The “Sacramental Imagination” — and Superheros

Catholics use the language of “sacrament” very frequently. We are a sacramental people, with a sacramental imagination.  But what exactly that means is something that it can take a long time to understand.

Sometimes, it can sound to others like a kind of magical thinking, or like a kind of generalized appreciation for the beauty of the world.  But these aren’t quite right.  Let me try and clarify what the Sacramental Imagination means by contrasting it to two other ways of seeing the world, which I’ll call “The Superhero Imagination” and “The Deist Imagination”  In this post, I’ll describe what I mean by the first two, and next week, I’ll come back to reflect on how the sacramental imagination is different.


The Superhero is a modern god.  All of our Marvel or DC movies and TV shows operate within the logic of classical polytheism. Think for a moment about how Zeus, or Thor, or Superman operate in the world:

These characters are clearly part of the world.  They are involved in cause & effect relationships, whether we’re talking about Superman stopping speeding trains, or Thor wielding his hammer against a villain, or Zeus fathering children with mortals. They are also affected by the world; Superman loses his powers in the presence of kryptonite, Zeus’s emotions are affected by mortal actions; etc. Because space implies time, being part of the world means being changeable.  Superman might become a villain. Thor might cut his hair or lose (or regain) an eye.  Zeus gets angry and gets over it.

These gods / superheroes are part of the world.

Moreover, these gods/superheroes affect the world around them by leaving pieces of their power behind, whether we mean Zeus’s super-human children, or Thor’s hammer, which might be stolen by the right person. In such a universe, then the divine is part of a technological kind of reasoning in which we can seek power and control by manipulating the world. Our protagonist is always on a quest to collect the proper people, artifacts, and rituals in order to wield them at the proper time to effect a desired (although always limited) effect.  The story continues beyond any particular engagement, bringing new battles for power and control.

In such a world, ritual is really magic.  It is the means by which the powers of the world are controlled for particular results. How we make things happen in a messy world. You need to find the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son, and travel with him to a particular thin place in the world to find the talisman which allows you to pass through the veil to find the technology that allows you to achieve your desired result.

The Deist World

There’s another narrative world that we carry around, which I’ll call the “the Deist Imagination” (though I’m less happy with that title.) Here, the world’s beginnings may be a question of speculation or disinterest (God might have made the world / or it might be an eternal thing itself / or it might be an accident / or something else). If God exists, he is absolutely separate from the creation and does not interact with it. But the world is accepted as a coherent whole on its own — or all that can be known to any useful certainty.

In this world, meaning is flattened to either a kind of “what we make of it” or “what we impose on it.”  Ritual might be useful for us, but only because of our own need for beauty and meaning.  Our engagements with the world might operate on two levels: a level of technology and a level of beauty. Beauty might be recognized in order, or in complexity. But it doesn’t really point beyond itself in any meaningful way, except —perhaps— to us. What we derive from beauty or from ritual, is a kind of feeling of transcendence that’s good for us.  But that’s as far as it goes.

Clearly, neither the superhero imagination, nor the deist one is sufficient to the Catholic engagement with the sacraments.  And yet, they’re both tempting. We want to view the liturgy as a beautiful experience from which we derive inspiration, or a sense of the sacred, or which reminds us of the divine in all things.  This isn’t enough. 

Nor should we let ourselves be drawn into the Superhero universe.  The sacraments aren’t special matter with special properties that let us control the world using God’s power. That would be magic.

Next time…

So, what are sacraments? What is this “sacramental imagination” that we like to talk about?  Tune in Next Week – Same Sacramental Time, Same Sacramental Channel.

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