Friday, May 18, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?


Sometimes when certain Protestant Christians want to bait Roman Catholics (or other sacramentally-minded Christians, they accuse sacramental theology of being "magic." They are not kind people who do this, because I think you will understand it's the rough equivalent of being told that your momma visits Canaanite temples (But she's not even Episcopalian!). It's a short below the belt because a) its flagrantly ignorant and b) assumes faithlessness, even idolatry, of the person being asked.

Does everyone know the difference between "magic" and sacramental theology?

Magic is the manipulation of supernatural forces or mystical power through the performance of particularly engineered actions or prayers. Through these incantations, such powers are summoned and manipulated for the purposes of the summoner. Everybody probably has a good notion of this.

The way I like to explain a sacramental rite of the Church is as follows (with thanks to John Colwell): God makes a promise to his Church regarding his saving and healing presence among them. There are actions within the economy of salvation that the triune God wishes to perform among his people, and bids us pray to this effect. Therefore to pray for those very gifts is not presumption. The presence of the triune god is mediated by the Holy Spirit through the instrument of the Church's own prayers, the liturgy. The liturgy is the invocation of the divine promise, during which the Church begs him to be present in power and in healing. This is a question of grace, by which God offers a mystical and material salvation to a people who are themselves both mystical and material.

In these terms, one remembers that in John 6, Jesus teaches us that we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood - since we need it, we can only hope that it will be possible. We trust - not presume, because it is a matter of his own gracious promise - that he will give us this food and drink. In response to Him, we pray that we would be given it. We trust also that he does indeed give it to us. The action of the Eucharistic liturgy is both his and ours: his mediation of presence, and our reception of it as Christ's Church.

Sacramental rites are the concrete practices of reception of God's promises and therefore we consider them an enactment of salvation. God's activity is not limited to his promises and the economy of salvation that this entails, but it is normal.

The bottom line is that in the Eucharistic prayer, we beg for Jesus to come to us in a particular way according to his own promise. If we are not doing that, discussions about sacramental theology and the practice of the actual rites lose any Christian sense.

My other considerations of the Eucharist can be found here.


+ Alan said...

Good - I'm sure this will be helpful for someone out there.

SaintSimon said...

Your definition of magic assumes unwillingness on the part of the supernatural powers. I'm not sure that this is always the case. In fact i suspect that it is usually the supernatural powers that do the manipulating, even if pretending otherwise.

having questioned your definition of magic, it follows that you may be trying to defend against the wrong attack.

I do believe that if anyone, in good faith, offers prayers which he believes to be scriptural, God will (in some way at least) honour the intent.

Whether this means that in every church that claims to subscribe to sacramental theology the substance or accidents of the bread and wine change when the priest utters the words and rings the bells etc, I very much doubt indeed.

But where i have much more sympathy with you, is that when I have been in charismatic healing meetings, I have been surrounded by people who with much hand waving and speaking in tongues beg him to be present in power and healing, in a manner which they believe to be scriptural, and yet there is always the sceptic who claims they are trying to do magic.

So, the argument is one that kicks both ways.

Garrett said...

This seems to resonate well with my psychiatry training, basically the age-old "what separates a pentecostal from a psychotic" argument. One of my favorite faculty members is a devout mormon, and he assures us all that if we knew some of the things he believed were absolutely true, we'd declare him unfit to walk the streets. But its an important point that there's a huge difference between a) being crazy and b) simply buying into consensus of a community, no matter how much our personal paradigms would dismiss that consensus.

Welch's grape juice (ah, Baptist past) into blood is silly, but I'm not about to commit any catholics based on it (insert favorite Exorcist joke here). In fact, I won't even say that it's really silly except as a silliness within my personal understanding of God and quantum physics. Until I solve string theory in my spare time, those kids can constranswhateversubstantiate themselves all night long.

Kyle said...



SaintSimon said...

Reading my comment again, it doesn't seem well explained. I was unhappy with your original post on at least three levels, and tring to wrap the answers into a single continuum of thought when they are not really the same kind of thought and don't blend together.

I'll try again.

1) Your definition of magic falls short.

2) I know how you feel when you are accused of doing magic - I have had the same experience at the other end of the theological spectrum. In fact, in one of my own anti-charismatic phases, I walked out of a meeting where peple were falling over in the spirit, saying to myself 'I don't want to be invloved in magic'. Later in life I fell over in the spirit and also prayed for other people who then fell over. No magic, just God (with a bit of hysteria mixed in)

3) For every priest that 'begs' Christ to be present, there are 400 squillion who dryly and emptily repeat the same mantra. I don't expect God to act where there is no engagement.

4) I don't subscribe to your interpretation of John 6. i don't think tere is any implication of transubstantiation and only a hint of consubstantiation, and it certainly doesn't mean that participating in eucharist saves you, because this would contradict the thrust of scripture that salvation is by faith ie not by eating a ceremonial meal. To balance that, I do accept that eating the ceremonial meal can be the expression and enactment of the faith.

5) At the end of the day, we are unliky to come to definite conclusions on these things which is why the liturgy uses deliberately vague language.

6) There is a need for greater respect between the traditions, and accusing either side of doing 'magic' is unhelpful and risks blasphemeing the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Kyle. I like it when you write about the Sacraments.