The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11)

Collage by Alexey Kondakov

In 1983, David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear and reappear on live TV. The illusion was impressive, perhaps astounding, and I think most of us who saw it gazed on in amazement.

In contrast, consider the spectacle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. At the wedding, Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no wine.” Jesus replied, “Oh Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother then said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3-5). Jesus ordered the servants to fill containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief steward (waiter). After tasting it, without knowing where it came from, the steward remarked to the bridegroom that he had departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (John 2:6-10). John adds that: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and it revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

What makes the Marriage at Cana a miraculous event and not a magical act, like a Copperfield illusion?

One difference must be that some people who witnessed the water change into wine immediately saw it as the expresssion of the Holy Spirit embodied in Jesus. Without noticing this aspect, the event would be astonishing, perhaps strange, but not a religious miracle. Like Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty illusion, people would respond out of incredulity or astonishment, but no more.

The significance of the person who commits the act is the meaning of the event as a relgious miracle, not the event itself islolated from this context, and is what witnesses are supposed to see, from a religious perspective. Without this understanding, the Wedding at Cana is simply an impressive illusion.

Faith and pain intensity: levels, forms, and faith beyond religion

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

Levels of faith and pain intensity
Research studies show significant relationships between strong spiritual well-being, increased pain tolerance[1] and an ability to cope with pain.[2]

A recent study demonstrated that spirituality well-being, and faith particularly, as measured by the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy – Spiritual Well-Being-Extended scale (FACIT-Sp-Ex), was significantly related to reduced pain intensity in some study participants over a course of pain treatment.[3] What accounts for this relationship? The authors speculated that:

“It may be that a strong element of “faith” is associated with a greater confidence or trust in health professionals and a greater likelihood of following their advice. It is also possible that those with higher levels of “faith” are more likely to improve because they are more likely to engage with a program that seeks to incorporate a spiritual and existential component. It is also possible that they are more eager to please the program providers and report better outcomes. All of these possibilities would need to be explored further and cannot be answered in the present study.”[3]

The quotation suggests that higher levels of faith might be associated with reduced pain intensity in some people with pain.

Forms of faith and pain intensity: a hypothesis
A hypothesis is that, in addition to levels of faith, particular forms of faith, or combinations of faith forms, could reduce pain intensity.

So, what forms of faith are there? The following forms are commonly distinguished in philosophy of religion (Table 1).

Faith formName in philosophy of religion
A feeling of existential confidencethe ‘purely affective’ model
Knowledge of specific truths, revealed by Godthe ‘special knowledge’ model
Belief that God existsthe ‘belief’ model
Believing in (‘trusting in’) Godthe ‘trust’ model
Practical commitment beyond the evidence to one’s belief that God existsthe ‘doxastic venture’ model
Hoping the God who saves existsthe ‘hope’ model
Table 1: Common forms of faith identified in philosophy of religion[4]

Scientific study could investigate if some forms of faith are significantly related to reduced pain intensity compared to other forms, or combinations of forms, of faith. These same forms of faith could be used prognostically by clinicians to predict improvements in pain intensity in some patients, or in other outcomes, such as quality of life or pain-related disability. Qualitative research could investigate if patient conceptions of faith accurately map onto faith forms, as identified by philosophers.

Faith beyond religion
Can faith exist without commitment to any religion? Tennant wrote that: ‘faith is an outcome of the inborn propensity to self-conservation and self-betterment which is a part of human nature, and is no more a miraculously superadded endowment than is sensation or understanding.’[5] He thinks that ‘much of the belief which underlies knowledge is the outcome of faith which ventures beyond the apprehension and treatment of data to supposition, imagination and creation of ideal objects, and justifies its audacity and irrationality (in accounting them to be also real) by practical actualization.’[5]

If faith exists beyond religion, then people who commit themselves to a view based on a particular interpretation of reality exclusive of the objective verification of the truth, are people of faith. Faith of this kind may be religious without being theistic, as in Buddhism or Taoism. Or, it may be scientific when people propose that reality is no more than what is discoverable by the natural sciences (e.g. ‘scientific atheists’, ‘naturalists’).

Study of the interaction between faith and pain could investigate relationships between forms of faith and pain intensity, in addition to other psychosocial outcomes. Such forms span broadly across traditional orthodox religious thesim, relgious non-theism, scientific atheism or naturalism. Interaction between forms and levels of faith, and pain outcomes, is a further possibility. Personal faith could be a useful tool in the clinical armamentarium.

[1] Lysne CJ, Wachholtz AB. Pain, spirituality, and meaning making: What can we learn from the literature? Religions 2010;2(1):1.

[2] Keefe FJ, Affleck G, Lefebvre J, Underwood L, Caldwell DS, Drew J, et al. Living with rheumatoid arthritis: The role of daily spirituality and daily religious and spiritual coping. J Pain 2001;2(2):101-10.

[3] McCabe R, Murray R, Austin P, Siddall P. Spiritual and existential factors predict pain relief in a pain management program with a meaning-based component. J Pain Manage 2018:11(2):163-170.

[4] Bishop J. Faith. In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at:

[5] Tennant FR. 1943/1989. Faith [Tennant, 1943, Chapter 6]. In T. Penelhum (ed.), Faith, London: Collier Macmillan, 99-112.

Spiritual Well-Being in People Living with Persistent Non-Cancer and Cancer-Related Pain


Another excellent paper in the Pain Medicine special issue I guest edited with Melanie Galbraith, John Quintner and Milton Cohen –

Spiritual Well-Being in People Living with Persistent Non-Cancer and Cancer-Related Pain
Melanie Lovell, Mandy Corbett, Skye Dong, Philip Siddall

Existential and spiritual factors are known to play an important role in how people cope with disability and life-threatening illnesses such as …

Source: Spiritual Well-Being in People Living with Persistent Non-Cancer and Cancer-Related Pain

An approach to understanding fetal pain and consciousness

The trend in the literature on fetal pain is to approach the question of consciousness in the fetus in terms of conscious states of pain. That is, first define what makes a pain a conscious mental state, and then determine being a conscious fetus in terms of having such a state. Thus, the possibility of a conscious fetus is thought to rely on theories of conscious pain states. Call this the state approach to fetal pain. 

Two state approaches to fetal pain are present in the literature. One approach looks at the brain structure(s), pathways and circuits necessary for conscious pain states and then seeks to establish whether this substrate is present and functional in the fetus. There is broad agreement among researchers that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in the human fetus by 24 weeks gestation [1, for review]. Some researchers argue that the fetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain is enabled by subcortical brain structures [4,5,6].

Another phenomenal approach is to consider the subjective content of a conscious experience of pain, and to ask whether that content might be available to the fetus [1,2,3]. Based on this approach, some researchers argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage because it lacks developmental abilities and concepts such as sense of self necessary for pain [1,2,3].

Although both state approaches are presented as opposites in the literature, they share the determination of fetal pain based on specific levels or degrees of complexity, whether of the brain structures and the relationship they have to the conscious state of pain, or of the subjective contents that constitute that state.

An alternate approach to understanding fetal consciousness that has not been explored in the literature on fetal pain is the extent to which pain is based on the arrangement of certain brain structures (or experiential contents), rather than a result of maturation or increase in complexity achieved by growth of the brain substrate which below a certain size does not enable consciousness [7,8]. Thus, whether the fetus is excluded in this regard is not due to its simplicity, but because its lack of certain brain arrangements necessary to enable consciousness.

According to this alternate view of fetal pain, a living creature’s subjective contents may differ greatly in complexity. To convey the range of conscious possibilities, consider the Indian ‘scale of sentience’ (cited in [8]):

‘This is so.’
‘I am affected by this which is so.’
‘So this is I who am affected by this which is so.’

The possibilities in this consciousness scale range from simply experienced sensation (‘This’; ‘This is so’) to self-consciousness (‘I am affected by this which is so’; ‘So this is I who am affected by this which is so’). Each stage in this scale presupposes consciousness. Any experience, whatever its degree of complexity, is conscious. It follows that to see, to hear, and to feel is to be conscious, irrespective of whether in addition a creature is self-conscious that it is seeing, hearing, and feeling [7]. To feel pain is to be conscious of that experience regardless of whether in addition one is self-conscious of being in pain. Self-consciousness is just one of many contents of consciousness available to big-brained living creatures with complex capacities: it is not definitive of consciousness [7,8]. The point of saying this is that it circumvents the logical mistake of misidentifying attributes unique to a specialized form of consciousness (e.g., self-consciousness) as general features of consciousness itself.

With this alternate view of consciousness now sketched in, we should determine where the fetus and where pain fall in the Indian scale of sentience. The possibilities in the scale extend from mere sensation to self-consciousness–where does the fetus fall in?


[1] Derbyshire S, Raja A. (2011). On the development of painful experience.Journal of Consciousness Studies18, 9–10.

[2] Derbyshire SW. (2006). Controversy: Can fetuses feel pain?. BMJ: British Medical Journal332(7546), 909.

[3] Szawarski Z. (1996). Do fetuses feel pain? Probably no pain in the absence of “self”. BMJ: British Medical Journal313(7060), 796–797.

[4] Anand KJ, Hickey PR. (1987). Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine317(21), 1321–1329.

[5] Anand KJ. (2007). Consciousness, cortical function, and pain perception in nonverbal humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences30(01), 82–83.

[6] Lowery CL, Hardman MP, Manning N, Clancy B, Whit Hall R, Anand KJS. (2007). Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain. In Seminars in perinatology (Vol. 31, No. 5, pp. 275–282).

[7] Merker B. (1997). The common denominator of conscious states: Implications for the biology of consciousness. Available at:

[8] Merker B. (2007). Consciousness without a cerebral cortex, a challenge
for neuroscience and medicine. Target article with peer commentary and author’s response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 63–134.

What is religion? Next question, please.

What is religion? If this question asks what all religions have in common, then the answer is: next question, please.

What do all religions have in common? Nothing.

In contrast to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Buddhism is atheistic with regard to a creator god. There is no doctrine of karma in Christianity. Hinduism is opulently polythesitic, but Islam is not. And so on.

In this kind of situation, it is more promising to offer a simile. What is religion like? Religion is like a cord composed of braided strands (e.g., a rope). The strands overlap and lie over each other in complex ways. The integrity of the cord does not consist in one strand, but in the arrangement of many strands.

Take any family. Look at the faces of its members. Do they have one facial feature in common?  No. There are both similarities (e.g., eye color), and differences (e.g., face contour). The relationships are complex, not simple. That is how it is. Just look and see for yourself.

Religion is extremely complex. To make a decent start at understanding it, good questions need to be asked. This is not easy. So, I urge looking first. What is observed? Compare your visual experiences. Look first, ask questions later.

Religious pretenders

I am too honest to be religious. Religion lains waste to honest reflection and questioning.

Many people claim to be religious. How many are pretenders?

There may be good reasons why a person pretends to be religious. A religious son adores his devout mother so much that he could not bare her to learn of his atheism. However, unknown to him and family, the mother is an atheist, and has been for decades. Like the son, she became a religious pretender in order to protect her mother’s feelings, and so on.

How to break this circle of lies? Honest reflection and questioning. And that takes great courage.