Dallas Willard on Christianity, Magic, and the Supernatural

Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, asks this question in his excellent book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God:

How does a life in which one speaks the creative word of God differ from a life of voodoo, magic, and superstition?

Here is part of his answer (the section begins on page 137):

The word magic in this context refers to … the attempt to influence the actual course of events, as distinct from their appearance, by manipulation of symbolisms or special substances such as effigies and incantations….

Magic and witchcraft … are forms of superstition. They work from belief that some action, substance or circumstance not logically or naturally (or even supernaturally) related to a certain course of events does nonetheless influence the outcome of those events if “correctly” approached. Prayer and speaking with God must be carefully distinguished from superstition.

The word superstition is derived from words that mean “to stand over,” as one might stand in wonder or amazement over something incomprehensible…. Martin Buber rightly says that “magic desires to obtain its effects without entering into relation, and practices its tricks in the void,” the void of ignorance and selfish obsession.

Superstition, then, is belief in magic; and magic relies on alleged causal influences that are not actually mediated through the natures of the things involved. Suppose, for example, someone ways they can throw you into great pain or even kill you by mutilating a doll-like effigy of you…. It is superstition or magic, for there is no real connection between someone’s sticking a pin in a doll and your feeling pain….

In our faith we do not believe that the power concerned resides in the words used or in the rituals taken by themselves. If we did, we would indeed be engaged in superstitious practices. Instead we regard the words and actions simply as ways ordained in the nature of things as established by God for accomplishing the matter in question. They work as part of life in the kingdom of God. They enlist the personal agencies of that kingdom to achieve the ends at their disposal and are not mere tools by which we engineer our desired result. We are under authority, not in control….

It is the very nature of the material universe to be subject generally to the word of an all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing divine mind.

Three times in this excerpt Willard refers to the natures of things:

  • Magic is not real because its “alleged causal influences are not actually mediated through the natures of the things involved.”
  • Christian prayer (or speaking with spiritual authority, the real subject of this chapter) has its effect by working in concert with “ways ordained in the nature of things as established by God.”
  • “It is the very nature of the material universe to be subject generally to the word of an all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing divine mind.

Although one specific recent controversy over the term “magic” has been resolved, this passage from Willard helpfully speaks to a larger question regarding the supernatural. Atheists generally consider belief in the supernatural to be not just wrong; to them it is mindlessness or idiocy. In one of the ellipses (omitted passages) of the above passage, Willard tells how Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court was able to get the superstitious Old Englanders to believe he had magical powers, when he was in fact working by natural methods known to 19th century science. Christians, according to the naturalists (this was not Willard’s point) are gullible in the same way, imagining there is more to the universe than the natural course of events, and misattributing natural effects to unnatural causes.

The consistent, supernaturalist theistic position is that supernatural causes and events actually are natural, though not in the sense of being susceptible to study by science or occurring within some closed system of matter, energy, natural law, and chance. They are natural in the sense that they involve the universe and its parts acting according to their natures; where the nature of everything is to be “subject to the word of an all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing divine mind.”

Whether using the term “magic” or the more acceptable “supernatural,” naturalistically-inclined atheists typically consider it risible that Christians believe in a “fairy-tale” view of reality. But it’s far from clear to me what’s ridiculous or even odd about this, if we view the supernatural and the natural as intertwined, all of it together subject to the word of God. It fits logically; it works; it’s not incoherent. Of course it is a strange, unfamiliar viewpoint for the mind trained to see nature (matter, energy, law, and chance) as a closed system. But what if it’s that training that’s confused? Is that not at least logically possible? If so, then it’s also logically possible that to mock supernaturalism might be to display one’s own confusion regarding the true nature of reality. And it might also be that this very confusion is what causes some to miss what’s really there.

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  3. Bill

    Again, we run into the current methodology of the new atheists when discussing the difference between the supernatural and magic. The attempt to blur the lines between these two very obviously, very different things is a sophist technique not an intellectual argument. However, in a 15-second sound bite world, this plays out in their favor.

    The real question of the existence of the supernatural is, quite simply, the same as the question of the existence of God. Atheism has nothing that disproves the existence of God or proves its own religious belief. It has no better answers, if not much worse answers, for things like the existence of the universe. It can’t account for the existence of life. Atheism has show over and over it can’t even reason logically to account for much of basic human nature.

    For Dallas Willard to wonder, “If so, then it’s also logically possible that to mock supernaturalism might be to display one’s own confusion regarding the true nature of reality. And it might also be that this very confusion is what causes some to miss what’s really there”. is the kind of serious question most of the anti-religion crowd assiduously avoids.

  4. doctor(logic)

    When you make a voodoo doll, don’t you have to follow a recipe and include one of the victim’s hairs or possessions?

    That would mean that there’s a very specific relationship between the actions of the voodoo practitioner and the pain or death of the victim. There are laws that control the magic. Voodoo is predictable. Scientifically falsifiable, even.

    In contrast, prayer to God has nothing of the sort. Pray for a cardiac patient, and they’re as likely to die or recover as anyone else.

    The defining characteristic of superstition is improper statistical sampling, and the amplification of bias. Superstition is all about creative interpretation of individual events, and assigning significance to events based on bias and emotion. It has nothing to do with relationship or mechanism.

    For example, when the voodoo guy uses his magic on you, he probably tells you he’s cursing you first. Later, when you lose your keys, instead of saying “I can be so forgetful, sometimes” and laughing it off, you go “%$^#! the curse is working!!” You start to read significance into every negative event that befalls you, while simultaneously ignoring the positive events.

    And the effect is probably worse when you believe that the voodoo magic ought to have an effect on you. If you think that you deserved to be cursed, your subconscious will probably find a way to make you commit more errors.

    Again, the characteristic of the superstitious thinker is that he ignores base rates for events, and endows individual events with undue significance.

    Science is the methodology for judging significance without bias. If you say God acts in such a way as to be invisible to science, you’re basically saying he only appears at the level of human bias. At which point, human bias (which is scientifically known to exist) is always a much better explanation for phenomena.

    Christianity is only slightly less superstitious than voodoo. Preachers ask you to accept Jesus, and then tell you that you will see Jesus in your life. What do they mean? They sure don’t mean you’ll see him in any scientifically testable way. They mean that when things of positive personal significance occur, you will say that they are examples of God being good to you. When bad things happen, that’s either Satan, or else God is teaching you a lesson. If it’s a lesson, you’re supposed to wait and see what consequence can be regarded as a positive consolation. Yet none of these things has any statistical significance. It’s all about wishful, biased interpretation of events. That is, the events would have happened the way they did whether or not God exists, whether or not you prayed for them (beyond the psychosomatic effects, etc.).

  5. Bill

    See, you don’t have to wait long for the atheists to continue to ignore the basic question. Nine paragraphs later and DL still hasn’t addressed the relevant issue. All the statistics in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans if the inventor of statistics (God) exists. And what does DL have to say about that? Nothing.

    Instead we get this ”Science is the methodology for judging significance without bias”. You have to pinch yourself to even try to comprehend that DL doesn’t see the overall bias in this statement. He commits the error of believing that it is strong rationalism that offers the only really valid insight into any topic. But the idea that we can only trust or even best trust those things that have been proven scientifically is, of course, a self-referential incoherence. For no amount of scientific data can prove that “we can only trust those things that have been proven scientifically”.

    It is the blind leading the blind. Science, they tell us, it’s science that holds the key to all understanding. All that shouting without the understanding that science, logic, reason are all just tools that God gave us to better understand him and his creation. Without Him, there is no basis for believing that anything in the universe even should be understandable much less would we have the tools to do so.

  6. SteveK

    Bill,
    DL seems unwilling to accept that anyone can know anything about reality – including God – without first ‘running the numbers’. One wonders if he only knows something about his family because he keeps a log of all the relevant statistical data in the nightstand drawer. 😉

  7. Bill

    Steve,

    And they talk about Christians having “blind faith”. I wonder how DL know if he loves someone or is loved. What formula does he apply?

    If that isn’t enough, we get gems like this“If you say God acts in such a way as to be invisible to science, you’re basically saying he only appears at the level of human bias.”What does that even mean, “the level of human bias”? God can’t be directly observed or measured scientifically, true. That tells us nothing about his effect on the universe or how it can be rationally explained or understood.

    Human bias isn’t even a relavant part of the conversation unless DL wants to include his own obvious biases as part of the equation. If so, I doubt there would be much left to talk about after balancing the two.

  8. doctor(logic)

    Like an Alzheimer’s patient, I keep coming back to this blog.

    All the statistics in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans of the inventor of statistics (God) exists.

    Let me guess, logic don’t amount to a hill of beans if the inventor of logic exists?

    But the idea that we can only trust or even best trust those things that have been proven scientifically is, of course, a self-referential incoherence.

    Science is an automatic consequence of rationality. God is not.

    One wonders if he only knows something about his family because he keeps a log of all the relevant statistical data in the nightstand drawer…

    I wonder how DL know if he loves someone or is loved. What formula does he apply?

    NO! WHAT FORMULA DO YOU APPLY?!!!

    Name someone who loves you, and then tell me how you know they love you. If you have reasons, you have statistical reasons! The people who love you and the people who hate you act differently in regard to you.

    Hint: if they don’t act differently (statistically), they don’t love you. For example, people who hate you don’t buy you flowers, statistically speaking. They don’t send you cards. They don’t ask how you are feeling. People who love you don’t punch you in the face. They don’t cause you pain unnecessarily. Any of this ringing a bell?

    How sad it is that neither of you ever question your own beliefs. That neither of you have the slightest desire to test whether you might be wrong, or to test whether your biases are deluding you. And it’s strangely predictable, frightening and amusing to me that you think your God wants you to be exactly this way.

  9. Bill

    You were the one who wanted to challenge the existence of God based on statistical probabilities. Claiming God can or can’t be proven statistically is simply nonsense. It’s like using a hammer to bail out a boat. Your straw man argument about logic is just that, a straw man argument. No one said or even implied anything of the sort.

    Your statement that ”Science is an automatic consequence of rationality. God is not”. is both a non-sequitor and a straw man argument. No one claimed God was a consequence of rationality (rationality is a consequence of God) and lots of things are the result of rationality, science among them. So what?

    You failed to even try to address my claim of your bias in believing that science offers the only information we can really trust. However, in light of your avoiding any discussion of this obviously incoherent belief, you try to claim it is us that are biased and have no desire to test our beliefs. Hello! Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle!

    And, if I understand you, you seem to believe that you know someone’s feelings toward you and your feelings toward them by keeping some kind of “ledger”. I can only hope that really isn’t true.

  10. SteveK

    If you have reasons, you have statistical reasons!

    Without ANY actual, hard numbers. New math, I guess.

    Correction: I do know that the nature of naturalistic, Darwinian reality is devoid of love so that statistic is a hard zero.

  11. SteveK

    Bill,

    And, if I understand you, you seem to believe that you know someone’s feelings toward you and your feelings toward them by keeping some kind of “ledger”.

    A mental ‘ledger’ that skeptics say can’t be trusted (see historical account of resurrection debate). A mental one that uses fuzzy math (no real adding or multiplying going on in your head) with soft ‘numbers’ and huge error bars due to the fact that the experiential data is pulled from memory that may have biases or holes. I’m not complaining, I’m just hoping DL will realize that, from an epistemology perspective, it works pretty well.

  12. Holopupenko

    Aimed at every person of faith who participates on this blog:

    Like an Alzheimer’s patient, I keep coming back to this blog.

    Isn’t that like Obama’s terribly condescending joke, “it’s like the Special Olympics or something”?

    Tom: with all due respect, this sort of atheism-animated nonsense should not be permitted.

  13. SteveK

    The people who love you and the people who hate you act differently in regard to you.

    At a young age, before I knew how to do math, all I needed was a sample size of one from each side to know who loves me and who hates me.

    No math + no numbers + one experience = knowledge.

  14. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    … if we view the supernatural and the natural as intertwined, all of it together subject to the word of God. It fits logically; it works; it’s not incoherent.

    The informal methods we use to make sense out of the world tend to be similar to methods used by science, i.e. facts, statistics, probabilities, logic. As DL has noted, we figure out how people feel towards us by making and tabulating observations (how they treated us, how we treated them) and using learned facts of human nature together with rules of logic.

    I assume those methods are natural methods of inquiry of the natural world. Does all of this break down when trying to understand or make use of the supernatural or is some of it useful?

    For example, if the supernatural did not mimic the statistical and probable nature of sane, rational human personalities at least in one instance, God could change his mind today and send sinners to heaven and the righteous to hell. I think Christians would agree that the probability of this happening is certainly less than 50%. But if this is true, a purely natural method of learning data — statistical evaluation predicting probable behaviour — has successfully been used to determine something about the supernatural — that God’s past behaviour can be used as a guide to his future behaviour.

    If the supernatural and natural fit comfortably and logically together, what are the applications, limits and boundaries of natural inquiry to the supernatural?

  15. SteveK

    Continuting woodchuck’s quote from above, Tom goes on to say:

    Of course it is a strange, unfamiliar viewpoint for the mind trained to see nature (matter, energy, law, and chance) as a closed system. But what if it’s that training that’s confused?

    If you spend some time looking around, you’ll discover that a supernatural view of reality comes naturally to those who have not been trained to reject it. It takes work to undo this. Repetitive training and conditioning of the mind is not synonymous with a natural shedding of an unnatural worldview (“enlightenment”). It’s a deliberate, willful attempt to get the mind where it doesn’t want to be, and I suspect it takes considerable work to keep it there.

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    Tom Gilson

    I’ve been wanting to get involved in this discussion ever since doctor(logic)’s comment #4, but I’ve been really tied up with on another project with a deadline, and besides that, I knew as soon as I read it that my answers was not going to be quick and easy. I’ve finally caught up with it, and published it as a blog post this morning.

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