Friday, February 29, 2008

Christian Superstition

This post is in response to a series on the Next Gener.Asian blog about how Asian Christians have commonly adopted Eastern religious ideas and practices into their Christian faith. In particular, I am responding to the post about Shamanism in the Asian church. As with the other religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism), David (and Rodger Nishioka) asks "How has [this belief system] influenced practices in Asian American churches?"

He posts three ways:
  1. A ready acceptance of the Holy Spirit and belief in its power in our daily lives combined with a sense of evil spirits opposing the Holy Spirit leads to lots of attribution to Satan.
  2. Significant reliance on the Holy Spirit and spiritual experiences that are often highly emotive and emotion charged.
  3. Congregations look at the preacher as the shaman and may expect him or her to be closer to God and to act as an intermediary or intercessor in some way.

The post ends asking "What's the alternative look like?"

My family is not Korean, and my Chinese Baptist church experience is more naturalistic than how Nishioka describes the Korean church. However, it is not without its occasions. Trying to nail down specific hangovers from Asian religious culture is a little like catching flies with chopsticks.

Point #1 has a lot of hidden problems, I think. No one would dispute that awareness of the Holy Spirit in daily life is a good thing. This point doesn't get into specifics as to what people believe evil spirits are opposing. But we should pause to ask: to what are Asian Christians ultimately attributing to Satan? Common complaints always include illness and hardship. What about negative emotions, financial difficulty, and personality conflict? What about the 30 year-old son who seems unable to find a wife? How much should we attribute to Satanic activity versus our own human failing? Not only that, should we even consider problems like these Satanic in origin?

A more foundational question would be "why do we think that God owes us a comfortable life?"

One superstition I suspect we have embraced at this point is that the Christian life is about fulfilled values and gratification and that gratification is what Satan wants to prevent in our daily life. Generally, gratification is the experience of everything you desire in life and believe God should send your way (marriage, children, grandchildren, financial gain, the respect of others). This superstition has perhaps replaced the language of "lucky" in many Chinese households. Instead of attributing job loss, for example, to unluckiness, many now often attribute it to some form of Satanic oppression perhaps.

The typical reaction to such a situation is very telling. Traditionally, an unlucky Chinese person would seek to turn his fortune around through shamanistic appeals. A Christian, similarly moved, might feel tempted to pray down the demon causing such suffering in his life. I find this disturbing, but only slightly less disturbing than the fact that Asians are not alone in practicing this type of "Christian shamanism."

I call it manipulation, which is perhaps a second superstition working its way through the minds of many Asians. The result is that we believe that God responds to such appeals. I see this as the theological foundation for the "sin of divination" spoken of in 1 Sam. 15:22. Relating to the God of the Bible the same way one would relate to a demigod in any Eastern religion shows a failing of wholistic theology on the part of the church. Or, to say it another way, for anyone to think that circumstances can or should be changed by appealing to some vain formula or method of prayer designed to manipulate either God or the spiritual world into alignment with one's own desires is clearly opposite to Biblical Christianity.

I have encountered something somewhat similar. Two friends I know once shared an apartment, and when they moved in, they made it a point to walk through all the rooms and pray over each room for God to 'sanctify'(?) it and provide protection from demonic activity. Now, I am not given to such proclivities, and the whole proposition seemed suspiciously superstitious to me. BUT, I can see an important distinction. Some Christians need to exercise their prayers in a visible way (such as walking through and praying for each room in an apartment) in order to assure themselves that they have been thoughtful in dedicating certain aspects of their lives to God. If some need this as a psychological comfort, I don't have a problem with it per se. However, if some rely on such activity in order to bring about God's protection or supernatural intervention (where it would be absent if they did not), then I think they risk enslavement to a defective theology that is more akin to shamanism than Christianity.

The Gospel is a complete 180. In Christ, we have God revealed and His promises made explicit. God, who made Himself human and lived among us, died for us, and promises us a life that is truly free. In the Gospel, we have the freedom to experience God not through spells, incantations, or rituals crafted to merely grasp vainly at the divine, we have God Himself in Jesus who 'fills our cup to overflowing' with His presence and Holy Spirit. Human beings are constantly trying to find a bridge and cross it from the natural world to the supernatural. In Christ, He not only is the bridge, He comes to us to make that connection with us that all other methods fail miserably.

What's the alternative? Emphatically, the Bible speaks of spiritual freedom and victory as a present accomplishment in Christ that most believers have yet to realize. My pastor has said a number of times that we are living below our priviledge in the Kingdom of God. True, the victorious Christian life is not experienced without struggle to cast off the baggage of past hurt, present sin, and our own cynicism of our circumstances present and future. We must repent of such thinking, he says. Whenever you are tempted to think that you have accomplished something out of your own strength, repent. Whenever you think that you deserve better than what life dishes out at you, repent. Our priviledge is a life enveloped in the saving grace of Jesus, to focus not on ourselves but on others and ultimately on God. Love God and love people. His grace frees us to live to love, not just to survive and have pleasant things happen to us. Surely we should express the assurance of Psalm 23 a little more confidently than we do.


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