Four Types of Magical Thinking in the Modern World

Dear Friends in Christ,

October is upon us already! The Fall season has begun, and the temperature is finally starting to drop here in North Carolina. September was a busy month, with the feast days of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos (our parish feast) and the Holy Cross, along with the secular holiday of Labor Day. But those days have passed, and now we begin to prepare for Thanksgiving, the Nativity Fast, and the “Holiday Season,” hoping to accomplish all of our resolutions by the end of the year. Nestled in October is the feast day of Saints Cyprian and Justina (October 2/15). Early martyrs, they contested sometime in the mid-third century. Their story is remarkable; Cyprian was a pagan sorcerer, while Justina was a pagan maiden who, having learned of the truth of Christ, converted and succeeded in bringing her parents to Christ as well. She endeavored to live a life of chastity and to remain unmarried, but she attracted the unwanted gaze of a local wealthy youth. He enticed Cyprian to perform magic to attract Justina to him.

Amazingly, although Cyprian was able to engage in all sorts of dark arts, he could not succeed in coercing Justina to succumb. Asking the demons why he failed, they remarked that it was because Justina signed herself with the Cross. Cyprian realized that the power of demons was nothing compared to Christ, and in a dramatic gesture, burned his magical books in front of the local bishop before being baptized. Eventually, he became a bishop, Justina a nun, and both were martyred for converting many to Christ, probably in the year AD 268.

In our present day, under the influence of science and rationalism, most people have ceased practicing outright sorcery (the rise of neopaganism notwithstanding), but magical thinking continues, often with a thin “scientific” veneer. The demons continue their work of assisting man to live autonomously and without faith in God, adjusting their methods to the times by taking a more subtle role in this age of skepticism. In this message, I will briefly cover four ways that people engage in magical thinking today.

Like Attracts Like. Made popular by books such as The Secret, New Thought is a belief system that teaches that reality is a manifestation of our thoughts. By thinking positively and visualizing what we want, we make these things a reality. Negative occurrences are a result of our negative thoughts. This New Age belief system claims to describe a scientific “Law” that can be learned and practiced. It ignores the fact that this world is fallen, and chaos reigns. We cannot always control what happens to us, but in Christ, we can face all challenges and trials with courage. We will not always know “why” bad things happen, but we will know that when we suffer, we are co-suffering with the Lord Himself, and thus suffering has meaning and purifies, and we are not alone in it.

Karma. An ancient Hindu belief, it is more commonly known in the West as the concept of “what goes around, comes around.” A system of cause and effect, it is assumed that man will have evil repaid by evil and good by good in a perfectly-balanced system. A person can thus keep track of his good and bad deeds, and create his own destiny; he can assure blessedness by being good. This is contrasted with a life of faith in Christ, where a person recognizes that he can never pay back the debt of even one sin, and must rely solely on the Grace given by Christ through the Cross. We are called to live a transfigured life, to repay curses with blessings, to pray for those who persecute us, and to be Christ to all in our lives. For instance, St. Justina saved the man who pursued her by praying for him when he was about to suffer a disastrous fall.

Modern Business Culture. Hard work is certainly a virtue, but in the modern business world, seminars and classes are routinely held (and often obligatory) which seek to produce better producers by creating a certain way of thinking and approaching things—the “can do” attitude. In this system, problems are the fault of mental and psychological blocks which can be overcome through coaching and the right attitude, by following the system taught in the seminar. Such events even contain quasi-spiritual exercises such as centering exercises, which seek to induce a relaxed and receptive state in the learner, and visualization exercises.

The Lord Told Me… Many Christians have developed a bad habit of assuming that any religious-sounding idea that enters the mind must be from God, and in a misguided desire to be obedient to God, they base their lives around these thoughts and hunches, and even off of dreams (which the Church Fathers have warned us to not pay attention to). These ideas are often an unoriginal mix of common sense solutions and self-serving purposes. God becomes an excuse and a justification for such people to do as they please. What is a simple coincidence is given meaning by ascribing it to God and His will. Instead of relying on the frequent reading of Scripture and consultation with the clergy and fellow believers, answers are found within, in a personalized way.

The root problem of all four examples of magical thinking is man-centeredness, rather than trusting in God and being obedient to His will. All of these philosophies present the solution to the problem of evil and failure as internal to the person, rather than external in Christ. Man is assumed to be in control of his own destiny, and the deception that he is an autonomous being is not challenged head-on. The solution is Christ, the God who came and suffered for our sake, in whom we must place our trust if we wish to be saved.

St. Cyprian learned that he could not alter the will of God or control his own destiny when the faith of a teenaged girl overpowered all the tricks of the many demons who assisted him. All of his effort to learn the secrets of success in this life evaporated in a most unexpected way. When people in modern times follow any of the above ways of magical thinking, they are setting themselves up for despair when things happen to them that are beyond their control. Being a member of a Church does not make one immune from these false philosophies, and indeed, especially in the last example, they use God, the Church, and religiosity as covers for their continued self-will.

Let us not follow any false philosophy that teaches the answer is within us, whether it appears religious or secular. Let us humbly approach the Lord in prayer and ask for the forgiveness of sins and the Grace necessary to have a relationship with Him. When we receive Grace, we will know we are not left alone to find the answers. We will find real transformation through Christ and through His body, the Church, where our fellow believers are there to stand with us in times of struggle.

In Christ,
Fr. Anastasios