The Interface: Magic

(June 30th, 2014)

Guest Blogger, Crorey Lawton returns to wrap up The Interface conversation! Catch up by reading The Interface, and my Response. If you'd like to be a guest blogger please contact me!

Andrew, the response piece you wrote about prayer and faith jarred some things loose in my heart.  If I may, I'd like to continue the conversation, particularly about the religion and science part, and how magic fits in.  As an anthropologist, I am neither purely in the science realm nor in the social realm, but in that odd neutral ground between the two. And this interstitial space is fascinating to me.

James Frazer, in his seminal armchair anthropology work The Golden Bough, shows how there are similarities in many religions, and identified general rules about priesthood and ritual. One of his biggest contributions to the discipline has to do with his characterization of magic. Imitative magic (based on the idea that 'like creates like') is represented in the voodoo dolls we sell on the street corners here in NOLA. Contagious magic (connection continues between substance and subject) is what happens when you take the hair (or fingernails, or placenta) and use it to control the 'victim': love potions, death potions. We even have a version of this when we pay extra money to own Marilyn Monroe's dress, Elvis' toothpick, or Muddy Waters' guitar.

There is also the concept of the incantation - using words to bring about the desired result. We even have a version of this in the opening of our church services. The Invocation is where we INVOKE the deity. The concept is not terribly foreign, even if we are accustomed to thinking of magical incantations as, well, just so much hocus pocus.

Bronislaw Malinowski (another anthropologist) said "Magic supplies primitive man with a number of ready-made rituals, acts and beliefs, with a definite mental and practical technique which serves to bridge over the dangerous gaps in every important pursuit or critical situation." The religious specialist - the one who is responsible for making sure that these external "dangerous" forces act predictably on the group - very carefully replicates the success from previous times. Exact words, exact actions. Replicability, then, is the foundation of religious magic practice. The priest's (or priestess's) ability to control or channel the power of God to effect change in the world is the result of careful study of the rituals.

That is exactly what I subconsciously want in my religion. If I follow the magical God Rules, my mind believes that I can get the best response. If I control for as many variables as possible, I can limit the chaos. I take my mental tape recorder, and try and re-create the prayers my dad said. I ask my church to perform a prayer service just like my dad's church did. Because if I can recreate the conditions, I can replicate the results. That is what my scientific mind wants.

But that replicability is not a relationship with my God. That is me attempting to exert control over my God - instead of walking humbly. Micah 6 is one of the most beautiful, and troubling pieces of scripture. Because it requires me to give up my control. To take the scientific side of my brain, and ask it to submit, rather than to control. To serve my God, rather than to make my deity serve me.

This is why the story Jesus told of the two pray-ers - the publican and the Pharisee - is so compelling. The first man had controlled his relationship with God through rule-followin'. "I tithe. I fast. I go to all the religious services. I am an upstanding member of the community. Thanks, God, for not making me resemble that poor sucker there." Meanwhile, 'that poor sucker there' cried out, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." The sciento-magico-righteous Pharisee got what he came for - he got the approval of others. The humble publican, however, also got what he wanted. He walked away justified, in a right relationship with his creator.

Knowing the path does not make walking (or in your case, running) it any easier. I would love for the path to be easy and wide and not terribly hilly (New Orleans IS pretty flat). That is not, however, what I am promised. I am only promised that I won't have to do it alone. I am promised that I can walk humbly with my God.

Like you, I end up with no real answer about prayer. Except that I need to do it more, knowing that it is part of the walk and part of the relationship. Knowing that my God is not a magical God, subject to my control. He is a mysterious God, to whom I am subject. 

I love that difference.

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