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Raising the Dead?

Priest at Mass

public domain

David Mills - published on 11/26/14

As Catholics, we have the regular miracle of the Mass, and that is more than enough of the miraculous to go on.

I had my doubts, from the moment I read the headline, “The evangelicals who believe they can raise the dead.” The thirty-one-year-old head of the Dead Raising Team claims to have raised thirteen people himself, though when questioned by the Daily Telegraph’s reporter proves very hazy on the details. “I’m so bad with dates,” he says. The story featured in their Kickstarter-funded movie Dead Raisers, of a man rescued from Hell by the prayers of a deadraiser dressed like Jesus and speaking in tongues, seems to have been made up. The man himself tells the reporter to note how the film is edited. >Almost all the serious Christians I know react like this to stories like this one. Our eyebrows go up and often our eyes roll. Catholics believe in miracles and to an extent that would seem nuts to the average American if he really knew what his Catholic friends believed.

Levitating saints, sure. Weeping icons and statues, yep. The Mother of God appearing to people at places like Fatima, cool. The crippled and sick healed after bathing in the waters at Lourdes, of course. Stigmatics, of course. The dying healed through the intercession of the saints, of course. The world is filled with miracles. And then there’s the Mass, the greatest miracle of all, and one you can experience any day of the week.

But with the Dead Raising Teram’s kind of miracle, eyebrows go up, as they do, and perhaps for the same reason, when we hear a prosperity gospel preacher, even though some of them are surely sincere. The reason, I think, has to do with our and their very different attitudes to the miraculous.

Catholics and other Christians feel miracles to be part of our experience of the natural world, what happens when God cares for his people. We’re supernaturalists, but most of us live by the normal (supernatural) means of grace. We go through life in the usual and sometimes God disrupts things with a special benefit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks laconically of miracles, in one phrase in one paragraph (2003), while dedicating 634 to the sacraments, the normal and regularized miracles of the Catholic life.

The normal means of grace are miraculous enough, and though we may pray for the special and unusual miracle, especially healing, we don’t crave them. One kind of religious believer does seems to crave living in a magical and miraculous world. The hyper-supernaturalist seems to have no filters, no skepticism, if the story is of a certain sort and the teller speaks with conviction. The level of certainty and the quality of evidence he requires both drop sharply from those he demands in the normal course of life. They trust the man telling stories of the dead being raised and interrogate the salesman at the car lot.

A few years ago I knew some people, sophisticated people you wouldn’t think of as credulous, who promoted a man who told of miracles he had seen and performed in Africa. He told dramatic and often elaborate stories, like one of Christian villagers being thrown into bonfires and then after several minutes toddlers walking out of the flames unharmed. He claimed to have raised the dead.

The one time I happened to hear him speaking, his followers sat around him with faces I can only describe as radiant. A week or so later someone heard from an authority in Africa warning that he was a conman and he quickly left.

A professor of psychology quoted in the Telegraph’s story explains how people, especially in mutually-supporting groups, read reality to fit the story they want to believe, or to tell. “This happens in the world of paranormal investigators,” he says. “One charismatic leader has a few followers who all reinforce each other. Evidence that to an observer wouldn’t seem that impressive, they’ll see as overwhelmingly conclusive. They genuinely believe what they’re saying.”

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