Faith and Magic

The Harry Potter novels, and other stories of their kind, have been hugely popular for lots of reasons: they’re well written, the characters are engaging, the plots are compelling, and they invite people into all sorts of fantasies and adventures. And not least, in the center of it all is the perennial appeal of magic.

Magic is fascinating because it has to do with power and control. Harry and his friends want to use the spells they learn at Hogwarts for good, but the key thing is that to master a spell is to be in control of a new kind of power. Children especially, who have little control over their lives, love to fantasize about the freedom and power that magic might bring.

Children are not the only ones who like to be in control, of course. Grownups also want as much control as they can get. Children who grow up with loving parents find security in the belief that the big people in charge will make things turn out all right. But when we grow up and discover that we are the big people, the yearning for security and control can grow even stronger. The more we recognize our own limitations, the scarier the world can appear, and so the more we clamor for control wherever we can find it.

Which is why there’s often an element of magic in religion. Grownups may read fantasy stories for fun, but only a tiny minority think they can practice magic in the real world. Most of us look to a Higher Power for security and support. We pray to God for guidance and comfort and strength, and many of us also believe that God can answer prayers in ways that make a difference, not only in our own hearts and minds but also in the world around us. That’s where the temptation to magic comes in.

People often wonder whether prayer “works.” But the whole notion of working can sound as though prayer was a kind of technique which, if used properly, ought to produce the desired results. If that’s the case, then the one who prays is still more or less in control, depending on how much “faith” the person has.

But faith in this context sounds almost like a level of skill. If a person prays for something and it doesn’t happen, people sometimes say that was because the one who prayed didn’t have enough faith—as if faith was a kind of competence. But if the outcome of our prayers depends on our own strength in offering them, prayer itself begins to sound more like magic.

The difference between faith and magic has to do with who is in control. If we think that our faith should enable us always to get what we want, then God becomes a means to our own ends and we’re the ones in control. But that’s magic masquerading as religion. It’s also foolish, because of course we can’t control God. True faith recognizes that God is in control, and trusts in God to do what is best.

In the beginning, when we’re just getting to know God, our prayers tend to focus on what we want God to do. Later on, as we learn to trust God more, magical thinking gives way to real faith. We may still ask God for all sorts of things, and sometimes God grants our requests, but now we’re clear about who’s in control—and that turns out to give us all the security we need.

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