May 20, 2009

Magic, Superstition, and Religious Faith

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One area of common Christian practice that seems to touch the relationship between faith and superstition is prayer. Does prayer work—like magic? Most people believe God answers prayer—even non-church folk. Generally, in all religions prayer is the invoking of greater than human powers to manipulate matters beyond the believer’s control to induce a favorable outcome. In teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus gave them a model (Matthew 6:9–13). “Pray like this,” he said, and in that prayer the disciples are first taught to invoke the name of deity, and then ritually present their petitions.

     Ancient magic worked in a strikingly similar way: greater than human powers were invoked and ritual petition followed. In this way a magician invoked supernatural powers to secure a desired outcome. So great is confidence in the ancient ritual, petition sometimes slips into solemn command: “I adjure you” (compare Matthew 26:63; Mark 5:7). Early Christians also used similar power language, solemnly invoking the name of Jesus to gain a desired result. For example, Peter is portrayed healing a lame man with the words: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6): invoking the name of Power enabled the petition (Mark 9:38; Acts 19:13–16)—just like magic. Jesus himself did not perform mighty deeds in his own name, but is portrayed as authorizing the use of his name to facilitate petitions (John 14:13–14), since a name of Power is required to produce the result. Many modern Christians still believe that only the name of Jesus will enable petitions (James 5:14–15)—just as ancient magicians manipulated human affairs by invoking the names of supernatural powers. In both cases the belief was that the prayer or magical rite was ineffective without the divine name and the ritual language.

     Even Jesus was accused of performing mighty deeds by demonic powers (Mark 3:22), and oddly some of his healings were accomplished with magic-like gestures and words (Mark 7:3–35). He wore a “magic” garment bringing healing without his awareness (Mark 6:56) to people who touched it (Mark 5:25–29); and Paul performed healings by means of a “magic” cloth (Acts 19:11–12), as others did through the agency of different powers (Acts 8:9–11).

     Against the backdrop of ancient texts of ritual power, magic and prayer are the same kind of activity. The magician was as convinced in the efficacy of ritual magic as religious people are in the rite of prayer. Both believe their petitions tap the resources of greater than human power by which human affairs are manipulated. Both rituals invoke deity, employ ritual petition, and claim a mandated outcome (Matthew 21:22), and as the existence of Christian magical texts attest, the line between Christian prayer and ancient magic is extremely fine. The similarity makes you wonder: if prayer works, why not also magic? Early Christians saw the problem and solved it by slandering the other powers and denying their effectiveness (2 Thessalonians 2:9–10), but not by denying the existence of the other powers. Thinking we can finesse any God by words of ritual power, however, sounds suspiciously like hubris—and that is something all Gods deplore.

     The essay above is an excerpt from Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular religion in an Age of Reason (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 54-56.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:54am

Great topic! The Lord's Prayer is an excellent example of balance, also the prayer attributed to St. Francis, "Lord, make us an instrument of the thy peace..." Yes, spare us from spiritual manipulation, bargaining with God, praying to fix someone for their own good as if we have special insight and are advising the Almighty on how to best proceed!. A friend in A.A (not a church-goer). states that he only prays for "knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry it out." It's a humble and healthy perspective!

Charles Puskas, Ph.D.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Posted by Charles Puskas on 5/20/2009 at 4:17pm

“Generally, in all religions prayer is the invoking of greater than human powers to manipulate matters beyond the believer’s control to induce a favorable outcome….” This reinforces my don’t-say-it-out-loud-thought that puts God somewhere between Santa Claus and the Bogeyman. Prayer becomes a petition rather than an offering of thanksgiving.

Marcia Morriset
Academic Advisor-Recruiter
Honors College
Missouri State University
Springfield MO 65897
Posted by Marcia Morriset on 5/20/2009 at 1:43pm

Excellent treatment of a sensitive subject, Charlie!! The tendency to use prayer to manipulate God has bothered me for years.

Bernie Loposer
Posted by Bernie Loposer on 5/20/2009 at 1:19pm