On Magic and Magical Thinking

“On Magic and Magical Thinking”

Worship Service for The Unitarian Universalist Congregation

of Columbia, South Carolina

October 30, 2016

the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words [by Albert Schweitzer]:

“No ray of sunshine is ever lost—

but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout—

and it is not always granted for the sower to see the harvest.

All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

The Morning Reading, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” by W.H. Auden [In the poem, Auden is looking at the painting by the Master painter, Brueghel, which depicts the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. (See picture on the cover.) In the myth, Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were trapped on an island. To escape, they made wings from feathers and wax, and began to fly away. But Icarus flew too close to the sun. It melted the wax on his wings, and he fell into the ocean and drowned…

About suffering, they were never wrong,

the Old Masters: how well they understood

its human position; how it takes place

while someone else is eating, or opening a window

or just walking dully along;

how when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

for the miraculous birth, there always must be

children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

on a pond at the edge of the wood.

They never forgot [the Old Masters]

that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

where the dogs go on with their doggy life

and the torturer’s horse

scratches its innocent behind on a tree

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

have heard the splash, the forsaken cry–

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

water– And the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

something amazing– a boy falling out of the sky–

[But it] had somewhere to get to– and [so it] sailed calmly on.


Special Music “The Sound of Silence,” by Paul Simon


the Morning Sermon:  “On Magic and Magical Thinking”


Imagine if you had to try to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf in less than three minutes– You’d have to try to remember what the heck happens in the story anyway, and in what order– You’d have to decide what to leave in, and what to leave out, so that your version would be interesting to your listeners, and so that you would get across the points you wanted to make. That’s what a small group of us Unitarian Universalist ministers were assigned to do at a retreat I attended, the topic of which was “truth and humor in ministry through storytelling.” The group of us did okay with remembering the folk tale until we got to the part when –luckily!– the woodcutter suddenly appears at exactly the right time to save Little Red and her grandmother. [They have been swallowed whole by the wolf. The woodcutter cuts open the wolf’s stomach with his ax. They emerge physically fine, if somewhat traumatized….] “Wait a minute– [one of my colleagues asked] How did the woodcutter know to go to Grandma’s house at that time in the afternoon?” “Maybe he had a To-Do list,” I suggested. My colleagues didn’t buy that. “Maybe he was delivering wood to people in the neighborhood, and Grandma was on his route,” another minister offered. My colleagues shook their heads again. We pondered the dilemma of that part of the story just not making rational sense. Then one of the ministers said, somewhat sadly, “Traditionally, the story just goes, ‘luckily, the woodcutter–’ The resolution of the crisis in the plot depends on plain old luck.”  That felt unsatisfying to the group of us– We were, after all, Unitarian Universalist ministers. Our religious tradition has always tended more toward that which is rational, this-worldly, and provable by scientific facts. We tend not to put much stock in what mental health professionals call, “magical thinking.” Nor do we put much stock in endings that are the result of a magical being swooping in in the nick of time and saving the day.

Yet many individuals and groups do seem to fall into a tendency to passively wait for a magical solution to suddenly appear. Perhaps that’s a part of human nature that any of us might fall prey to at one time or another. Certainly when we were dependent children, we longed for an all-powerful provider, such as Little Red Riding Hood’s woodcutter, to keep us fed, warm and dry, safe and happy, at all times. But I was raised Unitarian Universalist, in a very Humanist context. As such, I came to believe that it is up to us, here, to save the world, in our time. Super-human or supernatural beings were not part of the salvation equation. In fact, for quite awhile now, whenever I would hear someone use the term, “magical thinking,” I would ask them to explain what they were talking about, because I felt like I just didn’t know what on earth they were talking about. [I’ve recently learned that “magical thinking” equates thinking with doing. It is a denial of the reasonable outcomes of cause and effect. It is the inaccurate belief that one’s thoughts or wishes will cause or prevent a specific outcome. It is to say, “If I wear the pants that model is wearing, I will no longer be a size fourteen.”]

Nor did I know how to articulate what was really going on when I saw a group simply waiting passively as if a magical provider will, as it were, prepare the meal, serve it, and clean up afterward. Though I came to call this latter phenomenon “the Little Red Hen Syndrome.” As you will recall that other folk tale, the Little Red Hen tries to get the farm animals to arrive early on Committee Night; set up the tablecloths, silverware, cups, and serving utensils; replenish these things as needed during the meal; and clean up afterward–  I mean she tries to get them to help with tending the wheat, harvesting it, turning it into flour, and baking some bread. They all voice excuses and scheduling conflicts– Only her little chicks help out. But then when they smell the freshly baked bread, the farm animals all want to partake of it. The Little Red Hen –having recently been to an empowering workshop on setting appropriate limits and boundaries for herself and her family– tells the farm animals “no,” and eats the bread with only her little chicks instead. I recently recalled that there has long been a better term for what I had named, “Little Red Hen Syndrome:” the concept used in literary criticism known as “deus ex machina.” In Greek and Roman drama, when there was a plot complication with no internal basis for its resolution, a god was suddenly lowered onto the stage by machinery in order to extricate the protagonist from a compromising situation. So “deus ex machina” means “god from a machine.”  “Deus ex machina” is a criticism of a weak plot that resolves favorably in an unbelievable way.

One example is in the 1978 version of the movie Superman. After Lois Lane has been killed in her car and the villain has detonated devastating missiles, Superman simply flies around the world in reverse to travel back in time and corrects the events. And often at the end of Victorian novels, a Last Will and Testament was suddenly produced whereby a long-lost relative saves the hero or heroine from a life of destitution. Personally, being such a pragmatic person, I find it difficult to even stretch my imagination enough to think that way about real life. Yet this, the last week in October, is known by many as National Magic Week, honoring the anniversary of the death of the great magician Harry Houdini, ninety years ago, on October 31st, 1926.  So this is a fitting Sunday for us to explore in more depth our answers to the question, “Do you believe in magic?” What sort of faith waits expectantly for a magical being as if from a machine to bail people out? What sort of faith never counts on anything even slightly resembling magic to save the day? Is there a continuum? Is there a faith that’s normative for Unitarian Universalists? Is there a faith, as regards magical thinking, that is ideal– that we should strive to develop?

James Fowler [a psychologist and a Methodist lay-person] developed such a continuum in his 1981 book, Stages of Faith – the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  Though we certainly do not have to agree with all of it, Fowler’s theory of “Stages of Faith” has become a starting point for people of all denominations to examine how their faith journeys could go from more simplistic to more mature, responsible, and inclusive. I won’t go into all six of Fowler’s stages this morning. But what he describes as Stages One and Two are what I described a few minutes ago.  As dependent children, we can tend to believe that our parents are all-powerful, all-knowing, and will provide everything we need. Children’s image of god tends to be parent-like. I read Fowler’s Stages of Faith as human beings being increasingly co-responsible for our acts and omissions. And I read Fowler’s highest stage of faith, Stage Six, as one of mutual honor and care between human beings and that which provides for us– that which seems to either bless or curse us. To me, Stage One, the infant stage, appears to be co-dependent. And, to me, Stage Six should, ideally, be co-liberating. Fowler calls Stage Six a universalized and universalizing faith. He says this level is very rare– a deeply-felt sense of connectedness with all living beings, and a passionate dedication to creating justice for all people. Fowler names Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dag Hammarskjold, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as representative of this highest stage.

That’s laudable, certainly, but those famous religious figures also had a tendency toward martyrdom. And martyrs aren’t fun to be in relationship with in the long run, are they? Martyrs tend to die young or burn out. The best long-term relationships are those in which those we are dependent on are encouraging us to continually stretch ourselves, grow, and develop. And you’d think it’d be great to be able to count on a magical being to provide for all our needs all the time– great for awhile, maybe. But we have to ask ourselves, “At what cost, in the long run?” If a person or group says they will provide for us, the savvy person asks, “What’s the catch?”

One of the clearest needs here, in our congregation, is our Capital Campaign for needed renovations to our building. Our goal is $175,000, and I am thrilled to tell you that pledges we’ve received total nearly $130,000. Those pledges are from many individuals and families. And we now have a matching grant in the amount of $30,000. This brings to mind for me a time when I was serving as interim minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a morning in April of my second year there, and the Administrator and I were in the office. She opened the mail, and then walked across the room toward me, with a letter in her hand, and an absolutely stunned look on her face. I said, “Kirsten, what has happened? Please just tell me.” She said that the congregation had just received a bequest, from a long time member who had died several months before, of $74,000. I said, “Are you sure there are really that many zeroes on that check?” And there were. And there were no restrictions on how the congregation could spend the money.

So we had the wonderful opportunity to figure out what to spend the money on. The congregation was surveyed, and we also had discussion with the board, other groups, and the Finance Committee. It was from that committee that I learned their wise rule of thumb that when you receive a windfall, you should “Save some; spend some; and give some away.” The people of the congregation wanted things like a new PA system, and new chairs for the sanctuary, and so we purchased those things. We also paid down some debt. And we put some money toward social justice causes, including environmental preservation, which was dear to the gentleman who died. That day in April was one of the happiest days of my career. And helping the congregation decide how to spend the bequest was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in my career.

But taking part in this Capital Campaign feels even better than that–  because all of the people who have pledged are investing in this congregation, its buildings, its mission and purpose in the wider community, and in what Unitarian Universalist has to offer the world. The windfall that the UU Congregation of Fort Wayne received did empower people in some ways, and that’s a wonderful legacy. But the Capital Campaign here is far more empowering, of far more people. And that’s a legacy that will be stronger and more long-lasting.

Looking at a congregation’s finances can prompt us to ask ourselves: If a person offered to swoop in and provide for us, are there conditions under which we would say “no”?  That would depend in part on what that person stands for, and what their intentions are. Intentions behind ways parties are in relationship with each other are the heart of the matter of whether the relationship is one of mutual responsibility, care, and honor. One thing I want most for this congregation is for you to have as many choices as possible as to the professionals that will serve you in the future. I think it’s important for this congregation to realize that if someone offers you something, you don’t have to accept that something.  There are ministers who would not be the right match for you and the things you stand for. And there are also things people might offer to this congregation that you do not have to accept. Many congregations have a committee whose job it is to turn down offers of things people want to donate to a church–  things such as rugs, housewares, artwork of questionable taste, and trunk loads of Readers Digest Condensed Books…

What are some offers of help to which you would say, “No, thank you,” for yourself, your neighborhood, this congregation, your state, or our country? That question is at the heart of the plot of the musical, Damn Yankees, and the novel, Watership Down, isn’t it? It also brings to mind the fact that people are, to some extent, paid to live in Alaska. Does that fact inhibit Alaskans from speaking out against the government destroying natural resources in their state? In examining where we are placing our faith and trust, it’s important to be sure our relationships are not exploitative. As Edmund Burke is often quoted as having said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing.”

All these questions are part and parcel of the larger question: to what extent does your faith include believing in magic? “Magic” is defined as:  “the art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural through the use of charms, spells, or rituals.”

I’ll tell you what I believe as regards forces in the universe that could either be called supernatural or could be called forces of nature that we simply do not understand yet. You don’t have to agree with me– But this is a theology you can all read and reflect on for yourselves. It’s described in the Unitarian Universalist primer, Our Chosen Faith, in the chapter by John Buehrens called, “Mind and Spirit.” In it, Buehrens cites process theologian Alfred North Whitehead as having said:

“There is a creative tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things, and moments come when we can work with it and it can work through us. But the tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things is by no means omnipotent [it is not all-powerful]. Other forces work against it. This creative principle is everywhere. It is a continuing process. Insofar as you partake of this creative process, you partake of the divine, and that participation is your immortality, reducing the question of whether your individuality survives the death of the body to the estate of irrelevancy. Our true destiny as co-creators in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.”

As such, I believe there are forces in the universe that want beauty, truth, justice, healing, and beloved community. But I believe we have to work with them– We have to do our part. We must not turn away–  as does everyone in the Brueghel painting described in the Auden poem that was this morning’s reading.  We must not turn away from the suffering that is occurring right alongside us, and is within our ability to salve.

What are we to do, then, when we long for unjust conditions to change and the perpetrators of those conditions do nothing? Waiting for them to change is maddening. I would suggest that we ask a different question– Ask yourself: If you were presented with new, almost unbelievable evidence that what had, all along, been destructive had now become a vehicle for good, could you change? If I was presented with new, almost unbelievable evidence that an ill wind had instead become beneficial, could I change?

Would we recognize a truly co-liberating prestidigitator if we met one on the street, now, in our time, on this seemingly ordinary day?


**Closing Hymn #95 There is More Love Somewhere


**Benediction, from, How to Build Community, by the Syracuse Cultural Workers:

“How to build Community– Leave your house– Know your neighbors– Look up when you are walking– Greet people– Plant Flowers– Use Your Library– Play together– Buy from Local Merchants– Share what you have– Take Children to the Park– Have pot-lucks– Honor elders– Pick up litter– Read stories aloud– Dance in the streets– Talk to the mail carrier– Listen to the birds– Help carry something heavy– Ask for help when you need it– Sing together– Listen before you react to anger– Learn from new and uncomfortable angles–”