I often wonder why we accept as piety that which we would consider in other contexts to be symptoms of schizophrenia, or at least delusional disorder.
For example, suppose you had a friend who had a life-changing decision to make, one with which your friend was struggling. Perhaps it was whether to take a new job that required a cross-country move, but that meant he had to leave his home town and his life there behind. And he's not sure what to do.
But one day, he has settled his decision. He tells you that Jesus (or God, or the Virgin Mary) came to him last night and told him what he must do. You might or might not think him somewhat over the top, depending upon your own views. But society, as a whole, would think of this as fairly normal.
If, instead, he tells you that Elvis came to him last night and told him what to do, you'd likely think him a whole lot over the top... and society as a whole would view him as a nut-case.
Even when we reject divine pretension, we have a double standard with it. We consider the likes of David Koresh to be insane at best, but we accept George Bush's claim of being chosen by God to be president as merely a small excess. I suppose how we treat issues of anointment from God depends upon how much political clout the person in question wields, and so, as with many other things, the real double standard on this one is about money.
What is the real difference between a divine vision and a psychotic delusion? Why is it socially acceptable to see God or Jesus or a saint, or perhaps a dead relative, but not Elvis or George Washington or Mary, Queen of Scots?
Of course, any answer to that will be either dismissive of religion or self-referential — it's OK to see visions of things we believe in, because we believe in them. The more people there are who believe in what we say we see, the more acceptable the visions are, of course.
We have a new American saint, as of mid-October, Mother Theodore Guerin, a French nun who worked in Indiana in the mid-1800s. NPR reporter Andrew Yeager begins the story:
For Craig and Julie Smythe, there is little doubt the two-hour trip from their suburban Indianapolis home to St Mary of the Woods, Indiana, was worth it. They stand near a stream of church-goers in this bright sanctuary lined with pink marble columns. The crowd files past a wooden tomb said to contain the remains of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. Craig Smythe says the family prays to Guerin every day. Three years ago an MRI showed spots on his daughter's liver and lungs. But subsequent MRIs have revealed the tumors are gone.Mr Smythe continues:
The doctors tell us they're mystified by this. Of course, we're not. We know exactly who is responsible for taking those away.The implication, of course, is that Saint Mother Theodore — or God, with the Saint Mother as His agent — is responsible.
And of course we can't prove it either way, for or against. Believers use these sorts of stories as evidence of divinity. Skeptics say it proves nothing — that the fact that we don't know something doesn't give one cause to attribute it to God and say "So there!" But the point here is that had this been another family, who instead prayed to Elvis, to Satan, to Zeus, or to the Sun and the Moon, we wouldn't likely be hearing about it on the radio, blessed by the Pope with a new canonization. Instead, we'd shake our heads about their magical thinking, and comment that, well, it takes all kinds.
I note that throughout our history we've had one society after another, each with its own system of belief. Each system supplanted the one before, and each time, the new society laughed at the mythology of the previous, but thought that now we know the true answer.