Magical Vs. Miraculous Thinking

John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Friday, September 10, 2010

Magical Vs. Miraculous Thinking


September 13, 2010

What is a poor Muggle to do?

Muggles lack magic, J.K. Rowling tells me, and there is no doubt I am a muggle. My students are Muggles too, but worst of all instead of Dumbledore in class, they get me. Sometimes I get on the elevator in my two-story building and hope that it will open to Narnia, but it always opens to the carpet stains on the polyester floor.

We are warned against magical thinking as a solution to our cultural problems and it is a good warning. I have known a few people who try to live magically and they ended up either deluded or wicked. Thinking magically didn't get these folk to Narnia, but looks like it might get them to bankruptcy, the psych center, or Hell.

When I was a boy, Isaac Asimov tried to tell me that science was a good substitute for a lack of magic in the world, but he was wrong. Don't get me wrong. Science is awesome . . . and the wonder it can produce is profound. But there is nothing of the quality we get when Lucy first goes into the Wardrobe.

Science is worth a lifetime of study. It is certainly thinking God's thought after Him, and that is a heavenly thing to do, but it is not magical. It is magic we want . . . or at least we think we do. Looking at the secrets of the physical world is very interesting, challenging, and even breathtaking, but it is not the same thing. We need science, we can even love science, but it is not the same love that we give to Narnia.

There may be no Hogwarts or Narnia, but that does not mean there are not Muggles. Men without magic are still Muggles, even if all men are Muggles. Scientists are just Muggles with better technology.

I think, however, that it is not magic that we really want. It is not the magic of Hogwarts that we love, but the wonder. It is not a land in a wardrobe that we love, but a wonderful land in a wardrobe. Magic promises wonder, CG movies and séances deliver wonders for a moment, but then that wonder fails in the real world.

Hell is tedious, almost every psychic a fraud, and fantasy books are not real.

Magic comes close to wonder, but by itself it is never enough. If Hogwarts were real, then spells would be just another bit of knowledge. There would be something to know, you could know it, and then you would move on. The promise of magic is the wonder of the unknown . . . and not the power. If all we wanted were power, then science fiction would meet the same need as fantasy.

I love science fiction, but it is a different love than fantasy. Atlantis in fantasy is the unknown, but in science fiction a place to explore.  The Holy Grail would not do the job if it were found and was a cup. It would not be enough if its "powers" could be reduced to stats on a Dungeons and Dragons sheet.

Magic quantified is just science that is make-believe.

The first book in a fantasy series is always the best at capturing what I am trying to find. A next book may have better characters or better stories, but the first moment of "contact" is the best. Sadly, what the fantasy character finds is never quite good enough. The more Hogwarts is mapped out for us, the less it can help meet the sense of what made it attractive in the beginning.

Paradise mapped is paradise lost.

There is a desire for something excellent and mysterious. It is not irrational, but it is not known. We know it is there, whatever it is, but it is known to us only by not being known (see Plato's Symposium).

It also isn't about the external stuff. Money and power are attractive, but it is a different kind of attraction. Dragons may know the value of the coins in their horde, but we are interested in the dragons without believing they would have any monetary value or any practical use in modern warfare.

Sadly, if one saw an actual dragon it would be very awesome, magical at first, but then just a kind of animal. Dinosaurs finally seen are objects of study and the wonder of magic is lost.

Philosophy comes close to meeting this need. When I wonder about what is true or what something means . . . especially with questions that are unlikely to be solved (at least by me!), then it is pretty wonderful. Ideas are real, so you can actually approach them. They are not "exhaustible" like science and have the other worldliness of the best magical moments.

Ideas, sadly, do not love us. When we approach them—and truly we can only approach, not possess them—they are unmoved. Narnia and Hogwarts work so well, because we feel a sense of home and intimacy there. Ideas are many things, but they can never be homely.

The wonder of Potter, either Rowling or Beatrix, is partly that we can imagine living there. The Good, the Truth, and Beauty are not good company for me!

For me being in love with another human being comes even closer than magic or philosophy to the feeling, the wonder, I desire. This is the reason so many old tunes called love magic, white or black.

Any human being has the advantage over any movie or novel of being . . . tangible. So loving a person is better than a book. A person in love can always wonder about the beloved. A living being grows and changes, if only in response to environment.

For me "How can I love her?" has a different answer every day.

The dread truth is, however, that no person is forever. I am not, for the moment, complaining about this as much as saying that loving people is not quite what I am after. What I wanted with magic felt like a demand for eternity and endless wonder, and people are not eternal, at least as I experience them.

Of course, by now somebody is pointing out that having a desire and getting it fulfilled are two different things. Perhaps culture has stirred up in me longings that must go unrequited. After all, when I was a young adult I wanted a date with Amy Grant, thought it would make me happy, but it never happened and life has gone on acceptably still.

Perhaps I should just be a Muggle, do science, read books, and be content.

And I could do that, but it seems hasty to rush to it. After all, if what I want is like magic only real and unknowable, like philosophy only personal, and like loving a person only eternal, then it sounds a good bit like loving the Christian God.

If God is real, personal, loving, good, and rational, then God can fulfill everything I seek. Jews and Christians claim all these things are true.

Atheists may be sure God does not exist, but I am certainly not sure. There are decent arguments that suggest He very well may exist. I also have had experiences that suggest His existence to my inner being.

Is there any reason, then, that I should not pursue this deep longing? It seems irrational and impractical to deny myself hope of pleasures when I need not do so.

The best thing about the God of the Bible is that He rejects magic while being miraculous. The Bible shows "magic" to be a dead end for what humanity wishes to possess. Once we get it, then magic is just another means to power. Magic can be manipulated, so it cannot be magical.

Miracles are wonderful, because we cannot demand them. We can ask for a miracle, but God gives us what we need and not what we want. God, if the God of the Bible exists, is all-knowing and just, so He cannot be bribed or tricked.

God can always do the unexpected! If reality contains the God of the Bible, then endless love is possible, but not in a Beloved we have any hope of controlling. We will never exhaust His endless variety and He will not die.

Perhaps the God of the Bible is such a satisfying Being because we have invented Him. Perhaps—but then perhaps we hunger for Him, because He exists. I would not believe a lie just to be comforted, but I equally have no wish to doubt a truth just because it is comforting.

So magical thinking has led me . . . in the end . . . to miraculous thinking. A cosmos with miracles allows reason, order, and just a wee bit of quirkiness. It is personal without being irrational, endless without being boring, and open-ended without being chaotic.

If Jesus is Lord, then Muggles are miracles. Every man is a miraculous and every woman wonderful in the world He created. We are all the lost sons and daughters of a King and all beloved of a Prince gone to Hell and back to win us.

This is good news.


John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

 

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