Saturday, July 24

God As NON-Magician


I like Pope Francis I.

His openness to sexual-orientation minorities and his solicitude toward the poor are in marked contrast to the hard-line intransigence more characteristic of past Pontiffs.  Church teachings about abortion, birth control – the “life” issues generally – and such matters as women’s ordination and same-sex marriage remain substantially unchanged.  (I say “substantially” because, even on some of these issues, the Pope’s recent statements have been interestingly nuanced. God – so to speak – is in the details.)  Bill Maher often says he strongly suspects that Pope Francis – “Pope Frank” as Maher sometimes calls him – is actually a closet atheist.  (I think Maher is only half serious about such statements. But the operative word is “half”:  I do think Maher is half serious.) The most recent papal statement to raise such a kerfuffle is his statement denying that “God [is] a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything”. To people – even devout, observant, faithful Christians – raised in a science-literate culture, this statement is about as under-whelming a sentiment as one could imagine.  But for such people – scientifically literate, believing Christians, especially (though not exclusively) faithful Catholics – Pope Francis’ statement is, in the best sense, a bit of a booby trap, both epistemologically (what we can know in general) and theologically (what we can know about the Divine in particular).


Probably the most immediately obvious question the Pope’s statement begs is What about miracles? To take what is arguably the most obvious example, what about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth? For over two millennia, orthodox – lower case “o” – Christianity has taught that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, and not, as with everyone else, through sexual intercourse. Parthenogenesis – conception without sex – is a trick that would make David Copperfield’s illusions look like my late Uncle Oscar’s amateur card tricks. Moreover, in the Christian understanding, parthenogenesis is real. It actually happened. It was not a stage illusion. Ditto Christ’s literal, physical, space-time historical Resurrection from the dead – which, St. Paul says, is make-or-break for the veracity of the Gospel message (I Corinthians 15:16-18):

For if the dead are not raised, then not even has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished …

How does one argue that God is not a Magician – while at the same time believing and teaching that, through God’s intervention, life emerged, respectively, from both an unfertile Womb and from a three-days-occupied charnel house? In either case, that’s a helluva trick.

Well … OK … maybe it would be better to say that evolution, the Big Bang, etc., are not, strictly speaking, miracles, because, as my old Boeing-workstation log-on message used to say, “The Universe is just one of those things that happens from time to time”. That is, as stunning as they are, the Big Bang and evolution are nevertheless fully consonant with the laws of nature, whereas virgins having babies and a dead guy coming back to life and throwing a seafood buffet for his friends (John 21:12) are not. But wait a minute … is the Big Bang really that different from the Virgin Birth? Doubtful. Far as we know, there are two possibilities. Either the Universe has always been here or it has not.  If it has always been here – if our Universe partook of the old Fred Hoyle theory of continuous creation, or if it was the result of the collision in higher-dimensional space of two or more ‘branes ... i.e. Universe-as-'brane damage ... awright! ... sorry awready! ... sheesh! – then the Universe, or at least the multi-verse that birthed it, is fully as eternal as God. That is, no more than God did the Universe have a Creator. Under either account, God is superfluous, a Whisker to be shaved away by Brother Ockham’s sharp Razor. Or, if the Universe came about from some primordial Singularity, then the Universe arose ex nihilo … literally and figuratively from nothing. And if we say God spoke the Universe into existence – out of nothing -- by Divine fiat, then God caused the Universe to come from nothing … which – one more time – is a magic trick all the more impressive for being quite real and not an illusion.  In that latter case, we are back to God-as-magician.

Archaeopteryx ("proto-bird") fossil
Hubble Telescope "deep field" image

Similar remarks apply to evolution – although here there is a closer dependence on physical law, and therefore evolution is at least marginally more explicable, because, once the process gets going, there is a known set of physical laws to appeal to. There are some rules to the Game. So from that point on, it is a matter of cause and effect. One does not, as in the case of the Big Bang and ultimate origins, have to deal with all the quantum-level paradoxes of causality.

But the “magic quotient” is still pretty impressive, even so.  How did life first arise, and, in any case, how did a mixture of chemicals, however complex, result, not only in life, but in intelligent life? Making the raw building blocks of life is a relatively simple matter of organic chemistry, as Prof. Harold C. Urey and his graduate student Stanley Miller demonstrated in their classic experiment:  put some chemicals like the ones present on the ancient earth in a flask, run an electrical current through the mixture to simulate lightning, and … voila! … in a few days you will find an organic gunk coating the interior of the glass that contains, e.g., amino acids and other compounds vital to the building of proteins, DNA, etc. But it is safe to say that Homer, Mozart, and the Dalai Lama will not emerge from the flask, even so. Biology is one thing. Sentience is another. Getting from the former to the latter is a stunning bit of … well … magic – and what is even more impressive is that this magic is real:  the rabbit was never really in the hat to begin with. What makes the “hyper-magic” trick known as evolution even more impressive is that evolution and speciation are like chess:  virtually impossible to play the same game twice. I well remember how stunned I was when I read the late Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life, on the Burgess Shale fossil deposits in Canada, especially the part where Gould says that, if you started evolution over again from scratch, it is highly, highly, highly doubtful that the end-result would be anything recognizable as homo sapiens sapiens. Intelligent dinosaurs, maybe. No sentience, maybe.  Even no life at all, maybe.  But homo sapiens sapiens? Possible -- obviously! -- but highly improbable. As with a game of chess, the outcome would be virtually impossible to duplicate, even if you started out with the same set of rules and laws. This may not be magic in the strictest sense, but it will do quite nicely until the real thing comes along.

Finally, evolution and the Big Bang aside, there seems to be, on a lived, felt, and “existential,” level a kind of incorrigible human yearning for God to do magic, our from-the-eyebrows-up theological assent notwithstanding.  I don’t know, never having performed the experiment. But based on my experience in other contexts, I would be willing to wager an arbitrarily large amount of money – I’ll even put my Starbucks Gold Card on the line – that, when the Pope celebrates Mass, there will be a part of the Liturgy where someone, usually a lector, reads the “Prayers of the Faithful” and asks the audience to respond with something like “Lord, hear our prayer”. Among the prayers of the faithful – I’ve seen no exceptions in all the Masses I have attended – there will be requests for God to intervene to heal Mrs. McGillicuddy, who is hospitalized with varicose veins; to safeguard and restore to health Mr. O’Malley, who has heart problems; to prevail upon Palestinians and Israelis to live together in peace; etc., etc., etc. This sounds suspiciously like, their intellectual theologies notwithstanding, Christians are asking God to be a magician and to bring health out of sickness, peace out of belligerence, etc., etc. So the Pope’s professed aversion for viewing God as a Divine Magician seems to prevail only on a theoretical level. In actual nuts-and-bolts practice, religious folks want God to … dammit all! … “Do something, don’t just stand there!” – that is, for God to be what the old Schoolmen used to call an “efficient cause”. Maybe, if we take praying for “stuff” seriously, even an “instrumental cause”.


Of course, the usual response is to save God from being a Magician by arguing that, of course God does “do stuff,” but that God “does stuff” through human agency, i.e., that the true efficient and instrumental causes are human beings acting as God’s proxy.  But in that case, Brother Ockham returns to the discussion, like Banquo haunting MacBeth’s feast.  If curing Mrs. McGillicuddy’s varicose veins can be understood and explained only with reference to the skill of doctors and medical procedures rigorously followed, if, having taken those therapeutic factors into account, there is simply nothing else to explain or to understand, then can I not simply delete God and God’s intervention in my account of Mrs. M’s cure?  In fact, and more generally, if feeding the hungry is something humans have to do, if healing the sick is something humans have to do, if comforting the bereaved is something humans have to do, if giving the thirsty a drink of water is something humans have to do, if reconciling warring parties is something humans have to do … if living life on earth in community with others is something humans have to do … then why pray at all? Meditation?  Awareness?  Mindfulness? Attaining satori / kensho / enlightenment? Yes. Sure. I practice, and can attest to the effectiveness of, vipassana meditation. Others practice similar disciplines, and can no doubt attest to their value. But in those cases, we are not asking anyone …. or any One … to do any thing … or any Thing … least of all to be an efficient or instrumental cause for the achievement of some specific end-in-view.

I’m not down on Pope Francis. I’m really not. In fact, if you are religious, then I should think that his words on God as not a Magician would be welcome. One of the most surefire ways to steep the planet in misery has historically been to attempt to dragoon God into the attainment of some specific end which, however worthy it may be (and it often was not), makes God into an instrumental Cause. In fact, this is a pretty good hip-pocket definition of “superstition”.  The trick is to follow this line of reasoning with enough integrity to accept all of its consequences, e.g., taking Mrs. McGillicuddy’s name off the prayer-request list.

Asking and expecting God to pull a rabbit out of the hat is just a “hare” too much. (No need to sharpen your pitchforks ... I was just leaving ... )

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Pope Francis ... ...  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Magician's hat and wand ... Pixabay
Abracadabra ... Author unknown ... public domain
Hubble deep field image ... NASA / Hubble ... public domain
Archaeopteryx ... H. Raab ... Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0


  • I’ve read a couple things that describe miracles differently than how we think about them.

    One is simple. A miracle is a change in something (she’s cured!) coupled with gratitude. Then we say it is a miracle in our common parlance.

    Second is not so simple. In Process Theology, God is not outside the bounds of scientific laws. i.e. if we have to follow these laws, then God does not suspend them willy nilly in order to make a point. Because that makes God capricious and unreliable. Yeah? So the handling of miracles is chalked up to “we don’t know what we don’t know.” In other words, some people do experience what can be described as miracles. I have a dear friend who was wheelchair bound, was prayed over by a praying healer, and then was up and walking the next day and has been able to put away her wheelchair for a decade.

    I am totally skeptical of all these types of stories. But this woman is my friend. I know her medical condition. How can I reconcile what appears to be a faith healing with my understanding that God is not really capricious. (Why heal her and not the billions others? That is not acceptable!). I cannot doubt that she had a massive change in her medical condition. That is true. And it came about not through normal routes of medicine.

    And also a friend who had stage 4 cancer. Really serious shit. It is gone. Everyone was making plans for her death. No kidding. She DIDN’T see a faith healer or anything remotely like that. But she practices meditation and the peacemaking way. 🙂

    What do we do with this things that are beyond our understanding of science? Well, the faithful often say that God acted directly, yeah? But Process Theology says, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” And we trust that science will find the answers one day. The sticky wicket then becomes…

    If God is then fully involved in our lives as PT proposes but actually does nothing except perform a siren call that people (all things, really) respond to, then the miracles happen to those who listen to God the most and respond to the call. That by doing the things that lead to more love in the world which is ultimately how PT describes God (Creative Responsive Love) we become more fully actualized. Including overcoming horrible things.

    The wicket: great and awesome people that respond to creative, responsive love do not have miracles and recover.

    So ultimately, we don’t know what we don’t know. Because all the explanations fail at some point. I trust some day there will be an answer.

    And also, Ockham’s Razor is a possibility, but not if God is actively involved in a temporal way in our lives but constrained from acting outside of the laws of the cosmos as they exist. And, of course, it comes down to definition of God. White man with pointy finger in the sky? I think not. 😉

    • Will digest this & get back to you. (I’m at Starbucks at the moment & typing on my little iPhone keyboard.) Just wanted to make sure I could access your comment. Having conversations like this is really all I miss about being at STM.

    • OK … Done with Starbucks for the day. When I finished the above reply, I had a brainstorm as follows …

      My post on God as a NON-magician hinges on the concept of CAUSALITY … which, in turn, presupposes what you might call “serial consecutivity” in terms of temporal sequence: event E0 happens at time t0, which causes event E1 to happen at time t1, which causes event E2 to happen at time t2 … etc., etc., etc. (In practice, of course, single-chain causal sequence are rare almost to the point of non-existence. Most often, there is a kind of “spider web” of intersecting such chains. But the key is TEMPORAL SEQUENCE: “just one damn thing after another”.) I was remiss in applying this concept to God, i.e., assuming that God works through causal chains sequentially the way humans (have to) to.

      That was careless of me. A long time ago, I read Boethius “Consolation of Philosophy,” one of the earliest works to question whether God is restricted to sequential cause-and-effect … and to answer “No”. That’s a game-changer, because ALL CONCEPTIONS OF CAUSALITY PRESUPPOSE TEMPORAL SEQUENCE. Furthermore, all four TYPES OF CAUSALITY — material, formal, efficient, and final — presuppose such.. E.g., MATERIAL causality: the iron ore had to be in the ground before anyone could dig it out, make steel from it, and build the bridge … sequential causality; FORMAL causality: the blueprint / CAD drawing, etc., had to be created before the people in the shop could forge the girders.and beams for the bridge; EFFICIENT causality: the steelworkers had to be hired before the bridge could be built; INSTRUMENTAL causality: tools had to be provided for the workers to use; FIINAL causality: somebody had to notice the need for a bridge before anything could be done, and commit to the building of it.

      ALL THESE TYPES OF CAUSALITY INVOLVE *** SEQUENTIALITY OF TIME *** … which Boethius says does NOT apply to God. God inhabits an “Eternal Now”. This does not entail determinism because to say that an event is determined / predestined is to say that its causal chain / sequence is determined. So from God’s standpoint, THERE IS NO DETERMINISM BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO DETERMINE.

      So the Pope’s statement that God is not a magician is, from an Eternal / DIvine / “Boethian” perspective, quite tenable because there is no NEED for a magic trick. Everything just is. And you cannot even say it is “beforehand” because, from God’s standpoint, there is no “before”; there is no “after”; there is just pure “is-ness”.

      Just slide my Nobel Prize under the door if I’m not home.

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