Thursday, July 3, 2014

What is the Value of Religious Gestures?

Why do people make religious gestures?  I define a "gesture" broadly as any action, courtesy, or communication intended for effect or as a formality.  For example, an "offering" taken during public worship is a religious gesture, which the church teaches is an expression of stewardship, by which we return to God a part of what God has given us.  This is a seriously flawed idea, however—God doesn't need money!  A former seminary professor saw the flaw and described monetary gifts to the church as supporting what he called the "gospel enterprise."  Personally I have come to think of money contributed to the church as "paying my church dues."  The value of such a gesture, however defined, certainly benefits the church by keeping its doors open, but it only indirectly benefits givers.  In many cases paying church dues strains their budget, and to that extent the contributor is harmed, unless one believes they get credit with God for the gesture.
             Prayers, both individual and congregational, are religious gestures by which people "reach out" to God for a particular reason.  Congregational prayers are clearly ceremonial, formal, and conventional—i.e., the act is expected in religious services.  They may occasionally be comforting or inspiring, but more often are perfunctory and propagandizing.  Individuals gesture toward God for personal reasons, but even individual prayer can become a charade, if it is used by a "spiritual advisor" to develop piety in others.  Nevertheless in both situations the gesture is always one-sided.  No conversation occurs between the individual and God, however comforting the gesture may seem.  God never addresses the one who prays (people who hear voices in their head even in prayer need professional help).
             Words are also gestures.  For example, at a time of great sorrow in one's life someone may say "I am deeply sorry for your loss."  At its best the statement is a gesture of sympathy and caring; at its worst it is a perfunctory act performed to meet the requirements of social convention; we expect such gestures in times of crisis.  The verbal expression "God bless you" is odd.  It is hard to know the significance of the expression.  For the one who gestures, it could mean something like: [it is my prayer that] God bless you, or [may] God bless you.  That is, to say: I sense that you may need emotional support.  On the other hand, the individual may be arrogant enough to think that their utterance actually confers God's favor—such as occurred in the laying on of hands (ordination), a gesture in the early church that was believed to confer the Spirit of God (Acts 19:6, 8:17-18; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7).  Religious sentiments printed on t-shirts may be little more than church advertising, or a means of parading idiosyncratic beliefs.  Perhaps the wearing of the crucifix serves the same purpose, unless it is worn as a religious charm for personal protection.
             A digital gesture, such as making the sign of the cross, is a learned gesture, and may have no meaning beyond "I fulfilled the obligation required under such circumstances."  Pointing skyward at an individual's standout moment ostensibly to give God (or Jesus?) credit, on the one hand, may be conceived as a personal religious "thank you," but it also elevates an individual's piety in the public eye.  Digital gestures always run the risk of shallow religious show, for which Jesus said no one receives credit with God (Matt 6:1).
             In fact all such public religious gestures are disparaged by Jesus in Matthew's opinion (Matt 6:1-8, 16-8).  Jesus was thought to have said, "Beware of practicing your piety before people in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matt 6:1).  Hence the motivation for performing religious gestures is crucial for determining their value.
             Does God ever reward individuals for their religious gestures?  Some seem to think so.  Here is a case on point: Jesus said "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53); it is likely a reference to the sacred meal of the church (1 Cor 11:23-32), which Ignatius (ca. 110 A.D.) thought of as the "medicine of immortality, the antidote preventing death," which led to "life in Jesus Christ forever" (Ephesians 20:2).  Paul even earlier suggested that baptism benefited one by bringing a kind of union with Christ: "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" (Rom 6:2).
             Are religious gestures empty acts or does God, if God there be, actually post in his Divine Ledger a spiritual credit to the account of those who perform them?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

Dr. Hedrick, the words about prayer reminded me of something I recently read in a book of letters and excerpts from Thomas Paine. In a letter to Samuel Adams (1/1/1803). "A man does not serve God when he prays, for it is himself he is trying to serve;" (The rest of the sentence and paragraph is also spot on, though not exactly relating to your blog. "... as to hiring or paying men to pray, as if the Deity needed instruction, it is, in my opinion, an abomination. One good schoolmaster is of more use and of more value than a load of such persons as Dr. Emmons and some others.")
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Dr Hedrick, it would be my opinion that there can only be one reason for religious gestures and that would be to orient the individual to a reality that expands the self and at the same time is protective of others. Gestures mocked by some might well hold together the life of another.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.