Culture At Large

Do you believe in magic?

Andy Rau

Your answer to the above question might be a firm "No," but are you sure about that? A NYT article this week reports that "magical thinking" is common even among mature adults. The "magical thinking" here is not involvement dark occult teachings, but rather it refers to the non-rational little beliefs and habits that people use to explain events around them and get through the day. If you've ever felt that your enthusiasm helped your favorite team win the Super Bowl, or that your anger caused an illness in an annoying colleague, you're "thinking magically." From the article:

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

It's an interesting phenomenon; millions of otherwise rational people put their belief in pointless little rituals and habits, even though they're probably aware on an intellectual level that these rituals don't really "work." Most of these quirky beliefs seem pretty spiritually insignificant, but it's impossible not to wonder how magical thinking might relate to religious faith. Christians have long been plagued by the temptation to put their faith in empty rituals, both major ("If I just give lots of money to charity, I'll get into heaven") and minor ("I have to pray before every meal, even if I'm not really thinking about what I'm praying"). At their worst, these are serious heresies, but even the less serious habits can be un-Biblical attempts to project our spiritual wishful-thinking on the world around us.

And of course, a non-believer might well suggest that belief in something that seems on the surface to fly in the face of reason (like, say, the resurrection of Christ) constitutes a form of magical thinking. How might you respond to that challenge? Any thoughts on the presence of "magical thinking" within the church today?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith