Daniel Maria Klimek’s book Medjugorje and the Supernatural: Science, Mysticism, and Extraordinary Religious Experience is a spirited attempt to overcome the perceived conflict between science and religion. Like many past entries into this field, Klimek trains his gaze on the scientific study of religious experience, in this case studies that have been done on the psychology and neuroscience of a small group of visionaries who have, for over thirty years, claimed to see daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the Balkan village of Medjugorje. What makes Klimek’s book noteworthy—and ambitious—is his insistence that these studies both prove the authenticity (and supernatural nature) of the events at Medjugorje, and provide a new framework for cooperation between science and religion.
Medjugorje is somewhat puzzlingly organized. The introduction and first chapter introduce both the village and the six young peasant-visionaries, complete with several florid miracle stories. Chapter 2 describes the Catholic Church’s process for discerning the authenticity of mystical experiences such as these. Chapters 3 and 4 delve into academic debates on experience in religious studies, from William James to Ann Taves. Chapters 5 and 6 detail the scientific studies that have been performed on the Medjugorje visionaries and argue that these studies are both unique and potentially paradigm-shifting. Chapter 7 and the conclusion propose an alternative method for studying religious experience (the “inductive constructive-relational approach” ) and make the case that the lessons learned from Medjugorje can heal the rift between science and religion.
The book’s structure is such that the new data—the scientific studies of the visionaries—is not presented until relatively late, in chapter 5. Chapter 2 is interesting, but non-Catholic readers may not much care what the Church has to say about the subject. Klimek’s chapters touching on debates in academic religious studies—such as his sections on the work of James and Evelyn Underhill, or on the so-called “perennialists” and “constructivists” in the study of religious experience—are, however, well explicated, making clear the author’s admirable erudition. Indeed, the strongest parts of the book may well be Klimek’s substantial summaries of these arcane debates, giving the new reader a fresh overview of the current status of the field.
The “inductive constructive-relational” method that Klimek advocates boils down to a new formulation of James’s “radical empiricism.” It promotes interdisciplinary engagement with the sciences, while seeking to avoid what Klimek perceives to be a dogmatic commitment to a naturalistic metaphysic that often comes with such engagement. This indeed echoes James, but it is also essentially the method of the Catholic Church for investigating mystics that Klimek lays out in chapter 2. While Klimek very rightly and ably critiques the metaphysical assumptions of reductionist scholars such as Taves, he may fail to show as much charity to a naturalistic worldview as he asks the reader to extend to a supernatural one.
This comes through clearly in Klimek’s discussion of the scientific data collected at Medjugorje—the evidence on which all of Klimek’s arguments stand or fall. Essentially, the tests amount to psychological proof of the visionaries’ good mental health and a few demonstrations of some odd paradoxes, such as the brains of the visionaries being in a “state of hyper-wakefulness” (184) while they are unable to feel pain (which usually would be intensified in such a state). Klimek takes these facts to mean that a supernatural explanation must be offered, since a pathological one clearly will not suffice. Yet, it is plain that there could be a natural explanation that is simply not yet known. Klimek dismisses this possibility as “dogmatic worship given to the idol of scientism” (278). Indeed, to claim a priori that all mystical experiences must have purely natural causes is dogmatic naturalism. But to hold that they might have natural causes which we do not yet know is not: it is simply good use of the scientific method, which if one wishes to use, one should respect.
As a final note, the reader may wish to examine more closely the quality of the scientific studies performed at Medjugorje. For example, Dr. Henri Joyeux, on whose authority Klimek heavily leans, is a noted scientific opponent of such monstrosities as vaccinations and milk, and has been investigated for breaching scientific ethics. While this does not inherently negate the value of his work at Medjugorje, it does make the critical reader suspicious of precisely what caliber of scientific study is being undertaken in the holy village.
According to Mirjana, one of the Medjugorje visionaries, Mary has revealed ten grave and terrible secrets to her and her companions. Mirjana claimed that Mary allowed her to share one secret—that soon, there will appear on Apparition Hill in Medjugorje, a “permanent, indestructible, and beautiful” (42) sign that will convince all skeptics of the existence of God and usher in a new era. Klimek believes that this will occur, and that should it not, it would “constitute one of the biggest hoaxes in human history” (42). Given the long register of eschatological fraud and error, I find this claim to be somewhat dubious. Such stuff does not seem to me to be the proper foundation on which to found a new non-reductive method for the study of religious experience. Should I wake up tomorrow and see proof of this sign, I will happily, in my best Jamesian non-dogmatic spirit, throw my hands in the air and shout “mea culpa, Domine!” Until then, I shall be pondering the more salutary words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “to aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul.”
Samuel J. Gee is a graduate student in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.
Samuel J. Gee
Date Of Review:
August 29, 2018
Daniel Maria Klimek is a Third Order Franciscan friar, writer, and scholar. He is a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association and has taught as a Lecturer in the School of Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University. He earned his Ph.D. in spirituality with distinction from the Catholic University of America, and received his Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School, concentrating on the history of Christianity. Daniel Maria is a recognized authority on the Marian apparitions of Medjugorje.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.