WALKING UNDER LADDERS
If the Church just ridicules people for being superstitious it misses one of its most important points of contact with them – over their fear of the future
One of the quirky paradoxes of a rationalistic world is the persistence of superstition. Some people are perplexed at the way others are governed by superstition. They think it is naïve now we can explain cause and effect in life. Yet superstition is an ingrained habit. We develop it when we are young by not standing on the cracks in the pavement; by not looking at the ceiling or walking under ladders; or by trying to find the second magpie. These habits often persist in adulthood. People consult horoscopes or reach out to catch the spiralling bouquet of bridal flowers, while sportsmen and women acquire all kinds of elaborate rituals before a game to ward off bad luck. This reminds me of the sporting gaffe by ex-footballer Barry Venison who said: ‘I always used to put my right boot on first, and then obviously my right sock’. At its most distressing, superstitious ritual can turn into obsessive compulsive behaviour which is a prison for those caught in it.
Christian faith distinguishes itself from superstition through its grounding in historical events which provide coherent meaning for all ages. This hasn’t stopped the high priests of atheism from claiming they are one and the same thing, but while individual Christians have sometimes aggregated faith and superstition, the Church has consistently opposed superstition. It does, however, call out for interpretation, which goes something like this. We are all anxious to live happy lives but we are aware that life is not happy for many people.
So how do we secure a happy life when we do not feel in control of our destiny? Simple: we behave superstitiously. It feels like a way of gaining control over the random forces that appear to rule us. We’re not sure how it works, but it makes us feel better to do it, as if we are somehow narrowing the odds. Superstition, in other words, is a form of cosmic insurance policy.
If the Church just ridicules people for being superstitious it misses one of its most important engagements with the world – over people’s fear of the future. The New Testament reading we had today from Romans 8 is one of the most important bits of the Bible in addressing superstition – and I think it is saying three things.
Firstly it encourages us to assign fears over our own destiny to God. Neither personal superstition nor reductionist science can address this deep seated need. The former – personal superstition – tells us that we can control the world by a series of small rituals which send out a kind of cosmic code. The latter – reductionist science – tells us that the world is merely the outcome of random material forces without any coherent story to trust in. The Bible, by contrast, encourages us to see the world as the place of God’s saving activity. Sometimes it feels like we are subject to random forces, but faith in God provides a different perspective.
This faith is not the same as fate. Many people, including some Christians, are fatalistic: believing that whatever will be will be. But this has no justification in scripture. God both created this world and is recreating it today. He calls us to co-operate in this by shaping our own lives and the world around us for good. Fatalism is passive and assumes we can’t shape the future for the better because it is always fixed by forces beyond our control. One Pakistani professor of physics said he believes the strength of fatalism in both Hinduism and Islam contributed to a worrying calm during the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan in 2002. ‘Whatever will, be will be’ isn’t exactly a reassuring policy when fingers are inching nearer to the nuclear buttons.
The second antidote to superstition comes from the bit in Romans 8 where it says that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’. This is one of the most remarkable statements in the Bible. I do not think it means that everything always turns out for the best in this world because we can see that things turn out badly for some people. It is not helpful to their faith to tell someone who is suffering that this is God’s will for their lives and that they should concentrate on the thin lining of silver at the edge of the black cloud. This is a cruel denial of pain. People need to be given the freedom to say that everything is black if this is how they feel. We cannot reach people if we deny their experience. Yet God does not desert his people because if we concede this we become hostage again to a godless world of random cruelty. If we have faith that he is still with us then there is hope, because as St. Luke says, all things are possible with God.
When Jesus died on the cross it looked like God had deserted him – not least because Jesus said so himself. After the resurrection his followers realised that God had been working through his suffering to bring salvation to the world. God may have hidden himself at the cross, but he didn’t absent himself. And in his hidden presence he was at work to transform what looked to everyone like a hopeless situation. I believe the passage in Romans 8 wants us to see our problems the same way. We might feel that God has walked out on us, shutting the door quietly behind him – making us wonder if he was actually there in the first place. But appearances are deceptive. He may be hiding himself for reasons we do not understand, but he is always there, working for our good, clearing a path through the tangled undergrowth of an oppressive jungle until we can find the road again. ‘All things work together for good for those who love God’.
The third antidote to superstition is that nothing in the world can separate us from the love of God. It sometimes feels like we are separated from this love. Even when things are going well in life there are times when we feel nothing spiritually. As if there is a gaping void where the promise of love should be. I think we have all felt this in life and the reason we do is because we rely too much on our own senses. In other words, if we feel God is there then he must be, but if we do not feel he is there then he can’t be. Thank God that his love is more reliable than our emotions. Even at our lowest ebb in life we are enfolded in his love, the most powerful force in the universe.
St. Paul tells his readers that nothing in all creation can separate them from the love God has for them. Nothing in the present, nothing in the future; nothing in life, nothing in death. And he specifically says that ‘powers’ (verse 38) cannot separate us from God’s love either. In the original Greek the word ‘powers’ means the cosmic planetary forces that astrology uses to interpret the future. In other words, St. Paul pits God’s love against astrology, against the forces that people fear they are controlled by and he shows them which is the more powerful. We can continue to behave superstitiously as a way of trying to gain control over these forces, but it is utterly irrelevant – and faithless of us – when measured against the scope and power of God’s love for us personally. The future belongs to him – and so do we.
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