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February 10, 2011

Holiness is a State of Mind

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In primitive societies persons, places, and things were thought to be endued with a general supernatural force or power, generally referred to as “mana” by anthropologists. This force was considered sacred or holy, and consequently that in which mana resided must never be dealt with casually or carelessly. It required a shaman, tribal chief, or holy person of the community who understood such things to deal with them. Treat them casually and it could have catastrophic results. In Hebrew Bible, for example, the Ark of the Covenant was being moved on a cart drawn by oxen. The oxen stumbled and one of the cart drivers, Uzzah, reached forth his hand to steady the Ark so that it would not fall—and died for his efforts (2 Samuel 6:1-7). In other instances the force could be beneficial. For example, objects from the body of Paul taken away to the sick, infirm, and people possessed of evil spirits cured the ailments and drove out the evil spirits (Acts 19:11-12). Such holy objects must be given due deference!

     Today, Christians, on their best days, tend to think of the supernatural force associated with holy objects and places as a spiritual force from God: that is, the power does not reside in the object itself but comes to us from God through the sacred object. Such a view has some intellectual respectability to it—at least it shields Christians who trade in sacred objects from a charge of shamanism. But who knows what a person in the pew really thinks? Likely there are a range of views in religious communities that trade in religious objects and locations, ranging from superstition to a sophisticated theological rationale.

     A case on point is the way the elements of the Eucharist are viewed in the Catholic and the Lutheran traditions. In Catholicism it is asserted that the bread and wine at a sacred moment in the Mass are actually transformed into Christ’s body and blood. Hence one would assume that the elements are not holy by virtue of a spiritual force coming from outside, but the bread and wine are now holy in themselves—the power resides in them. Lutherans, on the other hand, say that the presence of Christ substantially invests the elements—the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but now have an added spiritual force. The Catholic view resonates with the ancient primitive idea of a spiritual force innate to a sacred object, while the Lutheran view seems more in line with an outside spiritual force permeating the elements of the Eucharist. I say seems because the “substantial presence” in the Eucharist appears to be a special instance that does not apply to other things. Some theologians describe the spirit of God permeating the entire universe—rocks, trees, animals, comets, suns, etc. But the Lutheran view of the Eucharist seems to hold the Eucharist as a special case.

     In Eastern and Western Christianity holy shrines bring healing to the masses today. The miraculous icon of the Virgin, our Lady of the Greek Island of Tinos, and the icon of our Lady of Lourdes, France bring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and cures of all sorts—just as Asclepius did at his ancient Greek sanctuaries of Epidauros and Kos. Protestant Christianity, on the other hand, has traveling shrines—wherever faith healers like Benny Hinn happen to pitch a tent or hire an auditorium.

     The word “holy” as applied to certain things often means little more than deference or respect. For example, in describing the church auditorium as a “sanctuary,” many would agree that the word simply means the space is to be respected, like one respects the Senate Chambers of the Federal Government, for example. Not everyone thinks that way, however, and would affirm the auditorium as God’s House, meaning that God is in that place in a special way—the space is therefore holy or sacred. This latter way of thinking about a church auditorium is more like the primitive idea of a supernatural force or power residing in rocks and trees, as it does not reside in neutral places, like, for example, a football stadium.

     The line between faith and superstition is exceedingly fine. Since the 18th century, the rise of critical thinking and reliance on human reason to explain what we regard as extraordinary challenges the idea of the holy affirming a sacred presence permeating things we regard as special or unusual. A view of objects and places as supernaturally endowed—and even a sacral view of the cosmos itself, has been steadily falling before scientific questions—and answers. The primitive view of world as sacred space, alive with spirits and mysterious powers surrounding human beings who must protect themselves with magic and religious ritual, survives in Western thinking, but for most of us it is only in the dark recesses of our minds. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world primitive ideas of the holy still, quite literally, hold human minds hostage. In the West, however, rational thinking and human reason are gradually overcoming superstition. The line between faith and superstition is drawn with great difficulty—and perhaps with the loss of many of the assured tenets of our chosen faith.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:42pm


You said that to a faithful Catholic it wouldn't really matter what the test showed - they would still believe in the real presence. I think you're probably correct.

I'm no longer a religious person, but I do attend occasional church services to hear what people are saying and to hear how pastors/priests are presenting the Bible. Yesterday, I attended a service on communion. The local pastor said that it didn't matter to him what he experienced because his trust was in the Word of God, not in experience. This was surrounding a claim that by touching the body of Christ (the wafer) you would receive bodily healing. It was more than saying you could; he said you would. One the one hand, he said that everyone who touched Jesus would receive healing (like the crowds that came to him, woman who touched the hem of his garment, etc.). On the other hand, he was saying it didn't matter even if his claim didn't come true. With such a fortress mentality against any contradictory evidence, there doesn't seem to be much hope in convincing someone otherwise.

This reminds me of Harold Camping, an odd character who says he found a Bible code that predicts the rapture will happen on May 21, 2011. Ironically, he was making the same predictions in the early 90s. All of his followers got together on September 6, 1994 to wait for the second coming, which he had been predicting for two years. Of course, it did not happen. But the crazy thing is that many of his followers stuck with him even after he was wrong and now they will all be duped again.

Now, many people who hold similar views to the first story would view the second story as the people being gullible. I see no reason to make such a distinction. The evidence has to count for something.

Mike Gage
Posted by Mike Gage on 2/14/2011 at 9:05am

Hi, Dr. Hedrick and Mike,

I thought I would offer in a couple of comments. On the Eucharist and Lutherans, I just wanted to point out that Lutherans have to believe, as a profession of faith, the real presence of Christ in Communion. How they choose to believe that is up to them. If they want to hold the Catholic position of Transubstantiation that is fine, or if they want to hold to a view that has the real presence of Christ co-existing with the substance of bread that is fine too. As for members of the Catholic Church and the Eucharist, I am sure that there are members of the Catholic Church who do not believe in the real presence of Christ in Communion--just like I'm sure there are some who consider themselves to be Orthodox, Lutheran, or Anglican/Episcopalian that feel the same way. They are breaking with their church, but they have nonetheless done so. On the Catholic Church itself, allowing the Eucharist to undergo tests, I don't know of anything official. I have heard of some scientists looking at a consecrated Host, and not finding anything significant about it, but to a faithful Catholic who believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, this does not matter, and here's why. One could have easily taken a sample from Jesus--assuming that these kind of tests could have been performed back then--and a test would not show Jesus to be anything but a normal human being like the rest of us. Yet, the Catholic--along with Protestants, who do not believe in the real presence of Christ in Communion--would still argue that Jesus is God in the flesh, even though scientific tests would not support that.

Take care,

Cody Hayes
PS: I would also like to email you, Dr. Hedrick, off this blog as well, of course.
Posted by Cody Hayes on 2/12/2011 at 3:07pm

Thanks for your comments Cody. I look forward to getting your email.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/13/2011 at 8:38am

Dr. Hedrick,

To your point, I would be willing to bet that most Catholics - especially in the U.S. and Western Europe - don't really believe in the Eucharist claims. I have never seen a survey on this, but would be interested to know the results of one. My hunch is that the line to which you refer is being drawn in that particular case. I have also never heard of the Catholic Church formally submitting to a test of this claim by modern means. If I'm correct that they have not, then I would suspect the Church leaders themselves don't really believe it. Unlike the more metaphysical miracle claims (God cured my aunt of cancer or helped me win the football game), this could actually be tested.

Also, I hope all is well. I'm a former student, if you remember. I've often fondly told the story of the first day of class: You asked if anyone believed unicorns ever existed. No one did. You then said unicorns may have been mentioned in the Bible, and asked the question again. Everyone but me changed their answer. I had come from a literalist background, so I guess I shoudn't have been surprised, but it was a jarring realization nevertheless.

Mike Gage
Posted by Mike Gage on 02/11/2011 at 9:27am

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the observations on contemporary Catholic views of Eucharist. You would certainly be correct about the views of American Catholics. There is constant tension between the American church and the Vatican. But the Catholic church casts a big shadow in areas of the world that are not quite as influenced by secularism as is the US. And there is also the issue of Orthodox Catholicism. And another problem is the “true believer,” who seldom challenges anything—as you noted in your comments about the unicorn. I have seen no surveys on this topic either. Perhaps one of our readers could inform us if there is such a survey?

If memory serves, you were on your way to work on a Masters in Philosophy when you left MSU. Write me an email (off-blog) and bring me up to date!

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/12/2011 at 10:41am