Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

“Magic and Superstition”? Not At All – From the Daily Office – August 1, 2012

From the Acts of the Apostles:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 1:6-11 – August 1, 2012)

Salvador Dali, Ascension of ChristHave you ever done that thing on a public street corner where a couple of people stand there looking up and pretty soon some passing pedestrian, wondering what they are gazing at, will stop and look up, and then another and then another and so on until a lot of people are looking up into the sky at nothing for no reason? I have an image of that in my mind when I read the this passage, although in this case the “men of Galilee” are not looking at nothing for no reason. They are looking at something they can no longer see, except in their minds’ eye, and it is certainly not “for no reason” that they are doing so. Something phenomenal has happened to them; someone they thought had been killed by the authorities had returned from the dead, had eaten with them, talked with them, appeared to them over the course of over seven weeks, and now he had “ascended into heaven.” They had plenty of reason to stand there staring into the sky into which he had apparently gone.

In the past few days, I read a critique of a recent gathering of “emergent church” leaders in which the author lambasted the presentations made there as fitting “very neatly into a 4th century church gathering.” He then went on to say that as a “progressive” Christian he rejected the notion that Christians “have to believe in the Trinity, incarnation, substitutionary death, literal physical resurrection/empty tomb, and imaginary Santa Claus in the clouds.” And he concluded saying that he is “very impatient with magic and superstition that passes for religion in the 21st century.”

I am left to wonder what of Christianity is left after rejecting very nearly every doctrine set forth in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. One may agree with him about the substitutionary atonement theories of what occurred in Christ’s death and resurrection, and needless to say one thoroughly agrees that God is not an “imaginary Santa Claus in the clouds” – but I ask again, rejecting the other things in the list, what of Christianity is left? The men of Galilee clearly would have been looking up into the sky at nothing for no reason if this fellow is correct in his rejection of the “magic and superstition” that he apparently believes creedal and doctrinal Christianity to be.

But I don’t believe that it is that, at all! During the past couple of weeks, I have been re-reading the theology of Dorothy L. Sayers. In one of her essays entitled The Greatest Drama Ever Staged she tackles the assertion that the Christian story is “dull”. After briefly rehearsing (in her own inimitable style) the story of Jesus as related in the synoptic Gospels she writes:

So that is the outline of the official story – the tale if the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men he had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma which we find so dull – this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is so dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?

In another of her essays, Creed or Chaos?, she writes:

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vague idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.

And here Ms. Sayers answers my question about the “progressive” Christian’s dismissal of the “magic and superstition” of dogma, of creed and doctrine; what is left is simply “a mode of feeling” and “a vague idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind.” What is left, in my opinion, is indeed dull and not worthy to be called religion!

It seems to me that gathering for “Christian” worship in such a context would be not too much different from standing on the street corner looking up at nothing. If you only thought of God as an imaginary Santa Claus in the clouds, and didn’t believe in the Incarnation or the Resurrection, what would you be looking to? And if someone joined you, what could you point them toward? No, the men of Galilee were not standing there staring up into the sky looking at nothing for no reason, and neither are we. They were staring in bemused amazement and wonder that they had been privileged to be in the company of the Creator of the Universe who had been pleased to call them and us “friends” and had given them and us the task of changing the world! And that is what our dogmas, our creeds, and our doctrines signify. They are not “magic and superstition”; they are, as Miss Sayers said, “first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”


Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

1 Comment

  1. Gary

    I was just talking about the Santa Claus comment last night. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s quote about the Eucharist, (paraphrasing) “If it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.” Is a lovely story about a great teacher worth dying for? Living for?

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