Baptism – It’s Not Magic, But It’s Probably Mystical [Questions That Haunt]

Baptism – It’s Not Magic, But It’s Probably Mystical [Questions That Haunt] September 20, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity cames from Drew:

Hi Tony, The haunting question that I want to submit is this: Does anything REALLY happen to a baby’s spirit at its baptism? I am NOT a Baptist in the sense that I think it is a requirement as a Christian to be baptized as a “believer.” But I don’t think that infant baptism is magic. In fact, it makes more sense to me to have babies grow up in church and decide for themselves if they want to be baptized.

I am the youth minister at a baby-baptizing Congregational church, and my wife and I decided to not have our son baptized. In spite of this, I don’t believe that anyone should force a person to be re-baptized if he or she was baptized as an infant. So I guess that means that I think infant baptism is “valid.”

But what MAKES it valid? What happens in that infant baptism? It seems that SOMETHING has to happen, or else it really isn’t anything. And it seems that that “something” should happen in the spirit of the baby because baptism is supposed to a spiritual event. But I guess I have some doubts about this. So, does something really happen in a baby’s spirit at its baptism?

Many great comments here, deeply delving into exegesis of Paul, and even references to Melchizedek. Because the biblical ground was covered in the comments to the post, I’ll go another direction.

I received a DM this week from a reader who asked what I think of radical theology and the “death of God” that’s become somewhat popular among a particular tribe of post-liberals and post-evangelicals. His follow-up question was whether I thought it’s possible to do practical theology without metaphysics.

My answer is that I try to, but I don’t think it’s totally possible. And I think that because so many people who walk this planet want there to be a metaphysical reality. People want something magic to happen to the bread and the wine when a becollared clergyperson says some words out of a book. They want there to be an alternate reality where angels are looking out for them and fending off the demons that plot to destroy them.

And they want the baptism of their children to somehow seal them into God’s benevolence, or even into Heaven for eternity.

The problem is — as I’m sure most readers of this blog agree — that’s not how it works.

We just can’t believe that God would grant something like benevolence or eternal life to one person who gets some water sprinkled on them by a holy man, meanwhile leave another whose parents did not subject them to that rite to suffer for eternity. It just doesn’t work like that. It can’t.

The consensus answer in the comments to “What happens when I baptize my child?” was the repeatedly funny, “He gets wet.” That’s the materialist rejoinder to the metaphysical claim that something magic happens at baptism. Let me try to steer a middle course.

When John was baptizing in the Jordan River, including his cousin, Jesus, he was remaking a ritual that was familiar to those who lived in first century Palestine. Among some Jews — particularly the Essenes, who were basically the monks of intertestamental Judaism — ritual washing had gone from an occasional rite to an outright obsession. Although our knowledge of intertestamental Judaism is sketchy at best, it seems that John was radicalizing  this ritual by doing it in the wild, in a river, and he a very un-priestly type person.

Jesus neither baptized nor circumcised in his role and wandering rabbi — at least as far as we know — nor did Paul. But Paul took both of these rites seriously, and he conflated them. For the Christian, he said, circumcision was obsolete. Baptism had taken its place. This was good news both for women and for penises.

Baptism has evolved from what Paul envisioned, to be sure. It’s been the source of both great celebration in the church, and of painful divisions. And while I don’t think it has any magical, metaphysical properties, I do think it can be valuable to the mystical communion that is the church.

As Robert Putnam taught us years ago, Americans are doing more things, but we’re doing them alone. When I was a pastor, I was asked several times to perform “private” baptisms. These were usually requested by a young couple who negligibly or not at all connected to the church, and instead of standing in front of a congregation they didn’t know, they wanted just close friends and family in their backyard. I and every pastor on staff refused these baptisms, except in the rare case when a child was too ill or frail to be in a public setting. The reason was that baptism, at its heart, is a communal rite.

This struck some people as odd. They came to us with metaphysical desires — give my kid the special sauce that makes her a Christian — and we responded as mystical materialists — this is about the community coming together to celebrate a new life in our midst.

But I’m going to venture out on a limb and say that there’s something magic — let’s call it, materialist magic — that when a community gathers, and all the more so when that community is in fellowship with God’s Spirit (is that too metaphysical?). Just like the total is more than the sum of its parts, we’re better together than we are alone.

And combine that with the fact that people want some ceremony by which they can welcome their children into the community, baptism serves a purpose. In fact, in contradiction to what I wrote above, I think that baptism seals a child into God’s benevolence. But not in the way that most people think. Instead of being because God’s takes a shine to you after you’ve had water sprinkled on your head, it’s because the community says, “Welcome!”

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  • Craig

    Your basic objection against ascribing greater spiritual significance to baptism isn’t metaphysical; it’s moral.

    • I think that’s absolutely right. One thing I noticed, in the whole discussion of baptism, is that the word “grace” never appeared. And, if I read our host correctly, he sees problems with any action of God that doesn’t treat everyone exactly the same at every minute. I think I understand the moral judgment that lies behind that feeling, but it seems to me entirely contrary to the whole history of salvation, in the biblical narrative and in the course of the development of Christian theology. God does indeed want all to be saved, but there are different graces, times, opportunities, choices, for each.

      I also wonder about a statement such as this: “so many people who walk this planet want there to be a metaphysical reality. People want something magic to happen,” as if metaphysics were magic. There are materialist metaphysics are well as spiritual, and all stripes and varieties in between. Metaphysics is first principles, not magic.

      But yes, I understand that, for many, God’s grace is “magic,” because it can’t be measured out in teaspoons, it can’t be isolated in a lab, it’s not something that one saying, “See, there’s the grace of God” can prove–though many of us will point to this and that, and, I think, rightly say, “There was the grace of God.” And baptism is typically one of those times.

      I remember in”The Tree of Life,” where, at the beginning, a voice-over begins to talk of the “two ways, the way of nature and the way of grace,” and I remember wondering how many moviegoers would have any idea of what that phrase referred to.

      Pace Ms. Silverman, Jesus is not magic. But he is the embodiment of the grace of God, and for a generation that, perhaps through no fault of its own, has not learned what that means, it is perhaps understandable that “magic” is the only category they have to understand it.

      • Craig

        The task, perhaps, is to make sense of God’s grace in a way that, firstly, doesn’t imply or presuppose anything morally repugnant on God’s part, and secondly, is more broadly plausible on theological and historical grounds. I’d bet the first and the second point might be met with reasonable success, but together?

        • I think if we have to solve the problems of theodicy first we are never going to do anything. God lets every single one of us suffer and die. Some die before being born; some live a hundred years. Some live rich; most live in want. It is a true difficulty for the few who have the leisure to ponder it. But surely isn’t it better in any case to follow the command of Christ to baptize, than to use our scandal at the unfairness of human life to ignore it?

          I remember there was some news report once where Mother Teresa was carrying some poor child out from a violent situation–might have been Lebanon–and a TV reporter stopped her and asked her, “What about all those other children you can’t help?” She thought a second, shrugged, and replied, “I think it’s good to help this one.”

          • Baz

            Mother Teresa though also denied pain killing medicine to sick and injured people who’d come to her for help on the basis that she thought that physical suffering was holy and instructive. Not exactly a good role model there.

            As for baptism, it has a dark history of being implicated in child theft – even in the late 19th century Jewish children were being stolen by the church based on them allegedly having been baptized by illiterate servant girls… on that basis alone it’d be better to wait until people had a choice in whether they were baptized or not.

  • Ric Shewell

    “It’s because the community says, ‘Welcome!'”

    another commenter struck a chord when he said, “But those commitments can be made without the water.”

    In your opinion, what makes the water ritual unique, and should churches continue to baptize?

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Hi Ric, I will not speak, for Tony…However, there are actually several Christian denominations/sects, which do not practice wet infant water rituals. They’re usually called Baby Dedications. Reformed Baptist Churches, Southern Baptist Churches, many nondenominational evangelical/fundamental mega churches, Independent Bible Churches, etc., practice dry, Baby Dedications. The dry dedications provide both the “Welcome”, of which you speak, in the UMC, and the “metaphysical, communal warm fuzzies”, about which Tony speaks.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Ric, I don’t want you to feel like I’m only picking-on pedobaptists, the water rituals, of the credobaptists, are just as invalid, for the current Church age. As are any remnant rituals, of Messianic Judaism, including communion. The Melchizedek argument (including Genesis 14:18), as well as a proper reading, of the chronologically late Pauline Epistles, should be the last nail in the coffin, for any practice of unnecessary rituals. I know this will NOT BE RECEIVED, by the long established, highly invested, power and control structures in Christendom, however, it does represent the truth, if persons will genuinely hear, and consider it. The simple truth, is that most Christians totally overlook the progressive nature of ecclesiology, even in the NT. Blessings, and well wishes!

  • God here seems impassive. Like you’re wary of saying he might take a shine to someone, because that would involve emotions shown in the instance of an expression of participation and obedience.

    As a Moltmanian, I know you wouldn’t want to say that, but it seems that in trying to avoid the magic, you’re pointing towards a God who is more removed than the community itself. The Spirit who is even more present than the community seems to have some role in this event.

    If we want to be Trinitarian about it at least.

  • Tim Thompson

    Maybe the significance of baptism isn’t in what it “does to” the baptized, but in what it “does to God.” Perhaps baptism is a way God has empowered us to “bind God” to the person being baptized in a way that has eternal, spiritual significance.

    For a metaphor, consider this. I traveled to Vietnam years ago, empowered by my wife to legally bind her to a child through my own signature on her (and my) behalf. Signing my name is a routine and frequently meaningless act, but in this context, it had huge, real and lasting significance for me, my wife and the child. (Her name is Amy.) In the same way, washing with water is usually not very meaningful, but in the context of baptism that act could have real significance.

    The metaphor could be extended to address some of the other struggles around baptism. Suppose my wife and I had made a personal commitment to provide in every way possible for the welfare of the child *regardless of whether the formal adoption was allowed to go through.* Our ability to deliver everything our hearts desired to Amy might have been hindered if the formalities couldn’t be enacted… (it wold have been pretty hard to get her out of the country and situated with American citizenship, for example!) Who knows, maybe we would have ended up finding it necessary to “move into the neighborhood” (See John 1:14 the Message) and become citizens of Vietnam in order to follow our hearts and care for the child we had unilaterally claimed as our own. When you use this metaphor as a lens, you can see nicely that the underlying commitment is the real thing, the main thing, but it’s also helpful to have the formalities enacted since that 1) makes the commitment public to all and 2) makes it much easier for the blessings of the relationship to flow to the child.

  • Lisa Carson

    What I like about this – is then in that those who refuse – also “speak” in reference to the invite.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Now, we have need of further exegesis of Paul. Tony mentions Paul, circumcision, and baptism. So, let’s look at Colossians 2:11-13 (Paul speaking to believers, regards Christ): “In whom [Christ] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands…” It is of utmost importance, to see here, that Paul is speaking of a metaphysical circumcision (a spiritual one, MADE WITHOUT HANDS), so we can correspondingly conclude, that he is also speaking of a metaphysical baptism (a spiritual one, MADE WITHOUT HANDS). This is confirmed, in the rest of the passage, verse 12: “Buried with him [Christ] in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” Please notice this is a completely DRY METAPHYSICAL BAPTISM, accomplished without human hands, but only through the faith of the operation of God. Christ was not buried in water, or in the ground, for that matter, but laid, on hard rock, in a carved tomb. So, in the current Church age, our baptism is really a DRY, spiritual/metaphysical one, accomplished by God, though the person and work of Christ. I would argue this is the “one baptism”, again spoken of by Paul, in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of our calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all…” Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christendom wants to focus, on some wet version of baptism, which really means they’re embracing two types of baptism (physical and metaphysical), when the only one that really matters, is actually only the metaphysical one, an accomplishment, of Christ and God, not man.

  • Scottydog

    You, I’m sure, have heard a lot of back and forth on this, so I won’t dig a hole that someone else has already dug and filled in. In brief: re: “I’m sure most readers of this blog agree” – I sure hope not, maybe some but certainly not all. Next: “We just can’t believe that God would grant something . . . to one person who gets some water sprinkled on them by a holy man, . . . It just doesn’t work like that. It can’t.” – Let me leave you with an Old Testament passage to ponder: “And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid
    thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much
    rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” 2 Kings 5:13. Last: if you go back and read the Church Fathers, who are closer in time to the Apostles and less infected by late modern or postmodern thought processes, who speak on the issue, and most do, they are almost unanimously on the other side of the issue from you. The only exception being Tertullian who would withhold baptism until after the child’s 1st birthday. In fact you won’t find a Christian writer prior to 1526 promoting the believer’s baptism position so popular in modern America. So much for brevity – sorry.

  • Jan

    Adam’s sin made it impossible for any of mankind to enter into eternal life
    with God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross reconciled mankind to God and now makes it possible for every person to become saved and to have hope of entering into eternal life.

    Romans 5:10
    For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His
    Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

    Titus 3:7
    that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the
    hope of eternal life.

    The water of Baptism makes it possible for persons to hope to enter into
    eternal life with God. Baptism does not guarantee eternal life.

    John 3:5
    Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and
    the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

    Baptism is what first reconciles us to God and makes each person Jesus’

    Matthew 28:19
    Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name
    of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

    It is the baptism of Jesus by water, not the baptism of John by water, which
    sanctifies us and justifies us and makes us Jesus’ disciples. John’s baptism
    was for repentance of sins. (Matthew 3:11) Jesus’ baptism forgives/remits
    Adam’s sin on the soul and also remits all other sins on the soul at the time
    of the baptism.

    1 Peter 3:21
    Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt
    from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ,

    Acts 2:38
    Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the
    name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift
    of the Holy Spirit.

    The water of baptism in Jesus’ name is what forgives/remits all our sins.
    (Matthew 28:19)

    Ephesians 5:26
    that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word,

    The baptism of Jesus (Matthew 28:19) regenerates our souls and thereby reconciles us to God.

    Titus 3:5
    not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,

    Baptism (the washing of water by the word) makes us born again.

    1 Corinthians 6:11
    And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but
    you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

    The gospel states that belief (obedience to God’s commandments/gospel until
    death) and baptism (the washing of water by the word) are both required in
    order to become saved, remain saved, and enter into eternal life.

    Mark 16:16
    He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will
    be condemned.

    Revelation 2:10
    Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the
    devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and
    you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give
    you the crown of life.

    Romans 5:10
    For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His
    Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (How are
    we saved by His life? By following/imitating His example of obedience to His
    Father until we die. Philippians 2:8)

    Matthew 19:17
    And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one
    who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

    The water and words of Jesus’ baptism applies the merits of His sacrificial
    blood to a person’s soul and thus cleanses the soul of all sins and therefore
    the soul becomes a dwelling place (temple) of the Holy Spirit. 1 John 5:6-7 It
    is the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within the soul which saves it and
    continues to save it and guarantees it eternal life.

    2 Corinthians 5:5
    He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit
    as a guarantee.

    Sins leading to death (mortal sin 1 John 5:16-17) separate us from the presence
    of the Holy Spirit. He cannot live in a temple that has been defiled/destroyed
    by mortal sin. So if we sin mortal sins after baptism, these sins must all be
    repented and confessed/forgiven before death or else we will not be deemed worthy to enter into eternal life. Matthew 3:8, Matthew 10:37-39, Revelation 3:4

    1 Corinthians 3:16-18
    Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God
    dwells in you? 17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him.
    For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. 18 Let no one deceive
    himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a
    fool that he may become wise.

    There is also a baptism of the Holy Spirit which further empowers Jesus’ baptized
    disciples to be able to live the Christian life in a worthy way and to evangelize
    the world. Acts 2:1-4

    Matthew 3:11
    I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

    What are some of the sins that lead to death/destroy the dwelling place of the
    Holy Spirit within the soul so that we lose our Guarantor of eternal life? The
    Holy Spirit will not dwell in a soul that has been defiled by mortal sin.

    Ephesians 5:2-5 (New King James Version)
    2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an
    offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. 3 But fornication
    and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is
    fitting for saints; 4 neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

    Repentance, Baptism, and Obedience to God’s commandments until death will
    result in meriting the crown of eternal life for a faithful person.

    James 1:12
    Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he
    will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love

    Romans 11:22
    Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. Hebrews 10:26-30

  • Jan

    Infant baptism

    Babies are baptized to remit Adam’s sin which is already on their souls from the instant of their conception. Babies have no personal sins on their souls because they have not yet reached the age of maturity that will make it possible for them to determine what is right and wrong.

    Adam’s sin has consequences for all of his descendants. One of them is that none of them can possibly inherit eternal life. Adam cannot bequeath to his children what he does not have and he lost all possibility of inheriting eternal life as God’s son (Luke 3:38) because of his sin/disobedience against God. (Ephesians 5:6)

    Romans 5:12
    “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—”

    Every male and female descendant of Adam is automatically estranged from God at the time of his/her conception because all of Adam’s descendants inherited this consequence of his sin. (Romans 5:10)

    Jesus came to earth to remedy Adam’s inability to give his descendants the possibility of entering into eternal life.

    Jesus states that unless a person is “born again” (John 3:1-5) by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God (which means to inherit eternal life). This baptism of Jesus which is the washing of water by the word (Ephesians 5:26) is what remits/forgives Adam’s sin and all other sins that are on the soul at the time of the baptism and thereby baptism provides a person with the possibility/hope of inheriting eternal life.

    Does this mean that all persons who live in these NT times and who are not
    baptized with water and the words, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Mathew 28:19) are automatically condemned to hell? No. God makes the law and He can suspend His law at will. (Luke 6:1-5) and He reserves His sovereign right to have mercy and compassion on the persons whom He desires to have mercy and compassion on. (Romans 9:15)

    Should we take a chance and not baptize our children, hoping that His mercy and compassion will prevail? No. We must all obey His gospel to the best of our
    ability and understanding in regards to ourselves and to our children in order
    to give us and them the hope (possibility) of entering into eternal life.

    Baptism gives our children’s souls sanctifying Grace. (1 Corinthians 6:11) This
    sanctifying Spirit of Grace is actually the Holy Spirit’s presence/indwelling within the soul. (1 Corinthians 3:16-18)

    As long as the Holy Spirit is residing within the soul, the soul is guaranteed
    salvation. A child’s soul should be given the indwelling Grace of the Holy Spirit as soon as possible after birth to help him to obey God’s commandments

    throughout his whole life and to help him to grow in the wisdom of God. (Luke

    There is a second part to the command to baptize:

    Matthew 28:19-20
    “So go and make followers of all people in the world. Baptize them in the
    name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to obey everything that I have told you to do. You can be sure that I will be with you always. I will continue with you until the end of time.”

    Parents and pastors/teachers are also required to teach the baptized persons to
    obey God’s commandments/gospel so that they will imitate Christ’s obedience to
    His Father until they die. (Philippians 2:8, Matthew 19:17, 1 Corinthians 7:19,
    Revelation 2:10)

    If we and our children do not obey God’s commandments until death, we will
    receive the wrath of God instead of eternal life. (Ephesians 5:3-6, Hebrews
    10:26-31) If we do sin again before death, we must repent, confess, and produce
    works/fruits worthy of repentance in order to once again have the possibility of inheriting eternal life. (Matthew 3:7-9)

    If we/they imitate Christ’s obedience to His Father’s commandments until we/they die, we/they will inherit the crown of eternal life. (James 1:12)

    There are a few types of baptism; however, Scripture shows us that the
    possibility/hope of entering into eternal life with God begins for each and
    every one of us by when we become “born again” through the baptism
    that is commanded in Matthew 28:19 and John 3:1-5.

  • I think that baptism seals a child into God’s benevolence. But not in the way that most people think. Instead of being because God’s takes a shine to you after you’ve had water sprinkled on your head, it’s because the community says, “Welcome!”

    And that is the Catholic theology of baptism. The Holy Spirit, acting through the community, seals a child into God’s benevolence. Excellent way of putting it.

    (Which in no way limits God’s ability to seal others into his benevolence any other way. We as Christians are not told exactly what he’s doing elsewhere, just that he is working through the sacraments to seal us into his benevolence.)

  • Y. A. Warren

    The church has usurped the power of the family, even when that is not a necessity. In a best case, a family can be trusted to walk with their children on a responsibly compassionate path. I believe that Jesus opened the doors to forming families of intention, as are found in the most committed church communities. These people become sisters and brothers in The Holy Spirit. The rituals simply publicly proclaim their commitment to each other and to the same path.

    Baptism of a baby should be a commitment ceremony of the child’s community to lead the child on the path that the community agrees upon. This is not what I see as happening, except in private baptisms among committed family and friends, whether within a church setting or at a backyard barbecue. The “magic” is in the ministry to each other as sisters and brothers in The Holy Spirit without sharing actual blood bonds.

  • Jonathan

    Who should be able to baptize? Can anyone? only priest? by what authority? How does one receive that authority?

    The community really believes that Sins of Fathers get passed down to make a child unclean? Isnt the nature of Adam’s transgression on of the human race being in a fallen state “subject to sin and death” meaning that individuals have agency? not that the sin of adam is on the head of the infant? And isn’t the grace and sacrifice of Jesus the atoning power for individual sin?

    So what is baptism and why does Christ say it is necessary to enter the kingdom of God? Isn’t it a Covenant between the individual and God? As is the gift of the Holy Ghost or “:Baptism by fire”

    Also, now one answered the question about what happens to those that have not heard about Christianity or baptism are they destined for eternal damnation or at least exclusion from the kingdom of God (John 3:5)?

    Good discussion. Thanks.

  • Donnie Votaw

    You shouldn’t be at that church. You are doing the church and yourself a disservice. So it makes me think you are only in it for the money.

  • Baz

    The “magic” of baptism used to be used by the Catholic church as grounds for taking Jewish children away from their parents to be raised as Catholics.

    But then again unexplainable, mystical beliefs always have that potential to be abused while at the same time offering nothing concrete to human thought or experience.