Last week, I talked a bit about the origins and problems with the magical thinking in American Christianity stemming from Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. This has been a steadily growing movement in the US, and worldwide, for most of a century but has been particularly strong in the last decade due to its impact on political and corporate policy. Peale’s teachings lead people in power to deny even the existence of problems, firmly deny them if pointed out, and overexaggerate or even lie about success. They do this because they believe if you deny bad things your attention, they will go away, while if you feed the good things, they grow bigger.
Also see: COVID-19.
The issue lies in the difference between magical thinking and theological thinking. (Yes I know a rational materialist is going to deny there is a difference at all, but this is not really aimed at them. Is it?)
Magical Thinking says that you focus your will on the external world and, if you do it right, your will is done in the world in a non-causal way. Non-causal in the sense that you do not directly cause it to happen through action but only through the power of your will. Peale supporters and the like would say that it is God working in the world. However, in this, God is reduced to a mechanism. It is similar to many ancient belief systems but notably Goetic* magic. In both cases, the mage calls on an external being to do something for them. If they call on them correctly and carefully, the being is forced to do it. This makes God no different than the machine I use to compose this. I press the keys and my will is translated on to the screen and then sent out into the world for your eyes. The Christianity of Peale and the Prosperity Gospel is window dressing; God is just the tool to get things done.
Theological Thinking is very different.
Theological Thinking is not about my will at all. Theological Thinking is about a relationship. A relationship between God and myself. In this relationship, I trust God to act on my behalf, not out of obligation but out of love. What God does may or may not be what I ask of Him. God acts according to His own will, not mine. I, in turn, work to conform my will to His. I try to become more Christ like. I become an extension of His will rather than the other way around. I submit myself to be His tool at work in the world.
Magical Thinking leads to arrogance. It leads to thinking of anyone who experiences hardship as a loser in the game of life. It treats material success as a sign of God’s favor and the lack of it a sign of His judgment. God is a reflection of me, and therefore my life, culture, and opinions are the standard by which the world is judged. Evil exists in the world due to a failure of will. The narrative I wish to pursue for my life is more important than the reality of my surroundings.
Theological Thinking leads to humility before God and other humans. It leads us to care for others, focusing especially on those most in need. Material issues need to be addressed, but are not the focus of life. Relationships, first with God and then others, are. I am to be a reflection of God in all that I do in this world. My humility and my calling balance out to a gentle way of dealing with the world around me. In all things I say “not my will but Yours be done.”
Some people are reacting to this and thinking, “this is all pretty obscure, besides, what’s the harm?” I would ask those people to look at the world today and see that it is not obscure; this is becoming a driving force in American culture because it gives a thin theological framework for greed and self-promotion. I can see it in business leaders, political leaders, and acquaintances. I know both statistically and personally the people harmed by it.
Just because someone says something is “Christian” does not make it so.
Whose Will be done?
*Goetia is a practice which involves invoking (“calling”) angels and demons. The word came from the 17th-century grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon. It describes the calling of seventy-two demons. The book was edited by Aleister Crowley (mentioned last time) in 1904. It was then called The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King.
The word comes from the Greek: γοητεία goēteia, meaning “sorcery.”
Invoking spirits in general is a bad idea. In specific, it is a terrible idea.