One of my personal and professional life goals is to broaden the definition of theology.
Thanks in large part to my seminary mentor, Urban T. Holmes, III, I have always preferred to approach theology experientially and existentially rather than classically and dogmatically. The former begins with human questions. The latter begins with divine answers.
From its earliest times, theology has been identified with supernatural beings. It is completely understandable that once our species evolved self-consciousness, we sought to know where we were, how we got here, and our purpose for being here. We also desperately sought protection from the mysterious and fearsome forces of nature that surrounded us. It follows that we believed that everything was under the control of spirit entities that were super-versions of ourselves. Whatever particular form individual cultures gave to these entities, their existence was an assumption. Theology began when some people began to try to understand and speak for them. I could say that these were the first clergy. But in a world that was totally magical, it is not a stretch to say that they were the first magicians. Theology began as the study of magic.
Magic is one of those elusive words. It can mean all sorts of things. It can be used to describe a sublime moment like a first kiss. It can refer to an experience of something that seems to have no rational causative explanation. It can be your uncle Joe who loves to make quarters appear from behind kid’s ears, or a grand televised illusion by David Copperfield. When I think of magic, I think of two of my favorite theologians, Penn and Teller.
I love those guys. And yes, I very much consider them to be theologians. As I pointed out, theology began as the study of magic, and as I see it, despite all the science and academic sophistication it has acquired over the millennia since that beginning, it still is. People still seek it and others still provide it. The only difference lies in the fact that we now know how it works.
Penn and Teller know how it works. And like all those who preceded them in the craft, they have made a very good living by giving us what we crave: a moment when causes and effects no longer apply and the impossible happens. How we crave that one precious moment when consequences don’t occur, responsibility is suspended and dreams come true despite all our failures and omissions.
Magicians refer to what they do as “illusions”. Most, like David Copperfield, do their magic and leave you in the ambiguity of the moment. Did that happen? It seems impossible, and yet…? They leave the delicious possibility of the impossible lingering on the hungry tongue.
Not so Penn and Teller. They perform some of the most complex illusions imaginable, but they always reveal how it was done. They understand that there is such a thing as magic, but it is a function of the human mind and perception, not a feature of cosmological reality. They want you to experience the beauty of the illusion, but they also want you to celebrate the self-knowledge that comes with knowing how it works. They are theologians in the best traditions of the discipline.
Poetry, art, music, love, justice, freedom, (and lots of other magical things) are all illusions that we need and that we create. They are magical things that happen because we make them happen.
If our species is to continue on this planet, we must take responsibility for our religions: Patriotism, Nationalism, Capitalism, Militarism, Football and all Sportism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. etc. They are not magic. They do not come from the gods. They (and the gods we worship) are our creation… illusions we have made. They are our own reflection.
It is time for us to embrace this fact and with full critical intentionality create illusions that will move us to bring about the best of all possible conditions for all of life on the planet… and the planet itself.
We have to mature quickly and get to work designing these masterful illusions now, if history is to continue.
If we pull it off, it will be the greatest magic trick ever. If we don't, we will all disappear as if by magic.