Last week I pissed off a lot of Christians by writing that Jesus is Magic. And in my debate with Tom Gilson, I asserted that according to Christian doctrine, Jesus is an “invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.”
Well, now I’m going to piss off some atheists. I’ve changed my mind. Jesus is not magic.
Of course, in determining whether or not something is x, you’ve got to decide on a definition of x. According to some definitions of “magic,” Jesus is obviously magical.
Consider the phrase “magical thinking,” a term used in psychology and anthropology to refer to “non-scientific causal reasoning.” But if that is our definition of magic, then lots of things are magic. For example, many forms of moral realism would be considered magic. But that’s not what we usually mean by “magic.”
Growing up, my concept of magic was any process that could cause natural events by non-natural means, or by sheer will. Jesus is clearly magical according to this definition, too.
But let’s look at some dictionary definitions, which try to assimilate common uses for the term:
Microsoft Encarta: “a supposed supernatural power that makes impossible things happen or gives somebody control over the forces of nature.”
Merriam-Webster: “the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.”
Your Dictionary: “the use of spells, charms, and rituals in seeking or pretending to cause or control events or to govern certain natural or supernatural forces.”
Infoplease: “the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.”
Cambridge Dictionary: “the use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible.”
American Heritage Dictionary: “The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.”
Oxford English Dictionary: “the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”
So you see the problem. According to Microsoft Encarta, Cambridge Dictionary, and Oxford English Dictionary, Jesus is magic. But according to Merriam-Webster, Your Dictionary, Infoplease, and American Heritage Dictionary,1 Jesus is not magic.
So what are we to do?
I can think of one obvious solution: Use a word that is more precise, without such a confusion of meanings, and one that is already in wide use by believers and unbelievers alike. And it turns out we have such a word. It is: supernatural. Jesus is supernatural.
There’s another reason to avoid calling Jesus “magic.” If you click through to the full definitions, above, you’ll see that many of them have multiple definitions. Many of those definitions are more specific than what I’ve quoted above, and make specific reference to charms and spells and incantations and such. Of course, a great many Christians do believe in such things, but they do not seem to apply to the Jesus of the New Testament or mainstream Christian theology. So that’s another reason to avoid calling Jesus “magic.”
So according to some legitimate definitions of “magic”, including the one that was intuitive to me as I was growing up, Jesus is magic. But according to many – perhaps most – definitions, Jesus is not magic. A better word is “supernatural.”
Let’s look at another adjective I applied to Jesus: “wish-granting.” For some time, I couldn’t get any Christians to explain how Jesus was not “wish-granting.” After all, he instructs his followers to submit their wishes to God, and God will grant them:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives… (Matthew 7:7-8)
But Christian theology does not maintain that Jesus is like a genie, bound to grant all our wishes. Thomas Reid points out:
Well, if that is what you mean, then everyone who says “yes” to any request of them whatsoever is a wish-granter, and you’ve said nothing in particular about anyone. But then, [why should it be shocking that Jesus is wish-granting]? See, you can’t have it both ways here.
And he’s right. To say that Jesus is “wish-granting” is either false (in the genie sense) or devoid of meaning (in the “sometimes says ‘yes’ to requests” sense).
So there you have it. I’ve changed my mind. Jesus is not a magical wish-granter.
My apologies to the Christians I offended. Thanks for helping me to understand this better.
- The problem in applying the American Heritage Dictionary‘s definition to Jesus is, as several readers pointed out to me, is that Jesus does not “invoke” or “call upon” the supernatural. He is the supernatural power itself. So this definition would render Christians themselves practitioners of magic, but not Jesus/God himself. [↩]