Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jesus is Magic?

I keep a lot of different folks on my Google Reader list from a lot of different perspectives - people that I think offer the most intelligent examples I have found for a particular niche I am interested in.

One of those sites is Common Sense Atheist. Occasionally, those places put things up that make me question why I keep them on my list. Luke just posted one of those: "Jesus is Magic".

Admittedly, up to now I haven't had a real sense of why belief in a Creator God and belief in magic are not the same; and Luke gave me the opportunity to get this defined for myself.

First, I will use Luke's definition of magic:

  1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.

    1. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.
    2. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.

Luke makes no argument from that definition - he just states it and then assumes his case is made
So do Christians, Muslims, Hindus, other religious believers,1 new agers, indigenous believers, and shamans believe in magic? [no overreaching generalities there]

Yes. Yes they do.

And then goes straight to the "Bulverism":
Believers: Jesus is magic. Have the balls to admit it.
My response in the comments there [with some alteration in the translation]:
Actually, you have supported my position that Christianity is not based on magic - at least as it is understood theologically.
The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
What example would you give of an art used to forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural within orthodox Christianity - especially since it is explicitly warned against in scripture

The core of the definition is about witchcraft, or neo-Paganism, and the idea that the natural world can be controlled by use of spirits in that world. The idea that spirits occupy the natural world, and that world can be controlled by controlling those spirits is pantheism, or panentheism, and not theism. Certainly this is not part of any orthodox Christian teaching -- again, it is warned against.

Even if you want to say that Christians believe that there are (or can be) supernatural causes to natural events (I will grant that) - then your definition would say those folks have to believe that they can forecast and/or control those events by invoking the supernatural. That is expressly what is warned about in the passages linked above. I would have to say that it is not warned against because it is a hoax -- it is warned against because the ruler of this world is Satan. Any spiritual beings that would allow someone to predict or control natural events would be a being of this world; and that being would come under the auspices of the ruler of this world. Not good for a Christian to invoke.

If I invoke Jesus to control something (prayer) it is not to control a natural event, but to either give me supernatural power to control my actions, or perhaps intervene in the lives of others -- or asking for that power to protect me not from natural events but other supernatural "powers and principalities". The latter is obviously not included in your definition (I am not attempting to invoke the supernatural to control something natural); and the former is based on the general Christian belief that humans were created separate from, and distinct from, the natural world. As CS Lewis said, when you look at a human being you are looking at an eternal creature - a physical being with a spiritual/eternal nature. Prayer to control my natural self is aimed at - again - the supernatural part of me and not the natural part. Prayer to help others is aimed at God motivating the supernatural part of someone else to cause its physical self to step in and involve themselves in the life of the object of the prayer. Again, outside the definition you have given of magic.

And, by your definition, even if a Christian out there attempts to invoke Jesus (and not the spirits of this world) to control or predict natural events (I am sure some do) then Jesus isn't magic by your definition - He is the supernatural force being invoked and not the person practicing the magic. And, of course, if the person actually succeeds in controlling or predicting natural events in this manner I have no reason to believe that it was actually Jesus or God that responded to the request.

You are usually much better than this. Perhaps you should have the cahones admit that you know that theism is not pantheism -- and that you intentionally use the word magic to demean theists when you know it doesnt apply.

Or, if your balls are not really applicable - how about using your common sense and intelligence.

The interesting thing about this is that I am sure atheists at the site will find all sorts of examples of Christians that invoke the supernatural to control the natural: snake handlers may come up, perhaps Benny Hinn and faith healers. In the latter case, I expect Benny would say faith healing only works if the disease has a (evil)spiritual source - although the few times I have glanced at his gig I do not see that distinction made.

So, what should we orthodox Christian theists think when Christians invoke God to control or predict natural events? Is that indeed magic? If it works, do you think God is the supernatural being that makes it work? Is this what is warned about in the scriptural admonitions against magic?


  1. At Luke's site there was a great comment (I wished I had mentioned it :) )

    Conor Gilliland: If you’re talking about the Christian’s use of prayer, orthodoxy would maintain that God’s response to prayer is entirely according to his will. The petitioner has no more control over God’s response than she has control over gravity. Quite the opposite of magic, the Christian gives up control in prayer, where the magician takes control.  
    If you’re talking about Christ himself, the Christian doesn’t believe that Jesus “invoked” the supernatural as magic would require. The Christian believes that he WAS the supernatural. One of the main points of the Gospel was to show that Jesus came with the authority of the Father (the supernatural), and was in fact ONE with the Father (the supernatural). For Jesus to use magic he would have had to be totally distinct from the Father.

  2. I think Luke was trying to show that anyone who believed in the existence of the supernatural believed, by definition, in magic.  That is to say, I think he was equating the supernatural with magic.  Charitably, I interpreted his post this way, for of course a theist will affirm that the supernatural can and does control events in the natural realm.  Your points are well taken though on the "core" portion of the definition, which is probably the common understanding of the term in today's culture.

    The point also remains that if the supernatural is magic by definition, this is not an argument for atheism or against theism.

    Nice blog.

  3. Thanks for the compliment.

    My problem is that atheists use "magic" (IMO knowingly) as a perjorative - and then Luke tries to give cover to the word. Obviously, we believe in the supernatural - but theism is distinguished from pantheism and panentheism (the theological basis of neo-Paganism) by our belief that, as Conor said, that God acts on his own behalf and is not wielded as a tool of power by us.

    I do appreciate Luke's definition of magic though - it certainly draws a sharp line between magicians and orthodox Christianity

  4. Conor Gilliland11/22/2009 9:55 PM


    I don't mind you using my comment.  Glad to see you out there.



How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly