Very Superstitious: The Human Propensity for Faith in the Unseen

“We make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves […]

Sam Bush / 10.28.19

“We make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” – William Shakespeare

A couple of months ago, Julie Jargon wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal called “My Baby Monitor Is Haunted,” about a number of parents who have witnessed paranormal activity from the screens of their baby monitors. Humanlike figures floating above the crib, doors slowly opening wide without anyone around, all seen by people who by no means self-identify as superstitious. Of course, there are a number of ways to explain away the fear — glitches in the technology, a latch that wasn’t shut tight. Jargon is keen to not only pay due respects to the power of fear, but to point out the irony: what was made to control a problem only produces a greater problem:

Every new technology brings its own set of ghosts in the machine. The latest high-tech baby monitors have been known to cause anxiety instead of relieving it — especially when they trigger false alarms that send parents into a panic. And now parents have to worry about these new motion-detection cameras picking up ghosts? It may just be fodder for paranormal television shows and Hollywood films, but for many parents, the fear is real, even if the spectral beings aren’t.

Most people don’t want to admit they believe in something that can’t be proven. Not to diminish all the wonders of science, but one reason it’s celebrated with such ardent devotion is because it provides an intellectually superior edge over “believers” — one’s trust is in that which is tangible. Yet, doesn’t such trust also require a leap into the unknown? Lord knows there’s still plenty of mystery out there. As the English historian James Froude once said, ”The superstition of science scoffs at the superstition of faith.” Today, when it comes to belief, the supernatural dimension is often ridiculed, but statistics will show how our beliefs often contradict our experience. For instance, a recent poll said that only 45% of Americans believe in ghosts or demons, yet seven of the top ten grossing movies in history are horror movies.

Ghosts aside, the trouble with superstition is that it comes from the attempt to understand what can never be understood. Quirky superstitions are ways by which we try to control what is beyond our realm of authority. Our feeble attempts to make sense of the world often contradict each other which, of course, leaves us all the more confused. Consider the legend of the cuckoo bird throughout 20th century Europe, according to W.H. Auden:

In Scotland and Norway it is unlucky to hear the cuckoo before breakfast, but the Scots say that good fortune awaits you if you hear it while walking… In Hebrides it bodes ill to hear the cuckoo while hungry… In Cornwall a cuckoo heard on one’s right was lucky, and in Ireland a cuckoo on one’s left was unlucky…

If we’re honest, the same types of practices occur in the 21st century. Why am I so committed to not step on sidewalk cracks during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament? Because if I do, my team will lose. Why do we avoid saying certain things out loud? Because we might jinx ourselves. We can rationalize about “sticks and stones” but the truth of the matter is that words are powerful. They reveal a subordinate reality that cannot be undone once spoken. In ancient times, Jews believed words held a tremendous amount of power — unsafe when handled wrongly, unpredictable even when handled rightly — and that belief still holds true in us today.

Whether or not we care to admit it, the most important parts of our lives are ruled by what exists beyond our realm of knowledge. Francois de La Rochefoucauld articulated it well when he said, “True love is like seeing ghosts: we all talk about it, but few of us have ever seen one.” Be it love or specters, it’s easy to scoff at the idea of a higher power until you actually experience it. Thankfully, the Christian faith allows room for the limits of the human mind. Jesus doesn’t ask us to know, but to believe. Faith is “the assurance of what we hope for and the certainty of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). The Apostle Paul gives us full permission to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

When this truth is still too mysterious to wrap our minds around, we can still trust in the one who stepped out of the void and into our midst; the light that shines in the darkness; the Word made flesh who lived among us, whose glory we have seen. While baby monitors might only increase the fears of young, superstitious parents, Jesus can quell those fears once for all.