Fake or not, the Turin Shroud is an article of faith

Pilgrims to the sites of religious relics are not searching for proof
that God exists.
The devout visit the shroud because it is a thing of holiness – Fake
or not, the Turin Shroud is an article of faith
The devout visit the shroud because it is a thing of holiness

By Peter Mullen

New investigations suggest that the Turin Shroud, the cloth which many
Christians believe to have wrapped the body of Christ, may be genuine.
This tentative conclusion by some Italian scientists contradicts
forensic trials of the Eighties, which declared the shroud to be a
medieval fake.

The researchers say that the shroud’s image of a bearded man must have
been created by “some form of electromagnetic energy, such as a flash
of light at short wavelength”. Could the marks on the shroud be the
very imprint of Christ’s Resurrection? I don’t think that we can ever
know for certain. Moreover, I don’t think it matters.

When pressed to give his judgment on the shroud’s authenticity, Pope
Benedict never went further than to affirm that it could prove a
strengthening of faith among those who already believe. It is, he
said, “an image which reminds us always of Christ’s suffering”. And
this is surely right. To make this problematic piece of cloth the
criterion for belief in the Resurrection is to be guilty of the same
mixture of crass literalism and the misapplication of forensic science
as that found in Richard Dawkins’s declaration that if God exists, we
should be able to detect him with our telescopes.

It is an unsatisfactory faith which insists upon forensic proofs.
Suppose that today’s consensus is that the shroud is genuine. Then do
we all become devout believers? And must we then give up that belief
if tomorrow there is a conclusive report to demonstrate that it is a
medieval forgery?

The millions of pilgrims who make the journey to see the shroud in its
climate-controlled case in Turin cathedral do not do so in the hope of
some irrefutable proof of Christ’s resurrection. Why bother to make
the visit, then? Because they are pilgrims. And a pilgrim is one who
believes before he sets forth on his pilgrimage. The pilgrim does not
make his in search of scientific evidence and the empirical proof of
his faith. The point of his journey is precisely that faith is his
motivation.

The devout visit the shroud, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or
Mecca, because this object, this building or this place is regarded as
holy. Holiness is not a property which can be evidenced by even the
most hi-tech physical examination. Holiness is a quality which is
apprehended in the soul of the faithful believer. It involves what
Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief. It
is about reverence, submission before the holy object – even about
fear and trembling.

Our materialistic age does not take readily to the idea of the holy.
We inhabit instead a secular fundamentalism which rules out spiritual
apprehensions as things belonging to a primitive era, to things we
have outgrown. This materialistic literal-mindedness was at its
strongest during the 18th-century Enlightenment, and it took the
Romantic poets to remind us that there are such things as spiritual
presences. Think of Wordsworth and The Prelude, in which he describes
his terror as he sat on the lake in his little boat and the great
cliff loomed out of the darkness.

All this has deep theological roots. Since God made the world and
became incarnate in it in his son at Christmas, spiritual truths are
forever necessarily bound up with material things. Think of Jacob
following his wrestling match with God: “How dreadful is this place!
This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of
heaven.” Or Moses before the burning bush: “Put off thy shoes from thy
feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.”

We are not disembodied minds subsisting on a diet of facts and
evidence. We are flesh and blood, body, parts and passions. That is
why we crave closeness to physical things and presences. Even our
secular modernity craves close association with tangible things –
especially at times of crisis and emotional upheaval. I can see now
the crowds of people who processed past the lying-in-state of the
Queen Mother, those many thousands who placed flowers outside
Kensington Palace after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And
those who express their grief and hope to assuage their sorrow by
making little roadside shrines to mark the place where a friend or
relative was killed in an accident.

We should not undervalue physical things. Some religious people tend
to be so spiritually minded that they’re no earthly use. Jesus Christ
did not say that physical things were insignificant. He fed the
multitude with loaves and fishes. He gave the wedding couple at Cana
gallons of wine. When he restored sight to a man, he did it with his
spittle. And his last and greatest commandment was to take bread and
wine and say, “This is my Body… this is my Blood.”

It is all the consequence of this happy Christmas revelation: “And the
Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, the
glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Rev Dr Peter Mullen is the author of ‘A Partial Vision:
Christianity and The Great Betrayal’