Magic and Miracles

Recently I was bemused by a review of one of my Neopagan books in which the critic, in panning the book, accused me of “not believing in magic.” I thought, “Well, if she means I don’t believe in magic the way a 6-year-old believes in Santa Claus, I guess she’s right.” Still, it was interesting for me to ponder about how I think about magic, both now (almost three years after entering the Catholic faith) and then (the book in question, Before You Cast a Spell, was written in 2003).

I first was drawn to Neopaganism — particularly the spiritualities of Wicca, Druidry, and Asatru — because I was interested in an earth-centered and post-patriarchal way of expressing myself spiritually. That’s what I thought Paganism was all about, thanks to reading books by folks like Starhawk, Margot Adler, and Philip Carr-Gomm. Alas, once I got into the Pagan world, what I mostly found were a lot of folks wrapped up in the chase for secret knowledge and spiritual power, both of which categories were rolled together under the umbrella term of “magic” (or “magick,” to use Crowley’s rather pompous revisioning of the word). Hindsight is 20/20, and I realize that, given my unwillingness to buy into the fantasy/superstition of Pagan magic, I was ill-suited to be a Pagan from day one. But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and so I stubbornly tried to make it work — to find some way I could reconcile my naturally skeptical mind with what seemed to me to be the mostly naive if not childlike approach to this notion of magic that I encountered at every turn in the Pagan world.

The question I kept pondering about magic was simply this: “How does it work?” No one — none of the books I read, none of the websites I visited, none of the teachers I studied under — could provide me with a satisfactory answer. I encountered lots of poetry about the beauty of magic, the power of magic, the joy of a magical life, but it always seemed that beneath the lyricism was an implicit message to ignore the man behind the curtain. The best explanation for magic as anything other than a fuzzily nice power-of-positive-thinking phenomenon was Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness, which explores the relationship between human consciousness and the environment. The argument basically suggests that, since human consciousness can be physically demonstrated to affect quantum particles, then magic’s claim to affect the physical world on a larger scale rests on the same mind-matter connection. Well, it’s a nice idea, but it requires a leap of faith of more than Kierkegaardian proportions (so much for the often-declared claim that Paganism doesn’t require you to believe anything!) and it seems to have only captured the imaginations of the new age and Pagan worlds.

Meanwhile, two other books: Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft and Daniel O’Keefe’s Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic — written neither from a metaphysical nor a hard science viewpoint, but rather a sociological perspective — provided what I felt was a much more realistic and honest appraisal of what magic is and how it functions in the real world. These books point out that magic is basically a form of self-therapy, a constellation of rituals and symbols designed to create meaning and enable the individual to resist the power of large institutions (religion, academia, the media) to define his or her values and experience. Luhrmann’s concept of “interpretive drift” I found particularly enlightening: a person performs a ritual asking for rain, and three days later it rains. This could be interpreted as a random, albeit happy, sequence of events. But through interpretive drift, the magician interprets the rain as proof that the magic “worked.” Over time, magicians will selectively interpret the randomness of their experience by making such connections, assuming when no such obvious connection exists that their magical effort was somehow flawed, and ignoring any evidence that would challenge the veracity of magic (such as the writings of skeptics like yours truly), all combining to reinforce the interpretive conclusion that “magic is real” and “magic works.”

Here was an understanding of magic that made both intuitive and rational sense to me. I could “believe” in magic insofar as I regarded it as a tool for personal expression and inspiration, hopefully encouraging the practitioner to take charge of his or her life, making positive change and allowing miracles to happen (if you cast a spell to lose weight and through it find the inspiration to take responsibility for changing your diet and exercise habits, then good for you). But, as my critic so perceptively pointed out, I remained a skeptic as far as any Santa Claus theories of magic (implying a necessary correlation between ritual acts and physical consequences) were concerned.

Lest my Christian readers assume this post is simply one more attack on Paganism, I should hasten to point out that many Christians approach prayer and the sacraments with the same kind of magical thinking that ruined Paganism for me. And everything I’m saying about “Pagan magic” holds just as true for “Christian magic.”

As the title of this post implies: when I think about magic, I also think about miracles. The word “miracle” is etymologically related to the word “mirror” and has to do with a wondrous manifestation — a breaking-through of Divine power into ordinary reality. When a miracle happens, it is a mirror through which we see the reflection not of our own face, but of the Original Face — God. I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in miracles. So what gives?

The way I see it, miracles are like lottery winnings. Only one person every so often gets the big multi-million dollar jackpot, but untold numbers of folks win smaller prizes. Miracles work the same way. Sometimes there are huge, jaw-dropping, science-can’t-explain-it miracles, like someone surviving a kill-them-all accident or a spontaneous remission of terminal cancer. Those are the “multi-million dollar” miracles. They happen very rarely, but they do happen. Meanwhile, all sorts of little miracles occur, all the time: the hatred of an old divorce suddenly vanishes and a real friendship emerges; traffic somehow allows you to get to that important meeting on time even though you were running twenty minutes late; a random encounter in a grocery store checkout line helps a suicidal person to see a glimmer of hope and seek out therapy instead of jumping off a bridge. Little miracles happen. They are not necessarily “supernatural” nor are they necessitated by magical rituals (or religious prayers). They simply happen. They are free gifts, given to all of us. The only “interpretive drift” required is that we have to open our eyes to see them when they occur.

The difference between magic and miracles is that magic implies that we are somehow in control, while miracles testify to the “control” resting in the hands of the Divine Lover, over whom we could never have any control whatsoever. Magic is about power, miracles are about love. If magic were real, it would imply that the world belongs to the people with the most power: might makes right. Miracles, by contrast, are showered lovingly on all people: weak and strong, healthy and sick, faithful and doubting, happy and anguished. Magic is “all about me.” Miracles are love letters from God.

In every possible sense, magic is unnecessary. I’ll take miracles any day.

What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.sybilarchibald.com/blog/ Painterofblue

    Fascinating post! The last full paragraph is beautiful.

  • http://www.side7.com/art/lynne Lynne

    I had a similar falling out with paganism and turned to Christianity. I didn’t get magic either. But when I finally stumbled upon a book that described something without ever using the word.. and then I met someone who truly could move mountains with the faith of a mustard seed (is that Divine control? or are we divine?). It changed my view of the world completely. Interesting how you say magic is about power. No, I never got the idea of magic. Then I read the aforementioned book: ‘The Face of Power’ by Matt Guest. It doesn’t talk about magic and it doesn’t talk about theory but it is the very visceral and frank experience of a man seeking things his spirit has sensed since he was a child. After that I understood what perhaps people talk about when they talk about magic in such a way (and not as a psychological game nor as anything that necessarily has to fit within consensus reality).

    Anyway check out that book. I’d love to know what you think of it (particularly because I thought very much as you do regarding all of this, until that book, plus the person I met who could move mountains, changed all the foundations of my thinking).

  • Peter

    Two observations inspired by your fine post, Carl:

    First off, during the period of my life when I was wandering around in the New Age/Magic labyrinth (before I too re-discovered Christian roots, including the true miracles of Jesus both in the Bible and in our day), I noticed among the witches I met in particular exactly what you have said here, that “what I mostly found were a lot of folks wrapped up in the chase for secret knowledge and spiritual power.” This gave me a distaste for the field that kept me from investigating it as thoroughly as you did.

    Secondly, a strong confirmation of your magic-vs-miracles thesis can be found in the underlying fabric of Tolkien’s work (as contrasted with Rowling, Pullman, etc.): the “little guys” with the true heart and the will to follow a sound conscience have more genuine power than all the magic in Middle Earth, and they end up successfully destroying the evil power and bringing in a new age of peace and harmony. My oldest daughter did a fine essay on this which I should ask her for so I can re-read it and maybe (with her permission) share it here. Tolkien would surely agree with your final statement here.

    Magic is surely second-rate at best; miracles are expressions of grace and mercy. Thanks for this distinction.

    Bless you,

  • Peter

    As an afterthought:

    Maybe this distinction you have discovered here is the root reason that the practice of magic per se is strictly forbidden in the Old Testament: God who is Love has our best interest at heart, and he knows the downside of magic that you have so eloquently expressed here, that it is at best unnecessary and at worst destructive of our souls, that it facilitates idolatry and steals our spiritual energy away from worthy uses such as worship, contemplation, and love-in-action. So he forbids it.

    Of course we don’t listen; we have to find out for ourselves; and we make a mess that he has to rescue us from. So he provides for us the New Testament where his law is internalized by his Spirit dwelling in us (as Mike Morrell talks about) and we develop an internal law that protects us from the same kind of waste and dissipation of energy.

    Just an afterthought, but perhaps some “food for thought”…

    Blessings and peace.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yvonne

    Um, what about the bit in the New Testament where it says, go and heal and cast out spirits etc in my name? I’m glad you added the paragraph pointing out that some Christians use prayer like results magic.

    When I do an act of magic (usually healing) I recognise that the power is lent to me from the universe / the Divine – it’s not mine and I didn’t make it, all I do is ask for it and direct it. Is that magic or prayer? If I tried to use my own power, I would quickly be drained. Such techniques are perfectly acceptable in Buddhism (afaik) and even some Christian traditions.

    There’s an excellent post about magic by my friend Bo:
    He makes some of the same points as you, but makes an exception for “mystical magic” of the communing-with-the-Universe variety.

    Also, I think you must have met all the power-crazed loons and none of the “normal” people! Though I must admit that I don’t hang out much on the Pagan scene these days, I’m joining the Unitarians.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    If you want a fascinating perspective on Christian magic, read Meditations on the Tarot by “Anonymous” (Valentin Tomberg).

    Some scholars (notably Morton Smith) believe Jesus was actually a magician. Of course, as early as the Acts of the Apostles we see the church trying to distance itself from magic (consider the story of Simon the Magus).

    To me, the issue is not so much where the power comes from as who’s deciding what the results will be. If I assert my will, whether I’m using my own energy or trying to channel God’s, either way it’s magic. I personally am not comfortable with such forms of spiritual practice. To the extent that I can get my ego/will out of the way, and just be Christ for others, I think that’s what the Christian is called to do. Will this be a powerful healing presence? Absolutely: but God is always the one who is in control. Using my language, we are called to be miracle-catalysts, not magicians.

    UU Pagans are among the more sane Pagans I’ve known over the years.

  • http://wheezinggirl.livejournal.com/ Laura

    I actually had quite the same experience in the pagan community when it comes to magic, however I appear to have gone a different direction. Your phrase “I was ill-suited to be a Pagan from day one” struck me particularly. I’d just like to point out that Devotional forms of Paganism do exist. Thought I do agree that magic tend to be in the forefront of the religion as a whole.

    I was ill-suited to be a “witch” from day one, so I eventually settled into a devotional practice that was less about the chase for secret knowledge and spiritual power and more about my relationship to the Gods.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Laura, I’m pleased that you have found a means to explore Hellenic spirituality with integrity and joy. Alas, for me even when I tried to forge my own vision of devotional Celtic Pagan spirituality (ie, Brigid’s Well) it seemed that the magic-chasers won the day: from Joanna to Trudie to Arthur, I ran into it again and again. My comment about being ill-suited as a Pagan really is an outgrowth of a comment Arthur made to me toward the end of the BW days, when he suggested that I was “a bad Pagan.” He said it lovingly, but I think he was on to something. Since becoming a Catholic, I seem to be doing a better job as a “Christian with Pagan leanings” than I had done previously as a “Pagan with Christian leanings”!

  • http://paganleft.wordpress.com Mariah/Caelesti

    *Sigh* I get so sick of the idea that you have to practice/believe in magic (or astrology etc) to be a “real” Pagan. Though I honestly haven’t tried it, I’ve been rather repelled as I’ve seen it way too emphasized and a corrupting, commercializing force in the community.
    In fact, when you look at many forms of ancient polytheism, you see that magic was often at best a peripheral part of the religion, or even separate from it. It’s sad to see that driving people away from Paganism, but I am glad you found a more meaningful faith.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I’ve been rather repelled as I’ve seen it way too emphasized and a corrupting, commercializing force in the community.

    Yes, I can relate. And it was particularly demoralizing when I had Pagan authors tell me that if I had any hope of making a living as a Pagan author/teacher I had better be writing spell books; while editors at Pagan publishers told me their market research consistently showed that while Pagans said they wanted more “spiritual” books, their actual consumer practices revealed that what they really wanted was just the latest, greatest spell.

    That, as much as anything, is what disillusioned me about Paganism which in turn set in motion the chain of events that led to my return to Christianity. I suppose I could have just hung in there and fought the good fight, similar to how as a Christian today I fight forces of intolerance, fundamentalism, sexism and chauvinism within the church. But, that was not to be my path. But I certainly respect those Pagans who are trying to rescue their faith from this “corrupting, commercializing” force.

  • Steven Glick

    I clicked on your website today because I just finished your book “The Idiot’s Guide to Paganism” and wanted to thank you for writing it. I’ve read other books on paganism and witchcraft but they always seemed too dogmatic. Your book really spoke to me and I felt a growing sense of joy and liberation with every page. I understand that your path has changed (paths will do that!) but I’m really glad you wrote this book.


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Steve. I’m so happy that people are still finding that book (and its companion volume, the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom) useful. As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I have no regrets about my sojourn as a Pagan and harbor no ill-will toward the Pagan community (my Facebook friends list has about as many Pagans on it as Christians, even though I let go of Pagan practice almost four years ago). Anyway, thanks for your kind words and blessings to you on your journey, wherever it may take you.