Friday, January 15, 2010

Magic Is Everywhere

Magic is something that I ponder a lot. I ponder it and look for it, because I cannot escape the fact that magic is everywhere. Our world may be a reasonable and rational place, but it is not a cold, static, necessary world. It is a wondrous and surprising place which is inescapably full of life, mystery and beauty! Whether you are a hardcore atheist or a devout believer in the biblical creation account, the life, magic and mystery of our universe is unavoidable. When I speak of magic, I'm not just referring to that which is caused by supernatural forces. Instead, I mean that the present state of things is other than it might be, and that in many cases it is a wondrous and awe-inspiring state. I mean that though something may not be irrational or unreasonable, that there is always something fundamental about every person, preference or object which has no finally explicable reason.

It is for this reason, that G.K. Chesteron writes that fairy tales are, in many ways, more rational and reasonable than modern science. In his book which I so dearly love, Orthodoxy, he writes:

It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing or another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that men in spectacles were talking of actual things that happened--dawn and death and so on--as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity, because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.

In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronouced the alphabet, Grimm's Law. But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than Grimm's Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we regard then in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature." When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothers fell from her at twelve o' clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, "law," "necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment." They express the abitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
In this manner, we can clearly see that nearly everything in life is quite magical. We may ask why grass is green, and if we do, we may be able to explain how it comes to appear green, but we can never say why it is green. At the end of every chain of "why" questions, there always is a point at which we must say simply, "It's magic." Why is ours a heliocentric planetary system, rather than a geocentric one? Whether you suggest that it was designed by a creative and intentional God, or by random chance at the hands of impersonal natural forces, it is still is something that has no necessary answer--only a magical one. Why do anteaters have such long tongues? God would say He created it that way because He wanted to. An impersonal universe wouldn't say much at all, but Richard Dawkins would certainly praise the universe for its marvelously rich design.
All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe — almost worship — this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn't diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.
Yet, often as we age we lose the wonder that is properly felt at the recognition of the magic so completely encompassing our lives. Why do I even exist? It's magic! Why do I love pomegranate frozen yogurt? It's magic! Why is the sea so beautiful, vast and untamable? It's magic! Why is there such a thing as music? It's magic! Why do I have a nice apartment that I enjoy living in? It's magic! Why do I have as many fun brothers and sisters as I do? It's magic! Why are there two very different genders? It's magic!

While Richard Dawkins' faith may be misplaced, I completely admire his perspective. When he looks at the world around him, he sees the magic that is inescapable, joyous and uplifting! He is rightly filled with an awe of nature! Even lacking a belief in a glorious Creator God, Dawkins revels in God's fantastic creation and declares that it all fills one with ecstatic wonder, beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. Unfortunately, most moderns have lost this sense of childlike delight in the magic of Nature. Whether our imaginations have become dull through the constant pressures of life, whether we've believed the pretty lies that there is nothing extraordinary and nothing special in our world, or whether we simply have lost touch with our world because of distraction, the truth is that magic is all around us, just waiting for us to open our eyes and see it. If only we opened our eyes to see beauty, if only we opened our ears to listen to melody, and if only we opened our hearts to embrace that astounding refrain of nature, we too, would cry out in joy and delight! The saints and mystics saw the magic, and it inspired them to create art. Maltbie Babcock, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister, penned the words to the famous hymn, This Is My Father's World:

This is my Father's world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world,
the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their maker's praise.
This is my Father's world:
he shines in all that's fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father's world.
O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!
Or, stepping back in time a few thousand years, we have the immortal words of King David, the poet and mystic, found in Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.

In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.
Its rising is from one end of heaven,
And its circuit to the other end;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The wonder and beauty seen by these men is inescapable. They are men filled with delight and wonder whenever they look at the physical world! But, we've lost that wonder. We've lost that delight. We've lost that childlike jubilee. We no longer see the magic. Yet, it's there. It's waiting to be found. Simply opening up one's mind is all that is needed to begin to glimpse the beautiful magic of our world, of the trees and flowers, of our mothers and father, of our wheeled transports and wireless devices, of our lover's faces and all our favorite places, of freshly-grilled sandwiches and delectable fruit salads, of friends and coffee and wintry weather. Though Chesterton wrote his book one hundred years ago, even today there are still spectacled men walking about, who speak about biology as being something entirely devoid of magic. Yet, it's impossible to say that biology isn't magical when it is an irrefutable and incontrovertible fact that magic is everywhere. His assertion speaks very little about biology or our universe and, instead, speaks a great deal about his limited and imagination-less perspective. He writes that there is nothing special about women, despite the fact that they are the ones who bear babies. To him, nothing is magical, nothing is special. While he is correct that women aren't more special than men, he is quite wrong to say that there is nothing magical about women. Life itself is magical! Women are magical! Men are magical! Babies are magical! Biology is magical! Human biodiversity is magical! For the sake of avoiding one error, he commits a far worse one, causing him to miss the beauty and magic of all of Nature.

Let us always be mindful of the magic that surrounds us everywhere. Let us allow our hearts to be filled with gratitude as we appreciate the little things in life, as we notice the subtle details, and as we observe those things that we would normally miss. There may a leprechaun beneath a leaf, or perhaps something equally magically, like a rock. There may be a fairy hiding just out of sight, or a delightful person that we might fail to see unless we are watchful. Those who don't see magic completely miss all the wonders of life, simply because they aren't looking for it. Those who are watchful and vigilant cannot help but see enchanted creatures, spellbound objects and charming people everywhere. With a childlike perspective, all the magic that is around us can easily be seen. Without it, we miss out on the greatest wonders in life. To be fully alive, we must live life and see the world not only through the lenses of the intellect, but also from the window of the heart. We must experience the beautiful! If only our hearts will return to fairyland, we will see that fairyland is never something we grow out of, it is only something that we lose sight of.


  1. I agree 100% with your life perspective of magic. I also write blending threads of nature and spirituality in everyday life in my Examiner articles and through my life work! Keep writing, were out here absorbing and appreciating:)

  2. Where is the Dawkins quote from?

  3. @Thursday: It's a quote from the acceptance speech he gave in being named the 1996 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. The speech was transcribed and subsequently published in the January/February 1997 issue of The Humanist magazine.

  4. Very positive outlook on life!
    You seem to be using the term magic in two ways:
    1. An optimistic appreciation of the really cool natural processes around us.
    2. A way to explain how natural processes work (ie. "god of the gaps" concept).

    #1 is very useful and probably vital to our sanity and life purpose.
    #2 is of virtually no merit.

    When you say
    'At the end of every chain of "why" questions, there always is a point at which we must say simply, "It's magic."'
    You'd be better off saying
    "I don't know! We'll probably find the answer to that question out some day soon. Still, it's very cool and magical."