paranormal experiences like telepathy or clairvoyant dreams or contact with the dead. But hypothetically, suppose even one of these experiences were proven beyond a doubt to be real. Would the materialist position on the mind-brain question collapse in a single stroke?
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, if there was no other explanation. We’d need to have such clear evidence. I have to tell you, I’ve had some uncanny experiences. Once, in fact, I had a very strange experience where I seemed to be getting information from a dead person. I racked my brain trying to figure out how this could be happening. I did come up with an explanation for how I could reason this away . But it was a very powerful experience.
“How I could reason this away.” Rather than being open to all possibilities—with potentially uncomfortable ideological implications—Goldstein fled from grappling with a mystical experience that might undermine her worldview. How is that fundamentally different from religionists rejecting a scientific hypothesis out of hand because it would materially challenge their faith?
Countless people over the centuries have had inexplicable experiences. Terminal cancers have disappeared, leaving doctors grasping for a medical explanation. Pilgrims at Lourdes have had documented healings. Atheists and indifferent agnostics have been driven to their knees by sudden, unbidden religious awakenings. Flowers in a vase containing Holy Water lasted eight weeks.
Are Pinker and Goldstein right to sniff, or have so-called rationalists hobbled their pursuit of truth by a philosophy of science that absolutely precludes even the possibility of “supernatural” causation?
Perhaps there is a middle ground between blind faith and staunch skepticism when faced with scientifically inexplicable occurrences. In Orthodoxy, we acknowledge the power and beneficence of science, while also accepting the reality of “mystery” in which God chooses to momentarily overturn the natural order in ways that cannot be rationally explained. In such cases, we simply accept the divine gift with gratitude and move on—as my parish did with the holy water flowers.
Perhaps science can similarly acknowledge humbly that there are phenomena that will never be proved or explained, but at least some of which are nonetheless real—possibly even evidence of a mysterious breach in the natural order.
I don’t believe in and am not arguing for a “God of the gaps.” But my nearly sixty-five years of life have convinced me, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of secularism.