The effect of superstition on Christianity
What is superstition? ‘To believe in spite of evidence or without evidence. To account for one mystery by another. To believe that the world is governed by chance or caprice. To disregard the true relation between cause and effect. To put thought, intention and design back into nature. To believe that mind created and controls matter.’ It is all to do with living in a spooky, chancy who-knows-what- might- happen-next kind of universe.
Before Christianity came onto the scene, the ancient world was very much a world of magic, astrology, amulets, charms, curses, and love potions. Often they were associated with religion — especially seeking the aid of certain gods and goddesses. Every village had ‘wise ones’, who dispensed to people’s needs. Archaeologists have found magical curses scratched on lead tablets and papyri offering recipes and instructions for black sorcery.
The word used by the Romans to describe this kind of activity was superstition which at its root means ‘to look over something’, that is, to be entranced or in awe. They extended this definition to include foreign religions, including Christianity.
Superstition and the Bible
We discover, however that Bible attacks superstition in its very first chapter. There is polemical significance in the fact that God blessed the seventh day. The Babylonians, for example, were superstitious people and particularly concerned about unlucky numbers. For them the unlucky number was ‘seven’ and multiples of seven. But Genesis says, ‘No’, seven is a wonderful number — it is the number of wholeness and blessing. In verse 15 we are told, ‘He also made the stars’. This almost throw-away line is yet another attack on paganism which believed the stars were gods and therefore to be worshipped.
The Bible offers a different version of reality. The pagan view (then and now) is the superstitious view — the world operates more like magic than a machine, where humans are very much at the mercy of strange forces. Magic is an attempt to harness those forces to one’s own advantage. The Bible’s view is that the world has been made and is sustained by an all powerful, purposeful Creator. As a result it can be relied upon. It is not so much a stage for the weird and wonderful, but, as John Calvin describes it, a ‘theatre for God’s glory’. It is a world which can be examined and understood and, to some degree, brought under control for God’s glory and people’s wellbeing. In John 8.32, Jesus says: ‘If you hold to my teaching, you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ This means we needn’t be anxious about walking under a ladder because we know there is no magical link between ladders and walking, but rather that both the ladder and the one doing the walking are upheld by the faithful, reliable God.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul spells out the implications even more, because Ephesus was the cult centre of the ancient world as we read in Acts 19. 19: ‘A number who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to 50,000 drachmas’ (50,000 days’ worth of wages). Paul reassures such people that in relation to Jesus, ‘God places all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything’ (1. 22). In the first five centuries Christianity began to displace superstition. Augustine, in the fourth century, went so far as to declare astrology to be nothing but a fraud.
The church — bad luck
It was around the seventh century when the church was well established, that it took a wrong turn. Instead of confronting superstition, it adopted a policy of accommodating it.
This change in policy is preserved in a letter by Pope Gregory the Great to Abbot Mellitus in 601 in which he said that temples and idols shouldn’t be destroyed but ‘Christianised’. As a result, hundreds of magical springs through Britain became ‘holy wells’ associated with a saint. Soon the landscape of Britain was littered with shrines and abbeys which had their collections of holy relics — alleged bones of the saints — all claiming to have supernatural effect. Instead of the church getting rid of superstition, the church itself became superstitious.
What was once prayer became more like magic when through the help of the dead saints a power was tapped into which more or less forced God or his lesser saints to do the deed. A situation developed where there was a distinction with no difference — the church and superstition. At least the ordinary people began to see it that way with regard to the mass. In Latin the priest says, Hoc est corpus meum (‘this is my body’) to denote the transforming of the bread into the body of Christ. But it was said so quickly that it sounded like ‘hocus pocus’!
In many cases what was called ‘magic’ wasn’t anything of the sort. The ‘Wise Ones’ of the villages were often folk who had discovered herbal remedies which actually did have healing properties rather than healing powers. People found themselves in a situation where if they went to pray for healing before a relic they weren’t often healed, but if they went to a wise one who gave them some herbal potion they were.
Not surprisingly, the Roman Catholic Church began to become more strident in its condemnation of such practices. Not because it was really witchcraft but because they were losing out to the competition. The result was that more superstition began to accrue in the Church with more and more relics being built up with claims of miraculous powers. But if you throw into the mix the offer of eternal life, then that increases the value of the product you are offering. This the Church did and so, with an increase in superstition, there was an increase in the offer of indulgences (at a price).
This increase in superstition within the Church continued until the Protestant Reformation. One writer says about this movement: ‘Perhaps the most important part of the Reformers’ theology … was their insistence on the absolute and complete love of God as Father. He did all that was necessary for salvation. There was no bargaining, for God was prepared to do it all. He did not merely make it possible to enter heaven, conditional upon certain holy activities during life: he brought people into heaven, so they could be confident they were there now, while still alive. This doctrine was the Reformers’ most basic argument for trust in God. It was not just that he provided all that was necessary for life-food, shelter, the whole of creation; their argument was that he was wholly devoted to the interests of his people, as demonstrated by his willingness to provide free salvation, although it was so costly to himself. The power of this confidence bursts from the Reformer’s writings. It is the positive thrust of their message which inspired and made sense of their negative condemnations of medieval religion. They condemned such things, not simply because they were wrong, but because there was no need for them in this new, confident world of biblical Christianity. The Reformation was more than an alteration of liturgical and ceremonial practice; it was a new way of looking at the world... There was more than a change in ‘religion’; it was a change in thought, in life, and what it meant to be a human being in God’s world.’ It really did free people from superstition both ‘Christian’ and pagan.
It was also this worldview which freed up thinking to give rise to modern science. S. Jaki writes: ‘The scientific quest found fertile soil only when faith in a personal, rational Creator had truly permeated a whole culture, beginning with the centuries of the High Middle Ages. It was that faith which provided, in sufficient measure, confidence in the rationality of the universe, trust in progress, and an appreciation of the qualitative method, all indispensable ingredients of the scientific quest’. Christianity is the root and science the fruit.
Now in America
In 2007-08, a massive and intensive survey was undertaken in the Unites States on the state of religion in the country by Baylor University. It was found that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology. Yet, it remains widely believed that religious people are especially credulous, particularly those who identify themselves as evangelicals. However, the researchers found that conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe! This shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion. Among other interesting findings on paranormal or occult beliefs are that people who have read The Purpose-Driven Life or any book in the Left Behind series are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, while those who have read any book on dianetics or The Da Vinci Code are more likely to believe.
However, the findings are interesting from another standpoint. To have indications that those who have read such Christian books are less likely to believe in the occult might suggest that they have been influenced by secularism more than they should have! Peter Bolt and Donald West are surely right when, regarding the expansive charismatics and the secularists, they write: ‘We need to realise that each end of the spectrum is actually a version of ‘superstition’. The one sees an evil spirit under every stone, so to speak, and the secularist finds spiritual evil nowhere. Both are ‘superstition’, since both positions are not true to the reality of this world as explained by the word of God’.
C.S. Lewis observed a number of years ago that, when Christianity is strong, superstition is weak, and vice versa. The 21st century was meant to be the scientific century and the triumph of reason. But what we find is an abundance of superstition which projects us back in time, resulting in a lack of security and hope. And yet these are the very things which come with the Christian gospel.
Melvin Tinker is vicar of St. John Newland, Hull.