Observations of Magic in Western Religion

September 25, 2007

My knowledge on neopagan ideas is limited to… well, to almost nothing. But since this became the topic for this months synchroblog, I decided to post some thoughts, or rather, some observations. These are things I have been observing in the past few months, and I think they get confirmed from time to time.

When talking about magic I’m working with a definition coming down to something like this: Magic is an attempt to manipulate spiritual forces, while religion is a surrender to spiritual forces.

In this definition one of the “purest” forms of religion would probably be Calvin on predestination. You can do nothing but surrender to God, and even the fact that you can surrender to God is pure grace, and only the those chosen by God can surrender to God. Although, I wouldn’t say that this is the possible theology which does not end up in a manipulation of God. But my observations are rather with the opposite: Where Western Christians are actually quite comfortable with ideas of magic.

Think of the Sunday school teacher that told you that your prayers won’t be answered if you don’t add “in the name of Jesus, Amen”, at the end. I remember people sharing similar ideas when I was a kid. In many cases this is no more than an attempt to win the favor of their deity.

Some of the most classic observations is those associated with the “sinner’s prayer”. In it’s most extreme form a certain wording of the sinners prayer would become prerequisite for being saved from hell and get to heaven. Wording your prayer in the wrong way, would ultimately end up in you not being saved. Kind of like we should trick God into having to do something God don’t really want to do, but since we know the magic words God is compelled to act. In a softer form the idea that some form of sinners prayer must be prayed usually comes down to the same thing.

What about the popular believe that if I give a lot of money to the church or whatever organization God will give a lot of money back to me? Or the believe that if life is treating me badly then I must have done something wrong, and changing this something wrong would make things right. Again, manipulating some spiritual forces to make my own life better. Or the believe that more prayer would yield better results, or prayer by a certain person with healing powers that would manipulate God into giving results? Or that enough faith would cause God to heal me?

Maybe I’m making a caricature of Western Christianity, and yes, many of you would know Christians who do not fit these observations. But many of you might have made similar observations. Maybe you can share some of them…

12 Responses to “Observations of Magic in Western Religion”

  1. sonja Says:

    LOL … Cobus, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve often observed that many of our prayers sound like incantations. We simply end them with “… in Jesus name, Amen.” and then think we’ve said a prayer instead of magic.

  2. Jarred Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your initial definition of magic, but I found the rest of your thoughts rather interesting.

  3. arthur Says:

    good stuff cobus. when i was in seminary, i learned that “one of the things that separated the Israelit religion from that of many of their neighbors was their rejection of magic.” their worldview did not allow for a-moral power out there that could be manipulated. power always has a source – good or bad. this all made sense in the north/west, where that just so happens to be the worldviw of most people. interesting that thier worldview matched up with the “biblical” one.

    of course, you know that here (and most of the world?) people’s worldview does indeed hold to power out there that is accessible. so, ja, magic is the manipulation of that.

    AND I totally agree that many Christians, truth be told, believe in it too. We believe that saying certain formulas ensures the answers to our prayers. We believe wearing or displaying certain symbols protect us from evil. We go to priests/pastors to pray because their prayers hold special power.

    In a way, it’s also our attempt to understand and control the things of God. We want cause and effect. We want results. Magic (of all religions) attempts to provide that.

  4. cobus Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with my definition of magic either:-) Actually just been making some observations, the definition I found a few days ago in a book somewhere. But as I said, I don’t really know anything on the topic:-). Thanx for the comments!

  5. […] Observations of Magic in Western Religion (my contemplations) […]

  6. Erin Says:

    Interesting thought about the sinner’s prayer being like magic…it’s so true that it sometimes is viewed that way…and the fascinating aspect is that so often this “magic” prayer doesn’t really “do” anything…no real change is evidenced.

    Good thoughts.

  7. Rev Sam Says:

    Ah yes – I DO pretty much agree with your definition of magic; I think it underlies much scientific endeavour; and I very much endorse the idea that magic in that sense is rife within the Christian community. I call it the ‘Abracadabra theory of salvation’….

  8. […] September 26, 2007 at 12:09 pm · Filed under Magic, Question, Religion Rather than introduce this blog to you, let’s just hop into something interesting. Is the version of Christianity you are familiar with more like magic or religion according to this blogger’s definition? […]

  9. MikeCamel Says:

    Hmm – thoughtful, good stuff. I’ve got some preaching material here: thanks very much!

  10. Andy Ternay Says:

    While I very much enjoyed the post I’d have to assert strongly that the definition of magic you used would not be an appropriate descriptor of the practice of magic found in many modern Pagan faiths. If you are curious to find out how at least some (primarily Wiccan) Pagans define magic and use it, I would invite you to read my post on the synchroblog at Street Prophets.

  11. Suzanne Says:

    Thanks, Cobus, for some very thought provoking stuff. Could you not also conclude, then, that baptism is like magick in that we try to “trick” God into saving a soul when we perform the correct ritual of dripping water on a baby’s head?

  12. cobus Says:

    I could really see that baptism can be approached as a kind of magic, in the definition I used above, will still check out the other definitions, but there is other ways of seeing baptism as well. There has been some research on baptism as entrance ritual into alternate realities, but I know very little about that as well.

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