On Magical Thinking and Faith

You’ve probably seen the story. Its been all over my social media this past week. Apparently tens of thousands of Catholics in Arizona learned their baptism is now considered invalid. The reason? The priest mistakenly said “We baptize” rather than “I baptize.” He made this mistake for decades.


Mistake? It’s one word! The average person’s response to this is somewhere between “That’s so stupid, its kind of funny” to “What difference does it really make?

My first thought was, since when is faith about magic words?

As you know, I love fantasy stories. A key component of fantasy is some sort of magic. Some magic systems are quite detailed with rules for how everything works while others are a bit looser. For the former, I think of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series. For the latter, I think of Lord of the Rings. We know Gandalf has access of power and its there when he needs it, but the details of how he accesses it are unknown. 

The Harry Potter series is a bit in the middle. There are some rules but they are not hard and fast. That said, one place where the rules matter, at least early in the series, is saying the precise words of each spell. Get the words wrong and the spell won’t work.There is one memorable scene in the first book where Ron Weasley is having trouble making a leaf float. He is mumbling “Wingardium Leviosa.” His precocious, not-yet-but-soon-to-be-friend Hermione chastises him by pointing out he’s saying it wrong. She them says the words perfectly and her leaf floats away.

It was this scene that came to mind when I read of the story of invalid baptisms. Apparently, if you don’t say the magic words perfectly, the spell (baptism) won’t work.

The obvious question is, what sort of God do we imagine caring about such a thing? I mean, do we really imagine God saying, “Well, I sure wanted to save these people but that priest said the wrong words. My metaphorical hands are tied.”

Let’s shift from magic spells to vending machines. You may have heard some version of this vending machine analogy. We imagine God as a vending machine when we think we just need to say the right word or perform the right action (put the money in the vending machine) and then God will give us what we want (the vending machine dispenses whatever we ask for.

Is faith nothing more than putting money in the God-machine to get the desired outcome? 

Is faith nothing more than muttering the right magic words to get the power (or the salvation)?

Try to imagine God. God is the Infinite, Incomprehensible Ground of Being itself; the one Necessary Being over against all contingencies; That-Than-Which-Nothing-Greater-Can-Be-Named; the Maker and Creator and Sustainer of all; the Great I AM. I have a hard time thinking that the Ultimate Reality, the One who holds all the cosmos together AND the one who laid aside all this to take on human flesh and become Jesus to show us what Self-sacrificial Love is, cares that much about a few words in a ritual.

I admit, I kind of laughed when I saw this story. 

Then I ask myself the challenging question -do we who are kind of laughing at the silliness we perceive in Catholics have the same problem?

Let’s be honest – it’s not just Catholics who reduce faith to a few magic words. For Catholics these magic words might be what the priest says at baptism. But for other Christians, its magic words individuals do or do not say in their lives. I wrote about something similar a few weeks ago.

Every variation of “Can I believe ________ and be a Christian” or “Can I do ________ and be a Christian” sounds to me like the same sort of magical thinking. Its the idea there’s this power out there and the way to access it is to perform the ritual correctly. And if we don’t do it correctly, the gods will be angry!

Speaking of the gods, this is how much ancient religion worked. Ancient religions from Canaan to Rome set up sacrificial systems to appease the gods. Give some offerings and gifts, and the gods will turn away their anger! We see the same thing in Exodus, Leviticus and other books of the Law in the Jewish and Christian scripture. Over and over we read of God commanding this specific sacrifice or that specific offering. The entire sacrificial system was set up to tell us if we did the rituals properly, we would satiate the anger of the gods (or, in the Bible, God).

Do we gravitate to this sort of magical thinking, because we think God is still angry? Do we search out these talismans in the hope of appeasing God’s wrath?

Its ironic than that Christianity is rooted in Jesus freeing us from this necessity to sacrifice, showing us that God does not actually desire this sort of sacrifice (an idea we do see already in the Prophetic literature), yet we run back to this system again and again. 

A strong argument could be made that much of Christian theology is structured as a sort of magical system to appease God’s wrath – what do I have to say or do to make sure God’s anger does not reach out and smite me?

It all begs the question, what is God like?

What sort of God would not love you if your priest said the wrong word at baptism when you were a baby? What sort of God would punish you if you don’t make the right sacrifices properly? We don’t do animal sacrifices anymore, you say? Well, I’ve heard Christians claim that if you don’t give a certain percent of your income to the church, then God will punish you (usually its the pastors of those churches, and if this is your experience in your church, run!). I could share other examples, but it’s the same threat and it points the same angry God – a vindictive, petty deity who is more concerned with the outward trappings of religion and people cowering before him then much else. 

The God imagined reminds me of a shady insurance salesman. You are presented with a long contract filled with pages of fine print. Wanting insurance, you sign it. But the contract is mostly a long list of actions you better not take that will void the contract. With this in mind, life is filled with fear of voiding the contract (or, to use the above analogy, not saying the right magic words).

The God revealed in Jesus deals in unbreakable covenants. I’ve been studying covenants again as I teach through book of Romans. One big question being asked by the Jewish-Christian’s in Rome, and across the empire as the fledgling Christian church began to accept more and more Gentiles and thus look distinctly less Jewish, was whether God was faithful to the covenants. Jewish followers of Jesus asked how God could be faithful to all of God’s promises to Israel if Israel is apparently being abandoned. Upstart Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians may have contributed to this by arrogantly looking down on their Jewish brothers. 

Paul’s argument throughout Romans, and elsewhere, is that God is faithful. God has not forgotten the covenants, God has not forgotten God’s people. Douglass Campbell, in his book Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, puts it this way:

Paul’s God is a covenantal God. This God calls people into existence, loves them, enjoys them, gives to them (see 9:3–4), and never lets them go. He gifted life to the patriarchs and matriarchs and called Israel into existence. He preserved them through their rebellions and hostilities. And he will draw them back to him in their fullness because he is this sort of God. His love never gives up, never lets go.”

No matter what Israel does, God will be faithful. 

Further, no matter what any of us humans do, God will be faithful.

In regard to those invalid baptisms, we ask what sort of God would break off relationship because of the words said a bit wrongly during such a ritual. I can’t help but go further. Would the God revealed through the self-sacrificial love of Jesus break off relationship, cease loving any of us, ever?

Will God stop loving you if you have some wrong beliefs? Let’s be honest, we all have some wrong beliefs so we better hope not!

Will God stop loving you if you rethink your understanding of God? If you interpret the Bible in a different way than you used to? Despite what some Christian celebrities rant about on social media, we’re all in a constant process of deconstruction and reconstruction and that’s okay.

Will God stop loving you if you sin too much or too often? How much? More than the worst person you can imagine? More than the average person at your church? Where’s the line? Maybe there is no line?

Now I am not saying that everything is good for us (and Paul gets to that in Romans 6). I just think we need to get over this feeling where faith (or rituals, beliefs, practices or whatever) is a sort of magic charm protecting us from an angry God. Jesus reveals who God is and in Jesus we see a God who is unending, never-ending self-sacrificial love.

Even when we are faithless, God is faithful.

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