Superstition and the Supernatural

After you see the new exorcism movie, The Rite will you respond with superstition or supernaturalism? Superstition is any sort of belief or behavior which is magical. A magical understanding of the religion is primitive, immature and dangerous. Basically a superstitious or magical understanding of religion involves sympathetic magic or an irrational link between certain behaviors and their outcomes. It means, in some way, we are trying to manipulate things to produce an outcome that we desire.

Sympathetic magic links two otherwise unconnected things together–usually one physical and the other metaphysical and expects a causal result. So, for example, you have a black cat, and you believe that black cat symbolizes evil, so you cast a spell which you believe transfers the evil to the black cat, then you kill the black cat in order kill the evil. The form of magic which makes an irrational link between certain behaviors or objects with their outcomes is just as dangerous. So a person may believe that by walking in a circle clockwise thirteen times and throwing salt over the shoulder will ward off the evil eye. Similarly, carrying a rabbit’s foot or some other talisman to bring good luck or blessing or to ward off evil is a form of magic that makes an irrational link between an object or behavior and the desired result.

The problem is, there are a good number of Christians–especially Catholics I have to say–whose devotional practices verge on the superstitious. If a Catholic is living like the devil but wears the brown scapular because the Blessed Virgin promises that anyone who wears it will be delivered from hell–he’s being superstitious. If someone thinks just because they pray this novena or go through the motions to win that indulgence (but they are not properly disposed spiritually) that it will have an automatic benefit they’re being superstitious.

It is easy to think that the opposite of being superstitious is to be materialistic and dismissive of all everything supernatural. Untrue. The true balance to superstition is not materialism, but supernaturalism. The truly supernatural view is based on the foundational belief that the grace of God is working in our world and through our lives. It allows for, and expects miracles. It understands that God’s grace comes to us especially through the sacraments and we draw closer to him through sacramentals, but it rejects any magical interpretation, and always involves the human reason and human will in the interaction between this world and the next. Furthermore, while there may not be watertight categories and explanations for the working of the supernatural, there are theological reasons and rational interpretations of what happens. God’s working in the world always flows from and is oriented to his primary interaction–the incarnation of His son in human flesh. All supernatural works of God in the world flow from, and return to Jesus Christ–Son of God and Son of Mary.

The other distinction between the superstitious and the supernatural is the direction of the interaction. With superstition, or what might be called magic, the practitioner is always manipulating the material world in order to manipulate the supernatural world for his own benefit. We kill a black cat to kill the evil powers that threaten us. We wear a talisman to ward off the evil eye. We say prayers and do penance to get God to give us what we want. We wear a scapular to escape hell. We fast in order to get what we want. In other words, the whole transaction is initiated by us to get what we want. By extension, therefore, much of our activity in the world of living to make money, gain power and prestige and protection through the acquisition of more and more money–is a sort of witchcraft.

Supernaturalism, on the other hand, is God’s grace coming to us through the natural world. In superstition we try to impose our will. In Supernaturalism we try to conform to God’s will. In superstition we do something to get our way. In supernaturalism God does something to change us to his way. This is why when we do bring our prayer requests to God we always include the prayers, “According to your will.”

Finally, a word of clarification. It might sound here like I am opposed to traditional devotions, novenas, indulgences, scapulars etc. I’m not. I’m opposed to their unthinking practice, and the  tendency for them to drift into superstition–the tendency to use the devotions of the Church not to conform ourselves to the Divine Will, but to get God to do what we want. The devotions of the church are given to us to provide the words and ways for our love of God to be expressed. They provide a method and system for our contrition, our submission to the Divine Will and a way to draw closer to Christ. They must be accompanied by true conversion of heart, genuine compunction, true devotion and an unwavering trust in God, in who we live and move and have our Being.

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