God and Magical Thinking

This morning I came across a news article that I found so odd, I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.  It seems that a certain state representative in Wisconsin is introducing a bill into the legislature that would lift Wisconsin’s ban on coal mining.  One could imagine a host of public policy arguments that might be raised both for and against such a proposal, but interestingly — or incredibly — the argument voiced by this legislator is not primarily about public policy.  His argument has to do with God.  It is his conviction that God would never allow us to destroy our planet, that God will always care for the earth and repair any damage we do to it.  He points out that on his ancestral family farm in Pennsylvania, they did some coal mining, and everything is fine now.  God, he says, will always make sure of that.  Incredibly, he even points to the destruction caused by the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and says that as bad as those were, everything is fine now, because God will always repair the damage.  I couldn’t help but wonder what the people in those two Japanese cities would think about that.

This bit of news comes in the midst of a discussion about 20 or so of us at Trinity have been having around Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Case for God.”  In that book, she describes how the Judeo-Christian image of God has shifted over the centuries.  Those shifts are intimately related to cultural shifts, changing human experiences and a number of other factors.   She points out in her book that our conception of God is always inadequate, because the very nature of that which we call “God” is beyond our ability to conceive or describe.  But, we often forget that, and think we know more about God than we actually do.  In some periods of human history, people have been so certain of their knowledge of God that they were equally certain that God’s will was a perfect reflection of their own will.  And the results of such certainty have frequently been disastrous.

It seems to me that the image of God held by this particular state legislator is also one that can lead to disaster.  To believe that human beings can do anything, no matter how destructive or dangerous, because God will never allow things to get too bad (though, as he admits, God apparently does allow things to get pretty bad) is nothing less than a kind of magical thinking whose outcome is to relieve human beings of any sense of moral responsibility.   We don’t have to worry about protecting the environment because God will not allow us to destroy our planet.  We don’t have to worry about using nuclear weapons because God will ultimately repair the damage.  We don’t have to concern ourselves with finding alternative sources of energy because God will never let our natural resources run out.   While some may find it incredible that there are people who hold these kinds of convictions, this sort of magical thinking with respect to God is, I think, far more common than many realize.

But, while it is tempting to make fun of the representative’s convictions, this kind of magical theology doesn’t arise by accident.  It comes about, I think, mainly as a byproduct of fear.   The world in which we live is not always an easy place to be.   We are constantly hearing about a whole range of issues that produce a great deal of anxiety.  Issues of environmental sustainability, energy and global conflict can easily seem so huge that we feel unable to truly affect any of them.  The changes that we would be required to make by taking these issues seriously are daunting to say the least and can be perceived as threatening a way of life to which we have become accustomed.   One way of responding to these fears and anxieties, to this sense of being overwhelmed, is to take refuge in a magical God who will not let anything too bad happen to us.   If we can convince ourselves to believe in such a God, then we can let go of fear and anxiety — as well as any need to change our thinking or our lifestyles.

But we cannot afford this kind of magic.  We cannot afford it as people of faith, for ultimately is makes religion look silly, superstitious and irrelevant, and we lose any credibility in speaking to the big issues that our world faces.  And more importantly, our world cannot afford this magical thinking that allows us to refuse to see the very real problems that somehow need to be faced.   The magical God in which this Wisconsin representative believes is the theological equivalent of putting one’s head in the sand and pretending that there are not real problems that require real solutions.

Rather than taking refuge in a magical God, I would prefer to see us take refuge in the God that I think we see in Jesus, a God who is compassionately engaged with the world and calling us to be engaged in the same way.  Rather than developing a theology of pretending everything will be okay, I think God would challenge us to develop a much more courageous theology that takes the world’s problems seriously and faces them head-on not with fear, but with confidence and compassion.

At various  moments in human history and in the lives of individuals, the magical theology of “God won’t let anything bad happen to us” has broken apart.  It happened centuries ago when the Jewish people, confident that they knew precisely who God was and what God’s will meant, suddenly found themselves overrun by the Babylonian army and their leading citizens taken into captivity.  It happened more recently, in the wake of the Holocaust.  In both cases, people found themselves having to reconsider their theology and their understanding of God’s relationship to the world and to our lives.   Now is not the time for magical thinking.  It is time for bold, courageous and creative thinking in response to a God who does not pretend that everything is okay, but urgently warns us that things are not simply okay and calls us to action.


3 thoughts on “God and Magical Thinking

  1. Being mindful of how our actions affect both the environment and other people is a form of good stewardship. With the “right” to use our natural resources comes the responsibility to protect and preserve them. Mindfulness plus action will demonstrate our commitment to that stewardship, and the compassion to share with others,now and in future generations, will be the evidence that we are truly living our Christian responsibility.

  2. If all Christians thought the way the author of this article is thinking, it would be a lovely transformation, a breath of fresh air. I just attended a luncheon in which a woman described being scammed on a beach house and how, through prayer, God was able to find her an even better beach house.
    Really? Wow! Go God! (sarcasm).

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