Every once in a while, I worry that I might be wearing out my Al Martino records, and so I temporarily switch to a different singer. Recently I listened to the great Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song whose melody I really like but whose lyrics have always annoyed me.
When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer
I would not want to suggest that there is no such thing as superstition, nor that superstition is harmless. The behavior of investors in the Stock Market frequently reveal how silly and superstitious we can be. But the idea that the essence of superstition, as Stevie puts it, is believing “in things that you don’t understand,” well, that is also quite silly.
Belief is pervasive in human life, and we often do not understand what we believe. A quick inventory of one’s knowledge reveals, in the words of Bernard Lonergan, that one’s understanding rests largely
on the experience of others, and its development owes little indeed to his personal originality, much to his repeating to himself the acts of understanding first made by others, and most of all to presuppositions that he has taken for granted because they commonly are assumed and, in any case, he has neither the time nor the inclination nor, perhaps, the ability to investigate for himself (Method in Theology, 41-42).
The issue is part of the traditional question of how faith and reason are related. Believing things we don’t understand is not superstition. There are too many things in life that we need to believe but cannot discover for ourselves.
Still, there is a desire to understand, and that desire is not put on hold in religious experience. A recent study by one of our own professors has shown that the gospels of Mark and John reveal the importance of faith, but a faith that is quite reasonable within the contexts and concerns that the characters who encounter Jesus find themselves. Dr. Pamela Hedrick concludes that:
[i]t is easy to get the relationship between faith and reason wrong. There is a tendency to unbalance the relationship by either reducing faith to a conclusion of reason or of giving no place to reason within the act of faith. The reality is subtler and more important. A fresh reading of the gospels, with attention given to the questions and answers that emerge in the interactions among the characters, and especially their encounters with Jesus, reveals that an accurate account of the relationship between thinking and believing presents faith as an act of reason while reason is understood as needing faith in order to be liberated from narrow horizons. When faith operates within the context of faith, self-transcendence is possible. (Do You Now Believe? Reasonable Faith in Mark and John (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2017, 76).
The rationalist temptation is to reduce human self-transcendence to reason without faith, while the pious but mistaken reaction might tend to dismiss the desire to understand. As Dr. Hedrick puts it, “an uncritical faith —a credulity or an unthinking belief that clings to certitude at the expense of understanding—can undermine faith itself and at least slow down the response to the grace of ongoing conversion” (77). And to that I say “Amen.”
Now, back to Al Martino …
David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.