Monday, April 18, 2016

How Big is a Miracle: The real miracle of the man born blind


How Big is a Miracle:  The real miracle of the man born blind (John 9:1 ff)?



The Gospel of John, chapter 9, contains the story of the Jesus healing a man born blind. In this scripture passage, Jesus heals the man, who testifies about his healing to his neighbors and eventually to the Pharisees. These encounters lead to more conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. This story contains a number of elements on which individuals have written and preached, including the notion that sin led to the man’s blindness at birth (and Jesus’ efforts to counter that falsehood), the identification of Jesus as a man of God (and not a “sinner’), and the contrast between physical blindness and spiritual blindness. In this article, I want to address a different issue - one that has rarely, if ever, been addressed.  In particular, readers and expositors of scripture often gloss over the healing itself and focus on the consequences for the man, his family, Jesus, and the Pharisees. I intend to highlight the real nature of the miracle involved in healing a man born blind.

As a psychologist, my areas of expertise include developmental psychology and cognitive psychology. Developmental psychology focuses on the course of human development from conception to death. Cognitive psychology focuses on how “thinking” works – the processes by which we sense (e.g., see or hear) things, how we understand and remember what we sense, and use that information to make decisions and act in the world around us. As part of my teaching on these topics, I describe what we know about the visual system and its development, and describe how blindness at birth alters this development.

The process of “seeing” an object or person starts with light being reflected from the object onto our retinas (which are located at the back of our eyes – if you wear contacts or glasses, these are intended to make the reflected light fall more precisely on our retinas). This information travels through pathways from the retinas to the very back of the brain (i.e., the occipital cortex), which is the area of the brain that processes visual information. People who have received brain damage to the back of the head (e.g., a soldier who receives shrapnel damage to the back of the head) may become blind, not because their eyes are damaged, but because the area of the brain that interprets visual information is damaged or destroyed (this is called “cortical blindness”).
          
Our ability to visually make sense of the world around us is the product of genetics and experience. Our genetic makeup and resulting biological development establishes the basic structure of the visual system. Our subsequent visual experience (i.e., all the things that we look at as infants and young children) fine-tunes the basic structures to allow us to make sense of the information that we receive from our eyes. A 6 month old baby has the ability to see because he or she has a genetically produced visual system. The 6 month old learns the difference between “mama” and “papa” through visual experience – looking at and interacting with, for example, the faces of mama and papa. There is considerable evidence from studies of animals and humans that visual experience during the early years of life is absolutely critical for making sure that the brain is wired appropriately for interpreting visual information.
          
Research with animals shows us that when animals do not receive necessary visual information during the earliest part of their lives, their ability to perceive and make sense of the world around them is adversely affected. For example, Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel artificially closed the eyelids of one eye of newborn kittens, so that the one eye would not receive visual information. Kittens who had this experience were effectively deprived of sight in the one eye for about 6 months until the eyelids were “opened.” It was discovered that these kittens had lost the ability to use the one eye to see the world around them. Examination of the visual system showed that it had developed abnormally – information from the closed eye was very limited and not effectively used by the visual system. Similar research with other animals (e.g., monkeys) produces similar effects. Monkeys with loss of vision in their early development (e.g., the first few months of development) do not develop the ability to distinguish between simple objects (e.g., a circle vs. a square) or to “see” the world around them. 

TO LEARN MORE
          
Infrequently, there have been cases of humans who have been born blind (e.g., are born with cataracts). Some of these individuals, especially over the last century, have received surgery (e.g., to remove the cataracts), giving them the ability to see. Unfortunately, a common pattern emerges from these rare cases. Once the person has gained the ability to see, it is very difficult for them to understand what they are seeing. If they have not had the early visual experiences that are necessary for visual development, it turns out that their visual system is not properly organized or wired to allow them to understand the new visual information they are receiving from their eyes. In many of these cases, the individuals may be somewhat dissatisfied with their situation and prefer to close their eyes (i.e., to be blind) because what they see is confusing and disorienting. They may prefer to use their old, familiar ways of interacting with the world (i.e., by touch or sound) rather than use a new and confusing sensory ability. For an example of a man in this situation, I direct you to the case study of Virgil, in “To see and not see” by Oliver Sacks in his book “An Anthropologist on Mars” or in the New Yorker magazine (May 10, 1993).

This background brings us to the case in John 9 – the man born blind. This story can lead us to two conclusions. The first conclusion is that this man, like other people who have been born blind and subsequently gained their sight, did NOT have a properly developed visual system and so could not make visual sense of his world even when he gained his sight. After all, if he had been blind for 15 or 30 (or more years), his visual system would not have had the opportunity to develop because he did not have any visual experience. If this is the case, we may have a situation of someone who ended up being dissatisfied with his miracle. After all, what good is a miracle (gaining sight) if it makes your world more confusing and disorienting? This also suggests the possibility of an incomplete miracle – is it possible that Jesus healed the man’s eyes but did not give him the ability to understand what his eyes saw? Most people find this conclusion to be an unsatisfactory one. 

END PART ONE

Steven Hayduk
Former Officer

Canada

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why do people have to overcomplicate issues?