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.