Magic Or Miracle?
(June 29, 2014, Kobe Union Church)
A few years ago, when I was in the U.S. for a short time, I was listening to a talk radio station as I was driving somewhere. The topic happened to be about the role of culture in determining how various societies accept progress (as defined by technological advance). The guest was talking about cultures such as are common in Africa and the Caribbean where magic (such as is seen in voodoo) is common. The talk show host made a comment about this to the effect that magic is in the eye of the beholder. He wondered what the difference was between that and what Christians understood about Jesus being the Son of God who was raised from the dead. To this talk-show host, that seemed to be just another form of magic essentially on the same level as voodoo.
Unfortunately, the talk show guest didn’t even address this particular part of his question. I would have loved to have been able to call in to the show and put in my “2-bits” about the real difference between the two. But I didn’t have a cell phone, and so I had to let that opportunity go by. I’ve had plenty of time to think about that question, however, and so I won’t let this opportunity slip by as well. This is an important topic to discuss, because having a clear understanding of the difference between the two is vital to having a healthy faith.
So, what is the difference between magic and miracle? First of all, we need to define our terms — something that is often lacking in the discussion of numerous topics today. What do we mean by the term “magic?” And what do we mean when we call something a “miracle?” It was obvious to me that this talk-show host didn’t have clear definitions in mind. To him, they were basically the same, and so he couldn’t see the vast difference there is between the miracles of Jesus and the magic of such phenomena as voodoo.
First of all, let’s take a look at the term “magic.” We use this term in two completely different ways. As some of you know, I can do a few magic tricks that actually do baffle most people. Nothing like our own Magic Ed, of course, but it’s a lot of fun, and with a little practice, such tricks aren’t that difficult to do. They all involve some slight-of-hand or mechanisms of illusion, and thus are not really “magic” in the sense we’re using the term here. I recall seeing an NHK program that showed several really impressive illusion tricks well-known magicians perform, and then it showed exactly how the tricks were done. Some of the techniques were so ridiculously simple, that with the right equipment, anyone could do them with only minimal practice. And yet if you didn’t know how they were done, they really did look impressive — like real magic. But this type of “magic” is just entertainment. Even if people don’t know how a particular trick is done, most, at least, know it is not magic involving the supernatural, but only an illusion of “real magic.”
The other meaning of magic — what I’m calling “real magic” — is something that involves the supernatural. Now, of course, there is often a gray area between the two, and one could give many examples of phenomena that were purported to be “paranormal” or “supernatural” that were later “debunked” by some astute observer and shown to simply be slight-of-hand tricks. So-called psychic powers that supposedly could bend spoons or instances where knocking noises were supposedly communication from the dead were shown to be simple deceptions.
Some people, naturally, think that all such supposed psychic phenomena are in reality human deceptions. I would agree that all such phenomena are in the end “deceptions,” but I don’t believe that they are all simply human deceptions. In other words, I do believe that there are supernatural forces at work in the world — both good and evil forces. Can I prove that? No, and neither can anyone else. It’s just like with the evidence for anything non-physical. Just as there are no “scientific experiments” that can definitively “prove” that God exists, there is likewise no absolute proof for this either. One can only look at the evidence that either supports or contradicts the existence of what I’m calling “real magic” and in essence make one’s choice “by faith,” as it were.
When I was a university student, a psychic came to our campus to give a talk. I went on the spur of the moment just to see what he had to say. He purported to be able to communicate with the spirit world and get information about the future, etc. To demonstrate this, he had himself thoroughly blindfolded, and then he had us take a piece of paper and write two questions about our futures that we wanted answered and to sign our full names, including any middle names. He had us fold the pieces of paper several times to make them small, and then he had a bag passed around to collect them all. He would then simply put his hand into the bag and pull out a piece, and without opening up the folded paper, he would call out the name and answer the questions.
I was, of course, suspicious that the people he was calling out were simply “plants” in the audience and were not really picked out at random — that is, until he called out my name. Likewise, he clearly knew what the questions were that I had written down. Needless to say, I was pretty impressed. It is still possible, of course, to imagine a way I could have been tricked, though it’s rather difficult. It was a major university with 30,000 students, and so I knew few if any of the people there at the meeting. I was careful to observe what was going on, and I wrote on the paper in such a way that it would have been very difficult for anyone to see what I was writing. The event was taking place in a typical meeting room with a low ceiling, and I could see no place where any hidden cameras could have been installed. It’s conceivable, of course, that some sort of stealth technology was used to clue somebody in to what my full name was and what my two questions were. This information could have, I suppose, been communicated to him through a hidden earphone, thus giving the impression that he was getting this information from the spirit world. I can’t totally deny that possibility, but I think it is highly unlikely. If, however, I were working within a totally naturalistic worldview that by definition did not allow for the existence of any kind of supernatural entity, such a conclusion would be the only kind of conclusion allowed. That this man had any real psychic power would not be a conclusion I could reach. I think it is much more likely, however, that this man really did have contact with the spirit world. Likewise, while I am convinced that there is a lot of fraud involved across the whole spectrum of psychic phenomena, it seems to me highly likely that at least some of these phenomena are real. For instance, while some UFO stories are no doubt faked — in fact probably most of them are — I do think some folk really do believe that they were abducted by aliens and that sort of thing. They have had some sort of “real” experience, in the sense that they aren’t just making up a good story for the fun of it. I do not, however, believe in “E.T.” Even if there is intelligent life out there somewhere — which the more we learn the more miniscule the chances appear to be — inviolable laws of physics would seem to make it impossible for any such physical beings to be able to cross the vast distances of interstellar space and come here to earth. We already know for sure that there are no habitable worlds around stars within quite a few light-years distance from us, and so that means that it would take many tens and even hundreds of thousands of years for a physical spacecraft to transverse the distance the nearest possible such world would be from us. Sorry, but there is no such thing as “warp speed” as is envisioned in Star Trek.
Numerous scientists have objectively looked at various UFO phenomena, and one telling statistic is that people who report the few sightings for which no natural explanation can be found are without exception people who were heavily involved in the occult. Thus, I think such experiences may be very real while not actually being physical events. In other words, evil spiritual forces are simply deceiving those under their spell into believing that they are experiencing these things physically.
Well, I don’t want to get off onto a long discussion about UFOs, and so let’s return to the discussion about the difference between miracle and magic and get to the crux of this issue. Magic, as is used in a religious context, is an attempt to manipulate spiritual powers for one’s benefit. All manmade religions contain a strong element of this characteristic, and sadly, even the Christian Church is not immune to it. Typically, it is in the form of magical incantations and prayers. The basic concept is that certain persons with the proper training can perform specified ceremonies that cause spiritual powers to do some predictable thing. This varies greatly in form, but the underlying principle of manipulation is the same. A “rain dance” performed to the “weather god” is designed to cause that god to produce the desired rain. A voodoo curse is a manipulation of evil spirits to bring harm to one’s enemy.
It’s interesting to note that in Japanese Shinto, a priest is referred to by the term “kannushi,” which is made up of the characters for “god” and “lord.” The Christian understanding of these two characters in juxtaposition would be “God is Lord.” The Shinto understanding, however, is “lord of the gods” — in other words, “he who controls the gods.” That is the essence of true “magic.” It is a desire to manipulate the local spiritual powers to give you what you want.
As I mentioned earlier, Christians are not totally immune to this temptation. Our prayers to God can sometimes take on a magical quality. Christians are sometimes led to believe that if they would pray the “right way” or with “enough fervent faith” then God would have to act in a certain way — namely to give us our heart’s desire. This way of thinking — no matter how subtle — is a misuse of the gift of prayer. In no way is God ever to be thought of as someone who can be manipulated into doing what we want.
It is true, of course, that God makes numerous promises in the Scriptures, which we are “to claim in faith.” For instance, Jesus’ words to his disciples in his “farewell speech” recorded in John 14:13-14, and which we read in our Scripture reading, says, “And I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.” Now, taken at face value, without reference to the context in which this was spoken, that certainly does sound like a “blank check” promise, you’ll have to admit. Unfortunately, some within the church have taken this to an extreme and made prayer something like a “celestial vending machine.” You put your prayer into the “machine,” pull the lever and out comes whatever you prayed for. I’ve even heard of one radio preacher who used that very analogy to describe God’s answers to prayer! This, however, is not a balanced view of what the Bible teaches about prayer. That is not really much different that going to a Shinto Shrine to receive a blessing from “the lord of the gods” in order to pass that upcoming entrance exam, to have success in your business, to find a marriage partner or whatever else one has in mind.
The key to keeping this all in balance and avoiding manipulative, “magical” prayers is to always remember that while we pray in the very limited context of our little worlds, God is operating from the standpoint of the “big picture.” As the Bible says, “his ways are not our ways.” In fact, “his ways are far above our ways.” Thus he answers our prayers not from the standpoint of our temporary comfort, but from the standpoint of his overall strategy for the long term. He does sometimes work through the miraculous in our lives, but it is never just for our entertainment or for our self-centered goals. God’s miracles are always done to serve a purpose.
You’ll notice that in the promise given by Jesus to his disciples about “doing anything you ask in my name,” there is a conditional clause added that states its purpose — namely, “so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son.” If God chooses to heal our diseases or solve other trials in our lives, it is for his glory and not ours. If he chooses to delay our healing or in some other way not answer our prayers the way we would have liked, it is to serve his long-range goal — something which we often have trouble understanding and accepting. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker message that goes, “God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage.” That “safe landing” is the goal of our existence, but the “passage” to that goal may include a considerable amount of turbulence. We do not have the right to demand of God anything, and he cannot be manipulated by any form of “magic.” Nevertheless, we are to continually pray to God for our needs and those of other people, believing in faith that God will answer those prayers. But we must remember that his answers aren’t always, “Sure, no problem!” He sometimes indicates through circumstances that his answer is “Not now; you must wait until my timing is right.”
Now that we have a clearer idea of what the term “magic” means, let’s take a brief look at miracles. What are miracles? Are they events that require a temporary suspension of the laws of nature? Well, not necessarily. Some miracles do appear to require this, but often a miracle is simply something that can be explained by natural processes but where it is the timing that is what’s really miraculous. There are, in fact, two distinct types of miracles described in the Bible, and a third, if you include the “sustaining miracles” of God sustaining the natural laws that normally run his universe. The first type involves those that clearly violate natural laws. Events such as Jesus’ walking on water and feeding the 5000 with just a few loaves of bread — and of course, the chief miracle of them all, his physical resurrection from the dead — are examples of miracles reported in the Bible that necessitate some sort of suspension of the laws of nature. Of course, some people have tried to explain away these events by supposing, for instance, that Jesus was walking on a sand bar just below the surface of the water, which made it only look like he was walking on water.
This is, of course, the only option one has if such suspensions of the laws of nature are by definition not allowed by one’s philosophy. But the question is, “If the Creator brought these natural laws into being, why does he not have the right or power to suspend them temporarily and directly intervene for his own purposes?” It seems to me that it is only logical that God could “violate” his own laws if he so chooses. Here again, though, we can never prove something like that directly. To even attempt to “prove” that God performs miracles is in effect to demand that he do them at our convenience so that we can monitor and confirm them. This, then, would simply degenerate into magic, where we try to manipulate God. Thus, all we can do with any purported miracle is to look at the evidence and see if that evidence stands up to scrutiny. And even when it does, there must still be an element of faith involved in accepting it as real.
The second type of miracle is one in which no natural laws are violated but where the timing, magnitude or location is highly unlikely. Jericho’s walls falling down at the trumpet sound due to a great earthquake can easily be explained within the laws of nature. But why did that earthquake happen just as Joshua and his men finished their 7th walk around the city and blew their horns as the Lord had commanded? In one sense, of course, even this type of miracle involves some form of intervention by God into the natural realm, as God had to hold back those forces until the right time. But there would be no way of detecting it as a violation of natural law, as would be the case with something like raising Lazarus from the dead after 4 days in the grave. Miracles such as that cannot be understood as simply ordinary natural laws working together with miraculous timing. They are events that clearly fall outside of what natural laws can accomplish on their own.
A naturalistic worldview simply cannot accommodate such events. Even if one allows that there must have been some sort of supernatural entity to get things going in the beginning, that worldview imposes limits on what such a God can do. Even if such a creator is acknowledged to exist, in a naturalistic worldview he can never violate the natural laws he set in motion in the beginning. But what is the rationale for taking such a view? How can one legitimately limit what God can do with just a wave of one’s philosophical wand? There are, of course, historical reasons for the rise of naturalism, but in the final analysis, the basis of naturalism lies in the desire to escape from having to be accountable for one’s thoughts and actions before a holy God. If one can convince oneself that no such God really exists in the first place, then it becomes much easier to ignore the inner promptings of conscience and to thus make up one’s own standards of right and wrong.
When you get down to the basics, however, it seems to me that with naturalism we end up coming around full circle to a different form of manipulation. In a magical worldview, one believes he can manipulate spirits to do his bidding. In a naturalistic worldview, that manipulation takes the form of limiting what one allows in order to escape from the unpleasant consequences of being held accountable before God. In other words, it’s a manipulation of that “inner spirit” as is opposed to the spirits outside of oneself. One could also think of the contrast between the two as magic being a manipulation of the supernatural while naturalism is a manipulation of the natural. What I mean by that is that naturalism is not an open-minded look at all of the evidence with a “let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may” attitude. Instead, it is an artificial limiting of which conclusions are allowed to be derived from observations of the natural world and of human experience. Thus, it too is a kind of manipulation.
The Christian worldview, however, stands in the middle between these two ends of the worldview spectrum. It has elements in common with both, but it also stands in tension with both. The Christian worldview accepts the reality of both the natural and the supernatural. On the one side, the Christian worldview stands in contrast with the magical worldview in that it recognizes that God cannot be manipulated or controlled by his creatures. It recognizes that manipulation of spiritual entities other than God is possible but that such manipulations are also forbidden by God. The reason for God making this off-limits to us is that while we may believe that we are the ones in control of such spirits, it is actually the reverse, as we become controlled by those spirits. Thus, we become dependent on them rather than on our Creator.
On the other side, then, the Christian worldview stands in contrast with naturalism in that it doesn’t limit what God can do. God is only limited by his own nature. In other words, he cannot do things that go against his very nature. He cannot lie or be deceptive, because to do so would be a denial of who he is. God can, however, create at will. He can suspend the natural laws he created and perform what we would call supernatural miracles, but the principle we can discern from the Scriptures is that he always does so with a specific purpose in mind that is consistent with his overall plan.
Even as Christianity stands in contrast to these two antithetical worldviews on either side, we must guard against the temptations to fall off on either side. As seems to be the case with practically everything, we need to keep a proper balance. On the one side, we need to guard against the temptation towards manipulative prayers. God is sovereign and we are not. He is the “potter” and we are only the “clay.” And on the other side, we need to guard against the temptation to limit God in what he can do. We need to be open to God doing a “new thing,” but at the same time always “testing the spirits,” seeing whether the thing in question is consistent with his revealed word. So, which is it? Miracle or magic? The Christian faith really has no room in it for the magical. But it must be open to the miraculous, for the miraculous is at the very core of our faith.
Let’s close with a prayer: Our Father, forgive us when we fall into the trap of putting our reliance in some form of magical thinking that gives us the illusion we are in control. Help us to instead open ourselves up to the miracles you would do in our lives. Also, forgive us when we try to limit what you can do in our lives. Help us to keep this area of our faith in proper balance and to entirely place our trust in you alone for our futures. For it’s in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen.