This week is Retro Week on my blog. I’m reposting stuff from the archives.
This is today’s repost, from 15th March:
One of my pet peeves is what I call “Magical Thinking”. Most people aren’t going to be familiar with the term, since it’s one I more or less made up, so let me begin by defining what I mean.
The ancient pagan world was full of the idea of magic. Not the card-trick illusions of children’s parties, but the actual idea of magic. The thinking was that you could control the world around you, and particularly what happened to you, by deploying spiritual power through certain rituals.
If you wanted to have children, you made sacrifices to the appropriate god in the hope that they would reciprocate and do what you asked. If you needed an edge in business, you could write the name of your rival on a piece of lead and throw it into a stream or melt it with special incantations to bring about bad circumstances – a curse – for them. Alternatively, you could do other rituals to ward off other people’s curses and bring good luck.
Spiritual power was a commodity. Those considered to have it could sell their influence (quite literally) and make good money using their power on others’ behalf. The idea was that to get X to happen, there were certain rituals or practices you could do that would employ spiritual power to force it to occur.
While in some parts of the world this sort of thing is alive and well, we Westerners don’t have precisely this idea of magic in our culture. But we do have a lot of the thinking behind it.
At its base, Magical Thinking is mechanistic. If you do X, you get Y. It’s very cause-and-effect. Cause and effect is a vital part of our scientific understanding of the world, of course. Things obey the physical laws of the universe. If you throw an apple up in the air, gravity always makes it fall down again. If you strike the same ball in the same spot with the same amount of force in the same direction, you will always get the same result. A white light shone through a prism always diffracts into a rainbow in the same way. Plant wheat, and you do not get beans springing up. If you do X, you get Y. Always.
The difficulty comes when we try to apply this same mechanistic logic to human relationships and the spiritual world.
Mechanistic thinking applied to human personality and relationships is generally called Behaviourism. It’s the Pavlov’s dog idea. Apply stimulus A and result B always occurs. Therefore if result B has occurred, it must logically be because stimulus A was applied. On very basic levels it has some truth to it, but it’s mostly been discredited for higher levels of personality and relationship, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My basic objection to it is that it is completely deterministic and denies the idea of human free will. If stimulus A (let’s say, someone hitting me) happens to me, I do have a very real decision to make about what to do about it. I’m not a robot.
It’s even worse when you apply it to things spiritual.
The mechanistic “Do X get Y” reasoning can get us into all kinds of trouble.
Let’s take the subject of the tithe. If you listen to a lot of TV preachers (I shan’t bother to name them because new ones are always coming along), you get the idea that tithing is the key to God’s blessing. Taking out all of the hype, they espouse the notion that the link between tithing and blessings (usually material) is an absolute and automatic one. If you give to God, He will give back to you. If you don’t tithe, God will cause all your money to trickle away.
Tithing thus becomes the tool we use to push God’s “bless me with more stuff” button. It’s the same with the whole “word of faith” movement. “Sow your seed of faith” by giving to this or that ministry or whatever the current teaching is, and in due course God will reward you with whatever you have asked him for. Your “seed” of faith grows into what you have requested.
The problem is that in the process, God becomes a sort of vending machine. Put faith in and get a coke out. If you don’t get a coke out, you must have not put enough faith in, or put your faith in the wrong hole, or put it in backwards or something.
God is not a vending machine. He has a will and purposes of His own, and is not there merely to give us stuff.
Or we might look at fasting. This is another discipline of the spiritual life that so often gets misused or misunderstood. With the mechanistic “Do X get Y” mentality I call Magical Thinking, fasting becomes another tool to manipulate God into doing what we want.
“Look, God, I’m fasting. See how spiritual I am? Now you have to give me what I ask for, right?”
Wrong. Completely missing the point. Fasting isn’t some ritualistic exercise or work we do in order to force a reluctant God to bless us in the way we dictate. First of all, God is a loving Father. “Reluctant to bless” is about as far from His character as it’s possible to get. Second, we don’t get to dictate terms to God. Third, fasting is not about pushing God’s buttons in the right order to get a result. The discipline of fasting is far more about us than it is about God. Fasting serves as a very physical reminder for us of the seriousness of what we are doing: approaching the Lord of the Universe for wisdom or blessing. Denying ourselves one of the basic needs of our bodies serves both to underline our dependence on God to meet our needs, and to bring to the surface character issues we may need to work on. I don’t know about you, but I get snappish when I don’t eat. Denying myself food shows me where I still don’t fully have my temper under control, enabling me to work together with the Holy Spirit to bring His sweet influence to bear on my character.
It’s not about pushing God’s buttons; it’s about getting serious with Him about Who He is.
I’m probably going to offend quite a few people with what I say next, but I often wonder whether a lot of the attitude of many churches and Christ-followers toward Israel doesn’t stem as much from Magical Thinking as from anything else. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the Jewish nation or that they aren’t the people God chose to make His everlasting Covenant with, but if you listen to some people you get the impression that God’s blessing is contingent on how we act toward the modern State of Israel. The result is an uneasy impression that the State of Israel can do no wrong and can never be called to account for anything lest we somehow forfeit God’s blessing by saying a mean word about the Jewish state.
Again, it seems too much like mechanistic thinking. Bless Israel, and you automatically get blessing, possibly no matter what the rest of your life is like. Or in contrast, live a life otherwise pleasing to the Lord and after His own heart but imply that the State of Israel may need to be called back to the Word of the Lord just like any other state and you forfeit the blessings of God.
Support for Israel shouldn’t be some fear-based thing we do so that God won’t judge us, but an expression of love for those He loves: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Now that I’ve probably offended everyone, let’s go on to those Facebook posts that I loathe. You know the ones I mean. They generally have a prayer for God’s blessing on them along with a sentence like “Post this prayer on your wall and see what God will do”. As if the very act of posting on a social media site is what impels the hand of God to act.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is, after all, probably my biggest pet peeve. But I can’t read one of those things without seeing it as a reduction of the awesome Lord of the Universe to the status of Genie of the Lamp.
Genies are the essence of Magical Thinking: rub the lamp and they must come to you. You get three wishes which they must grant. They are bound to it. They have no will in the process at all.
God is manifestly no genie. As CS Lewis says repeatedly of his Christ-figure Aslan: “He’s not a tame Lion.” He doesn’t come when you whistle. He doesn’t dance to your tune. He is not bound over to grant your three wishes whether or not they are good ones or fit His good, pleasing and perfect plans at all. He doesn’t wind Himself around your wrist like a charm bracelet. He is the King. You are the Subject.
I’ve recently been exposed to one of the traditional Anglican versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the things I find most refreshing about it is this idea running through it of God as Dread Sovereign, back from the days when kings had real power as well as authority and ruled as well as reigning. There comes across a very real sense that this isn’t Santa Claus; this isn’t a tame God you can keep in your pocket or a genie who exists to grant you wishes. This is not Someone you can take liberties with; this is the One who made the crocodile and the great white shark and called them good, who can split light and darkness with a word and who tells gravity which way Down is. He’s good, but He certainly isn’t safe.
God is not a genie who is bound to give us what we ask for if we rub His lamp the right way. He’s not a vending machine. He is the awesome King of the Universe, who has His own good plans and His own will. He blesses us not because we push His “bless” button but because He loves us and likes to bless us. In fact, He already has.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in Ephesians 1:3, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
Notice that it’s past tense. He has already blessed us; we don’t have to try and manipulate Him into doing so. Then, too, He has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (emphasis mine). He didn’t leave one out to be conditional on our tithing or fasting or making vows of dedication or whatever. They’re all there. Where? “In Christ”. Our access to these blessings comes not from any magical-style ritual we perform or anything we do, but from our connection to Christ.
Faith is not magic. It’s not a mystical energy we expend to get God to do things for us. It’s not a commodity we possess to get God to like us. It’s an expression of trust in the invisible Lord of the Universe to be who He says He is, whether or not the circumstances look like it.
It isn’t magic, it’s relationship.