Christ Himself is the grain of mustard seed, who, planted in the garden of the sepulcher, grew up a great tree; He was a grain of seed when He died, and a tree when He rose again; a grain of seed in the humiliation of the flesh, a tree in the power of His majesty. -- Saint Gregory the Great, Pope (540 to 604 CE - a saint in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions.

A few years ago, The New York Times recounted a story about Bertrand Russell. It goes like this:

There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”

Maybe I’ve had it easier than poor old Lord Russell. It was not that I thought the evidence was enough. I didn’t think it was necessary. 

My belief in God started and grew from encounters with two people I had the good fortune to get to know during the Vietnam War. The first was someone whose real name I have long since forgotten but whose nickname was Alamo. He was a fellow American soldier stationed in Saigon. The other was Father Pete, an Army chaplain and a Catholic priest also posted to Saigon. It was 1965 and the city was relatively calm and peaceful that year. Pete — we seldom addressed him as father — took advantage of this to organize weekly discussion groups in a local Saigon restaurant. We would sit at a big table, maybe a dozen of us, eat, drink beer and talk. We discussed the Bible, the war, and life in general. 

I came to the group, by invitation, pretty much believing in nothing.  I left not realizing that I was starting to believe in Christ.

Pete believed in the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. He put it into practice whenever he spoke about scripture. Instead of saying that John’s Gospel tells us this or that, he would say that the Church teaches us this or that, and then perhaps mention John in passing. Sometimes he would give us a concrete example of how he thought. I remember one example though I can’t remember precisely how he put it. This is a an attempted reconstruction:

Many biblical scholars think the empty tomb was not part of the original Easter morning story and that it was incorporated into Mark’s Gospel at a later time. It might have been a fictional tradition used to bolster the resurrection proclamation. As such, it then became part of other Gospels, which were undoubtedly partly based on Mark. Left to my own devices, perhaps if I had been an academic, I could have agreed. But I put my trust in the teachings of the Church, which has studied this question much more than I could ever do so. Therefore I believe the tomb was empty.  

“But does it matter,” Alamo would say? He was always ready to challenge Pete. Alamo was an enigma. The source of his deep faith was a mystery to all of us. He had a rich knowledge of scripture, theology, and early Church history. No one would have guessed that he had just recently graduated from high school and volunteered for Army service rather than take his chances with the draft. Thus, because he voluntarily enlisted, he was sent to Saigon and not somewhere “up country” carrying a rifle. 

Together, Pete and Alamo were the ‘Odd Couple,’ the Yin and Yang, the conservative priest, and the liberal acolyte. Where Pete saw literal events in the life of Jesus, Alamo saw allegories and metaphors. There was, however, one narrative they both agreed on. They both believed in a miraculous, bodily, physical resurrection of Christ.

For more about Father Pete and Alamo read Saigon 1965

For my part, I wondered about the truth of the account. So one day I asked, “How can we know that the Resurrection took place?”

“We can’t,” was Pete’s reply. “There’s no evidence outside of scripture. We are called to believe, not to know everything. Some say to have proof would spoil our relationship with God, particularly our free will. But I see it differently. I think it is more about human nature. Remember the parable of the rich man, who had once dressed in purple and always ate sumptuously, and of poor Lazarus hoping for crumbs falling from the rich man’s table. Having both died, we find the rich man suffering in Hades while Lazarus rests in the “bosom of Abraham.” The rich man calls up to Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus back to the rich man’s five brothers to warn them before it is too late. Abraham had replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NRSV) 

Had I known about it in those days, I might have added, “And neither will they be convinced by the Shroud of Turin that someone, in fact, rose from the dead.”

Those two long-ago friends had sowed a seed. It would grow in me over the next five decades. At first, I came to believe in an idea. That idea eventually became Christ’s spiritual resurrection. Later, that evolved into a strong belief in an actual, physical, bodily resurrection. I would eventually forget my Saigon friends as the faith became my own. Significantly, I never thought about the need or want of evidence. Blind faith, some called it. I didn’t think so but I can’t give it a better name. Maybe I was just lucky or naïve. Or perhaps I was foolish. I thought that was how most people believed in God and in miracles like the Resurrection. 

That was so, until I discovered the Shroud of Turin in 2001. Suddenly I was confronted with Shroud enthusiasts and all their evidence. They wanted to prove the Shroud was authentic and, in turn, use it to prove that the Resurrection really happened. Not everyone in the Shroud world felt that way, but large numbers did. Large numbers still do. 

This driving philosophy was made clear to me at a conference in Dallas in 2005 when an official representative of the Archdiocese of Turin told the AP (Associated Press) and NBC News that the question before the conference was: “Is the Shroud proof of a resurrection or is it a medieval fake?”

It was made even more explicitly clear when Mark Antonacci, a few years later, wrote in a press release promoting a book he wrote: “Objective and independent evidence does not exist to prove the central premises of any other religion, agnosticism or atheism. In contrast, the Shroud of Turin could provide thousands of unfakable items of scientific and medical evidence to prove the central premises of Christianity.”

Tell that to someone like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne or Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

This past Sunday’s liturgical calendar Gospel reading was from Luke: the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. It brought back memories of our discussions in Saigon. And as I sat in Mass, and as my mind wandered, I wondered if Abraham’s reply to the rich man was not mostly a lesson about evidence and human nature. Maybe! We live in an age where evidence often doesn’t matter. According to the Pew Research Center, in the U.S., despite science, a third of the adult population does not embrace evolution. It’s not because of a lack of education but because of what many choose to believe. And, according to a Gallup poll last year, four in ten Americans now think alien spacecraft have been visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies. Why? 

“I think I see (what I want to see)? Like the identification of pollen grains and limestone dust on the Shroud? Like what people imagine they see in the cloth: images of coins, flowers, teeth, and inscriptions?

I wondered: If the Shroud were to be proven authentic, would anyone change their mind about the Resurrection? Will all people ever march to a single set of facts? I doubt it. 

Here is a stark example: Good Science, Bad Science, and the Shroud of Turin

I’ll take the mustard seed any day. Now we can deal with our different definitions of resurrection.

Christ Himself is the grain of mustard seed, who, planted in the garden of the sepulcher, grew up a great tree; He was a grain of seed when He died, and a tree when He rose again; a grain of seed in the humiliation of the flesh, a tree in the power of His majesty. — Saint Gregory the Great, Pope (540 to 604 CE – a saint in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions.