After the character of Samuel is introduced, the Israelites misuse the ark of the covenant, assuming that they could manipulate their god into serving them in battle if they were carrying his throne with them. Eli's sons, who abused their positions of power, died. The ark was captured by Israel's enemies. When he heard the news, Eli himself fell and perished. In foreign lands, the ark went on merry adventures, creating chaos among Israel's enemies until it was returned with gifts. The ark still put people to death if they looked at it, so this relic's power didn't really favor the Israelites even when it was back on home turf. Finally, Samuel directs the Israelites to put aside the foreign idols they had begun to revere, and he conducts a religious ceremony involving a ritual sacrifice. After this, the Israelite god beats back the Philistine threat and Israel has peace for a time.
It is a rather primitive mindset that assumes that a god can be carried around and persuaded because his "throne" can be transported wherever the people want him to be. And yet, we still enjoy stories about magical artifacts and items that hold great power, whether its the lost ark of the covenant or the trappings of a school for wizards. Magic is cool. Magic is intriguing. Somewhere inside us, we like the idea of things that will give us access to power or abilities that we don't possess all on our own.
The story of the ark's adventures reminds any who believe in God that believers cannot manipulate God into doing what they want him to do. God doesn't choose sides in a battle based on the geographic location of his throne. He doesn't pop out like a jack-in-the-box whenever the right magical formula is recited. Unfortunately, the biblical narrative goes on to suggest that the god of the Israelites can be manipulated if people demonstrate a bit of loyalty and give him blood. The Israelites eventually got their god to defeat their enemies, they just had to get the magical recipe right.
The divine doesn't inhabit fancy boxes or thrones any more than it inhabits magic wands or cauldrons. We don't need to recite the proper words or kill the right animals in order to convince the divine to help us and hinder others. One of the most disappointing things about the biblical narrative that so many have come to accept as truth is that God is portrayed as choosing sides, often arbitrarily. Some people walk away with the impression that the Christian God can be "for" them and "against" other people, like the fickle Greek gods of Homer. It is as if some people's prayers are more worthy of God's attention than other people's prayers. And if this is the case, then we arrive back at the assumption that God can be manipulated into doing what people want, as long as they do the right things to convince him.
There is certainly meaning in ritual. Ritual can help remind us
of our place in history, our values, our identities within the larger
pool of humanity. And when we focus our energy toward a specific
intentional purpose in ritual, we can tap into our inherent creativity
and capability quite powerfully. We can also use ritual to cement our
fears and beliefs about our own weakness in place, reinforcing the idea
that we are incapable of living without some supernatural intelligence
working on our behalf. Ritual simply reinforces what we believe, and as
such it can be a powerful tool. It's important to recognize what
beliefs we are reinforcing when we engage in ritual, though.
Magical arks, magic lamps, magic wands, magic mirrors, and magic altars are fictions. The concept of reciting the proper words and performing the right physical actions to work magic spells, or prayers as it were, reflects a primitive desire to call upon something more powerful than ourselves to do something for us. Most often this also involves working against someone else in order to get what we want. It's the spiritual version of carrying a gun around. Except that if we are able to manipulate God into doing something, then we think our hands and consciences are clean because whatever happens is God's will.
And yet, it is very honest to say that we often feel weak and incapable of confronting the challenges we face in life all on our own. It can be a great comfort to think that something bigger and more powerful than us is on our side, standing against any people or circumstances that seem threatening to us. We have bought into an identity of powerlessness, convinced of our smallness in a world of big dangers. This is nothing more than fear gaining control of our thoughts, creating a perception of the world in which we need something superhuman to help us survive.
The truth is that we do not need to be more powerful than other people. We do not need any magical trinkets or magical formulas in order to manipulate an external power to work on our behalf. What we need is within us and in the connections we have with other people. We already have access to all the real power we could ever need. It isn't a power that will grant our every superficial wish, but we have the power to be personally responsible for our lives. The more we build our connection with our deepest, most noble selves and our connections with other people, the more we see the real spiritual power available to us. We have the power to create, to nurture, to inspire, to heal -- the power to set aside self-centered fears and be present in the world.
This personal capability can be difficult to see through the belief that we are small and powerless. When we believe that we need some sort of magical accoutrements to call upon some power outside of ourselves, we are essentially believing in our own weakness -- and that weakness is inherent in humanity. Believing that we are weak gives us an excuse to be less than our most noble selves, and to expect the same from others. But we are not weak. We are not powerless. Sure, we need one another. We benefit from relationship. This is a source of strength, not a sign of incapability. We are capable of forging meaningful connection with ourselves and other people, but in order to do so, we must set aside the self-deprecating fears and beliefs that convince us of our own weakness.