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blog - Charles Stanford

Magic, Religion, and Jungian Thought: An LDS Perspective, Part 1

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“Far away, across the fields
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell”
- Pink Floyd: “Breathe (Reprise),” Dark Side of the Moon

Christianity has an uneasy relationship with magic, to greater or lesser degrees among its branches. Mormons are some of the wariest of all, which is ironic when you consider the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The regions of North America that nurtured this faith have also hosted folk magic practices for hundreds of years. Since the rise of various new age movements, notably Wicca and Neopaganism, modern aspirants to magic have been attracted to these homegrown systems. In response to this, people who work to preserve these traditions take pains to point out that they are firmly based in Christianity, and are not to be taken for any kind of crypto-paganism. The purpose of all these charms, incantations and concoctions was to bring about miracles – usually healing – by the power of God.

Along with this went a very real belief in and fear of witchcraft: if God could give power through special rituals, then so could the Devil, and much of the work of a Cunning Person (of whatever tradition) is to protect against evil enchantments. (As a side note, the notorious “heavy metal sign” with the index and little fingers extended comes from an Italian gesture of protection against the “evil eye.”)

From mandalas to magic circles to Hex signs, geometry has many religious and magical uses and interpretations. Photo credit: Anne Delong, from Atlas Obscura.

Mormon attitudes to magic range from dismissive to fearful, with a healthy dose of defensiveness along the spectrum. Such defensiveness is perfectly understandable: the difference between “faith” and “miracles” on one hand and “magic” on the other looks entirely relative from a psychological perspective. Much depends on what words are chosen to describe phenomena and experiences – and who chooses those words. Any given group may identify its practices and rituals as religion and others' as magic – and in so doing, project its shadow.

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics, and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land.

- Mormon 1:19

These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire.

- Doctrine and Covenants Section 76: 103-105

Church members should not engage in any form of Satan worship or affiliate in any way with the occult. ‘Such activities are among the works of darkness spoken of in the scriptures. They are designed to destroy one’s faith in Christ, and will jeopardize the salvation of those who knowingly promote this wickedness. These things should not be pursued as games, be topics in Church meetings, or be delved into in private, personal conversations.’ (First Presidency letter, Sept. 18, 1991).

- Handbook 2: Administering the Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Official teaching holds that Satanic minions do in fact roam the world seeking to do mischief, and in popular understanding, “messing with magic,” even experimenting with common divination tools like Tarot cards or Ouija boards is a perfect way to open the door to such mischief. While Joseph Smith canonized instructions on how to tell if an otherworldly messenger is trustworthy or not (Doctrine and Covenants Section 129), and the early days of the Church were noted for angelic visitations and dramatic manifestations of spiritual gifts (like speaking in tongues), in today's church that sort of thing is greatly downplayed.

Still, from a psychological perspective many rituals and practices still exist in the LDS Church that could be considered magical. The Mormon version of the Eucharist lacks the dogma of transubstantiation but is still seen as a potent renewal of baptism, itself a ritual that signifies transformation of the soul through a symbolic enactment of death and rebirth.

Mormon fear of magic goes along with a general unease with ceremony. For the most part the really important thing in Mormon ordinances is the faith and worthiness of those taking part. As such, the working of miracles through faith in Mormon belief might not look very magical: “no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations.” Though there are points of mechanical procedure that are prescribed with some precision, in the non-secret rituals these are minimal to the point of austerity.

The secret rituals are another matter (and Mormons get touchy about the use of the adjective “secret” even though it fits). These are understood as a gift of power from heaven which enable a soul to reach its final destination in unity with God. And then there is the remarkable “Patriarchal Blessing.” The title, so unfortunate to modern ears, is a metaphor of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their prophetic blessings to their sons. The practice offers an individual a private prophecy to help direct their life, given by a man with a special calling (in the early days of the Church, such men were referred to as “evangelists").

Describing these rituals as “magic” might seem very disrespectful or offensive to those who identify strongly with the tradition. While a psychological imagination can see the kinship between magic and religion, some believers find this hard to take: Dr. Jung constantly defended himself against accusations from Christian clergy that he reduced the message of our faith to nothing more than a working of the mind.

Jung's work gets it from both sides: believers who resent their faith practice sharing any names with what they regard as devilish counterfeits, and skeptics who despise magic and religion alike as a pathology unbecoming enlightened and civilized people.

Since Jung's great work was the reconciliation of opposites, I write in service of that goal.

 

~Charles Stanford
Archivist, author, musician
Staff Writer – Jung Society of Utah
Etsy shop: Only Real Quills

 

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