This post started out to be a joke (it still may end up as one, says you) or at least to be a mildly humorous look at some elements of Catholic and perhaps wider Christian practice. The genesis or inspiration arose from a throw-away comment Jeff made in one of his Saturday Ramblings, and I typed a few random stream-of-consciousness notes off the top of my head into a Word document, then saved it and forgot about it.
Until today, that is, when Jeff asked for something and I was unprepared (hmm – hearing distinct echoes of “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee”) so I dug this out in desperation. But there are a couple of things coalescing this week that encouraged me to try and treat the topic a little more seriously.
For those of you who haven’t heard, this weekend there is going to be a Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.:
“The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 6:00PM at the National Mall.”
It’s being sponsored and organised by a range of secular, atheist, humanist and such like groups, and it may be a large event; the organisers are saying that the Parks Service has upped its estimate of potential attendance to between 30,000 and 50,000, and they’re very excited, because it’s their chance to be visible, to gain publicity, to make themselves known to others. Each of the organisations involved has its own agenda, naturally enough, but in the main I think the point of the whole affair is much like this atheist says:
“(T)o remind the people in their lives that they know atheists and that we don’t eat babies.” She is also honest about her aims:
“When I’m being publicly atheist, my long-term goal isn’t to help atheists be tolerated (though I may take that on as a short-term goal). My goal is for everyone to be atheists. Except that doesn’t really mean very much, so I actually want for everyone to be virtue ethicists. Or even more precisely, I want everyone to be good, aggressive, loving philosophers who will catch me out in errors, so we can all get closer to the truth together.”
(As a side note, I wish more atheists were like Leah Libresco in their engagement with believers; yes, she wants to convince us of the truth of atheism, but she wants to do so by, well, convincing us, not by calling us idiots and bigots.)
The American Atheists organisation will be having their national convention after the rally on 25th – 26th March nearby in Maryland. It’s also, apparently, “A Week”, which is a week where all manner of non-theists are asked to put up a capital “A” as their Facebook profile picture for the week in order to let people know that they know atheists and that people can be “Good without Gods”.
So what does all this have to do with the title of the post – Christian superstitions? As I said, initially I was going to have a quick gallop through some of the easy targets – the Bible Codes, End Times, prayer cloths, KJV-Only, diet the Scriptural way, God wants you to be rich so say this prayer and follow this regime and you’ll be rolling in the dough, the Book of Revelation clearly identifies the U.N. as the lair of the Anti-Christ-type things we’ve all rolled our eyes about. Then I intended to have a look at Catholic practices which can (I should say, which inevitably) veer towards superstition or look like it from the outside, such as the use of sacramentals and old folk piety such as “If you keep the Easter water for seven years, there’s a cure in it” which I learned as a child (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, Easter water is the water specially blessed during the Vigil Mass of Holy Saturday, where there is a special blessing used and the Paschal Candle is dipped into the water, and it is to be used for baptisms; there is also ordinary holy water blessed on Holy Saturday and it is available in containers in the church porch to be taken home and used for blessing the house or persons; it used to be an Irish custom to use this water to bless the house on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve or Hallowe’en).
Wikipedia has a good, basic explanation of what sacramentals are – they include items such as holy water, holy medals, the blessed palms which used during the Palm Sunday Mass, held by the congregation during the reading of the Gospel to emulate the people who waved palms to welcome the entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem (the same crowd which later called for Pilate to set free Barabbas and crucify Jesus) and taken home afterwards to be tucked behind picture frames or mirrors in the home as a protection, holy oil, blessed salt, blessed candles, scapulars, relics – I’ve already done those so you know all about them – and basically if you can say it, perform it, wear it, sprinkle it on yourself, set fire to it or hang it on the wall, it’s included.
Seven (as in the seven years to keep the Easter water mentioned above) is, of course, a lucky number and the attribution of mystical qualities to items or concepts is not confined to Catholics in particular or Christians in general. The Jews also have similar traditions; seven gains its perceived mystical significance because God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, hallowing it. The number seven consequently had connotations of completeness or perfection. Kabbalah is a goldmine (or minefield) of this kind of thing, ranging from serious scholarly work by rabbis steeping themselves in the writings to, well, Madonna’s latest fad. From the pious requirement to affix a mezuzah on your doorframe (every Catholic who’s ever seen a holy water font inside the front door is now nodding in recognition) to red string bracelets, it’s not just Christians who can mingle folk religion with what looks like superstition.
Okay, so religious people are crazy, we all knew that. What’s my point? My point is that, with just two more Sundays in Lent to go (and the Feast of the Annunciation transferred to Monday 26th because it falls on the same day as Passion Sunday), I am going to challenge atheism as insufficiently materialistic.
Yes, you heard me right. The point of all the discursiveness about salt and ashes and oil and pieces of cloth and beads and bending and kneeling and saying certain words and performing certain gestures and hanging up bits of vegetation and scattering water around? It’s because Christianity is a densely material faith and under our worldview, the world is drenched in the supernatural. To quote from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem we learned in school,
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
The superstitious and even pseudo-pagan elements witness to this; not that they represent a smuggling in of the old practices to be continued beneath the cover of a whitewashed routine, but the recognition that the good things of life – children, crops, rain, light, protection from ills, health and growth of creatures as well as persons – were indeed good, and that now we know the true Author and Giver of all this, we can continue to render thanks. St. Paul did not overthrow the altar to the unknown god or call the Athenians deluded idiots, he used it as a springboard to teach them that what they were seeking, though they did not know it, was here already: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Atheism, on the other hand, is a transcendent movement, one that cannot bear this mingling of the divine and the profane. Not, I submit, because they are too gross and worldly, but because they tend all too readily to Gnosticism. Spirit is spirit, matter is matter, and never the twain shall meet. It may seem on the face of it that they stick rigidly to a materialist interpretation of the universe, where there are only atoms in motion in obedience to physical laws that, in the end, have no meaning other than that they exist. What came before the instant of physical creation is a meaningless question, and for each of us who dies, that is the very moment of the dissolution of the universe (our own small part of it, as our matter returns to the matter from which it arose).
And yet they have a yearning for the purity of the intellect which can be quite touching. The Reason Rally is a case in point: they wish to celebrate and unite under the banner of “reason”. Intelligence and critical thinking skills are important to them. The most vocal of the current crop of “New Atheists” are scientists or philosophers or public intellectuals in some form. Even Jerry Coyne, the professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, who denies free will in statements such as “If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others”, even he goes on to say “That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.” We still, somehow, have duties and responsibilities and should act in fair, rational ways that conduce to the public good –even though we don’t even have the power to decide what color socks we’re going to wear in the morning.
This exaltation of the pure mind (even if ostensibly “mind” is not considered to be separate from “brain” and “soul” is right out from the beginning) achieves its apogee and apotheosis in transhumanism, the idea that we can use technology to overcome the limitations of the body. The more visionary or the wilder, take your pick, envisage a future where human consciousness can be uploaded into computer storage, so that a form of immortality may be achieved free of the shackles of the flesh and earthly ills. We will (or we should) free ourselves from the tyranny of evolution – even though we’ve been informed that evolution is all there is to form us. The Singularity has been derided as “the Rapture for geeks”, as the idea is that greater-than-human intelligence will be achieved through a combination of “artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces” and not only will we create non-organic minds, these will live and evolve in ways unimaginable to us at present. The more practical concentrate on near-future achievements such as cryonics, genetic engineering and cybernetics, where implants link up the human nervous system to act as a control for computer and electronic systems; this is already within reach, they argue, as witness Michael Chorost and his cochlear ear implant.
In such a dream of progress, the messiness and fallibility of the flesh is a more potent argument against divinity than any other; if there is no creator (and how can there be a creator, looking at the imperfection of the creation?), then we are free to take our own development and our own future into our own hands. Our bodies are not sacred, not temples of the Holy Spirit (or any spirit), they are raw material to be transcended and discarded. Matter does not matter.
And so we return to where we started out, with the American Atheists and their billboard campaign aimed at Jews and Muslims, which generated some controversy (though not, perhaps, the kind they were seeking). The primary reason for the offense being taken? They used the Tetragrammaton on the Hebrew-language billboard, which they wanted to put up near to a neighborhood of Hasidic Jews.
The name that is too holy to write or speak in full, the name that conservative Jews writing in English will abbreviate as “G-d” to avoid irreverence, the name that evoked circumlocutions and euphemism (as the Greeks referred to the Furies as “Eumenides” or “Kindly Ones” to avert misfortune), the name that in legend has the power to shake the foundations of the universe if said in full, haShem that must not be written unnecessarily and when written must be treated with special sanctity, so that papers bearing that name cannot be disposed of regularly, lest they be desecrated, but are usually put in long term storage or buried in Jewish tradition– this is plastered on a billboard in giant letters on paper that will be torn down or plastered over with other advertisements for consumer goods.
What’s the big deal, the American Atheists ask disingenuously. It’s only a word, and words have no control over us. Yet by using it, they attribute a power to it which they seek to deny by using it irreverently – and they must know the force of what they are doing, because I don’t think they just happened to get any old Hebrew term when they were translating their message. See, there is no magic in this word, they say. We use it freely and we’re not struck down from above. And by doing this, they show that they attribute just as much power to the correct use of words as any KJV-Only purist. Get the words right, and all will flow therefrom. Get them wrong, and be misled into damnation. They put as much weight on the might of the right combination of letters as any devotee of gematria; it’s an anti-spell to cancel out the spell of the mystic name, because matter is a dull, dead, inert lumpishness that cannot be inflamed by spirit, and since the magic word can be uttered by lips of flesh with no effect seen by the physical eye, why then, there is no being who possesses that name or else he or it would strike in retaliation. An immaterial name cannot have an effect, any more than my speaking your name gives me control over you. Matter and spirit are eternally separate.
But words do have meaning and force and effect. The word that reveals the sacred name leads us not just to sacred words in general, or the Bible as the word, but to the Word Himself, where the physical and the immaterial have mingled. The Logos is not just a philosophical concept, it is a Person. The Word speaks itself because it is a Self that speaks. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God has given us His name to know Him by, and not just His name alone.
So we face into the final weeks of Lent, where next Sunday is Passion Sunday – the Gospel account of the very physical, very material, very messy and bloody and real dealings of the world with the Word will be read at Mass. And the day after that we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us”. Every year, for Christmas or Easter, there comes a new theory to explain in scientific terms the elements of the tales: the star of Bethlehem was a nova, or a conjunction of astrologically significant planets; Simcha Jacobovici with his Talpyot tomb and ossuaries is the most outrageous, but not the only, voice in recent times to reassure us of the historicity of the Gospels by rattling bones for us to deny the miraculous; here is no shambolic intermingling of divinity and humanity but a neat Gnostic division of flesh and spirit, where we have an admirable human, but only a human, dying for a nebulous notion of a different kind of God to that known by the ancients but infinitely malleable to our needs by we moderns.
To quote from the great prayer-poem attributed to the saint whose day we celebrated recently (no, not St. Joseph):
I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.
I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.
No contradiction between one and the other, no dichotomy. The thin immateriality of atheism is no refuge here.
Every year a debunking under the guise of new research to reassure us that the inexplicable entangling of God with humanity is not so, but we have the reins in our own hand and the heavens remain unstained, lofty and distant until we – in our transcended forms as immaterial intelligences housed in technology not these fleshy shells – bestir ourselves to claim them.
But we superstitious ones are left here, in the dust of the desert, clinging not to symbols or weightless words but to real chunks excavated out of the world around us and handed to us by the wounded hands of the Lord we knew and laid in the tomb and now see in His own true flesh before us: bread and fish; salt, ashes, leaves, oil, water, candles, fire, all things to wear and eat and smear on our heads and sprinkle on our possessions as we bow, kneel, rise up, lie down, sing, call, as we plod on our own, weary, tired feet on the sand and stones, until up ahead, over the brow of the hill, look – the light of the dawn! So far to go still, but now no longer in the darkness.