Relics are easy to criticize. As Antonio Lambatti points in in a recent post, some people do really goofy things in the name of venerating relics. (Anyone want a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like Jesus?) Such abuses, and their corresponding critiques, have been around for a very long time. The question is…why. Setting aside the question of whether there are true relics, why is the need/desire for relics so powerful that many people will participate in practices that seem (to many at least) rather absurd.
Lambatti offers the assessment that relics manifest a tendency to objectify the divine. People venerate relics out of a “need to see, to turn their idea of the divine into an object which is here with us on Earth.” And, I’m sure there is some truth to that. And, I wonder if the desire to objectify God doesn’t manifest an even deeper desire to control God’s presence so that he can be more reliably experienced. Rather than a spirit who blows where and when he wills, we have God’s presence infused into a physical object where he can be reliably encountered. I saw this dynamic at work when I was traveling in Israel. Many of the students I was traveling with were frustrated that they did not “experience” God the way that they expected when they visited certain holy sites. It’s as though they believed that these sites had been permanently infused with the divine presence such that they could expect to meet him there. They wanted a more predictable God. Now, certainly God can choose to offer a special manifestation of his presence in particular places (e.g. the temple) or things (e.g. the ark). But, that does not mean that either of these becomes a permanent locus of divine presence (note God’s presence leaving the temple) unless God covenants that it be so (e.g. communion). If I’m right, there may be a sense in which the use (and abuse) of relics has more to do with our desire to possess, and therefore control, God’s presence.
Reflecting on this a bit more, I wonder if the abuse of relics also suggests a failure to appreciate our own bodies, and consequently, the embodied nature of the church itself. People find in relics a tangible, physical expression of the divine, failing to realize that the primary locus of God’s presence in the world has always been in and through his embodied people – his “images” in the world (Adam and Eve, Israel, the Church, the eschatological people of God). That means that if we are looking for a tangible, physical point of connection for worship, we should look first to ourselves and to each other as embodied beings. Indeed, I wonder if the emphasis on relics isn’t a way of distancing ourselves from our own role as God’s images in the world. Rather than facing directly the awesome honor and responsibility that it is to be God’s physical image (i.e. idol) in the world, we can project at least some of that burden onto some other object and make that the tangible point of connection with the divine.
None of this is to say that we should denigrate the role of the physical in worship. I completely affirm that we are physical beings and that we can, indeed must, express ourselves physically in worship. And I greatly appreciate the renewed emphasis on physical worship that you find in some branches of evangelicalism. Done well, that could be a great way to deepen evangelical worship. But, if popular abuses of relics do indicate a strong tendency that humans in gneral have toward trying to control the divine presence and/or distancing ourselves from our own role in imaging God, then we would be wise to be mindful of these concerns as we deveop our own forms of physical worship.