Glynn Cardy 25th September 2022
Long before the advent of comic books and Marvel movies, the Church provided superheroes. These were men and women (though mainly men) who although usually having a historical existence were, after their death, endowed with supernatural powers. Histories of these heroes (hagiographies is the correct word) were then written, augmented with magic, mystery, and might, and supplied to the faithful for their imagination and comfort.
So, the faithful could pray to these heroes, called ‘saints’ in church speak, to assist them in their need. It would be, as one Roman Catholic priest explained to me, like asking a friend for help. A friend though who exists in an after-life and has the ear of Jesus or God. It always struck my Protestant sensibilities as a kind of medieval patronage system. When you have a problem you go to a friendly courtier, who will in turn go to the prince, who in turn will take your request to the king.
Mind you a lot of Protestants who might squirm at this idea of petitioning, that is praying to, saints have no qualms about praying to Jesus. Which is really the same thing. And Jesus, like his mother, like St Francis, and all the other popular go-to saints, never asked people to pray to him. Jesus prayed to God and no-one, no-thing, else.
Of course, there are problems in praying to God. You can’t see God. You don’t know what God looks like. You don’t really know whether God is friendly – being that, especially in conservative religion, God has created a hell and consigns people to it. God might send you there if you say the wrong thing, ask the wrong thing, even think the wrong thing. Much better, and safer, to ask a mother (like Mary), who knows about frailty and forgiveness, to intercede on your behalf.
So, I understand why people need and create religious superheroes who, much like their modern-day secular counterparts, will come to your aid, believe in your troubles, smite the bad guys, and rescue you. And before we modern day progressives poo-poo all this too much let’s acknowledge the temporary comfort that fantasy, whether through books, screens, or just our imaginations, can offer us when life gets tough. And life for our religious forebears back through the centuries has been very tough indeed.
The paradigm of prayer, inherited from times past, and common in most churches even today, that has us petitioning a mighty God (read king) or his courtiers (read saints) to intervene is not one that makes sense to me or nurtures my soul. Indeed, there are destructive and toxic messages that underpin this traditional paradigm. Part of the progressive Christian journey is relearning, reimagining, what prayer might be and could be, and finding both freedom and transformation in doing so. More about this shortly.
The superhero of Christian superheroes is St Michael, whose feast day – Michaelmas – is next Thursday (29th September). He’s an archangel, if you believe angels have a hierarchy. He’s got wings. Winged angels were the Persian addition to Hebrew angelology. He has a sword. With which he smites dragons, devils, and other dastardly creations. And, if you look at his body, he works out a lot at the gym. His face also, in some depictions, could be male or female. Which fits with the whole non-binary thing with angels. Angel thinking is meant to transcend the categorizations we humans use.
And Michael, whose name means ‘who is like God?’ (with the important question mark at the end of it), is pure imagination. There is no historical Michael, like there is a historical Jesus, Mary, or Francis. He was created by Jewish authors, dreamers, around the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, and his task was to care for Israel.
He’s also an interfaith angel. He’s there originally in Judaism, but travels into the other monotheistic faiths of Islam and Christianity. Catholic, Protestants, and Orthodox all have a place for him. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons like him. His tasks are slightly different in each setting but, in the words of the Coptic Orthodox, St Michael is the one who presents to God the prayers of the just, who accompanies the souls of the dead to heaven, and who defeats the devil.
If you need a bit of muscle on your side, a big of heft, then he’s your guy.
I have no problem with the use of imagination. I recognise imagination’s ability to offer relief and comfort in times of trouble. And I recognise too that in times past, and still today, there are many who cry out for relief and comfort when their own resources are depleted and when the authorities in their lives and lands are difficult and oppressive. So, I understand the desire for superheroes.
Michael’s name though offers us a riddle. ‘Who is like God’ (without the question mark) assumes, like many do, that God is something like Michael – strong, powerful, smiting foes, buff(?). God as superhero. But the ‘who is like God?’ (with the question mark) asks a more probing question which has three answers.
Firstly, no one is like God. No human, no angel, no being, no collection of the same. God is other, unfathomable mystery, and not to be reduced to the size of any language or metaphor or need, or anthropomorphic projection. This is what, in the best sense, theology means by the phrase ‘the sovereignty of God’. God doesn’t fit into the boxes on offer.
Secondly, we individually are like God. God is in, through, and with us. Think of those phrases from the Bible. ‘Made in God’s image’, ‘it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’, ‘my father (God) and I are one’. There is an indivisibility between us and God. Of course, this makes more sense when we leave anthropomorphic metaphors like ‘father’ and ‘lord’ to one side and reimagine God as literally an energy of transforming love – and that energy, with all its potential, is woven into our DNA already, and is ready to activate.
And thirdly, what is true of us individually is true of us communally. We are the body of Christ, the body of God, a body politic that is bringing transforming love into people’s lives. We together are like God. We don’t need superheroes for individually and together we embody God.
The traditional paradigm of prayer, with or without superheroes, carries with it – in the words of Jim Palmer (founder of the Centre for Non-Religious Spirituality) – ‘toxic religious lies that damage people’s lives.’ Lies like ‘I am weak, and He (God) is strong’. Like ‘I am inherently bad’, and ‘I’m worthless on my own’.
Instead, we need a paradigm of prayer that celebrates that we are strong, that we are beautiful, that we are worthy, and that we individually, but better together, can tap into that DNA of transformative love and heal the earth, each other, and ourselves.
This new made-in-the-image-of-transformative-love paradigm of prayer sees us as agents of change. We aren’t bystanders cheering our heroes on, but participants with sleeves rolled up working together. Though at times we might feel despondent and look for some superhero saviour or two, the reality is (when brushing aside the cobwebs and lies of self-mistrust) that we are capable and powerful, especially when we are two or three or more, to bring about freedom, and hope, and justice.
So, prayer needs to be re-framed as encouraging one another; as actions like caring, marching, petitioning, giving; and as finding words and metaphors and poems and songs that nurture our souls and keep us true. Said prayer is a commitment to participation.
And, yes, a prayer can be addressed to God, or a saint, like a Michael, but it is as if talking to a mirror – you are calling forth the best in yourself, and the best in others, to address our needs, and envision a new and better future. God is not up there waiting to hear. God is here, within, around – hearing already – and spurring us on to put word into action, to be the archangel we are, to love, be compassionate, and to try to change all that is wrong in the world.
Prayer is a karanga (a call) to come forth and walk forward. As we hear it, we move. And as we move, we become the hope we seek.