Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Theology or Magic

Every now and again, students raise questions that push me to consider issues that had never dawned on me. Earlier this year, several students raised the question of wearing scapulars, so we spent some time thinking through why people wear them and what they "do." Some students had been given the impression that if one were to wear a scapular, he would be saved from hell simply by wearing it. I entered into a discussion with a colleague on this issue and thought that it might be helpful for others to read what I wrote.

Dear X,

Yesterday in class, some of my students raised the question of scapulars. They attributed to you the idea that if one is wearing a scapular that he or she automatically goes to heaven or, at the least, will be saved from hell. One student seemed to recall something about "going to Mass nine Sundays in a row" as part of making this particular devotional operative but, on the whole, they seemed to hold the belief that scapular = salvation. 

I tried to use this as a teaching moment for the guys. A few weeks ago, I introduced the concept of 'real' or 'Cambridge Change" versus "merely Cambridge Change." A distinction used by Peter Geach, it analyzes sentences such as:

1. Today, Bill is taller than Peter.
2. (Fifteen years later) Today, Bill is shorter than Peter. (Bill has become shorter than Peter)

One way of reading this is that there has been a change in Bill: Bill may stand at 5'10 today but, after a terrible encounter with an IED, lost his legs and his now 5'1". This would be a 'real' or 'Cambridge Change' in Bill. There is, however, another way of reading the sentence. Today Bill stands at 5'10. In fifteen years, Bill may still stand at 5'10". Yet Peter has grown tremendously. The change in the subject of the sentence is not is a relational change rather than a real change. We talk as though there is a change in Bill, as in the parenthetical, but the real change is in Peter. This we describe as a 'Merely Cambridge Change' because while we speak of a change in Bill, we are actually predicating the change of Peter. 

I mention this because I take seriously this distinction as introduced in the Summa (1a 13.7). I have a near-allergic reaction to any suggestion that God 'changes' or can be influenced. 

The trouble with what the students are holding at this moment concerning scapulars is what seems to be some totemic belief or magical thinking that a piece of clothing is actually going to affect God. Clearly, if the scapular is emblematic of living a life in response to God's grace and friendship then, surely, this is a good thing! Yet merely donning it as a talisman is certainly of the devotion...devotions, even ones that adorn us, cannot simply be skin deep! 

I say this because they attributed to you the belief that if  a serial killer were wearing a scapular, and if he were to fall into a river, it would happen that the current would wash the scapular away before he drowned, thereby consigning him to the full-force of God's justice. The same, though, might be said of an otherwise-striving-for-holiness victim of a Tsunami who had the misfortune of losing the scapular before taking his last breath. 

Basically, my concern is that the students not be left with superstition or magical thinking. I cannot imagine that "holy bling" makes a difference to God if it does not point toward a converted and open heart that yearns for ever-deeper companionship with the Lord. I don't want our students to be fearful or to resort to talismanic practices because it is going to ward off evil or placate an idolatrous notion of God; I want them to embrace devotionals as a way of deepening their relationship with God. 

This is a live question for me and I welcome feedback from readers. I'm not denying the scapular or ridiculing it as a devotion, but my concern is always to avoid turning religion into magic.


Don said...

What was the response from your colleague?

In Christ,


Ryan Duns, SJ said...


I would have to get permission to post the response. The claim was that the students had misunderstood the presentation. This may, in fact, be the case but it leaves me to wonder if this type of thinking isn't actually rather common among Catholics and Christians, the notion that we can somehow manipulate God to do what we want. You know, that "My will....err....Thy will" conflict we so often face!

Don said...

In my short tenure in the faith (just over 3 years confirmed and 3 years before that studying the theology of the Church with a Religious Priest) I would have to say that this, unfortunately IS the type of thinking many Christians (and Catholic Christians too!) feel these days. We have gotten too far from the Teachings of the Church I feel, and have become too secular in our thoughts. I strongly feel we need to get back to our roots in faith...


Nan said...

I wanted to know the response too! Funny... I am reading The Spirituality of Imperfection (Kurtz & Ketcham)and just read last night the section on magic versus miracle. You might like this quote (p. 118) "Miracle involved opennes to mystery, the welcoming of surprise, the acceptance of those realities over which we have no control. Magic is the attempt to be in control, to manage everything--it is the claim to be, or to have a special relationship with some kind of "god." Spirituality is aligned not with magic and the effort to control, but with miracle, "the wonder of the unique that points us back to the wonder of the everyday."

I think that magic cannot leave one open to grace. While we may engage in magical thinking (I know I do!)at times, this is a very immature form of thinking, being, believing, and we should be able to recognize/accept it as such. Gently of course. Maybe this is all part of the "Control-F" generation? Altho I don't think they have the only dibs on this kind of thinking.

We do not create miracles, we witness them. This seems to me to be the key. Anytime I think I can control God or direct God, well, then I am just trying to be God and that doesn't really work.

This book also goes on to make the distinction between willfulness (magic) that demands magical control over being changed and willingness (miracle)that creates an openness to being changed.

Important distinctions I think!

Stormcrow said...

"Magical" thinking sneaks up on people when they mis-represent the gospel.

I think a great example is the phenomenon of 'the sinner's prayer' we see here in the south. They think that saying the prayer once when they were younger saves them from hell, as opposed to actually entering into God's grace -like an incantation.