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.