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February 10, 2011
Holiness is a State of Mind
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
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:42pm
Hi, Dr. Hedrick and Mike,