Mathemagical Power vs Priesthood Power

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.

8 thoughts on “Mathemagical Power vs Priesthood Power

  1. Another great post. And I should say that I was thinking the exact same thing while reading Harry Potter. I thought that the whole story could be a lot more powerful if virtue were a necessary element in successful spell-performance – similar to the story of Joseph in the aforementioned post. And by that I don’t mean a to-do list of dos and don’ts, but elements of being. I mean, it would be pretty cool if Harry lost his powers after getting snappy with his friends and then had to go back and apologize before his wand would work. But then, the bad guys couldn’t be as powerful, and there’d be no story.

  2. Jon, thanks for a very provocative post. It’s interesting that you struggle against the magic-based approach to ordinances, but I think the form of the ordinances often leads us to just that view. For example, the sacrament and baptismal prayers must be stated with exactness in order to be effective, leading us to feel that each word has mystical power. Given this structure, it’s hard not to see these ordinances as incantations that must be exactly performed to assure the desired result. I agree that that’s not the right approach, but it’s difficult to avoid, I think.

  3. You are right Ryan. The concept of consecrated oil all lends itself in that direction too.

    I think that the fact that even if the Priesthood Holder performing the ordinance is unworthy, it still has power with the the recipient of the ordinance, supports the non-mathemagical power view. The priest blessing the sacrament may have secretly broken the law of chastity the night before, but the ordinance still works for those in the congregation who are worthy. Conversely, even if the priest is worthy, the ordinance will have a negative effect on anyone who participates unworthily in the congregation. That is because the power comes from the relationship with the Lord and not the ordinance itself.

    One benefit of the word-for-word exactness required by our most sacred ordinances is that it prevents those performing the ordinance from introducing their own interpretations into the ordinance itself. Their individual interpretations may be right or wrong, but the rote performance of the ordinance prevents either from forcing their interpretation on the other participants.

  4. Yeah, let’s not forget D&C 84:20 and the surrounding verses. Without the ordinances of the priesthood, God’s power is not manifest. I take this to include the atonement.

  5. Thank you Jon for re-posting. I have been thinking about your post since I read it yesterday.

    “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.”

    I have nothing to add, except thanks for giving me something wonderful to think about. This is a good example of why I love the Bloggernacle.

  6. The requirements of ordinances, blessings, etc. in form or function can be easily understood in terms of sociality. And in particular, the requirement that the powers of heaven can only be handled upon principles of righteousness.

    And who, may I ask, are the powers in heaven? It is not like there is some sort of amorphous, impersonal “force” that cares one way or another. The powers in heaven are the spirits, angels, and others that work under God’s direction. If you offend the Spirit, all of them are more or less, directly or indirectly, collectively offended.

    There is no righteousness or unrighteousness apart from sociality. The universe simply doesn’t care. People care – things with spirits care – they are the ones who endorse and support one cause or another and give it power for good or for evil.

    That is the whole point of the last part of D&C 121 – that priesthood power is a social phenomena. It strains credulity, in my opinion, to believe that there is any priesthood power (for good) apart from divine sociality. If a person has the spirit, that is because God endorses the way he or she lives, no?

  7. I read your post earlier this week and thought it was a very good post, but I was to busy studying to be a mathemagician to get around to commenting.

    After much thought, I feel that God is a mathemagician. We have to live by faith that the ultimate Mathemagician actually knows what He is doing. He uses His mathemagic according to our faith.

Comments are closed.