Process and Magic
Spirituality as Imagining the Impossible
It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.
Alfred North Whitehead
I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose.
I have a dream.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Richard Hates Magic
Jane really wants her friend, Richard, to watch the video above. It is an RSA video featuring Marco Tempest, a magician.
She wants him to see the card trick about a minute into the video. But Richard refuses to watch, because he hates magic and magic shows.
It's All About Deception
"Magic is all about being deceived," he says, "and I don't like being deceived. I have better ways to spend my time than trafficking in deception."
Magicians are Insincere
"It's not just the magic I don't like, it's the magicians. They stand up on stage and smile, waving their hands this way and that, but are intent upon deceiving you. They are dishonest and insincere. I don't like to be in the presence of insincere people. The make me nervous."
With All the Suffering in the World
There's No Time for Make Believe
"There is so much suffering and sadness in the world, why spend time in something as trivial as magic? It's a
complete waste of time, compared to the really important things in like, like healing the world."
Magic Encourages Immature Thinking
"Magic encourages immature, unscientific thinking. We all know that people cannot really violate the laws of physics and chemistry. Jesus did not really walk on water. People do not really levitate. We need to grow up and accept the physical limitations of being human. Magic raises false expectations."
Magic is Secretive and Elitist
"Magic is secretive. There are magicians' guilds which hold their secrets to themselves, not sharing them with anyone else, and creating a kind of elitism. They are like authoritarian dictators, imposing fictions on the world in the interests of having a sense of control over others.
Why Richard Doesn't Like Fiction
Richard knows that Jane like magic. He knows that she appreciates what she calls the magic experience or enjoying the impossible.
For Richard, the whole idea of enjoying impossibility runs counter to his rational and empirical temperament.
Richard is interested in truth and honesty, in facts and
evidence. In the way things are, not in the way things might have been but were not. Or in the way things could happen but don't.
He is not too keen on fiction, either. Or in the idea of parallel universes where things work in a different way. Or in the idea that the laws of nature are really habits of nature, which have evolved over time, and which may still be evolving. Or in the idea of indeterminacy in physics, where given submicrosopic events do not unfold in deterministic ways.
In truth, Richard is not too keen on the whole idea of possibilities, except when they take the form of
practical goals to be realized. He's interested in the possibility of eating dinner andwatching a good RSA video, but not in more abstract possibilities that are, to his mind, merely fictive
So Jane offers encouragement: "It is kind of academic," she says. "It will make you think. It can help make the case for magic in modern times. And besides that you need some magic in your life. You need to enjoy some impossibility."\
Then she shows him the card trick you see in the video. He's hooked.
Jane Likes Magic
Jane likes magic. She thinks the spirit of magic can animate people to help build a better world and that "magic shows" can be good for adults and children. She likes fantasy fiction and science fiction, too. You can always see her reading her favorite writer, Ursula Le Guin.
She is especially fond of an Ursula Le Guin quote about children: "I doubt that imagination can be suppressed; if you truly eradicated it, it would grow up to be an egglant."
This is why she's troubled by Richard's resistance to magic. She thinks he's trying to become an eggplant.
Of course, she thinks he has some good points, too. Along with him she doesn't like deception, insincerity, or wishful thinking. She doesn't believe we can alter reality just by thinking in new ways. She objects to magical thinking when it is just an excuse to hide from facts. She can't stand the idea of using magic for destructive ends.
Still, she thinks that there is a place in life for wonder and amazement and for what she calls "imagining the impossible." She thinks that, without imagination, the world falls apart. She thinks we can and should think magically.
Imagining the Impossible
When Jane says imagining the impossible she really means imagining things that seem impossible.
She thinks that some things that seem impossible are really possible, but that social conventions and historical circumstances make them seem impossible. She thinks that a human and sustainable world, where people truly share with one another, is more possible than people imagine. At least more approximable.
She thinks that some people hide behind an armor of cynicism -- calling it being realistic -- in order to protect themselves from disappointment and hide from possibility. They are afraid of being hurt.
But she knows that some things that seem impossible really are impossible, at least in the actual world as we know it. We cannot reverse the aging process except in our imaginations; we cannot transport ourselves to other lands instantaneously, though the internet offers a pretty interesting alternative. We cannot escape death, for the time being.
Jane likes concreteness. There is a beauty to mortality and to concrete limitation that is lost if we think everything is possible. It is good, not evil, to have bodies that are finite, fallible, vulnerable, and limited. We need roots as well as wings.
A Theology of Imagination
If we are rooted in the realities of our actual world, though, there is an important a place in life for imagining the way things can be and might be even if, at face value, they are not.
She sees the imagining as a way of walking with God even if you don't believe in God. She thinks we find God in wings as well as roots.
This is why Jane sometimes takes her children to magic shows. She wants them to learn the arts of dwelling in possibility. She wants them to be alive to the possibility that the universe is more enchanted than they might otherwise know.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Jane is a process theologian. She has read the Constellation of Process Theology by Rabbi Bradley Artson in this website, as she is inspired by the idea of a divine reality -- the Soul of the universe -- who inspires people to imagine new and hopeful future. She has also read Whitehead's Process and Reality. She is drawn to the idea that there is a realm of pure potentialities, residing in the primordial nature of God, which can be actualized in some possible universe even if they are not actualized in our actual universe. She appreciates Whitehead's idea of propositions: the idea that some of these potentialities -- call them abstract ideas -- can be entertained in our minds as possible ways that the world might unfold.
Indeed, Jane is open to the possibility that some of these potentialities might have been actualized in the past or might be actualized in the future. She is also is open to the possibility that there may be universes parallel to our own in which some of the potentialities are actualized now. It's not that Jane believes these universes exist, but she doesn't believe they don't exist, either.
Dwelling in Possibility
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Jane likes fantasy fiction and science fiction. She thinks that science fiction and fantasy fiction function in life to open our minds, imagine the impossible, and, where relevant, consider alternative and promising futures. Often they offer social critiques of conventional reality and conventional wisdom. She remembers the well-known quote from Emily Dickinson: "I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose."
Jane thinks that Martin Luther King, Jr. was dwelling in possibility when he had a dream that some day his children would be judged by the content of their character and not just the color of their skin. She thinks Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was dwelling in possibility when he marched arm in arm with King.
This whole idea gives Jane new eyes for mathematics and the arts. She believes that mathematicians are exploring the very mind of God, where the pure potentialities dwell, and that artists are doing the same when they imagine different worlds of sound and color, feeling and action. She wonders if there might be a little artist in all of us, and maybe even a little mathematician, if mathematics is another name for pattern recognition.
She begins to wonder if the magical arts, at least as presented by Marco Tempest in the video above, might provide an invitation for collective or communal imagining. He calls it open source magic:
I believe in a wider definition of magic. I'm not just interested in fooling the audience. I want them to have a magical experience, the kind that cinema, theatre, literature, music, and art can provide. I like to collaborate with others, with writers, software programmers, artists, designers, sound engineers. technologists.
It occurs to Jane that it might be good if people who come from different cultures and religions might approach the world a little more creatively and collaboratively, like the programmers and artists and designers and sound engineers of whom Marco Tempest speaks.
She begins to wonder if collaborative imagining -- the idea of exploring the impossible together -- might provide an image of cross-cultural and inter-religious dialog at its best.
Perhaps two forms of dialog might partake of the spirit of magic and develop something like open-source spirituality or open-source friendship. It would need to begin with an unsettling of the fixed or constipated imagination. It would need to begin with the deconstruction of inherited ideologies, when they get in the way of friendship and trust, when they lead people to draw boundaries between themselves that are too fixed and impermeable. It would need to begin with a willingness to explore possibilities together, even if they do not at first seem "realistic." It would need to begin with some good, old fashioned card tricks that invite a suspension of disbelief.
As Jane sees things, this willingness and exploration are forms of spirituality in their own right. She calls it open source spirituality. The open source is the One of whom Rabbi Artson speaks. No need for a more special name. One is enough.
Richard thinks that we don't have time to think magically, because there's too much suffering. Jane thinks that, with help from magical thinking, and some hard work together, we can help reduce the suffering. She thinks that good insights in science and medicine, that good art, that good religion all respond to One.
Aren't we crystal balls in the hands of a deep magician who beckons us toward shalom, not by deceiving us, but by luring us to imagine a better world? Doesn't the magician peer into our minds and try to fathom our thoughts? Isn't the magician sometimes surprised, even happily, by our responses?
Isn't the universe kind of magical, too? Doesn't the universe imagine itself into individualized entities moment by moment, again and again and again.
Isn't this what Whitehead means when he says that the universe is a journey, a creative advance into novelty?
Yes, isn't this advance kind of magical, too?