Saturday, January 28, 2012

on superstition, and faith

The Reluctant Dragon, by Maxfield Parrish

My cousin was telling me about an exchange she'd recently had with a colleague. It was the start of the lunar new year, and this colleague, a Christian, had emailed her: "May the Water Dragon give you good health, peace, happiness, and protection from all evil!"

My cousin, who's also a Christian, was a little taken aback – his remark sounded decidedly, well, un-Christian to her. After all, isn't it more than a little significant that one could easily replace the words "water dragon" in that line with "God"? Thinking he must have been speaking in jest, she asked him if he'd said what he had with "tongue planted firmly in cheek".

His reply was unexpected – "Not really". He then followed that with a fairly lengthy explanation of the dragon's historical significance in Chinese history, and its role in dispelling evil.

He ended off with citing an occasion in his own company's history that involved assembling a dragon for a particular performance. Apparently, this had not been done with sufficient "respect", and was the cause of – in his eyes – an unparalleled corporate disaster.

"I'm just trying to convey here that this powerful mythical animal has to be respected", he told my cousin. "Philip [another colleague at the time] was equally uneasy [about the way the dragon had been assembled], but he was, and still is, a staunch Catholic".

Well, my cousin couldn't help feeling a little disturbed by what he was saying. She felt she couldn't simply remain silent, for that would somehow reflect a sort of acquiescence, and yet she did not want to get into an all-out debate with this long-time colleague either. In the end, she gingerly asked, "Um... do you feel that your beliefs are at odds with your being a Christian? I was just wondering".

Her colleague's reply was curt and to the point. "It is the Chinese tradition and culture we have been soaked in all our life. I will still lo hei and expect whatever wishes that are made to come true [lo hei is a raw fish salad made up of various symbolically-rich ingredients which diners mix by extravagantly tossing, purportedly to bring good luck, prosperity and longevity to the new year];

"I will continue to partake in eating birthday noodles for long life; I will still avoid walking under the ladder if I can help it etc etc. However, if I don't get to do them, I don't expect my wishes not to be answered, my life to be shortened, or bad luck to come to me. Like I said, it's the tradition and the culture. It's not my FAITH. That's a difference, right? No reply needed".

Well, my cousin was sufficiently perturbed by this last response to talk to me about it. I was too busy at the time to write an adequately thought-out reply, and simply wrote, "The very fact that he says "I will still lo hei and expect whatever wishes made to come true" shows that he is indeed "soaked" in the Chinese superstitious stuff... and not just Chinese actually, because he even brought up the ladder bit...

"Your FAITH is what you believe, where you put your belief, what you ascribe power to... he reminds me of Edwin - covering all bases [a friend of ours who claims to be Christian, yet has god of fortune statuettes all over his place, and all the necessary elemental features in their most appropriate feng shui positions]... your colleague's like the kings in the Bible, who kept their idols, but ran to God's prophets when they were desperate and needed help".

I think my reply was satisfactory enough for my cousin, who probably wanted to just vent more than anything else, and I thought that was enough for me too, but I realised, over the next few days, that it was not, and that I was bothered in my spirit about it. And then finally this morning, as I was reading my Bible, these verses just leapt out at me: "How can you say, I am not defiled; I have not gone after the Baals [other gods]? Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done...

"[Cease from your mad running after idols, from which you get nothing but bitter injury.] Keep your feet from being unshod and your throat from thirst. But you said, It is hopeless! For I have loved strangers and foreigners, and after them I will go...

"[Inasmuch as] they say to a tree, You are my father, and to a stone, You gave me birth. For they have turned their backs to Me and not their faces; but in the time of their trouble, they say, Arise [O Lord] and save us!

"But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise if they can save you in the time of your trouble!" (Jer 2:23-28).

I don't know that one can actually separate "faith" from "belief". No no, you cannot! I still hold to what I wrote to my cousin, that faith is what you believe, where you put your belief, what you ascribe power to; it is what you loyally keep to, what you put your trust and confidence in. As the Lord commands, "You shall have no other gods before or besides Me.

"You shall not make yourself any graven image [to worship it] or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

"You shall not bow down yourself to them or serve them" (Ex 20:3-5).

I don't think "gods" here refers only to manmade idols, or Moloch or Zeus or Horus. I think one risks making a god of anything that one bows to, is subject to, or gives the honour, fear and respect that is due only to God - and that includes superstition, other people's approval, even one's own feelings.

When I started trying to walk more closely with God, I became more conscious of my own superstitious beliefs and practices. Some of them are so common that they've become "mainstream", acceptable. One of them, for example, was knocking on wood, or saying, as they do in my corner of the world, "touch wood".

Yet doing this links one back to the ancient belief that the gods lived in the trees, and that when you needed help or a favour, you'd touch the tree and speak to it, and then knock on it in thanks. Knocking on wood also prevented roaming evil spirits from hearing of your good fortune and trying to spoil it.

Well, suffice to say I no longer do things like that. In all my hopes and needs and fears, I trust to God; He is my provider and my salvation – I trust to His providence, His protection, His good plan for my life. Superstition is, I think, based on fear and uncertainty, and it can engender fear and uncertainty in the one who practices it, be it ever so subtly, taking one away from that peace and security that can only be found in God.

When we turn to other things, bow to other forces, in superstitious fear, we're in essence saying - "Yeah, I'm a Christian, I believe in God, but I've got my back-up plans in case He doesn't come through for me, in case He doesn't do what I want. I know He's powerful and all, but one can't pooh-pooh the power of lo hei or avoiding ladders either – I don't really know whether He has authority over all of it. I won't necessarily freak out if I don't get to do those things, but ideally I will, and I will make the effort. It's best to have one's bases covered – one can't be too careful!"

It occurred to me last night during my prayers that the words and actions of my cousin's colleague not only affected his own faith, and those around him, but future generations as well – his children would grow up steeped in his beliefs and fears, as would his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That's why everyone’s still lo hei-ing right?

Now don't get me wrong – I don't have any problem with tradition per se. Lo hei is a great social activity and can be loads of noisy, messy fun. But if you ascribe power to it, if you believe that doing it will somehow harness the potent forces of fate or fortune or lady luck, if you really expect that it will help "make your wishes come true"…

I go to the reunion dinners, I exchange the oranges, I give the red packets – not because I somehow believe in their intrinsic power, but because they bring people together in love and warmth, they strengthen and encourage family ties, they tangibly show my affection and good wishes.

Well, as it says in Luke 16:15, "God knows your hearts", and what "is exalted and highly thought of among men" may not be so in the sight of God.

(And oh, re that bit about walking under a ladder – well yeah, you might get punished for walking through the sacred triangle, the symbol of life, formed by the ground and the leaning ladder. Or yeah, you might risk death if the shadow of a man executed by hanging from the ladder fell on you. But it'd probably just be better to avoid walking under a ladder because of what our God-given common sense tells us – that ladder might fall).

1 comment:

Brooke said...

Oh my gosh... i wish you could.see me standing on my couch, clapping my hands and shouting, "bravo! Bravo!" Amazing post friend... amazing! Xo


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