Thursday, September 13, 2012

Miracles or Magic? Four more characteristics

Here is the second and final part of my description of how miracles and magic differ, from Chapter 11 of Jesus and the Religions of Man.  For Part I, follow that link. 

(2) Miracles tend to be practical; Magic is often showy.

            When I lived in Taiwan, God seemed to meet my needs in remarkable ways at times.  A place to stay was provided where I knew no one, home-cooked meals when I was lonely, money when I was broke, and a cheeseburger and a song as specific answers to two doubting, but specific, prayers.  Another time I was out of money and worried about holes in my socks.  Just then I received a package in the mail, not from my mother, or aunt, but from the young woman who later became my wife.  Inside, I found several pairs of clean white socks.  After we married, I asked why she sent such an unromantic gift.  "I just felt like that's what I should send," she told me.

            Like a thoughtful friend, God sends those who trust Him what they need.  Unlike friends, He knows what that is better than we do. 
            The difference between God's ways and the way of the gods was demonstrated when Elijah met the prophets of Baal on Mr. Carmel.  Four hundred magicians danced and cut themselves with swords for hours to awaken their god, until they collapsed, drained and disappointed.  The man of God prayed for a minute, and got a simple, dramatic reply: fire from heaven.  Elijah received what he needed, as directly as a man barbecuing chicken asking his neighbor across the hedge for a light.  He didn't need to demonstrate his commitment by violence against himself.
            I've watched young men cut their backs with swords in the spirit of those prophets.  I've seen mediums sweat and shake as they waited for a spirit to come upon them.  I've also seen Christian crowds "worked up" for miracles.  Once a Korean minister visited the tribal church in Taiwan where I lived.  When she led a special worship service, I watched her push worshipers over, apparently thinking the Holy Spirit wanted people on the floor but needed help getting them there.  I seldom saw my tribal friends worship as boisterously as that evening -- or laugh so hard as when they watched a video later and saw how they had been hoodwinked.
            Tal Brooke, a disciple of the famous Indian guru, Sai Baba, related:

            "I became a collector of these miraculous accounts of young Sai Baba.  If a fraction of them   were true, I decided, then truly Baba was on a par with Krishna or Ram or, as Baba claimed, the returned Christ. . . "

            "He would fall rigid and lie paralyzed and unconscious for days.  He would
leave his body.  He would convulse.  And once yearly he still insists on a
particular ritual: he claims to grow in his stomach stone shiva lingams (sex
organs) and then regurgitate them publicly . . . Baba would assume illness,
refusing help, then heal himself."[1]

            People ask the wrong questions about such antics.  "How did Baba do it”?  A better question would be “Why?”  Nothing more unlike miracles, especially the miraclesof Jesus, can be imagined.  Tal Brooke thought the devil was involved.  But it seems to me the exact nature of the deception matters less than the dysfunctional character of such cheerless vaudeville. 

            Time Magazine relates how followers of Thai priest Phra Dhamachayo thought he turned the sun into a "large crystal ball."  Astronomers believe they may have found a similar body in close outer space: a small sun that collapsed on itself, forming a super-dense pack of carbon atoms.  "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky."  Only this diamond, big as the earth, doesn't twinkle, for it has no light left to give.  Our sun, by contrast, is a useful as well as beautiful.

            What if a statue of the Virgin Mary, which does not digest food, create waste, or require oxygen for metabolism, does bleed?  Why sleep on beds of nails?  Frankly, I don't see the point.  Why walk on hot coals, call a cobra out of a basket, or bend spoons at a distance?  If my son were to abuse the cutlery, (and both are well past that stage) I would send him to his room. (Is that what Jesus was doing when he cast out spirits?  Giving the devil "time out?")  C. S. Lewis described a devil character as "the union of malice with something nearly childish" like “a nasty little boy at preparatory school."[2]
            People through whom God does miracles are usually "down to earth" without needing to be pushed.

            Jesus' works were simple and elegant: a word, a touch, an appeal to his Father. He didn't need potions or incantations or mantras and my impression is he seldom raised his voice.  Philip Yancey notes, "When he did something truly miraculous, he tended to hush it up."[3]  Paul, too, says that prophecy and tongues should be exercised in an orderly manner.  God is a Master Dramatist, but never a mere showman. 

Miracles are signs pointing us to Him, not a laser-light show to make us OOOH and AAAH and throw dollars on the stage.  He already owns large diamonds.

(3) Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human.

            Miracles are verifiable and practical, while magic does not respect reason, need,

taste, or dignity.

            The occultism that goes by the name of Taoism in China, as distinct from the soaring philosophy of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi and some principled sects, can be an ugly racket.  More than two millennia ago, magicians taught China's cruelest emperor to murder thousands of innocent servants to lend him occult powers in the next world.  The same logic continued to bilk the poor out of their earnings to assuage the potentialanger of "dead relatives in hell," and old men to renew strength at the expense of girls in places like Snake Alley.  
            What outsiders objected to in Master Lu -- exalted position, mansion, and alleged womanizing -- are normal in the esoteric tradition.  One of the most popular tales in Tibet, the Life of Milerepa, takes for granted that only the rich can sit at the feet of a good guru.  "I should get nothing from this Guru without a handsome present . . . nor from any other Guru for that matter, for such is the custom."[4]  The great Atisa was reportedly offered the wealth of a nation as incentive to found his school.[5]  So in a sense, Lu or Rajneesh’s self-acknowledged status as "gurus to the wealthy" were claims to esoteric orthodoxy.  Use of semen and human skulls in rituals goes back to the beginning of esotericism.  The ghastliness of some Tibetan idols expresses the same thing: "The release from passion . . . by means of passion is fundamental to tantric practice.”[6]

            The Dalai Lama described possession in the Tibetan tradition.  The chief Tibetan oracle is called a kuten.  He channels a being who is the essence of the heads of the five Buddha families to provide advice for the political leaders of Tibet.  "The kuten's face transforms . . . puffing up to give him an altogether strange appearance, with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks.  His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently.  Then, momentarily, his respiration stops."  The oracle leaps around, making gestures "as if his body were made of rubber and driven by a coiled spring of enormous power," grabs a ritual sword, and bows to the Dalai Lama.  Finally, he collapses into a "rigid and lifeless form."[7]

            Buddhism, which began by denying the existence of a personal God, created a plethora of deities whose worship lies at the center of most Buddhist practice today.  Some schools also borrowed, in later centuries, the frankly horrific rituals of tantric Hinduism.  They taught that union of male and female was a key to cosmic consciousness, sin a shortcut to salvation, and degradation of the body rendered a person fit for immortality.  The new hybrid won Tibet through the work of
Phadmasambhava, one of the heroes of Tibetan history, with whom Master Lu felt special kinship.  Phadmasambhava conquered the savage demons of Tibet, then bound them as vassals and servants of Buddha, becoming the man-eating demons in True Buddha and other esoteric temples.  The more appalling of esoteric rituals were reinterpreted and toned down under the influence of orthodox Mahayana.  But when a counselor to Tibetan political leaders hisses like a viper, one wonders who, in the confrontation between Phadmasambhava and local demons, finally got the upper hand.
            Roger Kamenetz noted that the man who served as kuten "appeared somewhat haggard for his age."  His guide noted how stressful the ordeal was.  "He feels a great deal of painful energy in his body, then has no memory at all.  When he's finished, hepasses out and after that for several hours he has a great deal of pain in the chest."[8]
            All this is in keeping with spirit mediumship in the East Asian tradition. Chinese tang ki also "jump around or have various kinds of convulsions,” some salivating or vomiting.[9]  Chinese mediums also cut their tongues and smear paper with the blood. 

"Perhaps within five or six minutes, he begins to shake . . . To this is added an occasional belch or gasp.  Within minutes he is shaking violently and begins drumming his fingers hard and rhythmically on the table.  Suddenly he breaks into loud, high-pitched, unintelligible 'gods' language, which turns into halting Hokkienese."
            Sometimes the medium demonstrates the reality of possession by hitting himself
with ball of nails, sword, saw of a swordfish, or ax.  Jordan notes, "How many times was I told of the tang ki who was saved from splitting his head with an ax" when a bystander pushed his arm and heonly lost an ear?"[10]
            What is the difference between magic and miracles?  Jesus healed ears, for one thing.
            Some non-Christian observers claim that channelers are doing just what prophets of the Bible once did.  One rabbi who went to Tibet, Zalman Schachter, mentioned Daniel, who was also physically overwhelmed when he met the angel of God.
            But the experiences of the kuten or tang ki and the Old Testament prophet. differ in at least five respects.  First, Daniel remained not only conscious, but intensely himself, throughout his experience.  According to Jordan, while in a trance the medium’s personality “ceases to exist."  Second, Daniel became aware of personal and collective shortcomings.  Third, the angel spoke to Daniel, not through him.  "The spirits of the prophets are in subjection to the prophets." (I.Cor.14:32) The Holy Spirit is not a body-snatcher.  Fourth, prophets do not forget divine encounters.  Paul recounts his meeting with Christ on three different occasions in the New Testament, for example.  Fifth, meeting God enhances our humanity.  The spirit medium tradition is represented in the Bible by the priests of Baal, who worked themselves into a frenzy.  Elijah, by contrast, prayed and waited for God's reply. 
            The assumption that all religions must be the same only confuses the evidence, as usual.
            The animal noises the Dalai Lama mentioned are familiar to anyone who has studied spirit possession among Chinese folk religions.  This phenomena has also been noticed in some "Christian" revivals.  But in the Bible, the spirit of God never makes a person talk like an animal.  Supernatural abilities, in the Bible, are called "spiritual gifts," because God adds to, rather than detracting from, our humanity.    
            Esoteric theory prepares people for sexual and financial exploitation in several ways.  It denigrates normal sexuality, putting it on a par with the grossest perversions. It requires disciples to obey the guru in all things.  Some gurus encourage "consort practice."  And guruism allows the Master who has transcended lower levels of reality freedom “beyond” morality.

"Be as Gods"

            Gentle waves lapped against the California coast on a warm and romantic evening.  A man and woman walked along the sandy shore.  They did not hold hands however or talk about love.  They had more important issues to discuss.

            "Say it!"  Said the man.  "Go ahead and say it!"
            "I am God."
            "Say it again!"
            "I am God!  I am God!"

            Thus Shirley MacLaine declared herself one with the essence of all things on national television.  The divine status Master Lu enjoys in the True Buddha school is no aberration: for the master, all things are permissible, because he has overcome the dualistic illusion of a distinction between himself and ultimate reality.  The Buddha himself is presented in similar terms in some sutras, as we saw earlier.  And often disciples are encouraged to attack the same omnipotence to one's teacher.
            Humility has been defined as "being willing to be known for who you are." If the gurus truly are more than divine, one cannot blame them for saying so.  Yet humility is also marked by a willingness to yield to the authority of those greater, identify with the weak, and take an interest in others.  The works of God lift up the humble and humble the proud, making all of us more human even as we draw near to the divine.  The prophets, in the midst of unearthly visions, are continually reminding us of our prosaic duties to widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. 
            This combination of unusual humanity with unpretentious supernatural powers bewilders the unbelieving critic who tries to grapple with Jesus.  Jesus made claims about himself that, in context, are more astounding than those of Master Lu.  Yet the title he used of himself most often was Son of Man.  His miracles challenged and humanized his disciples, enriching, healing, feeding, comforting, and setting free those bound by Satan.  He washed disciples' feet, preached to the poor, touched beggars and outcasts, and died on a wooden cross.  Around the world, one meets men and women working in the name of Jesus to redeem prostitutes, drug addicts, lepers and orphans. 
            Few true servants of God I have met seemed to mistake their efforts for the work of the "Buddha within" or "Christ consciousness."  Perhaps this is because one part "inspiration" seldom comes unmixed with ninety-nine parts "perspiration," as Thomas Edison put it.  There is something about studying languages, dealing with bureaucrats and gangsters, killing cockroaches and cleaning up vomit that keeps a disciple's head from swelling.  Sometimes inspiration is mixed with blood, too: as C. S.Lewis noted, martyrdoms and miracles tend to occupy the same periods of history.  Miracles come so often in the context of serving, worship, and suffering that the believer can learn humility even while he "co-labors" with God.  It may be perilous to feed heavily from the sidelines on a steady diet of signs and wonders.
            The Creator formed the stomach to use hydrochloric acid without digesting itself.  He made the cobra safe from the prick of its own venom.  Humility is the membrane that allows a person to do the works of God without getting hurt.

(4) Miracles point to God; Magic points elsewhere.

            I think again of my trip to Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.  Half a mile past the end of the road magma poured into the sea.  One or two hundred tourists from around the world gathered on black lava cliffs above a black sand surf and watched.  At first we could see only steam, but as it grew darker the glow of the lava itself became steadily more visible.  Hours passed as we stared, silently watching without commercial interruption.  "Awesome!"  I overhead one man say to a friend.  "Did I say this was awesome?"  "Only about five hundred times," his friend answered.  "Awesome," the first repeated for the five-hundred-and-first time.  Another stranger turned to me in wonder and said, "God is still creating."
            Miracles are part of God's ongoing creation, too, and they also move people to spontaneous praise. 
            I compared a miracle to a rainbow.  At a dark moment light from heaven breaks through clouds, revealing divine grace.  God revealed – through nature, miracles (whether we see them or only hear of them) or simple awareness of His presence, fills us with awe.  Unlike at the moment of satori, we laugh not to see that all is one, but to that it is not.  Someone is up there.  We are not alone.
            If miracles are like a rainbow, magic can be like a tornado: dirty, noisy, dangerous, and somehow neither natural nor supernatural.  Cars levitate, spoons are bent by invisible forces, people fly in the sky with no direction. 
            The autobiography of the supposedly "Christ-like" Indian guru Yogananda subtly illustrates the centrifugal and anti-Christ character of magic.  Yogananda relates that his first two miracles were done out of sibling spite.  In the first, his sister was helping him with his homework and complained of a boil.  He announced that a boil would also appear on his arm.  When she didn't believe him, he became angry.  "By the power of will in me, I say that tomorrow I shall have a fairly large boil in this exact place on my arm; and your boil shall swell to twice its present size!"  For the second miracle, Yogananda prayed to Kali to steal two kites from a neighbor.[11]
            A few points can be noted from these rather typical occult episodes, or lies, as the case may be.  First, in them Yogananda acted like the petulant and silly Jesus child of the apocrypha -- but unlike the Jesus of the Gospels.  Second, psychiatrists tell us that a child's first memories are often revealing.  Yogananda, in some of his earliest recorded memories, portrays himself as liar and thief who worked magic out of pride.  Even more revealing is Yogananda's Nietzchian emphasis on will.  The "force" was withhim, and it was up to him whether he used "it" for good or ill.  In either case, it appears “the force” was mainly out to promote Yogananda.            
            One favorite way to expand a bloated ego is to speak sacred language that excludes the benighted masses.  In the modern world, the language of science is preferred for this purpose. Tal Brooke suggested:

            "What the cosmic circuit needed was an Enlightened master from the East, one
who was convincingly in a state of super consciousness, teamed up with a
Western adept who would bridge the gap and translate all of the concepts into
colloquial, hip, avant-garde, and semi-scientific language."[12]

Donald Waters, abusive founder of the Ananda sect, was one who found such
semantics attractive:

            "And then I came upon excerpts from the Hindu teachings -- a few pages only,
but what a revelation! . . .  God was described as Infinite Consciousness; man,
as a manifestation of that consciousness . . . Man's ultimate goal, according to
these writings, is to experience that divine reality as his true self.  But, how

            As for the Bible, it "seemed too anthropomorphic for my tastes, steeped as I was in the scientific view of reality."  What Waters shared with many “scientific” gurus seemed less a taste not for the inductive method or rigorous testing of theories, than fovague Greek polysyllables.  Is "infinite consciousness" a person, thing, or thing?  Does it think, observe, laugh, lunch with friends?  If consciousness does not recognize ego boundaries or comprehend the difference between right and wrong, why call it conscious?”  And what does it mean to "manifest" this consciousness?  If Waters meant that a conscious being of infinite power wants people to know Him, that is what the Bible says also, in simple but comprehensible language, with the qualification that God is good and none of us reflect that goodness very well. 

Possession: Nine Tenths of the Law

            Elliot Miller, a Californian who became involved with the New Age movement during the hippie era, felt he was gaining verifiable psychic powers.  He began to experience unity with "God," but felt misgivings.  Later he described a point of crisis:

            "Suddenly, my euphoria turned to alarm.  I strongly sensed that my soul was in
            great danger, as though something evil was trying to consume me.  I began to
resist the entity taking possession of me, but then the thought crossed my mind:

'This is just your ego putting up its last fight for survival.  God is good!  He
wouldn't do anything to hurt you.'  Satisfied with this explanation, I yielded
again.  The negative sensation was now gone, and it began to feel as though I
was fading out and something else was moving into my place."[13]

            Tal Brooke studied the lives of several famous Hindu gurus.  He noted,

             "Curiously, when the heavy hitting gurus, the Riders, emerged from the Explosion,            close associates and family usually used the term 'possession.'"[14]

            Rajneesh soothed, "Don't worry about what fills you or enters you.  Let it happen.  Surrender.  Lose your identity forever."[15]
           Many would ascribe all such phenomena to some quirk of the complex and multi-layered human personality.  I am not sure.  The Bible does not encourage us to concern ourselves about the precise relationship between human and demonic states of consciousness.  It simply warns us to respect ego boundaries by avoiding witchcraft, and teaches us to seek our good in God.  The language may be plain, but that is hardly a liability when you’re trying to keep foolish drivers on the road. 

(5) Miracles come in Response to Requests; Magic to Demands

            Magic can be seen as an attempt to force the universe's (or God's) hand.  This may be why magic often involves the deliberate infliction of injury on oneself or others.  One is trying to manipulate God, as a child bends parents to his will by shutting himself in his room.  Indeed, those who set up exploitative cults tend to be products of abusive or neglectful parentage.[16]
            The Bible forbids us to deliberately harm ourselves.  The prophets launched a struggle that has lasted millennia against religious sadism: child-sacrifice, caste, widow-burning.  Revolutionary religions -- Islam, Marxism, the Tai Ping often contributed to the struggle. 
            But new forms of sadism have a way of sneaking in under new guises: witch trials, purges, struggle sessions, or other attempts to co-opt God or the gods through the ritual shedding of innocent blood.  Pogroms against Jews were launched in concert with crusades against Arabs -- propitiation of the gods of war by sacrifice of less-desirable members of society.[17]  Russian communists raised ritual sacrifice to a science, giving officials a percent of the population that must by hypothesis be counter-revolutionary.  Psychologists note a similar insidious impulse at work within families.  Probably a great deal of child abuse can be explained as a subconscious attempt to manipulate the universe.
            Christians also sometimes try to force God’s hand, by shouting or using "In the name of Jesus" as a mantra.  The Bible encourages honest emotion.  But God cannot be coerced.
            Many Christians believe miracles and magic must be different on principle, because they came from different sources.  Most non-Christians assume, also on principle, they can't be different because all phenomena ultimately arise from the same source.  When we look at the events themselves, we find that miracles and magic are in fact more different from one another than either is from “ordinary” life.  Miracles are morehuman, real, and meaningful than ordinary life, stretching us in faith, rational hope, and love, “super-natural."  Magic, on the contrary, seduces and betrays ordinary virtue: rationality, kindness, humility, and hope.
            So far as I know, the Bible never rules out the possibility that God may work through people outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And it does allow that not all miracles in the orthodox lineage will bare the light of criticism.  “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and mislead many.”  "False Messiahs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders to mislead, if possible, even the elect."  (Mat. 24: 5, 24) But in general the Bible describes a contrast between "prophets of Baal," who may have spiritual powers or may be faking it (a question of lesser importance, since in both cases they show themselves heirs to the “father of lies”), and true messengers of God.  Miracles are at the center of Biblical revelation.  Yet the Bible teaches us to be aware of charlatans, human and demonic.  Christianity is in these regards true to the spectrum of human experience.
            Two opposing views of miracles seem at first to confront each other across a chasm.  The first is that miracles never happen.  The second is that miracles happen all the time, if only we have eyes to see.  But in fact, these theories represent two sides of the same coin.  Those who say all religions are false, and those who say they are equally true, both miss the true drama of history.  For both ideas are essentially monism, which reduces all reality to a single category.  But drama arises from dualism in the literal sense, the idea that life contains real choices and danger, and that the heart hosts a duel between good and evil.  So perhaps we should not be surprised that, for the most part, we are given space in which to allow that drama to develop.

[1]  Tal Brooke, Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, Lion Publishing, 1986, p. 25
[2]  C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, Macmillan Publishing, 1944, p.123
[3]  Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Zondervan, 1995, p. 23
[4]  Ras Chun, Life of Milerepa, p.63
[5]  See Hubert Decleer, Atisa’s Journey to Tibet, in Religions of Tibet in Practice, Donald Lopez, editor, 1997
[6]  David Snellgrove, Indo-European Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors, 1987, p.190
[7]  Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, p. 214
[8]  Roger Kamenetz, the Jew in the Lotus, Harper San Francisco, 1994, p. 178
[9]  V. Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors, University of California Press, chapter four.
[10]  Jordan quotes the reaction of Norwegian missionary Karl Reichelt to such shows in China a hundred years ago.  Reichelt was an open-minded Lutheran who admired Mahayana Buddhism.  But he described possession as “among the most unpleasant things on sees in China.”  Jordan responded with a show of objectivity: “Their bloody exploits are recounted years after with an enthusiasm that does not altogether suggest revulsion.”  No doubt.  And no doubt Romans engaged in enthusiastic “post mortums” after watching men ripped to pieces by lions, until a Christian monk interrupted the fun by dying in protest.  Need one show Stoic equanimity in the face of inhumanity to prove one’s scientific credentials?
[11]  Paramhansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, chapter 1, available on-line at
[12]  Tal Brooke, Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, Lion Publishing, 1986
[13]  Elliot Miller A Crash Course on the New Age Movement, Baker Publishing, 1989, p. 220
[14]  Riders of the Cosmic Circuit
[15]  Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, p.
[16]  Peter Olsson, Saving Cindy: A Psychiatrist Looks at Cults and their Victims, in Touchstone Magazine, November 2002
[17]  French anthropologist Rene Girard explored the pyschological underpinnings of such phenomena, and their relation to the death of Jesus, in The Scapegoat. 

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