Magical Thinking

In the comments to last Sunday’s sermon, Peter accuses me of “magical thinking.” This is a term we hear frequently in the mainstream world, usually in response to something we don’t think is possible. Politicians engage in it all the time, telling us the federal budget will be balanced in ten years so we don’t need to raise taxes or cut spending. I hear it in workplace settings, where twenty people laid off in one location are replaced by three in another location and the same amount of work is expected to get done.

In this context, “magical thinking” means expecting outputs inconsistent with the inputs. This is clearly a foolish, self-delusional thing, so the term properly has a negative connotation.

In this case, though, the term “magical thinking” means something slightly different. Peter is accusing me of supernatural thinking, of believing something for which there is insufficient evidence.

Maybe he and the New Atheists are right. Maybe there is nothing more than the material world, maybe our emotions are nothing more than the outcome of brain chemistry, maybe all our religious experiences are the arbitrary assignation of meaning to random and unrelated events. Maybe.

But I don’t think so. As I said in the conclusion of the sermon, there are not only things we don’t know, there are things that are beyond our capacity to know. To quote Albert Einstein “there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection.”

If we take the classical definition of magic as the change in consciousness in accordance with the will, then magic clearly works. In one of his dissertations on the implications of peak oil, John Michael Greer gives the example of two mid-20th century magicians who achieved massive results through changing the consciousness of a nation. Adolph Hitler raised Germany from a broken, bankrupt nation to a power that came close to conquering the world. He did it by changing the consciousness of the German people. His luck ran out when he came up against a physical reality that a change in consciousness couldn’t fix – the resources of Germany and its conquered territories couldn’t match the combined resources of the United States, Britain, the USSR and their allies.

Mohandas Gandhi changed the consciousness of the British Empire, convincing them they no longer wanted to be colonialists and occupiers. In doing so, he helped win independence for the second largest nation in the world.

Gandhi didn’t succeed where Hitler failed because his motives and methods were pure and good. He succeeded because he worked magic in a setting where magic could work. Magic can inspire and revitalize a person, a community, or a nation. But it can’t put gas in your tank, at least not directly.

Real magical thinking knows that there is more to Life than what can be quantified. Real magical thinking knows that life is worth living because of experiences and relationships that provide meaning. Maybe that meaning is totally made up. My brain doesn’t know for sure one way or the other.

But my heart tells me it’s real, so I believe in life and love and the Goddess and God and life after death and a million other things for which there is evidence but not proof.

Including magic.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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