By David Yount
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Believers and skeptics alike agree that what distinguishes humans from other creatures is self-consciousness -- our thoughts and emotions. Since these traits are not physical, what can they be? For want of a better word, we call them spiritual.
Even primitive men and women grasped that they were different from the beasts. Whereas they were burdened with thoughts and emotions, the beasts seemed to manage quite well by instinct and senses alone. Predictably, over time, people sought kindred spirits within and beyond the world of mere sensation.
From the outset, physical existence was unpredictable, and human life was precarious. Perhaps, our primitive ancestors hoped, the spirits within and behind things might be persuaded to come to their assistance and give them confidence. So they sought enchantment.
In very ancient times, of course, no one knew why it rained, why crops grew or why the rivers flowed; but it seemed that there must be some power that bade them to act as they did. Just as humans are moved by will rather than by instinct alone, presumably there was some intelligence that willed the movement of the stars.
Thus magic was born in the attempt to seduce the spirits in the stones, the water, the sky and the fire to do the bidding of human beings. Over time, magic evolved into ritual and pagan religion, featuring a pantheon of spirits capable of influencing every aspect of human life.
Born into this world of enchantment, Judaism and Christianity accepted the ancient premise that human beings are both physical and spiritual, that their lives are precarious, and that they require hope. What the new faiths rejected was that there are fickle spirits to be seduced, insisting instead that there is but one all-powerful creator spirit from whom all good -- and only good -- is forthcoming.
Judaism offered sacrifices to curry God’s favor. In turn, Christianity preferred prayer to sacrifice. Unlike magic, prayer does not seek to manipulate nature; rather, it recognizes that one God is lord of the universe and alone has the power and inclination to fulfill human hope.
Does magic work? People clearly have never abandoned enchantment, because our common plight has never been completely resolved despite the wonders of applied science. Technology, after all, is magic brought up to date -- the laboratory has only improved on the spells and incantations of the ancients.
To ask whether magic works is akin to demanding whether prayers are answered. Nine out of 10 of our fellow Americans admit to praying -- three out of four people say they pray every day of their lives. We persist in prayer because we need to keep hope alive. We no longer need magic, however, because we have identified the source of our hope and know that we can count on a dependable God.
David Yount is the author of 14 books on faith, spirituality and confident living, including “Be Strong and Courageous” (Sheed & Ward). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.