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August 16, 2006

Belief as Extreme Belief

A couple of weeks ago, I caught some of Chris Porter's routine on Last Comic Standing, and although I'm aware of the danger inherent in taking comedians too seriously, I thought his comments concerning religion to be illustrative of a common (and commonly lazy) approach thereto.

Porter stated that he left the Catholic Church when he realized that fewer people were receiving Communion in the species of wine during flu season. "You gotta believe!" he declared, citing as real believers religious fanatics who dance around with poisonous snakes on their shoulders. "If I had the flu, I'd be glomming that s***."

The point that seems to have been lost on the comedian — to the extent that he wasn't ignoring it for comedy's sake — is that Catholics don't believe that the Blood of Christ is a panacea for physical ills, a sort of magic potion. We also don't deny (as far as I know)* that germs can be passed along with the cup. On the other hand, we do believe that Christ is fully present in either form of the Eucharist.

In ways much more subtle than this, it seems to me that much of the modern hang-up with religion has to do with a lack of clarity about what it means to "really believe." The tendency is to imagine some claim that is observably impossible, or just improbable, and to insist that true believers would declare the observation false. When the person taking the religious side of the discussion points out that his religion doesn't, actually, ask him to make any such declaration, because his system of belief seeks to incorporate observable reality, the response often implies a lack of credulity. How convenient that the believer would claim to believe only that which cannot be easily disproven!

The questions that our culture so often skips are of the "and still" variety: Can Catholics believe that they can get the flu by sharing a Communal cup and still believe that the Eucharist will heal them? Can non-Catholics not believe in the actual presence of the Lord in Holy Communion and still have faith in Christ? Can non-Christians not believe in the divinity of Jesus and still believe in God? As if playing a theological version of that old board game, Chutes and Ladders, the modern atheist or agnostic finds an easy slide from disbelief that God tells us what make of car to buy through the actions of snakes to disbelief that God exists at all.

* On the other hand, I recall seeing a TV news report in which the health expert stated that wiping the cup with a blessed cloth wouldn't prevent the transmittal of germs, and I wondered whether he had read any studies to back that up. I'm willing to believe that he's correct, but shouldn't a man of science have data?

Posted by Justin Katz at August 16, 2006 11:47 PM
Rhode Island

I think Porter may also be overlooking some good people's intentions of not infecting all their neighbors as well. Whether out of politeness or concern or disbelief that the cloth will prevent transmission, I think most of the people that avoid the cup are doing so to prevent transmission to others, not from others.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 17, 2006 7:30 AM

Flue with an e refers to the channel for gas to escape, as in a chimney flue. Flu without the e refers to the influenza virus.

In ways much more subtle than this, it seems to me that much of the modern hang-up with religion has to do with a lack of clarity about what it means to "really believe."

Indeed. But that's not so surprising in an age of non-belief, is it?

What's odd is that our culture seems to simultaneously support two contradictory notions: that the only real truth is that which is observable and empirical (i.e. the modernist, scientism view), and that truth is determined by the autonomous individual (i.e. well, this is true for me, but it isn't necessarily true for anyone else). Devout Christians get attacked from both sides: how can you believe anything as fantastic as that Jesus literally turned water into wine, or walked on water? Or, how can you insist with such confidence that the Bible represents the truth in any absolute sense?

Posted by: Mike S. at August 17, 2006 1:30 PM

Thank you, Mike, for the explanatory correction of my late-night lapse. ;o)

I think you elide a potential range of persuasion when you express a lack of surprise at the topic at hand "in an age of non-belief." A large portion of the challenge, for those who would bring others toward religion, is exactly the boundaries of faith and observation. We have to make it clear that it is indeed possible to believe that Christ's Cup can transmit a virus at the same time that we believe that Christ's Cup holds the Blood of God (for example). The explanation is the thing, and the only way to get to the point of offering it is to insist on disallowing the short cuts.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 17, 2006 5:15 PM