We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. —Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (1941)
Bultmann expresses a thought very common in the modern world: religion and modern science are in tension. His was an effort to deal with that tension by a highly sophisticated project of redefining the terms of religion to make them compatible with modern science. Whatever you think of his efforts, his motivation was favorably disposed toward religion in general and Christianity specifically.
Not everyone who has highlighted the supposed tension has been so kind. Our friends with a more skeptical bent have pilloried religious believers. In their view, it is not just a minor error of thought to be a religious believer today, but it speaks to a deep ignorance — to put it bluntly, stupidity — on the part of the religious person. Words appear like childish, moronic, deluded, fools, suckers, and worse.
One of the most handy words the skeptic can throw at the religious person is superstitious. Ironically, this word has mystical power to shame and belittle someone with religious sensibilities. In the modern world, to be superstitious is to be the bottom rung on the ladder of intelligence and sophistication. It might be charming for the baseball player to have rituals before he goes up to bat, but for everyone else, such practices and beliefs make you the laughingstock at dinner parties.
Some superstitions are no doubt worthy of ridicule. My favorite is the loony belief that the full moon causes an increase in wild behavior. There is no reason to believe it is true, and plenty of reasons to think it is false. It is a superstition.
Believing in something in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary is irrational. Yet this is precisely how faith is often defined, and gives us an example of how skeptics (and others) have cooked the books in their favor. For example, in the recent finale to the show Once upon a Time, Emma Swan’s world-defining “faith” is true merely because she believes in it, despite all (or at least most) evidence to the contrary.
What might be more important is to look at how the word superstition has seeped its way into the world of the religious believer. As a member of a world in which science has been privileged, the religious believer will have a difficult time avoiding being affected by the currents and trends in that world. And it turns out the charge of superstition is just as magical in the church as it is outside. No one, including the Christian, wants to be thought of as stupid.
Ideas have consequences, and in two major areas of Christian practice, the specter of superstition casts its long, ugly shadow:
First, the area of prayer. I have written elsewhere that prayer is primarily about being in relationship with God. But Christians have traditionally believed that prayer does something as well, not simply in us but in the world. Here we might fear the dark shadow of superstition approaches. Yet it is not true. Our practice of prayer is founded on principles that are different from the foundations of the skeptic. If God exists, is loving, and in relationship with us, then it is logical to think we can ask for things and that God is free to do or not do what we ask.
The second area is the question of Eucharist (and all that follows could be applied to baptism as well). The history of the practice of Communion appears strongly tied to the question of superstition (cf. the relationship between hocus-pocus and the Latin phrasing for Christ’s words of Institution: Hoc est corpus meum). But certainly today, many Christians want to avoid the charge of superstition as they celebrate the Eucharist. The trouble seems to relate to how we understand the material world, and here we have adopted (with a little adaptation) the modern world’s materialism. The modern world says that the material world is all there is, and we sometimes adapt that by saying there is simply another world apart from the material world, a supernatural world.
This seems to me insufficient. The Christian, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, says
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
We believe the world can only partially be understood by the methods of science, that its full measure (and not its other “half” or some other world) can only be taken with all the tools available. Christians may argue about what exactly God is doing in bread and wine, but we insist that the claim that God acts through the material is not superstition, but the logical conclusion of our prior presuppositions.
Many today would have you think that praying is a superstition, like refusing to walk under a ladder, or that receiving Jesus in bread and wine is the same as believing it is bad luck to be the 13th party guest. Our practices of prayer and of Eucharist are rational, however, following logically from our underlying worldview. So as you pray or come forward to receive Communion, don’t listen to the voice or voices that say, “You’re being superstitious.” Pray boldly and receive with joy the gifts of God.