Sand in the Gears

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Blood and mystery

April 26th, 2010 Posted in Faith and Life, Theology

One of G.K. Chesterton’s arguments in Everlasting Man is that the ancient pagans never really revered their petty gods and spirits and magical tree stumps nearly as much as the modern humanist, overflowing with tolerance and reverence for any belief system that distinguishes itself by not being Christian, imagines they did. They knew there was mystery in the world, as any human does, and they knew this mystery was in a sense supernatural — above our natures.

And, being practical-minded, they invested their ponds and cave walls and stories with it, because until the invention of modern Christian theology, every God-minded person understood that if He is anything He is incarnational, and the knowing of Him is more than a rationalist exercise in parsing out the numbers of angels on pin-heads, or the amount of human suffering and damnation necessary to optimize His self-glorification. Even the pagans understood, in other words, that the approach to God is bound up in blood and mystery. Having no Church (and therefore no Bible) to guide them, they scratched and clawed and invented their way toward some kind of holiness, but always, Chesterton suggests, with tongues in cheeks. We know the Creator of all things doesn’t really live in the wind-whistling cavern, but we know there is more to this world than wind and rock.

I wonder, then, if the persistence of silliness like the Family Wicca guidebooks, in an age and country where most of us can stave off death and discomfort until the very end, and where distractions are plentiful, might be rooted in some holy impulse. It’s silliness, of course, because it takes a term (paganus) that long ago connoted ignorant hill people mired in local superstitions, converts it to a proper noun, and constructs around it a notion of universality, as if the druids and witches and tree-stump worshippers of old were all really touching the same life force, a quasi-conscious wisdom welling up from the loving bosom of Gaia. But who needs to sacrifice chicken gizzards at midnight to the tree-stump demi-god when we have TiVo and a life expectancy of 78 years? Where sin and judgment do not exist, what person in his right mind goes traipsing about under a full moon, slapping at mosquitoes and trying not to lose his amulets and crystals in the underbrush?

The answer, I suspect, is rooted in something good gone terribly awry, which is all sin, which is all mankind. Crafted in the image of God, we all of us know, even if only for a few seconds on waking in the darkest part of night, that there is more to creation, to the universe, to us, than matter and velocity and time. We know, as we feel the pounding of our own hearts, that there is a great mystery afoot, and that somehow we are bound up with it, that it courses through our veins as it courses through history.

Blood and mystery. Too many churches have dispensed with both, relegating the sacrament of Communion to infrequent play-acting with symbols, and confusing worship with lectures, prayer with chatter, theology with books. Maybe, in other words, grown adults in full possession of their faculties succumb to prancing about fields at midnight because they know — as we all know — that this great mystery afoot in the world was meant for us, yet — and here is the great tragedy — the last place one will find it is church.

And so here is the real mind-bender: who has strayed farther from God, the crystal-rubbing, spell-chanting Gaia-worshipper, or the prayerless, passionless, careless Christian, for whom church is a building that bears a cross, an hour’s imposition a week, a candle at Christmas and a corsage at Easter, a bit of insurance against the coming grave?