Saturday 2 December 2017

The "magical system" of Jesus's miracles

I was thinking about the magical systems in fantasy fictions that I am currently reading by 'Mr Magical System' himself (ie. Brandon Sanderson) - when it struck me that the magic we know most about, that of Jesus's miracles, was very different indeed.

While magic in books is usually an 'impressive' matter of light, electricity, noises, super strength/ speed/ endurance/ healing etc - the common feature is that you can See It Being Done.

Whereas nobody reports seeing the miracles of Jesus being-done, actually happening - instead people seemed to notice that they had-already-happened.

People noticed that the water had turned to wine, that a few loaves and fishes had (somehow...) already fed a vast crowd; that soldiers or a mob were surrounding Jesus intending to arrest or kill him - but that Jesus was gone, that after having mud on their lids - the eyes of a blind man could see...

Jesus walked on the waters, which was spectacular - but it just happened, they realised that he was already doing it.

Jesus's miracles re-arranged reality to produce the desired result - and this process of rearrangement was invisible, imperceptible - apparently took place 'behind the sces' or as if in another dimension: to human perception all that was noticed was that things-had-changed.

How to understand this? One way is by the idea of levels of being, or consciousness - in which higher levels are imperceptible - by more real - than the lower levels. So in normal life we are like a simple visible-light-detecting machine - and when what is happening is not light (but is instead accomplished by ultraviolet frequencies, or sound, or smell...) then the dial does not register any change.

Another is to recognise that a higher being might be able to re-arrange things to produce the desired changes, but without those who are changed knowing about it.

This is like a dream - in at least two ways. In a dream the situation is that things change - landscapes change, things appear or disappear, personalities shift.. and usually we see that they have-changed, we don't see it happening.

And when we are dreaming a vast amount can happen in dream time - a hundred times faster than things can happen in waking time. An epic and detailed dream narrative takes only ten minutes by the clock.

In the dream there is a dream-er, of which we who are dream-ing are typically unaware, or only partially and intermittently aware - and of whose exact nature we are uncertain (and it may vary). But the time-scale and level of operations of the dream-er is such that he can accomplish a great deal which is imperceptible to the mind that is dream-ing. 

I presume something of this general-kind may partly explain how Jesus's miracles occurred - and how magical results were observed without any sign of magic being-done.

Note: Among fictional magical systems that I know - the nearest to what I mean is the metal Atium in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. 'Burning' of this metal by a mistborn in a fight, does not interfere with foes free agency, but predicts events slightly ahead of their reality by revealing consequences of actions already-initiated - at the same time the mind and body of the Atium-burner is as-if relatively accelerated so that he can calculate trajectories and take rapid compensatory or evasive actions with astonishing rapidity. So the mistborn can pass through a crowd of soldiers by knowing in advance where each sword blow will fall, and having time to dodge them all. 
     In the later Mistborn books, the Wayne character uses a 'bubble' to slow his own time, relative to the time outside the bubble. From within the bubble, the real world is seen as ultra-slo-mo - so the bubble can be erected to allow planning and evasion, even while (for example) a bullet is approaching. To those outside the bubble, Wayne repeatedly 'disappears' from imminent danger (only a brief blur is perceptible), to reappear somewhere safe.  
     If this sort of thing can be imagined greatly accelerated; and capable of reaching into the very innermost levels of matter - to adjust molecules, for example; then we may have a crude picture of the ways that divine powers could make magic seem already-to-have-happened without perceptible evidence - as with Jesus's miracles, perhaps.  


Lost Pilgrim said...

The only miracle I have been close to was the healing of my grandmother. It was extreme and visual and disorienting. It did not feel like magic.

Chiu ChunLing said...

One thing that I contemplated today was the development of our attitude towards the supernatural, and how occult and magical thinking are fundamentally divided from religion.

Magic deals with entities which are supernatural but sub-human, it begins as a branch of technology. The magical entities are controllable and predictable by craft without reference to moral purpose in much the same way as chemicals and mechanical interactions in a gun function without regard to where (or at whom) we aim it. This progresses towards occultism, involving dealings with beings that may be of comparable intellect and will to humans, but with divergent abilities and views of the world. As the moral and mental determination of the supernatural grows, the difficulty of forcing or manipulating it into specific courses of action amenable to the human's interests increases. The classic extreme is the Djinn story, in which the human is enormously inferior in power and knowledge to the Djinn, but still attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to trick the Djinn into conceding something of value.

Religion is the point at which the moral authority of the supernatural entity is recognized as superior (regardless of whether it is also deemed insuperably in power and knowledge). At which point one forgoes magic entirely, the supernatural event is merely a sign of the moral authority of the being that performs it.

Jesus taught this principle immediately after feeding the five thousand with five barley loaves, and two small fishes. "Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone."

And why did Jesus reject their offer of submission? "Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed."

This conversation continued, the prospective disciples asking one way and another for more bread in exchange for their offered service. Until Jesus finally clarified, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

The insistence on this esoteric symbolism (though it shouldn't have been strange to the Jews, of all people) rather than continued bread magic dissuaded many from continued discipleship. Because they were ignoring the point of the miracles, which was to teach them to look beyond the bread itself.

I think that there is something in the idea that magic typically has the overtly visible/audible impact ending in the result...the supernatural aspect is the means to the natural end. Whereas Christ's miracles present the natural effect and encourage thinking about the supernatural implications. This particular contrast of presentation is not the only way to achieve the desired focus of attention, many miracles (including several of Christ's) involve direct perception of supernatural activity, leading to a lasting impression of the reality of what is usually beyond human perception.

But I think that there is something to the idea that a certain profound response is invoked by knowing that wonderful something happened right in front of you without you seeing it. The comparison to a dream may be apt in more than one sense, it presents to the mind the suggestion that the mundane 'reality' of our conscious perception is not above events in dreams.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Good comment.

I agree that the point of a miracle is the effect it has - not the (assumed) method by which it is obtained. Indeed, I also agree with the typically Mormon assumption that there is no division between natural and supernatural - rather, there are many things are (naturally) possible to God that are not possible to Men.

The miracles of Christ have different purposes, but seem mostly designed for their effect on the faith of people who were the ebeficaries or witnesses.

Consequently, when a faith-enhancing event occurs in our own lives, we should be willing and 'relaxed' about according it miraculous status - but should *refrain* from trying to 'prove' (to ourselves or others) that it could-not-have-been 'coincidence', and that it must-have-been necessarily 'supernatural'.

It is possible that the greatest and most significant miracle, the raising of Lazarus, is an exception - because this may have been the 'cosmic Christ' at work - my understanding is that this miracle permanently changed the nature of reality. I infer that this is one reason why the story is given such emphasis by the beloved disciple.

(Another reason may be that - as I believe - 'the beloved disciple' who authored the Gospel was not John the son of Zebedee; but instead himself the raised Lazarus.)