superstition in Jesus’ name

I was on the phone the other day with my mom, catching her up with the latest news I have from my doctor (whom I’m visiting on a rather frequent basis—thank God for copayments!). I was telling her about the process we’re going through in attempt to solve my chronic sleep problems. My doctor is looking (like a good doctor should) for root causes, so that these can be treated and I don’t have to spend the rest of my life chemically inducing sleep. Well, one mini discovery opened a road to a huge revelation—I have fibromyalgia. It was a shock to me that the pain I always have is not just the way things go when you get a little older. I was kind of in a sort of shock all that day, processing that 1) my pain is actually something that can be taken care of, and 2) my pain isn’t just the way of life, nor need it be for me. I was just so used to aching all the time, I didn’t generally think much of it, except at night when it would constantly keep me awake or wake me up.

So I’m talking about this to mom—who is a trained nurse. And one thing I mentioned was when the doctor asked, in the process of narrowing down options, whether I might have arthritis. Before I could continue telling her of the conversation, mom interrupted with a line I’ve heard countless times:

“I won’t confess that!”

“Mom,” I groaned, “I’m not confessing anything, just looking at finding some name or diagnosis for what is in fact already there.”

“I know, I know,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.

Mom is this odd bundle of contradictions. She is fully supportive of treating medical conditions, and once dad was far enough gone in his Alzheimer’s that she could invoke her power of attorney without hurting his feelings, she had him undergo a battery of physical and psychological tests (things dad refused on principle as evidence of a lack of faith in the promise that the Lord will give us a sound mind). But before then, for some years, it was obvious (to me, at least) that dad had Alzheimer’s. He just wasn’t right—and he was breathtakingly erratic and irrational (this is significant, since my father is a key influence in my intellectual value system). But to say that he had dementia was to make it so. So until there was a down-on-paper diagnosis, dad didn’t have Alzheimer’s? Well, no.

It’s all very confusing, and I half lost my mind (I wish I were exaggerating when I say that) at 20 trying to reconcile the many contradictions intrinsic to the so-called ‘positive confession’ (alternately called “name it and claim it” or “blab it and grab it”) movement my family has flirted with for some thirty years. I won’t pretend to be sympathetic or generous to this view, since I have quixotically tilted against it for some 25 years. Indeed, my utter inability to embrace the contradictions has gotten me into more trouble over the years than most everything else put together (so far).

But my best stab at explaining it might run thus:

Created in God’s image, we are also endowed with the ability to ‘create’ with our words. We do this by ‘claiming’ God’s promises as laid down in scripture or by ‘claiming’ specific blessings in specific situations that we can justify according to certain doctrinal principles obtained by divine revelation via modern-day prophets of God. God has promised to heal us, so all we have to do is ‘accept’ and ‘claim’ the healing, and it will be so. Symptoms are only a matter of faith testing, but we are in fact truly healed once we accept it. There is a down side to all this: not actually being healed might be nothing more than evidence of faithlessness on the part of the ailing person or her family. In fact, this is precisely my sister’s position on dad’s Alzheimer’s. You see, it’s our fault (my other siblings and me) for not having enough faith for dad to be healed. Another aspect of this down side is that it isn’t just ‘happy’ confessions that have power—there are such things as ‘negative confessions.’ You can realize illnesses, dysfunctions, and other problems by confessing them, too. And this deeply-held belief is what motivated my mom’s reaction on the phone. The breadth of this belief system in fundamentalism is evidenced by the ridiculous popularity of the Prayer of Jabez books, the doctrine of which is entirely based on one half of a sentence in a little read corner of the Old Testament. Finally, our not claiming things stands in God’s way of blessing us. He can’t until we ask. He’s just waiting, but like a perfect gentleman, won’t barge into our lives and bless us until we allow him to by accepting what he has to offer us. You have to believe in your heart and confess with your lips, they say.

The problematic entailments of such beliefs are legion.

First off, I’m confused about the role of ‘meaning it’ (as in, ‘ya gotta say it like ya mean it!’). In positive confession, the important thing is to force yourself to believe in order to make things happen, yet the stray negative word can immediately take effect. Is this some sort of semantico-metaphysic principle of entropy? I suppose this might be a fallout of the dispensationalism embraced by fundamentalists (generally, all positive confessers are fundamentalists, though not vice versa), which holds that everything is just getting worse and worse until Jesus returns. Okay, so fine. It’s harder to get good things than bad things.

Secondly, fundamentalists loathe new age beliefs in positive energy and channeling the universe for one’s own good (e.g. “The Secret”) as idolatrous. This is putting oneself before God. Fine. But surely it must be that if my words determine what God can do, then God’s reduced to a tool which I wield to my preference, not (as the fundamentalist would have it) vice versa. I’m God. How is that not idolatry?

On another level with this idolatry worry, I refer to the third Commandment that says we should not take the Lord’s name in vain. Now fundamentalists interpret this as not swearing or taking flippant oaths. But another strain of teaching holds that taking God’s name as a “Christian” and speaking as if for God falls under this. I buy that. In fact, my new favorite translation reads Exodus 20:7 thus: “Do not utter the Name of YHWH to misuse it, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who utters God’s Name to misuse it!” This might narrow the focus to simply saying the tetragrammaton, but more likely it speaks of representing the nature of God falsely. The tradition of the prophets shows us over and over and over again that selfish gain in God’s name is not after God’s heart; in fact, those who do so are repeatedly excoriated.

Negative confession is another problem. Jesus specifically refutes the idea that an ailment is necessarily the evidence of somebody’s sin. And that much of Jesus’ life was marked by miraculous healings does not imply that everyone’s every ailment must be healed. Paul is evidence of this, having battled much of his life some sort of ‘thorn’ that tradition holds to be some sort of eye condition, which Paul claims God gave him to increase his faith and power in ministry. Repeatedly in the Gospels, stories are told of Jesus being mobbed by people who want healing, and Jesus responding by going to remote places or leaving them, preferring to teach elsewhere than to let the insistence of the crowd dictate his purpose. The lesson here seems to at least imply that physical demands aren’t where it’s all at—even more so if these are not needs, but a sort of adult version of the Santa list, tucked into one’s prayer journal. It is a fact of existing here that crises and illnesses happen. We need comfort, not condemnation for not wishing hard enough, when such eventualities darken our skies.

One of the deepest problems I see is a failure to distinguish the epistemic from the metaphysical. Two days ago I learned something about my health. My epistemic status changed. I had a new belief (that I have fibromyalgia) where I hadn’t one before. And it took some time to alter other beliefs some, such that my epistemic set remained consistent, now it’s including this new belief. But two days ago, I did not gain some new ontological property where before I had none. That is to say, nothing in fact changed about my corporeal reality (nothing relevant—yes, yes, I underwent spatial changes and maybe lost a hair or two, but I’m talking about more than mere Cambridge changes here). I already had fibro, I just didn’t know I had it.

And that’s the problem with positive confession. A changed belief does not entail a changed reality—though it certainly can indicate a changed perception of reality. It can be perfectly good to believe better things are on the horizon, but it isn’t the believing that creates it. More likely, the believing motivates the person to act in ways that enable the good things to happen. And that’s not what positive confession holds to be what’s happening. Belief = reality, for them. That’s why it’s so terribly important not to change beliefs or doctrines.

Another very deep problem I see has to do with epistemic voluntarism. I’m not all that sure where I stand on this tricky philosophical issue, though. My first intuition is to say we can’t choose our beliefs. For example, I have countless sensory images that impact me moment by moment, and on their evidence, I have certain beliefs—that I’m at my computer right now, that I’m a little hungry, that I might have a trace of the flu, that it’s mid-morning, and so on. And from these beliefs and other stimuli, I get more beliefs—from seeing a stack of ungraded quizzes and the belief that it’s midmorning, I come to a belief that I’d better wrap up this entry, so I can get that grading done without feeling pressure. From experience I can add the belief that if I don’t get the grading done today, my students will be very upset tomorrow. Now can I choose not to have these beliefs?

I don’t think so. I think I can choose not to trust them, maybe by looking for other beliefs or data that can serve as defeaters (things that give reason to believe something is false), either by showing an inconsistency or showing a certain belief’s truth to be improbable. But then do I choose to believe any of this, or do the beliefs come naturally from the operations of natural mental processes and rational principles? It seems to me (and here I’m totally on intuition, not at all certain of this) that more likely, people aren’t believing that something is the case when all evidence is to the contrary (as you have to in order to confess something), but hoping or wishing. But that’s not the same thing.

And thus comes the contradictions found in folks like my mom. On one side, she clearly believes in the good of medicine, in the fact that certain illnesses can be treated, should be treated, and that some things just happen no matter what we say about it. But on the other side, she has this burning hope, fueled by her doctrinal leaders, that she can change reality by simply believing (and then saying) certain things. On the one side, she is indignant when people are condemned as sinners because they have illnesses, but on the other, she has a nagging worry that such is true of her when she or one of her family members is ill.

It’s crazy making. But it certainly follows that one who embraces this insanity will find it very hard (if not impossible) to accept that some things just happen, and that the point of confession is not to alter reality, but to acknowledge it for all its blessings and ills—that acknowledging the good and the bad is far more empowering than desperately trying to change it with magic words and then pretending it has changed, even while guiltily ignoring those nagging, evidence-informed doubts.


One thought on “superstition in Jesus’ name

  1. Mason

    Great words. I’m just finding out how deeply my new wife is into positive confession and denial of symptoms or denial of any negativity, fear, doubt etc. Until recently it hadn’t occurred to me how much it hinders our deeper intimate conversation and fellowship. She seems to be slipping further into it and it makes me feel so disconnected. Really searching for a way to have fellowship with my wife without being confronted by this superstitious stuff every 5 minutes.


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