Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As we saw last time, God is unscrupulous in his willingness to use anything to get through to us. To make matters still more complex, recipients of real divine assistance can even be lacking in brains, emotional stability, or morals and still, by divine providence, land on their feet. As St. Paul notes:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27–29).
And so, however sensible it is to note that a claimed revelation is being reported by a scoundrel, a fool, a basket case, or an ignoramus, it’s not automatic disproof of God’s involvement. If all the other evidence points to the truth of the thing, simply dismissing it ad hominem is a poor way to proceed. Indeed, it’s often to blind oneself to a crucial fact in favor of the sign. So, for instance, the risen Christ is reported to have been seen first by a woman from whom seven demons had once been driven out (Mark 16:9). On its own, this would not appear to be a promising psychological profile for a witness. But the interesting thing is that the Church preserved this bit of testimony despite the fact that a woman and a former victim of demonic possession is exactly the witness you would never invent if you were trying to make a case to a first-century Mediterranean patriarchal culture. In short, the Church acts as though it’s preserving a historical memory, not inventing a story.
Another demonstration of how God’s grace isn’t dependent on how smart or saintly we are is found in Genesis, when God condescended to help Jacob even though Jacob’s Bronze Age ignorance of genetics had filled his mind with all sorts of bogus notions about animal breeding and his questionable ethics had not exactly put God in his debt.
The story goes like this: After ripping off his brother Esau’s inheritance, Jacob had himself been ripped off by his uncle Laban. Jacob wanted nothing more than to get away from Laban, but Laban held most of the family assets. So Jacob cut a deal with Laban and promised to take only the speckled and spotted sheep, every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats as his wages. Laban agreed. So Jacob, operating under the solidly wrong Bronze Age assumption that an animal’s coloring depends on what its mother sees as it’s conceived, pulled the following “trick” on Laban:
Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the runnels, that is, the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own droves apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding Jacob laid the rods in the runnels before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the rods, but for the feebler of the flock he did not lay them there; so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. Thus the man grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses (Gen. 30:37–43).
The point of this story isn’t that Bronze Age ideas about animal breeding are revealed by God to be good science. The point is that God condescended to help Jacob despite the man’s ignorance of genetics, because he had plans for Jacob (and because Laban had been unjust to Jacob, who deserved his wages). God didn’t grant Jacob’s desire for restitution because striped and speckled sticks make goats bear striped and speckled kids, but because God’s mastery of the universe is so subtle that he can work within real genetic laws and the ignorant notions of Bronze Age men. Similarly, God can and does grant private revelations to people who may be as deeply ignorant or wrong about all sorts of things in their lives as Jacob was about genetics.
That means discerning private revelation is tough and the Church has to walk a very tricky tightrope in approach such claims. Of which more next time.