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Biblical Versus Magical Faith: Reflections on the ReKnew Manifesto

The second core conviction of the “ReKnew Manifesto” is that we believe it is time for the Church to re-think common assumptions about faith. Faith is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to live under the reign of God. Yet Christians rarely seriously reflect on what it means to “have faith.” Everyone assumes they already know what “faith” means.

ReKnew believes its time for believers to re-think what we’ve assumed we already know – including what most assume they already know is true about “faith.”

While I would never question the sincerity of any believer, still less the “salvation” of any believer (as though anyone other than God could ever speak on that), it seems to me that what many (if not most) evangelical Christians today call “faith” is actually closer to magic than it is biblical faith.

A person engages in “magic” insofar as they believe there are special behaviors that empower them to gain favor with, or to otherwise influence, the spiritual realm to work to their advantage. Depending on the culture or religious system, the “spiritual realm” a magical practitioner seeks to influence may be anything from an impersonal force (e.g. the “Tao”), to particular angels, to the God who created and sustains all things. Also depending on the culture or religious system, the relevant magical behaviors the practitioner engages in may be chants, spells, sacrifices or other sorts of rituals. Or the practitioner may simply court the favor of God or angels to gain their favor by obediently embracing revealed truths or by obediently engaging in specific acts that align the practitioner with the will of God or angels.

Among the many differences between “magic” and biblical faith is the fact that magic is about engaging in behaviors that ultimately benefit the practitioner while biblical faith is about cultivating a relationship with God that is built on mutual trust. And while the God-human relationship, like all trusting human-to-human relationships, benefits both God and the person of faith, it is not entered into as a means to some other end. While magical faith is utilitarian, biblical faith is simply faithful.

In this light, let’s honestly reflect on the way many evangelical Christians understand and practice faith. I’m sure if readers have spent much time in evangelical circles, you’ve heard teachers talk about doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” in contrast to some that aren’t. The specifics differ, of course, depending on the denomination and church. But the “essential doctrines” are typically things like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the final judgment, and the substitutionary death of Christ.

Fundamentalist denominations and churches typically include in this category other beliefs as well, such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the all-controlling understanding of God’s sovereignty, a particular mode of baptism or a particular understanding of hell. To illustrate, several months ago someone sent me a video of a fundamentalist teacher who publicly announced on a local cable show that I (by name) was going to suffer unending torment because, as an Annihilationist, I didn’t believe in eternal torment. (Truth is, while I’m personally convinced the eternal torment view is mistaken, I’m only inclined toward the Annihilationist view, for I believe that if God could save all, he would, and the universalist passages of Scripture (e.g. Rom 5:18;1 Cor 15:22) give me a ray of hope that it will turn out God did– not that this nuance would brighten my future in the eyes of this teacher.)

Along the same lines, many (if not most) evangelical Christians assume that, while all Christians sin, there are some “deal-breaker” sins which, if not repented of, will cause a person to lose their salvation (or indicate that a person has never “really” been saved). So, for example, I’ve never heard an evangelical teach that unconfessed greed, gluttony or gossip will keep a person from being “saved.” But most evangelicals assume that homosexuality will certainly do this, even when practiced in the context of a life-long monogamous relationship, and even when people sincerely believe it’s not sin in God’s eyes.

My point in raising these beliefs and behaviors is not to comment on their rightness or wrongness. It is rather to ask: Is this way of thinking about beliefs and behaviors reflecting a biblical or a magical understanding of faith? It seems to me, quite frankly, that it’s much closer to the latter.

Notice that the evangelicals I’m speaking of are embracing “essential” revealed truths and avoiding “deal-breaker” sins in order to get God to grant them “salvation” (typically understood as security from hell). Calvinists would of course object that people don’t “get God” to do anything. People rather embrace reveal truths and avoid “deal-breaker” sins because God has already “got them.” Fair enough, but on this issue this is a distinction without a difference, for people are still embracing behaviors and beliefs in order to feel secure in their salvation.

I’ll have much more to say about biblical faith in future posts, but for now I’ll end with this question. How is this common evangelical way of understanding faith all that different from magic? The content of what Christians believe is obviously different from those who practice magic, of course. But the way they believe it, and the motive for their believing it seem very similar. We are embracing revealed truths and engaging in some behaviors while avoiding others as a means of gaining favor with, or otherwise influencing, an agent in the spiritual realm for our benefit. That strikes me as magic.

It certainly seems quite different from entering into a trusting relationship with our Creator as an end in-and-of-itself.

Image by BohmanUsed in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr.

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