A Kansas City Royals fan puts his lucky hat on the couch, five minutes before the first pitch – and it must be facing south. Another drinks only one kind of beer on game days. Still another watches a different sport – say, soccer – rather than the game, to avoid jinxing his team.
Magical thinking can be seen across cultures, in remote tribal groups as well as in highly developed western societies. We’d like to think that we Americans haven’t fallen under the spell, but the World Series proves otherwise.
But magical thinking does not end when the last pitch is thrown, nor is it limited to the ball park. Much of what passes as religious observation exhibits a connection to magical thinking. Of course that charge has been made before and made often by critics of religious faith, but I am making it as a practicing Christian.
Critics see religion as the evolutionary heir of magical thinking. The ancients tried to control their destiny by participating in sacrifices and magical rites and by paying careful attention to omens. A shooting star was a sign that it was time to move. Twelve white swans foretold the safe conclusion of a journey. Such practices, they say, were precursors to fingering beads and lighting candles.
I do not know enough about other religions to speak authoritatively about them (and do not presume to speak authoritatively on behalf of other Christians, either) but it seems to me that, when it comes to Christianity, the critics are mistaken. It would be easier to make the case that magic’s heir is not religion (at least not Judaism or Christianity) but science.
Science? Yes. One of the objectives of the modern scientific enterprise is to exercise control over our circumstances. Magicians used potions and spells to this end, while science attempts to do the same thing with molecular engineering and equations. Science is of course much better at achieving its objectives (for which we are truly grateful), but the goal of manipulating reality through the application of a set of currently held principles is very similar.
Magic and (to some degree) science are about control. Christianity is about submission. The Christian, following Jesus, says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But the scientist, following the magician, says, “No, I think I’d rather my will be done.”
This is not to say that Christians are free of magical thinking. Frankly, they engage in it every time they treat prayer like an incantation – say the right words in the right order and in the right tone, and you’ll get what you ask for. But the point is, when Christians do so, they are not acting like Christians. They’re acting like pagans.
Some Christians treat the Bible as if it were a magic book, looking for secret codes or hidden meanings. Even their approach to the Bible betrays a magical mindset: “I will close my eyes, open the book randomly, put my finger on a verse, and whatever it says will be God’s will for me.” Can God use this silliness? Sure. He’s God. But it is still magical thinking.
The magical approach to religion betrays a serious misunderstanding of the way things work, the way God works, and the meaning of Christian faith. The Bible teaches that the power that is at work in a Christian’s life is personal power. It does not reside in the words spoken or the ritual performed, but in a personal God. This God wants to communicate with his creatures. He’s not playing trick or treat. He does not hide his message in esoteric symbols or secret codes. It is not magic.
It is with good reason that the Jewish and Christian scriptures strongly prohibit the practice of magic. It is totally inconsistent with the submission to God and love for others that constitutes the good life. The people who lived this kind of life – Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and a host of others who followed them – had nothing to do with superstition or magic. They operated out of faith in a personal God on the basis of his word to them.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/1/14