People gather at the end of Church for a “travel blessing.” A priest chants a prayer and sprinkles water over them with a brush. They cross themselves and have some sense that their travels will now be better.
Many modern people watching this procedure would describe the process as “superstitious.” It appears to them that physical actions (sprinkling water) are expected to have some remote effect on later events (travel safety, etc.). This, in modern thought, is the essence of superstition. An action, completely isolated from a later event, is believed to have a causal relation. Others would go so far as to call this “magical.” And would further think of it as absurd and useless.
Another person, a dedicated Protestant, has a dangerous trip coming up. They go on Facebook and post their concerns. They are flooded with comments: “Prayers!” “Sending good thoughts your way!” etc. Even an unbelieving friend or two post, “Well wishes!”
This is not considered superstitious or magical. Of course, a hard-bitten materialist would dismiss even these sentiments as nothing more than a polite expression of emotional concern. Well wishes and good thoughts do not make airplanes fly safely.
Of course, noting such things raises questions about the whole practice of religion. Do prayers help airplanes when they fly? Do planes crash for lack of sufficient prayer?
There are two fundamental considerations in all of this. The first is whether thoughts, speech, words and ideas are inherently superior and more “spiritual” than sprinkling holy water, anointing with oil, and other other physical expressions of religious belief. The second is whether our thoughts and actions have a causal effect on outcomes. Do we pray in order to make the world a better place?
The first issue is fairly straight-forward. There is no essential difference between “thoughts” and “actions.” Speaking words of blessing or prayer over a group of travelers differs in no fundamental way from sprinkling water over them. Words and thoughts are as “physical” as water. Our ideas and thoughts are composed of electrical and chemical events in a very physical brain. Words are sound waves making molecules of air vibrate. The notion that words and thoughts are somehow “spiritual,” while ritual actions and substances are somehow merely “physical,” is simply bad physics and religious prejudice. Indeed, the notion of the spiritual superiority of thought creates a false and misleading superstition of its own.
What is true in this is that human beings are simply and inescapably material beings. We imagine that thought is somehow immaterial. That is, we have an image of thought being somehow immaterial, for we cannot seem to imagine that electricity and chemicals interacting with biological neurons could be experienced as ideas. And yet they are. Our dichotomy between the material and the spiritual is, to a large extent, a failure of the imagination. Our concept of thought is too ethereal while our concept of the material is too gross and inert. We fail to see the wonder that is our physical existence.
This failure is also the “scandal” of the Incarnation. The Greco-Roman world found it difficult to accept the proposition that the immaterial God would become a material being. It ran counter to the philosophical assumptions of the day. They believed that materiality was doomed and that everything was reaching upwards towards a less material existence. For God to move in the opposite direction was unthinkable. It’s in the face of those false assumptions that St. John proclaimed, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
His statement may be the most radical thing ever written. It belongs with all of the paradoxical expressions of the Christian faith: weakness is strength; die in order to live; love your enemy; give in order to receive; give thanks for all things, etc. But the Word becoming flesh not only contradicts the expectations of the Greco-Roman world, it also reveals the truth of material existence.
A troubling aspect of our materiality is that it is so obviously impermanent. We are not only prone to injury and illness, but when all is said and done, we die. And we not only die, our materiality dissolves. Every thought, feeling, memory, the whole wonder of our physical and neural existence simply stops and turns to dust. We ache for some assurance that death and decay are not the end of who we are. Is the person I loved gone and lost forever?
Our faith tells us of the soul (psyche). It is sometimes correctly translated “life.” There is a rush to speak of the soul as immaterial and not subject to the same death and decay as the body, and further, to make it the repository of the hopes and memories – our personhood. And thus the death of the body is seen by some to be inconsequential. The soul is everything.
But this dishonors the material nature of our existence and places everything that is real and true and worth preserving into a non-materiality that is somehow safe. Frankly, this quickly begins to change the very nature of the Christian faith and morphs into an ersatz faith of false comfort.
The body, our materiality, reveals in a very graphic manner the truth of our existence. It is temporary, flimsy, subject to death and decay. In theological terms we say that it is “contingent.” There is nothing about who or what we are that is inherently eternal or immortal. Instead we are told, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.” We sing, “Thou only art immortal.” Whatever we are apart from the dissolved materiality of dust, what we call the soul, is in the hands of God. It is utterly contingent upon His gratuitous kindness. The soul can make no claims on a non-contingent existence. It is as flimsy and impermanent as our flesh. We are inescapably contingent.
But this was and is already true of our material life at the present moment. It is a fool’s imagining that creates a safety and a guarantee in an indestructible “spiritual” existence. Our materiality reveals the truth of our contingent existence.
And it is into this contingent materiality that the Word enters. The non-contingent God becomes a contingent man. And with that, He reveals the wonder of our materiality. It has value and worth. Our materiality is not the mere vehicle of our value and worth. It is not simply that which carries our person. We are not “ghosts in the machine.” However, our habits of thought have created false dichotomies. We imagine our thinking existence to be “spiritual,” to belong to that realm of an indestructible soul and to therefore be immune to the dissolution and fragility of the material world. This dishonors the Incarnation of Christ.
The truth is that I have more in common with a loaf of bread than with some imaginary ethereal existence. My life, as wondrous as it is, need hardly go further than its materiality for an explanation. There is, of course the matter of consciousness, something for which no material explanation can be given. But consciousness should be seen as a miracle of our materiality rather than an argument against it. The God who became man, became a material man. He lived a material life and died a material death. The eternal, everlasting commandment He gave on the night before He died was a material event. He took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it saying, “Take, eat.” He did not say, “Take think.” He indeed said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But He said, “Do this!” Not “Think this.” The eating is the remembering!
Bread, water, wine, oil, wax, incense, paint, wood, touch, smell, bowing, crossing, breathing are examples of the kind of existence we have. They belong to the proper world of our existence and the one with which the Word united Himself. Those who imagine that ideas and words are somehow exempt from materiality are working from a model other than the Christian one. An idea is no less material than bread and bread is no less spiritual than an idea. And it tastes better.
The second issue, do prayers help planes fly, is fairly straightforward. They do not. We do not pray, bless, etc., in order to cause things to happen. We do these things in order to unite ourselves with Christ and to unite our world, our trip, our child, our whole material existence with the will of the good God who alone sustains all things in their being.
It will be asked, “Then why pray or bless?” We pray and bless because the good God sustains all things in their being. Prayers and blessings are the sounds and actions of a material world giving itself over to the hand of the good God who alone sustains all things in their being.
I am deeply fond of George Herberts poetry. The Agony comes to mind:
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.