The mechanisms of magic

I keep looking at John 10 and finding new stuff. So you’re in for a treat: I want to talk about the mechanisms of magic.

One of the things that frustrated me for a long time about the Tolkien fantasy universe is stuff like Tom Bombadil and magic. Specifically the mechanisms of magic. How does it work? What causes it? Where does it come from? Why does it happen at all?

Tolkien is either very cagey or very purposely old-fashioned about this. When I was first thinking about this I have to confess to a bit of blithe chronological snobbery (and Tolkien underestimation; never a good thing). My first instinct is to assume Tolkien himself has the old-fashioned worldview, that it never occurred to him to think about the why, the how, the mechanism of magic.

But of course he did. This is the guy who invented a bunch of languages. He was a professor, and one who was by all accounts used to putting himself in the shoes of the ancients. Of course he knew that they didn’t think about mechanisms like we do. To them, magic would be the default position. You’d have to be a bit daft to ask how it worked. Angels-as-men get sent to Middle Earth and futz around with their magic sticks and whatnot. That’s just what happens.

And I think we can assume Tolkien wrote his world that way on purpose, to capture the mind of a different era.

I’m not even going to talk about Tom Bombadil.

Contrast that with The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a more recent high fantasy decalogy. It’s very concerned with the means and methods and flavours of magic. It goes into a fair amount of detail. Elemental magic is shaped into holds, then holds are deprecated in favour of warrens, which are all essentially flowing from inside a giant magic dragon, which can be accessed almost as other worlds. There are gods and goddesses who have houses, each house having members who perform certain magical functions. And in the end they’re all shuffled into the Deck Of Dragons, a way of both organizing the pantheon and divining the future.

I consider this a bit more modern approach to magic: Not only does it happen, but here’s how. Notably the Prince of Nothing series cares a great deal about how sorcery works. Even the more down-market Shannara books posit a mechanism for magic.

All this to say, It Just Is isn’t a satisfying or really acceptable answer to a question.

But what if it’s the only answer we can give?

Back to John 10:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

This is kind of a tautology. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice because they are the sheep. Everyone else doesn’t because they aren’t the sheep. This logic kind of bends back on itself. I don’t find it really satisfying because I know at the root of it all there’s a mystery. It’s not like gathering statistics and analyising the data and conducting a randomised trial and confirming a hypothesis and doing science. It’s not like that at all, in fact I think there’s an element of faith you need to approach this statement on its own ground.

Not very satisfying. I feel the schematic impulse. I want this thing mapped out.

So… we have some doctrines to swoop in and save the day. Let’s be very clear here. I’m not saying that doctrines are bad or even unhelpful. I’m not saying we should get rid of them (nor that we could). I just think there’s a level of specificity you can try to get to where you’ve diced and sliced everything up into little doctrinal chunks where you lose a sort of overall resolution. Sort of like standing too close to a TV screen.

A friend of mine once said (publicly no less; he has basketballs for cojones) that scripture affirms both predestination and free will. Which I wrote a blog post about, because I didn’t think that made sense. I called it the Third Rail of Christian thought. You don’t get to affirm opposites and handwave all the problems away.

(As an aside, it only doesn’t make sense if you agree that scripture even talks in these categories, and if it does, that scripture is this kind of monolithic repository of God-words that coheres perfectly and can be cross-referenced like a theological dictionary. I may have called predestination/free will the third rail, but if I may borrow from CS Lewis here, the Bible and what it is is the deeper third rail. It is, one might say, third-raily-er.)

I’m sort of on the outskirts of the “free will” camp these days. Maybe not as far inside as some might wish, but that’s a complicated discussion (sorry!) for another time (you’re welcome!). There’s a lot less free will in the world than we think. Initial conditions and all that.

Either way you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go into a theological discussion about the methods and mechanisms of how predestination interacts with free will. He speaks broadly of God’s power and humans’ reaction to it. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example here: God calls, people respond. Believers believe. Non believers don’t believe.

The mechanics of calling and what that means are hidden here. They’re not important. God is powerful to call, people are empowered to respond. How that works… well, that gets into a kind of unhelpful doctrinal resolution, unable to see the screen for the pixels. We don’t need to posit a mechanism for it to make sense, you know?