When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way. (Stevie Wonder)1
Well Stevie, you may sing that, but I want to tell you about a mystery I’ve been trying to unravel that leads me to conclude that, for many, superstition really is the way. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
It all started one drab overcast London afternoon, a few months back. I was in my study preparing to do some teaching based on the theological anthropology of my hero, the Reformed missiologist J. H. Bavinck. Drawing from a life’s observations on the mission field together with a profound theological insight, Bavinck developed what he called the ‘magnetic points’.2 This refers to ‘a sort of framework within which the religious thought of humankind must move…. There appear to be certain intersections around which all sorts of ideas crystallize … [or] magnetic points to which the religious thinking of mankind is irresistibly attracted.’3 In short, although grounded in creation, these points are our perennial human idolatrous responses (our suppression of truth and replacement of created things) to God’s manifestation of his ‘eternal power’ and ‘divine nature’ (Rom 1:20) which, for Bavinck, pertain to our creaturely dependence and accountability to our Creator. The magnetic points provide a morphology to the messy mix in which sinful image bearers who know God and don’t know him and who are running to and running away from him, at the same time. These points make up the religious consciousness of humankind throughout history.4 I’ve renamed these points as ‘Totality’, ‘Norm’ ‘Deliverance’ ‘Destiny’ and ‘Higher Power’.
I am of the opinion that these ‘points’ are a tremendous analytical and heuristic tool for out times, and my task was to describe these points, give contemporary cultural examples of where we see them, and to show how in terms of our apologetics and discipleship (surprise, surprise!) Jesus Christ both subverts and fulfils them. I decided to reach out to some current Oak Hill students and alumni to source me examples of the ‘points’ they had come across in their lives and ministry. Examples began to come in, but one in particular piqued my interest. The ‘magnetic point’ in question was ‘Destiny’, which deals with the riddle human beings wrestle with concerning the interplay of fate and freedom.
Throughout the history of philosophy and the great world religions this tension has been evidenced in the most sublime and sophisticated ways. I could easily reference a Greek tragedy, discuss the concepts of qadar in Islam, or karma in Hinduism. Maybe I could impress you with a memorized quotation from Spinoza or Schiller. However, let’s get real. Let’s talk your average Brit in 2019. Here’s the example of ‘Destiny’ that I received:
You must never say ‘the phones are quiet’ in the office. When I first started, I thought this was a bit of a joke, but it is considered deadly serious. You Do Not Say That. I’ve been interested in trying to talk it out with some colleagues, because they are clear that they have no belief in any sort of higher power, and are ‘perfectly rational’ people. At the same time, saying ‘the phones are quiet’ will result in (something/someone?) making said phones busy and unbearable. We simultaneously have no control over how our phone shifts are going to go – ‘you’ll just have a day like that’, and are responsible for our own/others’ bad shifts ‘because you said it was quiet and that made it busy’. There is a level of discomfort around breaking this rule that goes beyond amusement, or social discomfort and, especially since only one or two people are working on the phones at any time, does result in real tension when someone ‘curses’ another person’s shift. One of the interesting things about this power behind phone calls is that it is clearly malevolent. There’s no good power responsible for quiet shifts or pleasant customers, just bad ones.5
Thus my investigation began. At the conference at which I was speaking, of all the examples I gave, this one received the warmest laughter of recognition. ‘You must never say “the phones are quiet”’ resonated. I was onto something. Back in college, I recounted the experience to a class I was teaching. A student who was an ex-policeman immediately pointed out that this really was ‘a thing’. And then the floodgates seemed to open. Even a cursory search started to unearth what can only be called a ‘Quiet’ conspiracy. Working day and night, I started to pin reports on my wall noting dates, scribbling notes and highlighting in red pen dates, times and connections … okay I didn’t really do this, but I did keep a lot of tabs open on my browser.
Here’s what I found – I found that professionals can’t keep quiet about this perplexing phenomenon. A local news reporter following a UK police patrol on New Year’s Eve in 2017 writes,
It’s ‘q’. It’s the unwritten rule of policing that you never, ever, ever say it’s ‘quiet’. It is the curse of all curses which just invites trouble. It’s like saying Macbeth on stage among a group of superstitious luvvies. I post a tweet saying it’s ‘too “q”’. I so want to tempt fate but am aware that one of the officers in the van is ‘monitoring’ my Tweets.6
A blogging doctor notes:
‘Wow, it sure is quiet today.’ No phrase is more likely to strike terror in the heart of a physician than that innocent comment, made by a patient, a nurse, or, even worse, another physician. Saying a shift is ‘quiet’ is believed by many in health care to be the surest way to bring destruction on your head. Most patients don’t know it, but there is no breed of human more superstitious than a doctor doing shift-work. Perhaps it is the randomness of being on-call. Some days are an out-of-control, taking the corners-on-two-wheels disaster, narrowly avoiding endless crisis after crisis like a really bad computer game where no one gets extra lives. In contrast, some days are … well, let’s not use the Q word.7
Interesting you may say, maybe ‘Q’ is ‘a thing’, but this is pretty superficial detective work, let alone proper research. But wait. The plot thickens. In my quest for truth I stumbled upon a co-authored research paper from the Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons at the beginning of April 2017: ‘Does the word “quiet” really make things busier?’8 This study claims to ‘make important developments in the field of superstition within modern medicine.’9 Noting that due to under-staffing, NHS staff are the most stressed in any public sector, and so are always looking to reduce workload ‘natural intrigue often leads hospital staff to use superstitious reasoning to infer meaning in situations we do not truly understand.’10 The study deploys a multicentre, single blind, randomised control trial where one registrar would say ‘Have a quiet night’ and another would say ‘have a good night’. After analysing the results, the authors state,
This study has shown that when the word ‘quiet’ was used, a significantly higher number of admissions occurred during a night on-call period. It is the first of its kind to demonstrate a cost neutral, clinician-focused method of reducing workload in hospital. One can also conclude that avoiding the word ‘quiet’ may even reduce the incidence of traumatic injuries and orthopaedic emergencies within a hospital catchment area. The mechanism by which using the word ‘quiet’ causes an increase in workload is unclear. It is likely that the supernatural forces at work are beyond the grasp of even the most skilled orthopaedic researchers. It is possible that such mechanisms might entail mythical microparticles such as ‘interleukins’ and ‘prions’, which may or may not exist in the real world. The ability to test such particles on the vast array of hospital investigations available has been noted but this testing has been avoided to prevent confusion. The true mechanism for our findings requires further work.11
While cautioning against other practices (‘covering yourself in bird poo, carrying a rabbit’s foot on your lanyard or taping your fingers crossed’), when it comes to Q they make a number of recommendations.12 Senior management might re-enforce to staff that saying Q will make things busier; ‘the appointment of a “Q” word specialist manager to oversee implementation of a “Q” word eradication policy’; and the establishment of a nation-wide public health initiative ‘to reduce the use of the word quiet in the public domain.’ They even proffer a ritual for reversing the effects of Q if said in error based on the ‘cure’ when an actor says ‘Macbeth’ – ‘the effect can be negated if the individual turns three times and utters certain incantations’.13
Now at this point, and before you contact the general editor of Themelios to say that Dr Strange has finally lost the plot, I recognise that this has all the makings of an elaborate and brilliant spoof. Yes, and before you point it out to me, I too spotted the date of publication of the article. I have even contacted one of the authors, with no response forthcoming. However, I also note the following. First, and admittedly anecdotal, I’ve sent this paper round to a number of medical professionals and while the majority seem to think it is a spoof, they were not completely sure. One believed it wasn’t a spoof but simply dodgy research. All recognised the Q-thing. For example:
The whole ‘quiet’ thing is interesting, though. Ask any healthcare professional and intellectually we all know what we say makes no difference, but on a gut/instinct level don’t like to say it. I guess it would feel like if all hell broke loose you had somehow ‘jinxed’ things, like others would frown on you – all completely light-hearted, and yet… Even I would hesitate, and would say something like it’s been a calm shift so far, etc. Not as I believe it but to respect colleagues I guess. Or so I say….14
Second, the article does refer to a number of what look like serious studies on the impact of Friday the 13th, lunar phases, and zodiac signs on various medical procedures. Third, I have come across at least one more recent paper in the world of Veterinary Science (‘The Influence of Quotations Uttered in Emergency Service Triage Traffic and Hospitalisation (Quiet)’), which not only tackles the same subject, but references our Royal College of Surgeons paper together with its findings. It does so with seemingly no hint of irony or recognition it is probably a spoof.15
How are we to interpret phenomena like the proliferation of determined non-utterances of ‘Quiet’? Is there a way of solving the mystery of the ‘Q-thing’? A good place to start would be to relate it to broader cultural stories that do their best to out-narrate the other.
For myself, the Q-thing serves as additional confirmation that superficial and simplistic accounts of, on the one hand, secularization and disenchantment, and on the other, sacralisation and enchantment, are precisely that. The genealogy is complicated and messy. Even as I write, today has seen the publication of the interim findings of Understanding Unbelief: Across Disciplines and Across Cultures programme,16 led by a number of scholars in British Universities, which has interviewed thousands of people who identified as atheists and agnostics in six countries – Britain, the United States, Brazil, China, Denmark and Japan. Two of the key findings are relevant to the proliferation of superstitious practices:
5. Unbelief in God doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena. Atheists and (less so) agnostics exhibit lower levels of supernatural belief than do the wider populations. However, only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists. (2.2, 2.3)
6. Another common supposition – that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe – also does not bear scrutiny. While atheists and agnostics are disproportionately likely to affirm that the universe is ‘ultimately meaningless’ in five of our countries, it still remains a minority view among unbelievers in all six countries. (2.4)17
Such findings would seem to bolster the analysis of scholars such as Rodney Stark in his The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is more Religious than Ever.18 Stark takes as the ‘empirical backbone’ of his research the Gallup World Polls which by now has conducted over a million interviews, and argues vociferously that ‘quite simply, that a massive religious awakening is taking place around the world.’19 Importantly, Stark’s definition of religion includes churched and unchurched religions and supernaturalisms (which can be unchurched or churched). For Stark, and on this definition, it seems that not only the triumph of secularization but any theory of secularization should be receiving short shrift. While Charles Taylor argues that Europeans, Canadians and Americans ‘are immune to deep, religious experiences, being only in tune with ‘naturalistic materialism’ which is scientific understanding of reality’, Stark responds by quoting the 2007 Baylor National Survey of Religion, conducted by Gallup which showed that 55 % claimed they had been protected from harm by a guardian angel.20 He continues:
Nor has Europe become disenchanted…. Multitudes of Europeans believe in ghosts, lucky charms, occult healers, wizards, fortune tellers, huldufolk, and a huge array of other aspects of that enchanted world that Taylor believes has long since vanished. What Taylor really demonstrates is that from nowhere is one’s vision of modern times so distorted as from the confines of the faculty lounge.21
However, I wonder whether such dismissals are a little too easy. Those who have attempted to grasp Taylor’s delineation of the secular will know that he is dealing not simply what is believed, but what it believable. This takes us from sociological and historical analyses into the inter-disciplinary realm of critical theory, the discipline which “takes a critical view of society and adopts an ideological focus, typically associated with an emphasis on the analytical importance of sociological contexts, an emancipatory agenda, and reflexivity.’22 Here we go meta: meta-narratives, meta-moods, and meta-myths. One scholar who attempts to engage with someone like Taylor at this level is Jason Ã. Josephson-Storm in his important study, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of Human Sciences.23 While referring to same sociological data as Stark, Josephson-Storm’s project is one of genealogy and what he calls ‘reflexive religious studies’.24 He writes:
The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong. Attempts to suppress magic have historically failed more often than they’ve succeeded. It is unclear to me that science necessarily deanimates nature. In fact, I will argue à la Bruno Latour that we have never been disenchanted.25
Since the publication of Josephson-Storm’s study, there has been an ongoing and illuminating discussion and debate as to whether, and even how, more subtle analyses of the secular and disenchantment, à la Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, corresponds to a myth of disenchantment thesis. While appreciative of Josephson-Storm’s work, there those like Alan Jacobs and Doug Sikkema who argue for retaining a Taylorian narrative of a disenchantment mood due to the default ascendency of ‘scientism’ in which examples of enchantment and its believability are to be framed.26
This is a very complex area where I quickly feel out of my depth and so find myself scrabbling for a side to cling onto. But which side? From the safety of the shallow end let me make some comments.
First, I agree with Josephson-Storm that “For most people (elite and popular) the choice is not one between disenchantment and enchantment, science and religion, or myth and mythless rationality, but rather between different competing enchanted life worlds – even if people do not always recognize them as such.”27 If I’m in a Taylor mood and want to say that the secular is haunted, then it’s appears to be really haunted. More seriously, while as a Reformed Protestant I may have (should have) serious questions about aspects of Taylor’s understanding and analysis of the Reformation, and to make my own point on genealogy, Reformation theology did have profound historical and cultural consequences. Kirsty Birkett contends that magic declined in the English Reformation because ‘the English Reformers presented a damning critique of magical practices, and moreover put together an alternative worldview which made magic not only ineffective but redundant.’28 As she states, ‘essentially the Reformer’s demystified the world.’29
In place of the medieval framework, the Reformers presented a worldview in which God was to be relied upon directly, without technique. It was a positive attitude towards the world. Trust in God was not obedience to an oppressive command, but a disposition to hope. God was presented as a defence against evil.30
Certainly, it seems evident that terms like religion, superstition, magic, science, occulture, and technology cannot be compartmentalised but are all highly contested and closely connected concepts.31 This results in the forging of what might seem some strange allegiances. In what Peter Kreeft calls ‘the single most illuminating three sentences I have ever read about our civilization’,32 C. S. Lewis wrote the following in his Abolition of Man:
There is something which unites magic and applied science [i.e. technology] while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique.33
Perhaps the appearance of the ‘Q-thing’ in a medical science journal is not all that strange after all? In other spheres of life this blurring of categories is evident. Sport is a well-known breeding ground of superstition.34 The Tottenham Hotspurs manager, Maurizo Pochettino, has been open about his belief since childhood in ‘energía universal’,
a sort of aura that powers the world and everyone and everything in it. People have an energy, but so do places, and so do moments and situations. “Decisions, personal relationships and absolutely everything else are a matter of energy,” he writes in his book Brave New World. “Since those early days, I’ve had the ability to notice something powerful that you can’t see, but does exist.”35
“I believe in energía universal…. It is connected. Nothing happens for causality. It is always a consequence [of something else]. Maybe, it is one of the reasons that Harry always scores in derbies. I believe in that energy. For me, it exists.”36
Think of the amount of sophisticated sports science, minute planning and detail, and massive amounts of money and personnel that go into the running of a Premier League professional club. Then add in that Pochettino keeps a bowl of lemons in his office because he believes they absorb negative energy from the room and that every three or four days he has to change them because they become ugly.37 This juxtaposition, in full view of the public and media, is striking.
Second, if the history, sociology and critical theory side of things is all a bit disorientating, then a return to Bavinck’s religious consciousness gives us a theological compass not simply for reorientation but for moving forwards with our own ‘biblical theory’ which will be able to out-narrate all other stories. My biblical anthropology tells me that we are creatures made in the imago Dei, made for transcendence. Although we suppress the truth of our existence by arguing that ‘life under the sun’ is all that there is, we can never eradicate our sensus divinitatis, it always has and will always pop up in all that we fashion. The reality of the ‘magnetic points’ tell us that ‘self’ has been shaped before it attempts to shape itself. It’s never been easy to be a materialist or nihilist, but conversely, it’s never been good to be a superstitious pagan, however supernaturalist. ‘The ‘Q-thing’ is plausibly explainable by the ‘magnetic point’ I have called ‘Destiny’. Although humans know themselves to be active players in the world, there is a nagging feeling that they are also passive participants in somebody else’s world. This creates an existential tension between human freedom and boundedness. Life courses between action and fate, like actors on a stage, aware that though they act out their part, they are working from someone else’s script. There is a providential power at work behind all things, but what or who is it? Bavinck puts it thus:
A person is only master of his or her life up to a certain point. A power exists that repeatedly reaches into a person’s existence, that pushes him or her forward with compelling force, and from whose grip the person finds it impossible to struggle loose. Sometimes people can despair that they can lead their own life. Sometimes they gradually achieve the insight, in the school of life’s hard knocks, that it is more appropriate to say that they suffer or undergo events that develop in and around them.38
Superstition is the fruit of this root. The silence of not uttering ‘Quiet’ is a cry for help, of a need for control and meaning in what is believed to be a chaotic and meaningless world.
Finally, how are we then to engage with these prevalent superstitious practices? This calls for a wholistic all of life approach in terms of our discipleship, mission and evangelism. We must recognise, embrace, inhabit and teach a wholistic Reformational worldview that explains reality in such a way that diagonalises39 enchantment and disenchantment, and diagonalises, the ‘porous’ self and the ‘buffered’ self.40 While in no way wanting to dismiss or flatten historical contingency, genealogy, or the granularity of lived ethnographic particularity, it is to state a confessional theological anthropological ‘givenness’. This is maybe why I am so attracted by the work of J. H Bavinck, who for me is a wonderful of example of what theological religious studies looks like.
Although written way back in 1982, Paul Hiebert’s seminal article, ‘The Flaw of the Excluded Middle’,41 is a reminder that without a cosmology that includes a ‘middle’ tier of the supernatural, we will not be able to connect to and confront with the gospel. Rather we will become a secularising force that cannot give answers to those enchanted by enchantment. We are not those who deny the supernatural realm, but those who proclaim Christ’s supremacy over it.42 Practically, as Derek Rishmawy points out,
you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc…. Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find ‘modern’, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit.43
This is not simply ‘niche’ application, and we must not be naïve. There is dark margin of ‘enchantment’ which Scripture makes clear and which is having increased public and political significance.44
In addition, to counter the fate versus freedom dilemma that the magnetic point of ‘Destiny’ reveals, and which leads to something like the Q-thing, we need to be preaching, teaching and catechizing a doctrine of concursus when it comes to providence enabling a more analogical understanding of divine and human agency. We must helping people see that there is a qualitative difference between created and Creator. Superstition is futile because it can only attempt to manipulate forces within the same ontological order, whereas prayer to and trust in God who is both transcendent and immanent is of wholly other order.
Pastorally, the recognition of the middle must not lead ourselves being falsely or ‘overly’ enchanted with the result that we become fearful. Fear of created things, natural or supernatural, is ultimately idolatrous given the only one we should fear is God himself.45 This is true wisdom. As Calvin writes, ‘We are superstitiously timid, I say, if whenever creatures threaten us or forcibly terrorize us we become as fearful as if they had some intrinsic power to harm us, or might wound us inadvertently and accidently, or there were not enough help in God against their harmful acts.’46 As Birkett notes, ‘The Reformers’ God was a loving father who looked after his children. Someone who believed that would have the confidence to put aside fear of suffering of death or of evil spirits, and look boldly at the world that his God had made.’47
As Stevie Wonder sings in ‘Superstition’, there do seem to be things in this world and experiences people have, that are mysterious and that we ‘don’t understand’. However, by God’s Spirit, Scriptural revelation does give us enough understanding and direction concerning what both godly and ungodly engagement with such phenomena consists of.48
The apostle Peter exhorts us, ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord’ (1 Pet 3:14–15). Contrary to not saying Quiet (yes, I’ve said it!), our Christian witness must be loud as we live with a bold freedom and not in fear. We don’t resign ourselves to blind fate or have to ward off powerful malevolent forces – ‘Superstition ain’t the way.’ Rather we call upon the name of our Sovereign God, Father, Son and Spirit.