Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh, those magical Christians


I've been thinking, lately, about the "magical" elements of Christianity. And lo, in an article in the Jewish Review of Books ("It's not just for Jews anymore!"), I read this:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly.
The article, incidentally, was quite interesting; it asks, and attempts to answer, why there have been no great Jewish fantasy writers. But I digress: I'm wondering about the characterization of Christianity as "magical", which, I think, is not inaccurate. There are certainly elements of the religion that defy any sort of conventional logic (viz., transubstantiation, parthenogenesis, trinitarianism, &c.). In recent centuries, various sects have attempted to excise those elements that have proven increasingly baffling to modern man. The end result of this process is, I suppose, Unitarianism. My favorite Unitarian joke, if you must know, is this:
Q: How do you get a Unitarian family to leave town?
A: Burn a question mark in their front yard.
Last night while I was trying to fall asleep it occurred to me that, should one remove all the "magical" elements of Christianity, one is left without any sort of physical manifestation of the Divine whatsoƫver. The Real Presence in the Eucharist? Out. The Incarnation? Nope. Miracles? Well, of course not. A de-magicized Christianity is, in fact, a good deal more "spiritual" and a lot less material.

Here I shall make an argumentum ad verecundiam: Wendell Berry says we need to be a good deal more cognizant that we are creatures of matter, so it must be true. (The implications of this are fodder for a great many other posts, but I shan't delve into that here.) I wonder, however, how a Unitarian, or a Jeffersonian agnostic, or certain Episcopalians, can back up this sentiment without recourse to that absurd idea that matter itself has been made divine.

Any thoughts? I suppose I'm a bit out of my depth here, both theologically and philosophically.


  1. Sorry, to jump back to this post (I hope you notice the response).

    Ok, so, suppose we're creatures of matter. I don't see how it follows that the Jeffersonian-Episcopalian-Unitarian have to say that matter was, therefore, divine. Wouldn't J-E-U (erm...) want to say that matter just wasn't divine? After all, Jefferson rewrote the Bible sans miracles--indicating that an appreciation of 'divine' wasn't really what he was interested in; that is, that Christ's power involved the usefulness of His instructions on how to live, moreso than it did His 'divinity.'

    Of course, maybe we're talking past each other. I'm thinking 'divinity' means something like "non-physical in origin but physically efficacious ability," or "Jesus magic." Is that what you mean, too?

  2. Maybe it might be easier to see it in terms of value. An essential component of Berry's worldview, if I am not mistaken, is that matter, er, matters, and that the modern American way of life profoundly devalues matter (much to our detriment, and to the detriment of the world). But what justifies this belief in the intrinsic value of matter? A Biblical literalist (God forbid) can look in a Bible and see that God Himself calls creation good; indeed, he thought it good enough to die for. Even a more reasonable Christian (if there is such a thing) can claim this.

    When you take an involved Deity out of the picture, whence cometh any sort of inherent value of the material? Is it enough that some of us happen to think it so?

  3. But go back to the Euthyphro: is matter good because God calls it "good," or does God call it "good" because it is good? And that's a more or less irresolvable problem, seems to me.

    So, if we want to know why matter is good, I'm still not seeing why divinity has much to do with it. After all, if it turns out that Christians are wrong and there is no God (or God really gnostically meant, "Screw matter.") would that mean that it was somehow unimportant that we care for the earth?

    Of course, this has the interesting implication that matter isn't 'intrinsically' valuable. But what of it? Even if it's only extrinsically valuable, it still matters that we take care of it.

    Or, as Douglas Adams is supposed to have put it: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"