Ship of Fools, the rather fine Magazine of Christian Unrest, is running an experiment in online Communion, and the wider idea of virtual sacraments. It’s an idea that interests me, because I like the thought of playing around with different ways of expressing things, but it’s been causing quite a fuss, even among people who fit the Ship’s subversive, liberal mindset. It’s been described as shocking, ridiculous and even blasphemous. Being thoroughly awkward and contrary, this just makes me more interested.
A lot of the criticism comes from people who believe in some form of ontological change in the communion elements, either Transubstantiation or the slightly broader idea of Real Presence. There seems to be a fear, whether spoken or unspoken, that the magic won’t work if you do it wrong. I have no idea whether they think God can’t or won’t change the bread and wine, but I find either belief difficult to reconcile with church’s own description of God as loving and omnipotent.
But it also makes a mockery of important rituals, we’re told, because online activity isn’t the same as doing things in person. Well no, it isn’t, but is it necessarily inferior? Apparently so, because you’d only really be sitting around at home alone, probably dressed in nothing more than a slightly soiled pair of pants full of holes, and not really communicating with anyone or anything in a real way – not really real. This line of argument has uncanny similarities to common criticisms of online culture in general, and it betrays both ignorance of the virtual world and a failure of imagination, quite surprising for a web forum with a strong sense of community.
Ultimately, even various people giving examples of how they’ve found different sacramental approaches useful are dismissed, because they’re making subjective statements, while the “proper” sacraments are apparently “objective fact”.
I’ll say that again – objective fact.
What we’re talking about, remember, is a belief that as long as you have:
- the right man
- saying the right words
- at the right time
- in the right way
- over the right things
Then God will do some magic and turn the bread and wine into fresh lumps of Jesus, while doing some more magic to make it indistinguishable from actual bread and wine. You’ll notice that none of this can be tested in any way, let alone proved, because the claim is that God helpfully (and conveniently) makes the end product indistinguishable from the raw material, but nevertheless it gets claimed (admittedly not that often – most have more sense) as an objective fact.
Of course, the truth or otherwise of the claims is indeed objective, as opposed to the subjective matter of how people feel about it. It’s more the use of the word “fact” that astonishes me. The objective part just states that this isn’t a claim that can be justified with reference to how people feel about it – it’s either true or it isn’t. That’s fair enough, to a point, but describing it as fact in the absence of any evidence is an insult to objectivity, a cruel pastiche of genuine investigation and enquiry that’s as “objective” as Sagan’s Dragon.
I think this bizarrely dogmatic attitude comes down to a slavish adherence to a particular official interpretation of Jesus’ words. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”, you see, so we should obviously do as He says (or so the thought goes), if only we could agree what he meant by “this”. In this case, many people think “this” has to involve lots of people physically in the same room. But they rarely see any need for the meal beforehand or washing each others’ feet, and just try asking a mixed group of Christians what qualifies as bread, or whether grape juice will do instead of wine, or even whether the colour of the wine matters. Some things which might seem obvious elements of “this” were discarded long ago, or are the subject of violent disagreement.
I’d have said that if there’s a point in all this, it’s in the symbolism, rather than treating a sketchy and ambiguous 2,000-year-old instruction as a magic spell. And the problems build up as soon as you start to dictate that this, or that, or the other is essential. In fact, it’s quite incredible how much anger and disagreement this causes within the church compared to matters of genuine practical importance.
To be absolutely fair, if you believe that some sort of change occurs to the elements in the Eucharist, you’ll also think this is a matter of practical importance, as it relates to how we treat Jesus Himself. The problem is that there’s no good reason to suppose that, there’s no evidence for it, and even within the Roman Catholic church, this is now a minority view. Most of all, it only relates to a particular aspect of church practice. Given how much Jesus said about how to treat others, and how little He cared for empty ritual, I find this a puzzling set of priorities.
So I’m interested. Partly because it’s playing about with some alternatives to fossilised ritualistic dogma, and partly because it’s an interesting thought experiment which has already shown up a huge amount of magical thinking. I definitely think it’s worth keeping an eye on it.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m not really a believer in “retail prayer”, the idea that you pray for something and get it exactly as ordered in the next supernatural delivery run. Actually, I don’t see anything that convinces me that petitionary prayer in general has any effect. Reports of answers to prayer are very liable to confirmation bias, various studies have shown prayer to have no effect, and as ever, there’s the uncomfortable question of favouritism if God chooses to answer some prayers, but not all of them. But that’s not to say that I think prayer’s useless.
I think there’s a definite place for a more meditational form of prayer, one that isn’t about a celestial wish list, but contemplation, leading to an acceptance of the way things are and greater motivation to help those in need. It doesn’t promise a magic wand, just gradual realignment of our character and priorities. And it does work, at least anecdotally – when I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical, I went through a phase of spending an hour every day praying and reading the Bible, and during that time, I felt like a completely different person.
I didn’t deliberately try to engage in any sort of planned programme; I just wanted to put in the time to read and study the Bible, and the prayer followed naturally, especially as I was at university and had plenty of time on my hands. All I had to work with was an interesting analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, viewing it as a sort of template and breaking it down into key prayer themes. So I just got stuck in, and it had – well, I don’t know, exactly – some sort of impact on me.
My overwhelming impression of that time is that I was happy, and comfortable in my own skin. I also found that I was becoming more relaxed, more balanced. Normally, I’d have expected that the sort of zealotry that leads you to pray all the time would result in a very conservative theology. In fact, my memory is that I started to become more liberal. It was the only time in my life when I felt that the Christian idea of becoming more Christlike was more than just a pipedream, but my theology was actually becoming softer and less dogmatic.
I’ve got various faults, which I won’t bother to list in detail here, but if they didn’t vanish, they certainly felt more under control than at any other time I can remember. If I had to summarise, I believe I was a better person. I see a lot in Buddhist meditation – both the practice and the results – that’s reminiscent of this experience, as well as various mystical traditions on the fringes of religion. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to particular theological understandings, but it seems to bear fruit.
Of course there are reasons to be sceptical about this testimony. People and their moods and inclinations are incredibly complicated, and there are a huge number of potentially confounding factors. My memory may be inaccurate, and the effects may have been unrelated, could be an unsustainable short-term high, or I may even be getting cause and effect mixed up. There’s also the practical consideration of how I would go about finding that sort of time in my schedule these days.
Even if my recollection and understanding are accurate, I don’t think this says anything about the truth claims of Christianity – there seem to be versions of the same sort of thing in all religions and belief systems – but it may say something about how to operate the wetware inside our heads. Essentially, it may be a useful tool for improving character, and getting at least some of the temporal benefits of religion without religion’s claims necessarily needing to be true.
I find that quite an interesting prospect.
I recently attended a funeral (my first for some time), and I was struck by the potency of the ritual aspects of the service. From the well-worn routine of the service to the familiar words of liturgy, and – yes – through to the wake afterwards, something about the familiarity and the shared understanding of what was going on seemed to hit the mark, both easing the grieving process and allowing those present to begin to move on with their lives once the service was complete.
In fact, the one part of the service which didn’t seem to fit or serve much purpose was the brief sermon. I know, I’m awkward, difficult to please, a notorious quibbler and all that sort of thing, but this isn’t any sort of theological objection – I don’t recall any actual theology at all, apart from a passing mention of eternal life, which was mentioned in the funeral liturgy in any case. It just didn’t have any obvious point – it seemed to be there because you have to have a sermon, rather than because it was actually necessary or useful – and it got me thinking about which aspects of ritual are actually important, and which could be dispensed with.
I’m interested in the role ritual plays, both in and outside religion, and whether its influence is good, bad or mixed. I think as a species we find it useful to have some sort of communal and recognisable way to mark significant events. People who have no interest in religion turn to the church so often for that sort of commemoration of life’s landmarks that there’s even a term for it – “hatches, matches, dispatches”. Some would say that this reveals a deep religious sensibility, but I think it shows that what really matters to us is ritual – religion just happens to have been the dominant provider of ritual throughout history.
Could we have secular, religion-free ritual? Sure, why not? There are plenty of rituals which have no religious content, or where any religion is entirely incidental to the ritual. Remembrance Day is one example, however much religious content has been added to the basic idea, and New Year’s Day celebrations are another, albeit fairly trivial. Maybe religion offers a stability that allows ritual to flourish, but there’s no evidence that those rituals would disappear altogether in its absence.
In the context of funerals, it’s true that some may be after the sort of reassurance about the deceased that a non-religious outlook can’t offer – obviously, there’s no afterlife to appeal to – but the same could be said of religion, for different reasons. Standard Christian doctrine is that a departed soul may be sent to heaven or hell, and only God knows which. Any honest Christian response should therefore acknowledge that the deceased may be hellbound, or at least admit to an uncertainty on the matter. The image which comforts most mourners – the idea that their loved ones are looking down from heaven and waiting – is effectively folk religion.
Maybe over time, religion will become a minority interest and there will be a move towards marking these occasions in a secular environment. I don’t say that’s necessarily a good thing, or that it’s likely to happen soon, but I can imagine it, and it’ll be interesting to see if it happens in my lifetime.
I’m periodically involved in discussions about claims of miraculous healing in answer to prayer. My typical position, unsurprisingly, is to be extremely dubious, and with good reason. The condition being “healed” is often minor, self-limiting or liable to spontaneous remission. When more extravagant claims are made, the story tends to be hyped, at least in my experience, but little effort is made to verify details. If I was going to tell people that God made me walk again, I think I’d want some sort of medical opinion to show that even if I’m mistaken, at least I’m not crazy.
Actually, this is one area where I respect the Roman Catholics. Whatever else they might get wrong, they instituted a thorough process for confirming any claimed healings at Lourdes over 100 years ago, with detailed investigations and so on. The investigating committee is so rigorous that only 67 healings have been given the church’s seal of approval in the last century. It makes you wonder why people are so desperate to make their pilgrimage, and pales into insignificance when as many as 5 million pilgrims visit the site each year, but that’s another matter. To be honest, those few “official healings”, and a few from other sources where there appears to be a genuine medical record of a dramatic change, do make me wonder. Even though it would make no sense theologically, and the overwhelming body of evidence is that miraculous healing doesn’t happen, it’s hard to simply dismiss stories like that as fabrication or exaggeration. But I’ve come up with an interesting new angle of attack – homeopathy.
Basically, homeopathy is pseudoscientific drivel. Although science interests me, I’m not really a science blogger, so if you want a more comprehensive treatment of it you might be better off trying here or here. But in summary, homeopathy starts out with the not-quite-completely-implausible idea that like cures like, and then piles on more and more ridiculous ideas, like the belief that diluting the cure makes it more potent (but only if you bash, or “succuss” the solution repeatedly – no, I’m not making this up), or that the water “remembers” that it used to contain the cure, even when diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the cure is left. If homeopathy were ever proved true, the resulting rewriting of our understanding of science would make faster-than-light neutrinos look like a minor niggle.
This is relevant because homeopaths and supporters of homeopathy will often resort to anecdote to support the efficacy of their magic water. They’ll point to people who instantly got better from their bad back, or saw an improvement in minor chronic ailments. Very occasionally, someone will ascribe an unexpected improvement in their cancer prognosis to a course of homeopathic treatment with precisely no active ingredient. And this range of “cures” is very interesting.
Although the details aren’t exactly the same (homeopathy doesn’t tend to lengthen many legs, which God seems to specialise in), the mix of cases is basically the same as the Christian healings, with most being self-limiting conditions, some serious recoveries being obvious misunderstandings or misrepresentations, and just a few cases which merit serious consideration. But basic scientific investigation can tell us that homeopathy is total nonsense, without even the possibility of the old “God works in mysterious ways” defence. Isn’t that interesting?
Because I’ll say it again – homeopathy is obvious nonsense from start to finish. Any claims made by homeopathy should be the baseline comparison for any form of healing, just as the magic water itself is tested (and repeatedly fails) against placebo. And that’s bad news for the church, as it leaves the claims of miraculous healing looking much less convincing. Where I used to think that the few serious claims which hadn’t been debunked deserved consideration, even if they looked suspiciously like another God of the Gaps, now I’m increasingly likely to say “Is that all? I could get that from homeopathy!” Given that homeopathy is obvious nonsense, and has been repeatedly shown to be no better than placebo, that’s not exactly something to aspire to.
Christianity makes a big thing of being counter-cultural, but when the rubber hits the road, how much does it actually differ from the culture it claims to run counter to? I grew up understanding the sum total of Christian Morality to be a sort of middle-class respectability and politeness, and I’ve seen little since then to suggest that it’s much deeper than that. There’s variation depending on your location and flavour of church, and those different flavours will often disagree with each other, but the result always seems to be a sort of institutionalised, co-opted secular morality, reflecting the dominant culture of church members rather than an objective standard.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the church often seems to lag a long way behind general cultural trends in the morality stakes. A couple of current examples are homosexuality and the role of women. The wider population largely got over these some time ago, and is now waiting impatiently for the church to catch up. That isn’t necessarily an indication that the church is doing anything wrong – it could be argued that it’s holding to moral principles in the face of a hostile culture – but given that the church is in fact moving towards the centre ground of popular opinion, albeit with glacial slowness, it looks far more like the church really is following at its own pace, rather than leading.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair. I’ve said before that the weakness of the church is that it’s run by people, and maybe it’s lost its way a bit over time, so what about the foundation of the church? There’s plenty in the New Testament about being different and standing apart from the world, so it was radical and different back then, wasn’t it? No, not really. The epistles suggest that local churches would have a strong flavour of whatever local customs there were (in the port of Corinth, for example, St Paul’s main concerns appear to have related to sexually promiscuous polyglots), so the church doesn’t appear to have been al that distinctive in its early days in the 1st Century.
You could argue that this is a reflection of a movement that was still young and somewhat raw and disorganised, but it never seems to have changed very much. The Letter to Diognetus – the earliest known example of Christian apologetics, dating around the late 2nd Century – appears to confirm Christianity’s conformity to cultural norms, even when trying to show how different and remarkable Christians are:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
So even by the most positive interpretation of what’s often regarded as the church’s golden age, it appears that Christianity doesn’t offer an alternative to mainstream culture so much as a slight variation. That’s not so terrible, but when it’s cast as distinctively counter-cultural and a source of objective morality (neither claim being particularly rare), it does cast doubt on the honesty and self-awareness of the person making the claim.
Looking at the way the church has worked in the past, the way it’s shifted with culture and changed its position on various issues, I can see it as a plausible result of a lot of people trying to make the world a better place, one step at a time, through careful application of the Golden Rule. What I can’t see is any way it could be the outcome of a huge community in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code.