A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 17, 2015
Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 GNT
One of the things that Dr. John Ed Gardner, my seminary preaching professor, taught me is that sometimes sermons just need time to simmer. That is, sometimes a preacher needs to unconsciously mull over a sermon topic for weeks, months, or years, even. Some topics require more time for reflection and unconscious deliberation than others do.
Well, such is the way with today’s sermon topic, “Religion, Superstition, Reason and Faith.” While sorting through papers on my desk week before last, I ran across some sketchy notes stapled to a newspaper article I had saved from the Wall Street Journal back in November. The title of the article was “Village Healers Cloud Ebola Fight.” The article pointed out how that in the Ebola-plagued villages in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Africa, the village faith healers were making it difficult for Red Cross health workers and others to do their jobs in treating the sick. In some cases, the village faith healers were downright antagonistic to those who had come to help the sick and dying, insisting they go back home. Village faith healers had been treating those stricken with the Ebola virus by rubbing tree-leaf mud packs on the fevered bodies and with other “miracle cures” involving roots, tree bark, and such. In many Pentecostal churches, pastors were attempting to bring about healing by prayer and laying on of hands for the ill. In one place, locals blamed a rising death toll from the Ebola virus on witchcraft or the harvesting of bodily organs.
Now, as I read these stories, it struck me as a good example of how religion, or faith, often bleeds over into superstition. Which reminded me of the story I shared with you from the book of Acts of how the Apostles Peter, John, and Phillip, in the early days of Christianity, had to deal with a man who sought to mix religion with magic, or superstition. Simon, it seems, sought to use religion, magic, and superstition for personal gain, not unlike some of the witch doctors and village faith healers of Africa. Simon wanted power to perform what he deemed to be miracles in order to advance his own personal agenda, it seems. The apostles stopped short of pronouncing a curse upon him for thinking he could use the power of God for his own benefit. Such scared the daylights out of Simon so that he begged the apostles to pray for him so that no evil would befall him for his misguided motives.
Well, after mulling over the thought of how religion or faith can easily bleed over into superstition, my next thought was how that much of religious practice among many world religions and Christian denominations includes—by degree—elements of what many outside the Church might call superstition. Some religions and Christian denominations contain more elements of superstition than others, while some may contain hardly any hint of superstition at all. The definition of “superstition,” by the way, is “1. A belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary. 2. A belief, practice, or rite resulting from ignorance of the laws of nature or from faith in magic or chance.” (The American Heritage Dictionary)
Now, I don’t want to get too specific or detailed and tread upon anyone’s sacred, personal beliefs or practices. I struggled right up to 9:59 and the start of worship to share my own experience and convictions without offending any of you. But I will mention two general examples of how beliefs contrary to the laws of nature tend to creep into Christian practice. One way is the recitation of some ancient Christian creeds and confessions of faith. (As a side note, this is one of the issues I had with the denomination of my upbringing—the pressure to recite some of the ancient Christian creeds, especially when I attended various denominational gatherings, and to swear allegiance to a confession of faith. This is one reason I was drawn toward Congregationalism, as Congregationalists are non-creedal and non-confessional.) There are some phrases and ideas in some of those ancient creeds that defy science, reason, and modern understanding. For instance, the ideas that after his death Jesus descended into hell, and then after showing himself alive sailed off into the heavens and took a throned seat on the right hand of God. These are statements that millions of Christians affirm every week and from which draw great comfort. Either reason is checked at the front door of the church when reciting these ancient words. Or else, they are interpreted symbolically and those who recite them don’t believe everything they are saying. Those creeds were written from a first century worldview in which the earth was flat. But the ritual itself has become a sacred tradition, and in many cases the sacred tradition takes precedence over scientific understanding and reason.
The other example of how religious practice or faith can be contrary to science, reason, and the laws of nature involves Christian hymnody. Some of the hymns in most hymnals—beloved hymns that most of us love to sing—also contain phrases and ideas that some might consider to lean toward “superstition.” But they are a part of our faith and we sing them anyway and derive much comfort from them. Consider, for instance, the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” and its lyrics. Have you ever stopped to think about those lyrics from a scientific, modern worldview perspective? The believer taking wings and flying off into the sky?
And Christmas hymns can also contain phrases that defy human reason and that people of science and reason would be hard-pressed to take literally. But we love them and sing them anyway! (As another side note, when I first came to this United Church, I was given the same instructions I was given when I first moved to First Congregational Church in Albany, New York: “We only sing Christmas carols from the red Pilgrim Hymnal!” And I strongly agree.) Some of the words in our black hymnal have been changed in order to be politically correct. We don’t like anyone messing with those beloved Christmas hymns, even if we don’t take every line literally and they can sometimes defy human reason and the laws of nature.
There are other examples and rituals that I might mention that contain ideas that most of us don’t take literally, but they, likewise, are rituals that bring much comfort, and tradition and comfort outweigh reason in such cases. But you get the idea. The truth is, it is difficult, I believe, to hold a religion of any kind without there being at least a hint of what many outside might consider to be superstitious. And perhaps that is okay, as long as our religious ideas and practices don’t bring hurt to ourselves or anyone else, contrary to the case of the African faith healers or witchdoctors whose superstitious ideas and practices kept the people from getting proper medical care.
So, the truth is, religion by nature tends to include other-worldly ideas that defy human reason and are contrary to the laws of nature, ideas that we may not always take literally. As already shown, in extreme cases, such might result in hurting, rather than helping, people. And when that happens, religion (in my estimation) has gone awry and is not all it could and should be.
So, what is the cure? What is it that can save religion from itself, as it were? What is it that can save religion from being pure superstition or other worldly? What ingredients make it possible for religion to pass the test of both faith and reason? I struggled to come up with a definition of good, practical religion that moves beyond the realm of superstition. But here is what I came up with: “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.” Shall I read that again? “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.” That is my definition of practical religion, at least for today. And if religion truly does this and does it well, then maybe it is okay if religious practice does include some hint of superstition, or other worldly ideas that are not necessarily taken literally, that many would define as tradition, as long as those ideas don’t hurt anyone.
But when religious practice becomes nothing more than superstitious beliefs and practices, or other worldly in focus, and brings hurt to humanity in the process, there is a problem. But religion that entails other-worldly ideas and historic traditions and rituals that bring comfort, mixed with a safe space to explore that which is believed to be Sacred, that creates loving community, that fosters genuine compassion, and motivates people to altruistic service—religion as such is good for us. At least that is the way I see it. Amen.