Thursday, January 27, 2011

Magic is not faith...

Hmm. Apparently I can keep quiet for a while. Well, here's a new post to break the silence. It's a bit of speculation I've been randomly considering recently. I am calling it: "Why magic is a poor analogy for faith".

I almost hate to write this because it's going to sound like I'm ragging on two people I greatly admire: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Let me say right now that I think both Christianity and humanity in general have been made richer by the lives of both of these fine writers, dreamers, and thinkers. I know that my faith has been challenged and encouraged deeply by them. Having said that, I think both authors are also responsible for a troubling tendency. Both have contributed to a commonly held religious analogy, namely, that of the Christian faith with a certain kind of 'magic'. This is, in my view, detrimental to faith, regardless of how articulate and poetic the analogy may be.

Don't misunderstand: this isn't a rant against the evil of 'magic' as a portal through which naive Christians may fall prey to the dark forces manipulating occult practices. That is not my target here. What I am concerned with is the false picture of God the 'analogy of magic' presents to us. Quite simply, to analogize God using the term magic gives the impression that God, or a relationship with God, is something like a cause and effect relationship. After all, magic is, in its most essential form, the attempt to cause an effect through some sort of spell, incantation, charm, etc. Magic involves starting with a goal and then attempting to bring about that goal.

But this is not the way our relationship with God works, at least not according to the tenets of the Christian faith. First, unlike magic, which seeks results, faith is the 'evidence of things unseen.' In other words, faith is not the attempt to prove God to ourselves, or to others, by way of some 'magical' proof that leaves people awestruck. Believe me, that would be nice. I struggle with faith most often when I don't see results. But unfortunately, God isn't primarily concerned with my desire for results.

People may be awestruck by God, but it won't be due to anything we have done to 'conjure up' God's awesomeness. It will be because God has decided to reveal Godself. There is no formula to faith. We cannot expect that if we say the right words, or have the right concoction of worship, prayer, piety, and/or good deeds, that God will feel obligated to respond according to our expectations.

But, what about prayer? Isn't prayer the attempt to change things, using the power of God? Isn't that sort of like magic? If this is what prayer actually is, then yes. But such a view reveals a quite limited, and ultimately pagan, rather than Christian, view of prayer. Prayer for the Christian is never about trying to 'get something' from God. Yes, we do pray for our needs, and offer petitions, but these are always supposed to be from within a context that begins by acknowledging God's absolute transcendence and holiness. This means that our expectations must be checked at the door, because faith is never about us, but always about God.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from the confusion, found in both Chesterton and Lewis, between the fantastic and the magical. The fantastic, I suggest, draws from myths and stories of other worlds interacting with our world, of elves and fairies and talking animals and wardrobes that open to these other worlds. But notice that even in Lewis' most well-known tale, magic is primarily the tool of the white witch. Aslan never really does any magic, per se. Instead, his presence serves to undo the effects of magic. Of course, Aslan does speak of the 'older magic', and this is part of the confusion.

Now, admittedly, there are passages in the Bible that seem to indicate otherwise. We have verses that for all intents and purposes tell us that if we do X, then God will do Y. But I would submit that a deeper reading of Scripture that takes into account context and layers of meaning will encourage us not to view the Bible in such a formulaic light. Of course, there is much more that could be said here. But I think I will stop for now, and see if anyone else wants to add more by way of comments.

Good night! (Or day, wherever you may be)


BenMc said...

Don't forget Tolkien. I was always a little disappointed as a kid that Gandalf didn't do more "magic." The most obviously magical creatures in Lord of the Rings are also the most evil (balrogs, uruk-hai, etc.). In Tolkien's story the real magic is the friendship and courage of two little hobbits sneaking in to Mordor, and the key is their ability NOT to use the magical ring.

Geoff said...

Hi Ben, that's actually one reason I didn't include Tolkien... he seems to be interested in looking at the fantastic without reducing it to magic. Also, though, I think I remember he once said that his story was not meant to be an allegory for Christianity, so that makes me feel less inclined to worry about Tolkien's work. But your point remains valid! :-)