Holy but not magic. I wonder how often these two words get used interchangeably? Many of the street people I used to work with in NYC had been through a variety of 28 day gospel mission sobering up sessions where they learned that if they really and truly accepted Jesus as their personal savior their addictions would be cured and life would become good. Becoming a believing Christian held out the promise of a magical cure. Maybe that’s not exactly what was taught, but that’s what was learned. It was learned well. The carrot of Christ was always just a few steps ahead of them, always promised but seldom reached. That’s a dramatic image, but I see the same way of thinking and believing acted out in the words of ordinary every day Christians who imbue faith, the right kind of faith, with what can only be understood as magical powers. It creates several big problem for Christian evangelism.
First, it makes it very difficult to share the faith with a skeptical public that has little time for that sort of naïve childishness. Second, mere magic robs our faith of its “numinous mysterium, tremendum, fascinans”, replacing that with something more akin to professor Albus Dumbledore. Third, it tears to shreds the idea of miracle.
It has been said that modern humanity has lost its sense of enchantment. Perhaps, but the popularity of enchantment based entertainment tells me that modern humanity is hungry for it as long as it is rooted in human(ish) design and control. Skeptics may express disdain for the naïve magical thinking of some Christians, but that’s only because they put it on a par with their own magical pretending, which their pretended rational skepticism knows to be mere entertainment.
Christianity is not about magic. it is about the holy. It is about the unknowable God being made known through God’s self-revelation in the words of prophets and the flesh of Jesus Christ. It is about the ground of all being in love so pure that it frightens mere mortals. It is about that love pouring out and dwelling with humanity and all creation in ways that entice, seduce, inspire, draw and guide. It is about holy mystery that cannot be solved but only lived into. It is a mystery that draws us through our own time and place into God’s eternal time and place.
Christianity is also about miracles, and that’s where things get sticky. Magic is about the human mastery of nature such that it can be manipulated with a word or gesture. Miracle is about God engaging in the lives of human beings in wholly unexpected ways that can, and sometimes do, violate what we think we know about the “laws of nature.” Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be some Christians who believe, and practices that declare, that God can be induced to produce a miracle through the right kind of faithful prayer or ritual. That’s magical thinking and it’s wrong. The power of God to enter into our lives in miraculous ways cannot be limited, nor can it be manipulated. It can be faithfully and hopefully requested but not induced. My own experience is that God most often works through subtle guidance and coincidence. Your experience may be different. In any case, keeping magic and miracle separated by a goodly distance is serious business.
As Christians we are about the holy not the magical.