Credibile est, quia ineptum est

Posted: January 10, 2011 in Christopher Hitchens, Rite and Rituals
Tags: ,

I’m a terrible shaman.

Despite people’s requests, I have yet to be able to heal a wound without the aid of ointments.  I haven’t been able to call down water from heaven like Elijah (and I question if Elijah literally did as well…that’s not the point of that story anyway).

Nor have I been able to exorcise supposed demons or even provide the “right answer” to life questions such as “Why did he have to die?” Oh, if there were an answer to that question!  Theologians can’t even agree on the significance of Jesus’ death, let alone the tragic death of Congressional staff workers, children, judges, or plumbers at a Safeway in Tucson.

And yet people come to their pastors expecting miracles only to find out that we’re poor miracle workers.  Oh, sure, I don’t deny that miracles happen…just not because of me.  Miracles are un-explainable, by definition.

Priests and pastors have become shaman for the religious in many ways, and its not like organized religion has done much to dispel this notion.  We preside over communion because of “good order,” and yet the magic words and the magic hands are the impression we give off…sometimes willfully.  That’s shameful.

Ordination is done for good order.  But a pastor is not ontologically different.  Any attempt to say they are is, I think, wishful thinking at its most benign and demagoguery at its worst.  The “change” of ordination is simply in title and training; I do not converse with God in a different way than you do.

And what is the change of ordination, really?

Cynically it is the certificate from the church body that declares you as having filled the requirements of an organized religion to teach and lead a branch of the organization.  A letter of call, a funny collar, the blessing from the head of the church.

Speaking from a place of hope, the piece of paper says reliably that an individual is competent in worship and counseling arts and that a community wishes them to lead them.

It says nothing about my ontological status apart from what any certificate says of any individual: “You exist enough to receive this piece of paper for which you have worked.”

And we ordain to retain good order, to have someone to lead, to match gifts and abilities with callings.  We do not ordain to make demi-gods…but I still get:

“Pastor, your prayers worked!” or “Pastor, will you bless us for protection?”

I will pray for you, of course.  I will ask for protection, much as my greatest desire for you is protection, safety, and wholeness.  But I do not have a Divine ATM with a secret code that was placed in my pocket upon ordination.  I do not have Divine influence for good or for ill.

Insight? Yes. Training? Yes. Gifts for communication, for listening, for instruction? Yes.  These I admit that I have, that have been identified as gifts of mine.

But magic hands?  No.

I’m sorry.  I’m no shaman.

I’m just a pastor…for what that means.

And what does that mean?

Well, if we’re sticking with the ancient vocations, I’d say that I’m most like a bard, a traveling storyteller.  I tell the story of God’s work through Jesus, and this seems to change things for people, for situations, for the world.

Does it work like magic? No.  But can I explain how or why it works?  No.  It’s beautifully empty, if you will; empty of definition.  Empty by definition.  And when we try to define it too tightly we end up with magic.

But even though I can’t explain how it works, it does work.

And I travel telling this story, and learning new ones, or pointing out new ones that I see in the people around me.  And then I tell those stories, too.  And it changes things.

But, dear people, it is not magic, it is not shamanism, it is not conjuring up a secret portal of connection with the Divine by which I and I alone (or others who hold similar degrees from human institutions that laughably claim we’ve “Mastered Divinity”) can traverse; a perverted Jacob’s ladder.

And that sort of thinking is indeed what drives people to abandon that search for God altogether, because we so easily let each other down and ourselves down.  Believing in magic gets you far enough to the curtain, until you pull it back and realize that the hands moving the puppets look like your own.

Suffer through another Hitchens reference.  He speaks of traveling through Sri Lanka and coming into a tight scrape between two warring tribes, one of which he was traveling with.  Using his English heritage and shining clothes, Hitchens is able to talk his way out of a tight situation saving him and his companions.  It is at this point that his companions surmise that he is, in fact, Sai Baba in temporary form.  Sai Baba, a psuedo-god of sorts who could perform miracles and raise the dead, had come back to make a visit in the eyes of the Sri Lankans.

Hitchens laughs at the concept.

I don’t blame him, though.  He laughs as a person who, upon looking at his hands, sees merely hands.  He cannot see that even those hands can be, from someone else’s perspective or from a teleological perspective, just what is needed in a hopeless situation.

Is this not the definition of salvos?

In telling the story he is attempting to squash the concept of religion.  Unfortunately for him, he propogates it.

Because, you see, he is not the point…and no one should mistake him for it: his hands, his clothes, his English heritage, or his witty speech.

I am not the point, either, even if I’ve mastered divinity…on paper.

It is absurd, yes, to believe that even these hands could be bringing about Divine telos.  But I have to believe it, not in a magical way, but in the way that I know traveling around and telling how Jesus’ hands, and yours, too, is doing the same thing.

Freud made his living off of pointing out transference.  In a way, so do I.  I firmly believe God is transfering Godself onto humanity daily, moment to moment, and I try to keep my ears and eyes attuned to it.

In that I’m a good bard.

But I can’t make it happen…which is why I’m a bad Shaman.

I’m OK with that.

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Comments
  1. Jakob K Rinderknecht says:

    Tim — as usual a thoughtful and insightful post. But I do have

    • Jakob K Rinderknecht says:

      a quibble (well, more than a quibble really). Don’t write off the ontology of ordination because of bad medieval magical thinking. First, the ontological language in its original intent is merely to talk about the non-repeatability of the sacrament. Second, we do talk about a relational ontology which takes into account human relationship as a piece of being. According to this way of thinking, a pastor’s ontology changes in the same way that a man differs from a husband or a woman a wife. Finally, the sacrament of order (notice the singular: sacramentum ordinis) is the sacrament which orders the church (as you say above), which is the only way in which such an ontological statement makes sense: The church is ordered, and therefore the relationships within the body are forever changed. No magic. Just relationship.

      • Timothy Brown says:

        Hi Jakob,
        Thanks for your thoughts as well. A question for clarification on my part, if ontologically I am changed in ordination (as a husband’s ontology differs from that of a wife), what exactly is the change and how is it enacted? From what to what and by what means?

        And also, I think I should clarify that the sacramental order of the church is, I think, functional and that is the way I intended it in the post.

        I do like your lens of relationship quite a bit, though I’m still unconvinced the relationship changes me and yet fails to change, say, my older brother who is a bar tender in Charlotte. I do hope you are well and that you stop by Chicago sometime!

  2. Carol Beu says:

    Thanks, Tim. Perhaps we should go back to calling you (and your brothers of the cloth) “Rabbi”.

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