h1

Magic?

September 21, 2007

By Steve M.

I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been very skeptical of “real” magic, by which I mean magic that purports to be authentic (not the stuff done by entertainers in Las Vegas). Sometimes I hear or read about experiences and stories that are downright bizarre and seemingly inexplicable, but I normally don’t give them much credit. In my mind, I relegate these accounts to the same bin as UFO sightings and horoscopes. And besides, the world has always been full of mysteries. To so readily attribute strange phenomena to supernatural forces is unreasonable, in my opinion. I mean, 200 years ago, cell phones would have seemed magical, but they’re quite ordinary and unremarkable in today’s world. What we don’t understand today may be common knowledge tomorrow. At best, I view magic as an attempt to explain the complex world in which we live and influence it by means of some unseen, supernatural power. But on most days, I suspect that it’s totally fake.

As smug as I am in my skepticism, the problem I run into is that many of the same criticisms can be leveled at religion. What makes Christianity or Mormonism or Islam any more credible than magic? Don’t we also try to interpret the world around us in supernatural terms? The Bible is full of explanations of so-called “mysteries” on which modern science has cast much light (such as how the earth was created and where people came from). Even today, the plethora of faith-promoting rumors in our own church suggests just how much we want to see the supernatural in the world around us.

And don’t we try to influence the world around us by supernatural means as well? How much more legitimate is a priesthood blessing or prayer than some magic ritual? Or even a palm-reading, for that matter? I suppose we may not be so different from (or superior to) those who believe in or practice magic.

So what justifies believing in religion while rejecting magic as illegitimate or wrong? It would be difficult to prove that prayer or garment-wearing or any of our peculiar practices actually draw upon unseen powers more effectively than magic. And to simply attribute magicians’ power (if they do have any) to Satan while claiming our own miracles as coming from God is, in my opinion, a cop-out. It’s an arbitrary and circular assertion. It also assumes that magic and religion are always distinct from one another. Joseph Smith’s early years suggest that such a clear distinction hasn’t always existed.

All this seems to suggest that 1) perhaps the religious aren’t justified in their skepticism of or disdain for magic; and 2) as long as we’re going to subject magic to such strict scrutiny and skepticism, we should probably be willing to give our own beliefs the same treatment. At the very least, we should refrain from immediately judging others beliefs concerning the supernatural, even if they seem strange to us. And maybe we should use more discretion in deciding what we attribute to God, the Spirit, faith, or some other religious force. This isn’t to discourage the counting of blessings or the thanking of God for them, or to suggest that God isn’t intimately involved in our lives. I’m only saying that, in light of the similarities between our religion and less-traditional systems (such as magic), and the skepticism or disdain with which we tend to treat those systems, maybe we ought to keep in mind our own susceptibility to naiveté and irrationality when considering our religious experiences, practices, and beliefs.

[Edited to add (for the sake of clarity): At the beginning of the last paragraph, this is what I was getting at–

Inasmuch as the religious do not apply the same standard of scrutiny to their own belief systems as they do to magic, they are not justified in their disdain for and skepticism of it. It is not fair to apply one standard of skepticism to one religion or belief system while refusing to apply the same standard to one’s own faith. Additionally, a recognition of the similarities between our religion and less traditional systems, particularly ones that we may view as strange (like magic), should encourage us to both refrain from unfair judgment of others and admit that many of the same criticisms can be made of our own faith.]

Advertisements

23 comments

  1. Hm. I don’t tend to think it’s as simple as you make it sound. Although there may be similarities, I do think there are significant differences, the main difference being that the Holy Ghost can testify of God’s power and can help keep us from being irrational or naive or deceived. As subtle a difference as that may appear to be from the outside (after all, both are supernatural, right?), I think it’s significant. I just don’t think that magic that has no basis in Christ or or the Spirit and God’s actual power and involvement can or should be subjected to the same scrutiny or exposed to the same risk of irrationality. The more experience we have with recognizing light, the bigger the gap between the two will be, imo.


  2. “Holy Ghost can testify of God’s power and can help keep us from being irrational”

    It can, that’s true. But it can also testify of God’s power and keep us from being overly rational as well. What I mean to say is that I don’t think it’s accurate to equate the spirit with rationality. We believe in a lot of things that aren’t rational precisely because of the spirit.

    But I think you make a good point—that the crucial difference between religion/priesthood and magic/other supernatural powers ought to be determined by turning to the Holy Ghost.


  3. I would say the biggest difference is that in my experience, without exception, practitioners of magic do so for their own purposes and their own benefit. Even those that use magic in a seemingly beneficent manner are usually doing so to procure honor and glory for themselves.

    The Priesthood of God and gifts of the Spirit, however, are always outwardly oriented. If you are not using the priesthood or the spirit in this manner, you are not truly using it.

    There is nothing mysterious or fascinating about so-called real magic. Harry Potter may make it seem incredible and mysterious, but the reality is much more mundane. It is, like so many other things, merely an empty shell to mimic the true powers we have as God’s children.


  4. I should admit that I don’t have extensive experience with magic practitioners, but I think we should be careful not to overgeneralize about any particular group of people, no matter how strange, or even how bad, we might consider them.

    Despite superficial differences, I think many of our rituals and beliefs may be motivated by desires similar to those motivating magic practice. On this level, is a sick person calling for a voodoo healer in an African tribe terribly different from a sick person calling for priesthood brethren to administer a blessing? While I certainly don’t mean to challenge the legitimacy or reality of priesthood power, I think it would be rather arrogant to accuse the voodoo healer of being involved in some kind of Satanic or evil practice.

    It is, like so many other things, merely an empty shell to mimic the true powers we have as God’s children.

    I’m sorry, but this strikes me as the type of language that the post was meant to address. I don’t think it in any way denigrates one’s own beliefs to withhold judgment on those of others, or to recognize that, at least in some situations, those whose sincere beliefs and practices are radically different from our own may yet be able to tap into divine power.


  5. What I mean to say is that I don’t think it’s accurate to equate the spirit with rationality.

    I understand, and I think I agree. perhaps with a caveat.. I guess it all depends on what you call rational and why. Once you know that God is real and involved in your life, is it still irrational to seek Him and His help and to participate in rituals that you know are from Him? I know to the external world, it all doesn’t seem rational, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not. Again, it all depends on how you define rational. 🙂

    On this level, is a sick person calling for a voodoo healer in an African tribe terribly different from a sick person calling for priesthood brethren to administer a blessing?

    At this level, I think it all boils down to one’s heart. Might someone doing voodoo because s/he knows of nothing else but has a humble heart seeking for some ‘divine’ish power outside her/his own be more open to the Spirit when that opportunity arises than someone going through the motions in our own religion? I suspect that could happen, and probably does. And of course, we ought to be careful about judging anyone. But by the same token, I always get uncomfy with the idea that we should subject our spiritual experiences to ‘rational’ analysis, and that was more what I was responding to…although now I think that that may not have been what you were really getting at.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that there are practices out there that harness the power of Satan and we ought not hold those up in any way for fear of being judgmental. We ought to call a spade a spade (the practice), but realize that the people participating in them may not know what they are doing so won’t be held accountable in their ignorance. We can’t blame someone for looking for some supernatural help because that is what is built into us…that homing device will look for an outlet to plug into. The Lord will look at the heart of each person in the process of trying to fill that need, methinks.


  6. I also think it’s important to recognize that there are practices out there that harness the power of Satan and we ought not hold those up in any way for fear of being judgmental. We ought to call a spade a spade (the practice)

    This begs the question: What practices can we confidently say “harness the power of Satan”?


  7. Aha. Fair question indeed. I’m not gonna try to answer it. 🙂


  8. I do wonder, though, if this scripture could help us figure this out:

    “But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil….”

    Even if the people participating in supernatural activities that meet these criteria themselves aren’t evil in their hearts (they might be participating in ignorance or due to lack of options or whatever), perhaps we can know what is of the devil if it leads people to evil, denies Christ and doesn’t lead to serving God (and thus others).

    I really don’t know enough about magic and other supernatural activities to make that judgment, but that scripture came to mind, so….


  9. M&M,

    I think that scripture is a really good measure. Thanks for pointing it out.


  10. Well, stevem83, I suppose you would have a point about withholding judgment #4, were I not so intimately familiar with certain brands of “magic”. However, according to my experience (which is not small), I maintain that the powers that are tapped into through the use of magic are not of divine origin, no matter how innocent the practitioner’s intent. In order to qualify as magic, one must enter into it with intent for a specific result. One must also (if one is to actually access that magic) open oneself up to whatever esoteric powers happen to be closest and most willing to manipulate. That is a far cry from faith healing. Although faith healing can open the practitioner up to unhealthy influences, it is also possible to tap into true faith. Magic is not that way.

    M&M’s scripture is indeed the best way to discern. However, I would add the caution that sometimes it requires time for something to reveal its devilish nature. In my experience, the Spirit is always quick to answer the genuine seeker of truth with the realities of a power. If it is exciting, titillating or lends a feeling of euphoric power, it is not of God. If it is humbling, quieting and lends itself to a feeling of love to everyone and everything, it is of God. (Again, in my experience) Satan cannot successfully mock those feelings.


  11. However, according to my experience (which is not small), I maintain that the powers that are tapped into through the use of magic are not of divine origin, no matter how innocent the practitioner’s intent.

    While I cannot dispute your own personal experiences with magic (which appears to be broader than my own), I must point out that they are anecdotal. In the absence of other evidence and reasoning, I don’t believe that your experiences provide a sufficient basis for making the kinds of generalizations that you have made. But again, I can’t dispute your own experiences, and perhaps my feelings would be different if I had experiences similar to your own.

    However, I must ask: If all kinds of magic are of the devil, then how do we account for instances in which it overlaps with our religion? The Bible describes ancient holy men involved in magic practices. Joseph Smith was involved in magic in his early years. How are we to reconcile this with the assertion that magic is inherently of the devil?


  12. There is a difference between ‘folk magic’ (which everyone practices to a certain extent) and magic connected to religious ritual. If someone arranges their home to harness the power of feng shui (and not out of following the Tao), or uses the same lucky blue pen only when taking their law school exams, then they are participating in our shared folk magic than anything else. It would be tough to argue that such practices are inspired by the devil.


  13. I suppose, stevem83, that a lot depends on your definition of magic. What you are describing in the Bible and with Joseph Smith is given/commanded by God. You can curse someone with magic, true, but God can also curse someone. You can divine the future using several means in magic, yes, but God can also reveal the paths you should take. This is what I meant when I said that magic as I understand it is a copy of God’s power. For almost every ritual in magic, you can find a corresponding exercise of faith. However, the approach to magic is vastly different than the approach to accessing the power of faith, as I explained in my comments. Faith depends on a power stronger and wiser than the faithful one. Although faith can be misplaced in an entity or entities that are not God, the possibility exists to practice true faith. With magic, one seeks to gain control for him- or herself. Whether this is control of another’s emotions, of the future or of a supernatural being or power, the option of submitting yourself and the outcome to a higher being is nonexistent. That is most easily recognized when you sense the feelings I mentioned previously. I would guess that 90% of magic users are silly women who believe that the color of the candle determines a spell. Very few actually open themselves up to danger. Even fewer do so consciously. That is my experience.

    Though I suppose I’m approaching this from a less-than-typical angle, as I never discounted magic as a viable religious option.


  14. However, the approach to magic is vastly different than the approach to accessing the power of faith, as I explained in my comments.

    Really? Recall Joseph Smith’s early years (which I mentioned earlier). Joseph used almost the exact same means (and the exact same tool–a seer stone) to translate the Book of Mormon as he did to search for buried treasure. Using “peep stones” to search for lost treasure was quite a common practice in the magic culture of rural 19th century America, and so it may have seemed quite natural for Joseph to take the same approach to his early religious experiences of receiving revelations and translating the Book of Mormon. His approach to magic seems to have been quite similar to his approach to accessing the power of faith.

    I would guess that 90% of magic users are silly women who believe that the color of the candle determines a spell.

    ??

    My point is that if we can get past our stereotypes of less traditional systems as being inherently evil, then we may realize that, at least on some level, they seek to accomplish some of the same ends and answer some of the same questions that our religion seeks to address. And if you look at history, you’ll likely find that traditional religions have not always been so distinct from magic practices, even in our own religion. The goal is to resist the temptation to judge or to unthinkingly write these systems off as illegitimate, and to try to see them through more objective, understanding eyes (even if, in the end, you still disagree with the practitioners of these systems).


  15. His approach to magic seems to have been quite similar to his approach to accessing the power of faith.
    The spiritual approach, as explained in the sentences after the one you quoted.


  16. The spiritual approach, as explained in the sentences after the one you quoted.

    In your previous comments, you essentially precluded the possibility that magic could be a spiritual or faith-based practice. You said:

    I would say the biggest difference is that in my experience, without exception, practitioners of magic do so for their own purposes and their own benefit. (comment #3)

    I maintain that the powers that are tapped into through the use of magic are not of divine origin, no matter how innocent the practitioner’s intent. In order to qualify as magic, one must enter into it with intent for a specific result. One must also (if one is to actually access that magic) open oneself up to whatever esoteric powers happen to be closest and most willing to manipulate. (comment #10)

    And, again:

    However, the approach to magic is vastly different than the approach to accessing the power of faith, as I explained in my comments…. With magic…the option of submitting yourself and the outcome to a higher being is nonexistent. (comment #13)

    I certainly don’t mean to be contentious. But it appears that, in your previous comments, you sought to show that magic and faith-based practices tap into different powers, and that magic powers are not and cannot be “of divine origin.” To then say that Joseph’s approach to magic was a “spiritual approach” is to contradict your previous assertions, unless you are contending that Joseph did not really practice magic in the first place (and before reaching that conclusion, I would read Quinn’s book, which I linked to in comment #11).

    Additionally, I forgot to address this point you made in comment #15: What you are describing in the Bible and with Joseph Smith is given/commanded by God.

    While the translation of the Book of Mormon (using the seer stone) may have been commanded of God, I don’t think we can confidently say that his earlier treasure-hunting (also using the seer stone) was commanded of God. I’m not saying those exploits were wrong–I’m just don’t think they were commanded of God.


  17. Then let me clarify by saying “spiritual approach or lack thereof”. A spiritual approach or preparation does not have to be divine. A spirit is not intrinsically divine, as amply demonstrated by Satan and his minions. Does that make my meaning clearer for you?

    Well, Joseph’s use of a peepstone to find treasure wasn’t mainly what you were referring to as religiously-accepted, was it? That was before most of his spiritual learning and understanding. I thought you were referring to the God-sanctioned use of so-called magic. Perhaps the trouble arises in that I see a distinction between means to access power that are guided by God and those which are not. I don’t consider both to be magic, though it sounds as though you do.

    By magic, I mean the generally understood sorts of magic such as thaumaturgy, white magic, divination, ESP, black magic, blood/sex magic, demonology, shamanism and the like.


  18. Does that make my meaning clearer for you?

    Not terribly, to be honest. So when you originally said “spiritual approach” (comment #15), you meant spiritual as in having to do with spirits generally (including “Satan and his minions”), and not spiritual as it is generally used in the LDS context (where it is usually given a positive, “of God” connotation)? In any case, this tangent may not be worth pursuing.

    Well, Joseph’s use of a peepstone to find treasure wasn’t mainly what you were referring to as religiously-accepted, was it?

    In pointing to Joseph’s experience, I was referring to his early experience with magic generally. In my opinion, it is difficult to cleanly distinguish his dabbling in folk magic from some of his early religious experiences. Sometimes his magic had religious overtones but was not religious in purpose; likewise, some of his religious experiences were clearly influenced by the magic culture in which he had been raised.

    I tend to side with Bushman when it comes to assessing Joseph’s interest in magic–it can be seen as preparing him for his later spiritual experiences (bringing forth the Book of Mormon, etc.). In RSR, Bushman only scratches the surface in addressing the Smith family’s involvement in magic, but I think his theory is plausible if one accepts the idea that one who was involved in rituals and practices that would seem quite strange, mystical, and superstitious to most 21st century Mormons could still be a prophet. In order to accept that premise (which I see as necessary to reconciling Joseph’s early life with his later prophetic role), you have to abandon the idea that any and all forms of magic are Satanic.

    Perhaps the trouble arises in that I see a distinction between means to access power that are guided by God and those which are not. I don’t consider both to be magic, though it sounds as though you do.

    Based on this comment, I think you misinterpreted my original reference to Joseph’s life as having primarily to do with his magic-like but “God-sanctioned” practices. As I mentioned earlier, I was referring to his involvement with magic in general, which sometimes overlapped with religion. I more or less agree with the distinction you draw here–if some practice is “guided by God,” I wouldn’t tend to label it as “magic,” although (as our discussion has demonstrated) that term isn’t terribly precise.

    As stated in the original post, I am quite skeptical of most claims to magic power. However, I’m not about to say that it’s inherently evil or Satanic (that’s not to say that none of it is either). That’s too broad of a generalization, and doesn’t reflect serious study or thought on my part. I prefer to suspend judgment, recognize that on some level magic may be similar to our own religious rituals, and remain open to the possibility that magic may sometimes draw upon divine power, even if the ritual is not expressly religious. If the Prophet of the Restoration could spend his youth participating in magic, you have to at least allow for the possibility that it’s not all bad.

    Well, has this conversation run its course yet? At what point do we just agree to disagree about some things?


  19. The lesson I take from your blog is that before we criticize others for their beliefs in supernatural magic (whether thats voodoo, folk magic, etc.) we need to realize that many religious beliefs and practices (LDS and non-LDS) could also be viewed as a form of magic.

    I think the most Christ-like approach is to avoid being “puffed up” and not alienate others because they believe or practice magic that may seem akward or wrong to us. Do not put up a uneccesary wall between you and that person by resting on the position that what they are doing is of the devil.

    Isn’t it this very practice that makes our religion seem carnal and evil to the world?


  20. On the topic of Joseph Smith and magic I would sum up my feelings in this way –

    Historically speaking, Joseph Smith did have an interest in folk magic throughout his life.

    Those who are quick to discredit forms of magic as being evil need to be careful. They may be unknowingly condeming beliefs and practices of Joseph that prepared him to become the Prophet of the Restoration.

    This is not to say that we can’t come to our own conclusion that certain magic is uninspired, and even evil. But if we use these conclusions to look down and be critical of others we are not being Christians.


  21. Ahh – I think I understand what you are driving at.

    I suppose it would be best to say that I do condemn magic as evil because I don’t believe it can call down divine power. It would be like saying I believe it possible to make a cake by combining the right ingredients of talcum powder, mineral oil and egg. True, one of those ingredients go into a cake, and the other two look a lot like ingredients for a cake, but no combination of those things will get you a cake. That is what I have found in my experience with magic. Originally, of course, I did not “blanket condemn” magic, or I would not have had the experience I have had. However, though I agree that we shouldn’t condemn people who practice magic, and we should definitely understand others’ potential views on our rituals, I would never advocate someone giving magic enough benefit of the doubt to actually dabble in it. True, most people walk away unscathed, but there is a very real, very frightening danger that you won’t. So long as we do not open ourselves to the possibility of non-divine influence, we are safe. Once we do, whether we are doing so in ignorance or not, we forfeit that protection.


  22. SilverRain,

    Out of curiosity, are you of the position that all magic is evil or non-divine?

    Also, how do you define magic?


  23. Waiting for Zion,

    Well said!

    SilverRain,

    I think we might just have to agree to disagree on some things. Good discussion, though.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: