Friday, May 15, 2009

Christianity Overturns the Thaumaturgical Urge

I think that my dad dreaded long drives alone with me, which happened from time to time, since he was a rancher who sold registered cattle to commercial ranchers and would offer to deliver the cattle as a means to close the sale. I'd go along at my mother's urging (which might be telling about me in some way, especially since my brother and sisters didn't). Why the dread on my dad's part? My endless string of musings about whether cows or horses, trucks to tractors, bears or lions, and so on ad nauseum, would win in a fight. I might think that I was a strange little boy, if Pokemon, X-Men, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, etc., hadn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that little boys are typically oriented toward such questions. In the days before commercial exploitation of this fighting fixation, my special reverie was imagining one variety of dinosaur pitted against another, which is now played out on the Discovery Channel in the name of science. Life is good.

So what does this have to do with "Christianity" and "the Thaumaturgical Urge"? Let's begin with "thaumaturgy." It's a contest between wonder workers or miracle workers. A very special sort of fight. And the fight of fights would be between gods.

One need not be a polytheist to have the fun, though a monotheist's version of a divine thaumaturgy will have a very predictable outcome. Obviously the false god can't beat the One True God. (There is something odd in even making these statements as a Christian: To have such a contest God would have to act on the plane where gods act--which is to say, on Olympus or Valhalla--OK they're not exactly planes, let alone plains, but you get the point: God would have to be a non-God, i.e., a creature to be in such a contest directly.) Nevertheless, thaumaturgical contests are played out in the Bible, albeit with the help of God's representatives, to avoid the prohibited representation of God. I suppose the most famous one is where Moses throws down his staff, which turns into a serpent and eats Pharoah's magicians' serpents.

But there is a much more explicit version: ""'How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba'al, then follow him." (I Kings 18:21, RSV) Eli'jah's thaumaturgical challenge follows. Both Ba'al's prophets--450 of them--and the Lord's prophet (Eli'jah was the one remaining faithful prophet of the Lord)were to set out sacrifices on an alter and ask their god/God to send down fire to consume it. Ba'al's 450 prophets "...cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out... And as midday passed, they raved on..." (18:28-9) You get the picture. Lots of drama out of Ba'al's 450 prophets, but no action from Ba'al.

Then it's Eli'jah's turn. He made an alter of twelve large stones; built a trench around it; laid out the sacrifice; doused the alter with water; and filled the trench. Then he douses the alter two more times. "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench." (18:37-8) Moreover, after God wins, Ba'al's prophets, all 450 of them, are killed. (Ironically, it's in the next chapter that the famous phrase describing God as speaking in "a still small voice" is found.)

If there is something a bit embarrassing here for Christians, you're already getting the point that I am about to make: we haven't really understood the point of Christianity unless we understand that it overturns the thaumaturgical urge--that little-boy preoccupation with "My God can beat up your God!"

For, after all, Caesar was thought of as a god incarnate by the Ancient Romans. And Jesus was thought of as God incarnate by Christians. Jesus walked into Jerusalem to the cheers of a capital city that hoped he would become a king to overthrow Rome, and implicitly to defeat Rome's incarnate god. He declined. Jesus declined to take on Rome. Instead, he accepted the cross (which he spent three years aiming at, as is clear from the narrative structure of Mark, but that's for another post). And in doing so he should have made it clear to us that the little boy's view of life must be left behind. Whose god can beat up whose god, whose culture can beat up whose culture--even whose team can beat whose team,oops, that's just for fun!--are all questions that bespeak spiritual immaturity.

I'm not sure why you haven't read this elsewhere. It's the gestalt narrative that can only be seen against the backdrop of the 1st Century Jewish peoples subjugation to Rome and its imperial claim to incarnate divinity at the helm. Tablative justice would have the Lord God turn the tables on Rome's puny human "god." Jesus did not enter that contest. Instead he turned the tables on the thaumaturgical urge to have one's god defeat one's enemies. He offered a better way: Love your enemies.

The narrative goes on to say, after the crucifixion, that Jesus rose from the grave. Now doubt is a good thing, if you understand what you doubt. Hume made a good point when he noted that nature's laws are know as laws precisely because they tell us what always happens. Hence, no resurrection. But it precisely the contention of Christianity that it describes something completely unique: God showing us a better way that we can accept by faith.

Reality makes us we accept what we cannot change. That makes might the ultimate right, and it means that little boys understand the real game when they play at their imaginary thaumaturges. Wolf and bear cubs play at their appropriate life and death contests. For little boys the imaginations stand in, as the human mind is the battleground where victory is gained or not with our species. (I don't want to leave out little girls, it's just that I can speak for little boys much more confidently...)

In asking us to mature beyond a little boys' view of the world, Christianity also asks us to move beyond a cynical view of the world in which might is right. In doubting the resurrection one doubts the reality of the view that that tables have been turned on the tables that keep turning in human history. It asks us to believe that something outside history has offered us an answer to the trouble with human history--something that really counters the might is right view of reality.

If you want to doubt that that was ever vouched to us through the token of the resurrection, I join you. But then you can't understand faith unless you begin with doubt. It's the backdrop of doubt that tells us the content of faith. And as much as I doubt, I can't help but believe that Jesus showed us a better way... And that's faith. A faith that's only meaningful because I doubt.

Next week we'll look at "The Principle of Futility" as a backdrop for faith.


Jason Coriell said...

Good to have you back.

Landon Saunders stated, in a recent lecture, "Religious leaders are prone to do with power and control what they cannot do with power of their own transformed life."

I reflect on that statement often, it came to mind reading this post.

Have a good day.

Tracy Witham said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks for looking in!

I in turn looked into Saunders' site. He has some good perspectives. But as for me and a transformed life, I'm just trying to figure it out as I go...