I finished the latest Harry Potter book Sunday afternoon, and while I have my complaints, by the last two hundred pages, it had become an enjoyable read. Considering that the book is just over six hundred and fifty pages long, I’m not sure if that is a compliment or a complaint. And while my thoughts that follow were prompted by my reading of Harry Potter, this is not a book review.
We often think the Mathematical and Magical as polar opposites, but it seems to me that in some significant ways they are mirror images.
When I say Mathematical, I do not mean arithmetic, geometric, or algebraic. I mean Mathematical in its fullest sense, as a synonym for Scientific. (Greek mathēmat-, science, learning).
Both the Applied Scientist and the Magician are similar in that they each practice an art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces. The Scientist invokes the powers of materialism and naturalism while the Magician invokes the immaterial and supernatural, but each seeks control. And interestingly enough, the powers each seeks to employ are invoked and controlled through mechanical processes. In other words, the power of electricity is available to anyone who will learn and follow the proper steps to produce and use it, just as the supposed power of magic is available to anyone who will follow certain ritual steps, the proper recipe for a potion, or the correct pronunciation of a mantra or spell.
And these mechanical processes of invocation are available to those with an aptitude for learning them, regardless of virtue. The followers of Osama Bin Ladin can study and learn the secrets of atomic bomb creation and use as well as the Americans can. Likewise, both Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy can attend the same school, and take classes from both Professors Snape and McGonagall, and learn many of the same processes for invoking power, largely regardless of their purpose or personal virtue.
In his book, the Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis declares:
The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious;such as digging up and mutilating the dead.
…He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician…
I call this kind of power through technique Mathemagical power, and it stands in contrast to Priesthood Power, though we sometimes forget it.
The Priesthood, contrary to Mathemagical Power, is inseparably connected with the powers of heaven and can only be controlled or handled upon principles of righteousness.
In Doctrine and Covenants 22:2, concerning those who did not want to be rebaptized into the church because they had already been baptized, the Lord declared:
Wherefore, although a man should be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing, for you cannot enter in at the strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works.
Sometimes we fall into the folly of thinking about aspects of the gospel in Mathemagical terms, and we think that, like the powers of the Mathemagician, our dead works–our mechanical processes–have power in and of themselves. This seems to me to be a key error of the Pharisees. They attributed Mathemagical power to the dead works of the law.
Baptism is not a mathemagical process. The baptismal prayer is not a spell, and the immersion in water is not a magical ritual which, when followed correctly erases our sins. Baptism is a priesthood process, and as such its efficacy is inseparably connected with the powers of heaven. Thus, unless the person baptized in symbolic submission successfully submits to God and establishes an accord with the Christ, the baptism of itself has no power.
It is all too easy to think of the Gospel in Mathemagical terms. Our prayers and blessings on the food easily become incantations. We come to think of baptism and the sacrament as cleansing rituals that if performed with exactness relieve us from sin. We create “spiritual experiences” by following mechanical processes that magically compel the presence of spiritual feelings.
It is all too easy to think that by following a reductionist list of mathemagical steps to repentance or revelation we can invoke forgiveness or answers, the way we might drive a manual automobile by learning the proper technique, or follow a recipe to make a certain meal.
That is not to say that we do not need works. We need works and ordinances, but they must be living works and not dead works. Living ordinances have power indeed. They live through Christ.
The Gospel and the Church are intended to bring us into a relationship with Christ and our common Father. Without that relationship, the Priesthood and ordinances may be conferred upon us, but they have no power.
When we think of the Gospel in Mathemagical terms, we soon find that while we draw near to the Lord with our lips, our hearts are far from Him, and that our religious worship has a form of godliness, but that we deny the power thereof.