If humans have learned over eons that intercessory prayer doesn’t “work”, why do we keep doing it? What is the meaning of religious rituals and how do they connect us to our community? And what is a truly shared experience in a time where everyone wants to see theirs as unique? These questions and more were explored in this conversation between John ZuHone, David Bosworth, and John Marc Sianghio at the Spring 2017 meeting of the Sinai and Synapses Fellows and Alumni.View Transcript
John ZuHone: So the thing I wanted to talk about was the relationship of sacrament, sacramental theology, ritual, liturgy, in terms of thinking about a connection between spirituality and the physical world.
And what motivated me about this was a recent experience I had where I was teaching young children about science, about astrophysics in particular, which is my field, and I was discussing how the elements that were formed in their bodies were formed inside, you know, previous generations of stars that were then exploded out into space and then collected together, you know, again to form stars and planets and eventually living beings.
And it struck me that, you know, this is a narrative, a story that might seem in conflict with, you know, a narrative that says that God is the creator and that although this is not a conflict for me, it’s definitely a conflict that I sense in Church, you know, from a lot of people from a religious perspective, particularly within the Christian tradition.
And so one of the ways of thinking about this was that maybe if we thought more in terms of like, God’s immanence, God’s working in the world through processes like that, through processes like, you know, the formation, burning and explosion of stars, and you know, even the things that go on in our everyday life in terms of the rising of the sun or the, you know, the rain that comes through, the weather that we understand meteorologically, that there would be less of a concern about these things and we’d actually recognize that God is working in all the elements of creation.
And one of the ways that I was thinking about that was, I was thinking about that in terms of the sacramental theology and terms of liturgy, how we already have a sense in which God speaks to us, communicates to us, you know, via matter, not in the esoteric way but a very ordinary way, such as washing with water and eating, you know, very ordinary fruits of the earth like red wine. And I guess I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment in “Mere Christianity” where he said, “we might think it strange that God uses matter to communicate the spiritual life to us, but he does it because he made it and he likes it.”
So I was just wondering what you guys’ thoughts were on those issues?
David Bosworth: Well I think it’s just deeply incarnational, right, that if a single language neuroscientists use about human behaviors and things that may have a neural substrate, I think this is kind of one way that they speak of it. Whatever kind of spiritual experience you have, that’s just some kind of neural substrate, some kind of physical, spatial dimension to it. There’s no such thing as just spirit. Or our experience of it is sort of is mediated, say, through matter, through our physicality, through our bodies, physical systems.
And I think for some they find that’s an uncomfortable idea, because it sounds like “oh you’re denying the spirit and the soul or whatever,” but it does not do any of those things. The problem with people have that objection is they’re, whether they realize it or not, they’re not accepting incarnation. They don’t really believe in incarnation, that God became human, and it’s an extremely difficult thing to believe that because it’s such a shocking thing – you just stop like, what a shocking claim that is. But if you call yourself a Christian, then this should not be a problem. You should be able to accept a spiritual-physical melding. That’s the way the world is.
Something that I’ve observed, somewhat to my dismay, is the extent to which Christians by and large will say they believe in incarnation, say they believe in resurrection, but don’t really believe in either of them. They don’t act as though they have accepted the consequences, you might say, of incarnation, that the physical material part is deeply enmeshed in the spiritual. Or resurrection, the same way. Many Christians think they die and their soul is delivered from the prison house of their body and goes to be with God, and they don’t need a resurrection. They don’t need a resurrected body. They have such negative relationships to their bodies anyway that the physical seems like a problem, rather than a link to God.
But I think you can’t really be a Christian without accepting that the physical is this pathway to God. And I should also add, by the way, that I’m also struck by the extent to which Jewish tradition strikes me as highly incarnational and highly sacramental. And most of us assume that my own tradition, Catholicism, should be both of these things. I’m so often struck that, you know, if you want to learn to be a better Christian, learn more about Judaism.
John Marc Sianghio: From a sociological – a sociology of religion or anthropology of religion standpoint, a lot of what religion is doing is trying to situate one’s own life, one’s unique problems, one’s unique situation, within a greater network of meaning. And for so many people, you know, how many people have said, you know, “God, if I’m supposed to do this, give me a sign, you know, it just can’t be my logic and decision-making, it can’t just be, you know, ‘is this best for my family.'”
These very normal processes that we have, you know, we’re looking for some validation from a supernatural force. And in some ways I think that that is part of an obsession, of sort of looking for a unique validation of one’s own life, and this idea that if “If I have these everyday experiences, and everybody has these everyday experiences, is my life particularly meaningful?”
And so in the search for religion, and in the participation in religion, so many people are looking for that meaningfulness, and we place our hope in, you know, God, Jesus, Buddha, something that transcends ourselves that we can connect to. And if the point is to look for some uniqueness and meaning, then so often the natural world, that which is a common experience, doesn’t really cut it for what we’re expecting to get.
And so what people are looking for, I mean, from an anthropological perspective, so often, is an epiphany, that God speaks to me in a special way, in a spiritual way that is unique to myself. That I have a special, you know, personal relationship with God that is, you know, inimitable by any other person, and so I am special, I am loved, I am God’s child. Obviously I’m speaking particularly in the language of the Christian tradition here. But if you’re looking for that, then there is, for better or worse, sort of a natural degradation, then, of looking at the natural, the everyday, the ordinary, as something that is not only just a pathway to God but something in which God acts.
John ZuHone: Yeah, it strikes me that the things you were just talking about – I’m reminded of Luther drawing a distinction between a theology of glory, versus the theology of the cross. And the theology of glory is always looking for like, special, you know, experiences, whether ecstatic or, or meaning in various things, and the theology of the cross with like, you know, a way of recognizing that this life is a way of suffering and finding God and, you know, the help of other people. And that was something that he was actually big on, which I think is kind of interesting because as David’s already highlighted, you know, these concepts that we’re discussing about finding God in the physical world, Him working through, not just like, the inanimate physical world but also like, each other, you know, as we discussed, through, you know, prayers being answered by the help of other human beings, you know. That these things are endemic, they’re part of our tradition, and yet as you were saying, John, for perhaps other reasons, we seem to sort of float away from these things, which are very much a part of this way of thinking, into like, looking for these special experiences, or looking for something different.
David Bosworth: Ryan mentioned the cross. Have you ever read or heard of St John of the Cross, 16th-century Spanish mystic, who wrote a wonderful book called The Dark Night of the Soul? It describes novices’ entry into religious orders and the convent and their enthusiasm for prayer and spiritual exercises, and them losing that [enthusiasm]. So in other words, it’s fun to be religious, right, and then after a while it’s not fun anymore. And then it goes away. If you’re just religious because it’s fun or feels good, you get rewards, The Dark Night of the Soul is really about what do you do, when that joy and fun fade, as they inevitably do? Do you persist? Like the analogy of marriage, first dating, it’s wonderful, exciting, getting to know a new person. Fast forward for 10 or 20 years, that excitement’s gone, but has given way to something much richer. A genuine deep intimacy and love that’s way better than the surface level excitement of the first date. How much can you develop a relation with God that’s that deep and that intimate, which requires getting beyond those moments of glory and high points of excitement to something much more real and lasting?
John Marc Sianghio: That too often, what we are looking for is puppy love.
David Bosworth: Right, the exact sensation of falling in love. So the same sort of feeling that goes into adoring, you know, the stories of a romantic comedy, you know, is the same thing that we’re looking for in religion. The church and the movie theater have this reciprocity sometimes. But I think what David is highlighting or bringing up with St John of The Cross is this isn’t a modern problem, this is something that persisted throughout history. But it also means that, you know, the different historical solutions might offer a way of sort of dealing with that.
In an earlier conversation, you know, I mentioned that we’re centered on the divide between religion and science, or the perceived denigration, of you know, physical observations, scientific observations. That’s how we began, with the, you know, exploding the stars and the narrative of how life is created. And, you know, I mentioned the Royal Society earlier, in an earlier conversation, and for these people who are scientists and who, you know, ostensibly modern science in large part grows out of their work, were very staunch Calvinists. And there was a rejection of, sort of, the over-spiritualization, I think, not that these people denied that there are miracles or that the Calvinist theology denies that there are supernatural powers, but that God as sovereign, if you perceive God as sovereign, then order of the universe itself is something that is made by God. That order is good. And that the handiwork of God is just as easily seen, if not more seen, if not more indicative of the prominence of God, than something that is supernatural.
John Zuhone: Well that’s Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20, I think, you know, the invisible qualities of God are supposed to be seen through what was made, so.
David Bosworth: I’m married to an artist and I like to take photographs. This is actually my favorite shirt now, it is the winning artwork my wife did, this painting for this sheep and wool festival in Maryland. And these are not lambs, they are pictures of lambs. Just speaking of art and pictures, we are in a colleague’s office and there are pictures of his kids on the desk, his kids aren’t here, but he has these present reminders of them for when he is away. And there’s something, even visually, what do you think matters, like the big postcard picture, the great landscape? So often I find the most interesting photographs and paintings are much more mundane.
And it’s a– you have to see, in a way, what would make a good painting, what would make a good photograph, what’s interesting. And often people are into photography and selfies and such, it’s like, your selfie at the Grand Canyon is not that interesting. You know, it just says “I was here,” that’s all it says. And it says you’re kind of narcissistic, and you love yourself. It doesn’t communicate, it’s not–it’s not beautiful, and doesn’t communicate much.
And it takes an artist to learn to see past the snapshot that says “Look where I was” into “Look at God’s creation, look at this beauty I discovered, in some perhaps very unexpected place.” Just walk through the cities. You know New York, coming here, there are all kinds of interesting things to see, and walk past and don’t notice, but some people do street photography to highlight, “Look at this mundane moment you walked past.” And freeze that moment, and put it in a frame, and suddenly it’s an exquisite beauty, the relatedness between two people that you can see.
John Marc Sianghio: And I think that you know what David’s bringing up shows just how social sacramentality, I think, was originally intended to be. And, you know, you mentioned the selfie and sort of the narcissism of the selfie, and I think is a really great image, no pun intended– that you, when you take the selfie, it’s “I’m here, and you’re not here,” and you want to demonstrate this sort of uniqueness of your experience. And tying that back to this idea of, you know, meaning and wanting to validate your own unique experience as meaningful. What I think is very interesting is that when you look at, you know, the linguists and the philosophers of language, there is no such thing as unique meaning. That if you utter a word and you’re the only one who knows what it means – and philosophically Kierkegaard talks about this, right, in Fear and Trembling – if you speak and nobody understands you, you haven’t said anything at all.
If you’re looking for the uniqueness of experience and the unique meaningfulness, then you’re kind of missing the point of meaning, that meaning, any word, has to have a sort of shared understanding between people, this relationality, between two people that you were talking about in the photograph. Sacramentality, to create meaning, has to have that same sense of sharing and community and communal experience.
We talked earlier about the experience of prayer, right, that for so many people this is the common entry point, or the common spiritual practice, that has some sort of, you know, sacramental bearing. And whether or not, you know, especially in something like intercessory prayer, where I pray that God heals somebody of cancer, or that my cough goes away, or that my kid makes it to school on time. You know, we’re looking for a sort of supernatural answer, that God parts the traffic like he did the red sea or something like that, so that I can get to school on time, or you know that, miraculously, that you know, the radiation hasn’t worked, the surgeon hasn’t been able to cut out the metastasizing cancer, that some miraculous thing will happen.
And I think the reality of the common experience of that is that most of the time it fails. Maybe there are a few stories of when it doesn’t fail, when it works, and miraculously something happens, but for the most part, I think the common human experience is that intercessory prayer, too often maybe, doesn’t really work, and so how do you explain the fact that this practice has persisted throughout the centuries?
David Bosworth: With so much evidence against it. The prayers are not answered, the cancer doesn’t go away, the person dies over the course of say, your praying for that person. We would like to have a sense of control over our lives, our world, and things we can’t control or turn to God, and since there are variables we don’t know, everything that we could do, first of all, might let that person know that we did all that we could do, that we bought them dinners that were pre-made or offered practical supports. We could also let them also know we’re praying, doing what we could, let them know we love them that much, that we did all that we could.
And in the course of it, you don’t know, we’ve prayed to God which words we regulate our emotional lives and it’s not so we can just going to go away, but we will ideally have some measure of peace and acceptance when it comes, it’s not about “fix the problem” but often it’s about, of course the problem’s not going to be fixed, but help us cope with this inevitable loss. And it’s enormously powerful what prayer, whether private prayer with God, or more communal printed text, can be extremely helpful for regulating one’s emotions for help people cope with extremely difficult things. Adverse traumas and losses and irreparable damage.
John Marc Sianghio: I mean when you see some of the formal sacraments, you know. I think the most common one, in at least Christian traditions, is baptism, right, and there’s not – it’s not just the education and or the spirit into this child or something like that you know. “Baptism is not magic,” says the famous tract, right. That you listen to the words that are spoken over the child and you listen to the vows that the congregation takes, and it is a marking of this child as a child of God, it is a declaration that this child is in a particular community. And it’s a vow the congregation, not only a recognition but a vow from the congregation, that they will care for in this child, so the sacrament, you know, has a social function that gives it meaning. Because if you’re not a part of that community, if no one’s taking care of you, then what good is it that you were baptized? You know, that the community exists around you, and the church exists around you, to support you not only for the next life, but for this one.
John Zuhone: Right, and when we say all of those things, we’re not taking God out of the picture. It’s not like we’re reducing it to like, purely human things, like you know, like you’re saying, like social communities or whatever. All these things, especially the social community of the church, but it’s also communities in general, that’s an idea of God that He made when he made us, when He made humans. He wanted us to use it, and use it profitably for one another’s good. And so, you know, I think that’s–
John Marc Sianghio: It is not good for a man to be alone.
John Zuhone: Yes, exactly. So I think that it’s a common fear, you know, that I think a lot of people have, is that when you when you talk about things like this in terms of like, the human aspect, it seems like you’re taking God out of the picture. But as David was saying from the very beginning, that’s not a terribly incarnational theology, and I’m not sure how we got to that point, I guess, maybe this is some of what you were alluding to earlier, John, in terms of, you know, the search for like, unique experiences and that sort of thing.
Just the other comment I want to make, is, you know, we were talking about praying for people who have cancer, is that, you know, it seems that at least in my experience, rare is– there are definitely people who say “I do not want to seek medical treatment, I’m going to just pray,” you know, there are definitely people who say that, but the vast majority of religious believers at least– I can only speak definitively from my experience in the United States of course– they don’t act that way. They pray like mad, but then they go see the doctor, you know. And in my case, my brother passed away a few years ago from a very terrible cancer, and, you know, we were a praying family, we were praying constantly, we had people from all over the world praying us, thanks to the technology of the internet, but we would have considered ourselves foolish, you know, not to seek medical treatment from like, the best medical science that was available. And so it seems to me– there was an article recently tying this in in Scientific American– that spoke about how, you know, people being kind of like, anti-science, like disagreeing with climate change or disagreeing with this or that, that people are rarely like, broad-spectrum anti-science, you know? Like, they have a lot of trust in like, say, medicine, OK, but they’re skeptical about climate change or evolution or something like that.
And so the article was making an argument that it’s not that we need to persuade people at large that science is a good, it’s just that we need to make better connections about particular scientific areas, and to establish that credibility that they already see in other fields of science.