Miracle or Magic? A homework exercise


What’s the difference between miracle and magic? Let’s first define them. The Macquarie Dictionary defines miracle as an effect in the physical world which surpasses all known human or natural powers and is therefore ascribed to supernatural agency. Magic is defined as the art of producing effects claimed to be beyond the natural human power and arrived at by means of supernatural agencies or through command of occult forces in nature. Occult is variously defined as 1. beyond the bounds of ordinary knowledge; mysterious. 2. not disclosed; secret; communicated only to the initiated. 3. (in early science) a. not apparent on mere inspection but discoverable by experimentation. b. of a nature not understood, as physical qualities. c. dealing with such qualities; experimental: occult science. 4. of the nature of, or relating to, certain reputed sciences, as magic, astrology, etc., involving the alleged knowledge or employment of secret or mysterious agencies.

Common usage for “magic” refers to conjuring or legerdemain; illusions which are known to be such by all but the youngest observers. The means may baffle us entirely, but we will never admit that we are witnessing magic in the earlier, and I would say true, sense. This is to be expected when belief in the supernatural is at a such a low ebb. Wiccans would be an exception to this rule. Even very orthodox Christians and Jews, on the other hand, would balk at hurdle of magic. The supernatural is all very fine, as long as it is not unpredictable or hostile. While “the supernatural” finds its way into the definition of magic, it is in the guise of the occult that it is most commonly understood.
Originally, “occult” practices were what we would call “science.” Occult meant that some of nature’s characteristics were hidden, but susceptible to discovery. These attempts at discovery were the beginnings of experimental science, even as alchemy was the beginning of modern chemistry. At a time when the hidden forces of nature were considered to reflect the action of intelligent agents, occultists sought means of controlling these agents. We still expect this
of our scientists; only the philosophical assumptions have changed. Intelligent agents could well respond, as better known intelligent agents do, to language. Find the right language, and communication with the hidden forces would be yours. Find the right incantations, and you would control them. And you thought research into infectious diseases was dangerous. Elements of this approach remain in Christian liturgy, modulo the blasphemous notion of control. The incantations are still essential, but as evidence of obedience to the commands of God, and as invocations of the covenant freely entered into by a God who is ever faithful to His promises.
The notion that nature of itself will respond to the appropriate commands was subsumed in the progress of modern Western scientific enquiry. For Western science, nature was commanded by the characteristics of its own deep structure. Command still followed knowledge — the de-occultation of this structure — but command must accord with the discovered reality. Nature was assumed to be rational to its deepest level, and in this to accord with the nature of the Judeo-Christian God. Nature is not capricious, because God is not capricious, pace Muslim belief.
If the occult is no longer seen as a “natural” phenomenon, there remains its supernatural aspect. Occult instances can be interpreted in terms of spiritual agents acting parallel to nature. In this case, the incantations are directed to the spiritual agent. An obvious example is a black mass. Why not use the Mass itself as an example? With this question we come to the fulcrum on which magic and miracle are balanced. The dividing line is not entirely clear-cut, but we would be safe in assuming that an incident such as that portrayed in Rosemary’s Baby, where a rival is blinded by black magic, would not be classified as a miracle. On the other hand, Jesus’ “works,”as He referred to them, have always been classified as miracles. In these cases, it is the nature of the agency that determines the classification. Nonetheless, assuming that an event such as the black magic of the film could actually occur, the circumstances are similar in representing the intervention of an intelligent being who exists — in the case of Jesus’ divine nature — as a spirit independent of the natural universe.
To complicate the issue, there is an example to which C. S. Lewis refers in Miracles, A Preliminary Study. Here is the text of Tacitus’ report of the matter, from The Histories, Book IV, Events in Rome and the East.

During the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria waiting for the regular season of the summer winds to ensure a safe voyage, there occurred many miraculous events manifesting the goodwill of Heaven and the special favour of Providence towards him. At Alexandria a poor workman who was well known to have a disease of the eye, acting on the advice of Serapis,whom this superstitious people worship as their chief god, fell at Vespasian’s feet demanding with sobs a cure for his blindness, and imploring that the emperor would deign to moisten his eyes and eyeballs with the spittle from his mouth. Another man with a maimed hand, also inspired by Serapis, besought Vespasian to imprint his footmark on it. At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. But they insisted. Half fearing to be thought a fool, half stirred to hopes by their petition and by the flattery of his courtiers, he eventually told the doctors to form an opinion whether such cases of blindness and deformity could be remedied by human aid.
The doctors talked round the question, saying that in the one case the power of sight was not extinct and would return, if certain impediments were removed; in the other case the limbs were distorted and could be set right again by the application of an effective remedy: this might be the will of Heaven and the emperor had perhaps been chosen as the divine instrument. They added that he would gain all the credit, if the cure were successful, while, if it failed, the ridicule would fall on the unfortunate patients. This convinced Vespasian that there were no limits to his destiny: nothing now seemed incredible. To the great excitement of the bystanders, he stepped forward with a smile on his face and did as the men desired him.
Immediately the hand recovered its functions and daylight shone once more in the blind man’s eyes. Those who were present still attest both miracles to-day, when there is nothing to gain by lying.

The report was written in about AD 108, long after the Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian had passed into history. According to C. S. Lewis, the same incident is also reported by Suetonius and Dion Cassius. It is worth noting that, despite the status of Roman Emperors as gods, no other such reports are discussed in Lewis’ book. Tacitus’ discussion continues as follows.

This occurrence deepened Vespasian’s desire to visit the holy-place and consult Serapis about the fortunes of the empire. He gave orders that no one else was to be allowed in the temple, and then went in. While absorbed in his devotions, he suddenly saw behind him an Egyptian noble, named Basilides, whom he knew to be lying ill several days’ journey from Alexandria. He inquired of the priests whether Basilides had entered the temple that day. He inquired of every one he met whether he had been seen in the city. Eventually he sent some horsemen, who discovered that at the time Basilides was eighty miles away. Vespasian therefore took what he had seen for a divine apparition, and guessed the meaning of the oracle from the name ‘Basilides’. [I.e. king’s son.]

Reading Tacitus, one glimpses the Weltanschauung of a bygone era. The structure of beliefs is held and expressed with the same superior confidence in which we today indulge when discussing Tacitus. Was this crowd of spiritual beings impinging on human affairs the busy invention of overactive imaginations? The modern view is an immediate and emphatic “yes”. Perhaps, though, some other forces were at work.

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers… [Acts 16; 16-19]

Liberation from spiritual bondage is a theme that runs through the Gospels, and this story from Acts illustrates a process of what might be called spiritual displacement. There are however, other ways to displace magic from human affairs. One may simply abolish it by a change in the perspectives by which one accredits knowledge. Michael Polanyi, a passionate advocate of scientific epistemology, illustrates this.

Astrology has been sustained for 3000 years by empirical evidence confirming the predictions of horoscopes. This represents the longest chain of historically known empirical generalisations. For many prehistoric centuries the theories embodied in magic and witchcraft appeared to be strikingly confirmed by events in the eyes of those who believed in magic and witchcraft. Lecky rightly points out that the destruction of belief in witchcraft during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was achieved in the face of an overwhelming, and still rapidly growing, body of evidence for its reality. Those who denied that witches existed did not attempt to explain this evidence at all, but successfully urged that it be disregarded. Glanvill, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society, not unreasonably denounced this method as unscientific, on the ground of the professed empiricism of contemporary science.
[M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1962, p 168]

Where has this ramble led me? To this: magic and miracle are the darkness and the light of the spiritual influences in the physical world. There are those who believe that the philosophy of scientific materialism is the new Philosopher’s Stone, which has turned the gold of supernatural Christian reality into the dross of a spiritually barren, utterly material reality. The good news — a tiny fragment of the Good News — is that this view is false, and has been collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions for most of the last century. It, like the mental universe of Tacitus, will pass away. Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis the materialist, “…but my words will not pass away.”
I will finish with something from a woman, who, in spite of her Medusa-headed political correctness; in spite of her fashionable furies; in spite of her elaborate exhibitionism, knows more about the Christian reality than many in the Church today.

I became a Catholic priest in 1999, largely, I think, because I’m the type of woman that doesn’t like to get told what to do by men, and I wanted to demonstrate that we don’t have to take no for an answer. There are an awful lot of women out there would like to be priests, and the Pope says they can’t be, but there are a number of bishops who will ordain women regardless. And, given that it’s a magic ritual, once a bishop ordains you, you are a priest, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (And I do believe in magic, obviously.)

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