Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Christian Superstitions

black cat, superstition
by George Elerick

A black cat. Friday the 13th. A cracked mirror. Locking your door numerous times. Tying your shoes incessantly. Eating your foods in a certain order. The number 23. A rabbit’s foot. Our culture is riddled with superstition. But what is it? Why is it important? And is the church perpetuating it?

Dating back to the 14th century, the term superstition is defined early as an "excessive fear of the gods." Remember, an excess is something outside or beyond the normative experience of reality. It exceeds something. And the fear itself is the anxiety of not knowing whether we can control fate, to bring about our desires. 

In ancient times, superstitious practices served to appease or persuade the gods, attempting to 'control' them, to coerce them to: bring rain, heal someone from the brink of death, sustain crop growth, win wars against other tribes, and so on. It was a method of trying to manage the fear, to achieve what was desired by means of a specified act (i.e., murdering a virgin, offering the first crop, etc.). 

Superstitions are practiced in an attempt to control fate; to achieve the object of our desire, or to protect us from the frightening prospect of a world that is eminently dangerous.

In the movie 'As Good As It Gets' with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Nicholson plays a man suffering from severe OCD. He has to avoid cracks on the sidewalk; he has to lock his doors a certain number of times before he is able to feel safe.  

This last part is key; it gives us a window into his obsessive neurosis. The object of his desire (i.e., safety from a dangerous world) is not focused on the specific door, the locks, or even the idea that this single door provides some barrier between himself and the world, but rather, all these things represent something much more important. They are imbued with power; they are symbolically something more than the object itself. The door is not just a door; it is a DOOR. All doors, taken together, represent the desire for safety from a perversely septic world.  

These actions, which are self-imposed rules, force the person to then view these rules as 'other'; they must make these rules sacred in order to justify them and their relationship to them. These self-created rules become superstitions, imbued with a great power, justified by an interior logic: "It is not that I wish to avoid the crack in the sidewalk; rather I MUST. If I don't, then I might be injured; it might bring bad luck; it might cause others harm." 

Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets, OCDNotice the theme here: Safety. This person thinks the world is an inherently dangerous place to be. His self-imposed superstition grants protection from what he fears; it helps him achieve his desire for safety.

Has not the role of the pope become a form of religious superstition? In the modern era, its functional significance is anachronistic. It’s noteworthy that while the Vatican currently sits without a physical pope, socially speaking the papacy hasn’t been this empty for years. It suggests that in the current arc of history, society is beginning to question its own superstitious upbringing. For one man to be the mediator for billions of other humans not only seems like an eccentric role, but also one that relies upon suspending belief in one's self-worth. 

When people fetishize other humans (another example would be when people become obsessed with actors/actresses) they ultimately negate their own inclusion (and experience) in the narrative of life. Their life is simply a translation through the gaze of another.  

When superstitions become self-justifying, they demand allegiance and observance, and ultimately remove any space for actually experiencing anything beyond the superstition itself (i.e., reality). They require people to create a world where their fears and desires control them; desires and fears which are dealt with only in temporary fashion, and only by people offering themselves to a reflexive ethic of being (i.e. the way one walks, talks, one’s verbal responses to specific events, one’s physical actions required after certain situations, etc.). 

This is one reason why Freud addressed religion as a superstition. To achieve its ends, it required a sacrifice: the very essence of the person committing to it.

And is not this the current state of the Christian church? I use church in the institutional sense. The implications here are various, but for quite some time, one such superstition that has continued to rear its head involves the exclusion of women from leadership. 

Okay, let's stop here for a second. What's the implication when we must create rules (i.e., superstitious ethics & behaviours) around half of the human species? Is it not that they in some sense do not naturally embody humanity as fully as men do, that they must somehow earn that humanity? In this light, the superstition supersedes the ontology of ‘woman’, so much so that it is not necessary that ‘woman’ even exist because the superstition has taken her place. In this regard, superstitions are quite evil, a parasite needing a host. Here, it’s an archaic host that now must seriously be dealt a tragic blow: patriarchy. Patriarchy demands a sacrifice; in this case, the opposite gender.

worship, sacrifice, hands raisedWhen viewed in these terms, is not sin itself a form of superstition? The idea that either some or all of humanity is inherently flawed and so, to deal with this flaw, we need a sacrifice to appease the 'gods' - is this not an excess fear of the gods? And is not the earliest conception of worship a part of this same practice, a form of superstitious disavowal of self? 

Let me explain. Worship is undertaken with the hope to make god feel good about herself, or to recognize who god is and who we are, or to pay homage to the person of god or (well, the list goes on). But what are the implications? Certainly, one is that God needs it, that God demands it, that God can't exist without it. And in a very perverse sense, some use this idea to coerce God; they use the promise of worship as a bargaining chip to entice God to give them what they want.

Ultimately, superstitions are beliefs we act out; we rely on them out of fear of disintegration. We create rules and actions that we imbue with significance, with holiness, with power. We cordon off reality (which we cannot control) by circumscribing it with superstition (which we can). We think that living through these constructs will save us from the danger of having to engage what we really want.  

In this light then, people need the Pope because they are afraid to meet with God. People need to see the black cat because if they don’t, they will have no reason for why things went bad. Superstitions are the hope that we can make sense of how things work. 

Yet, Jesus offers something different: Spirit and Truth. In Hebrew, these terms speak of the essence of a person - not objects or rituals outside of us. They speak of a person living out of the very center of their being - not through external objects or practices. Jesus says this is possible. And I think we find just such a person waiting for us beyond the pornography (excess of reality) of our superstitions.

George Elerick is an author, speaker and activist living in London. He is the author of Jesus Bootlegged and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. You can find him on Twitter @atravelersnote or read more of his work at his personal blog The Love Revolution.

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