In psychology, the term magical thinking refers to infering personal causes for outside events. We all do this as children. The common example in psychology is “It is raining because I’m sad,” although more typically it happens in more complex and potentially devastating ways, e.g.: “Dad and mom split up because I was bad.”
Closely linked to that is the theological concept of propitiation. This refers to offering some sacrifice, of self or other, to appease a god and prevent or stop punishment. “This bad thing is happening (or may happen) because we have been evil; if we make this sacrifice, god will have mercy and stop the bad thing.”
I think magical thinking and propitiation – not simple racism or blind hatred of Obama or Democrats – are at the core of the culture war anger we’ve seen lately, most notably at rallies where Sarah Palin speaks. It is a kind of aggression that truly believes itself to be self-defense.
It is not hatred. It is fear.
We all engage in magical thinking of one sort or another, at various times in our lives. If you’ve ever crept home late at night from a place you realize you shouldn’t have been, heard the door ccrreeaaakk, and thought “Well doesn’t that figure?!?” that is magical thinking. At its core is a fallacy of false dilemma: “Either I’m in control or I’m not; as I’m obviously in control of some things, then I must be in control of all things.” The bolded text is the false dilemma; magical thinking is a logical extension of that false dilemma.
That children are more prone to magical thinking should come as no surprise. Children haven’t yet learned nuances of causation, control, influence, chaos, and coincidence. Indeed magical thinking is a way children test and learn those nuances: “It’s raining because I’m sad. Okay, I’ll think of something happy. Does the rain stop?” Seen in that light, magical thinking is actually a form of scientific inquiry, but without the formal structures that science adopts to safeguard against inference from coincidence. If the rain does stop that day, the child reasonably believes that his hypothesis was correct, and may cling to that magical thinking for years before recognizing enough contrary data to change his mind.
In short, magical thinking isn’t “stupid.” It’s flawed reasoning, yes, but it’s still reasoning. Moreover, few of us ever fully ‘outgrow’ it. I still catch myself doing it, far more often than I’d like to admit.
Propitiation is the logical application of magical thinking in religion and theology. If we believe in a god, and if we believe that god to be omnipotent, then reason dictates that no event can happen unless that god wants or at least permits it to happen. If we believe that god rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior, then reason dictates that good things should happen to us if we’re being good. Conversely, if something bad happens to us, then we must be doing something bad. The doctrine of propitiation and its central question – do bad things happen to good people? – has been among the most vexing ideas in theology, going at least as far back as Ecclesiastes and the story of Job. It was at the heart of Plato’s Republic, most notably in the Epilogue. Recent ponderings include works by Harold Kushner and Melvin Tinker.
More popularly known arguments about propitiation include Pat Robertson’s claim that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s fatal stroke was God’s punishment for Sharon’s negotiations with Palestinians, and John Hagee’s statement that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for a planned New Orleans gay pride parade.
Traditional Christian theology (and the Bible on its face) teaches the doctrine of complete propitiation: that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross – the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God – was sufficient to balance the scale of God’s judgment for all human sin: past, present, and future.
Dominion theology, by contrast, teaches a doctrine of incomplete propitiation; God must still be propitiated, the sacrifice of Christ notwithstanding, or God will punish entire peoples for their sin or tolerance of sin.
And therein lies the seeds of the “culture war.”
If bad things are happening in or for the United States, incomplete propitiation teaches, they are God’s punishment for our sin or tolerance of sin. Why are we bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why is the stock market in free fall? Why are we losing jobs and homes and pensions? Dominion theology says these happen because we are sinning or tolerating sin. It’s “Dad and mom are splitting up because I was bad,” writ large on society.
For believers in incomplete propitiation, crushing gays and lesbians into invisibility, women into submissive wives-breeders, and non-believers into conformity with fundamentalist dogma is not oppression. It’s self-defense, no different from the soldier who shushes a comrade on a night patrol. If the comrade doesn’t keep quiet, the enemy will be alerted and the entire patrol endangered. If the gay or lesbian, feminist, or other non-believer doesn’t stop ‘sinning,’ the entire people stand in peril of God’s judgment.
And for believers in incomplete propitiation, God’s judgment is certainly upon us: the quagmires in Iraq and Afganistan, seeming economic collapse, an increasingly volatile climate. The angry mobs at Palin rallies aren’t mere racists, or possessed of unreasoning hate. Given their worldview, their fear-driven anger is entirely reasonable: unless we Liberal-Socialist-Secular-Athiest-Democrats-Sinners repent or are sacrificed, God will continue to crush the United States.
How do we reason with them?
Given the near-alienness of our respective worldviews, it’s difficult. Calling them “stupid” or “low-information voters” won’t help, nor will direct attacks on their religious beliefs on gays, lesbians, feminists, or whatever sinners du jour. Those attacks will only fan the flames of perceived danger, adding blasphemy to their existing burden of perceived moral decay.
This may be an argument best left to Democrats who are Christians, who can speak in their language, focusing on the clear Biblical teaching that the Lamb of God was indeed complete propitiation for all sin: past, present, and future. Either Christ’s death on the cross was enough to balance the scales of God’s judgment, or it wasn’t. If it was, no further propitiation is needed. If it wasn’t, no further propitiation could suffice.
The Bible they claim to hold as absolute truth teaches that propitiation is no longer necessary. That was taken care of nearly 2000 years ago, on a hill outside Jerusalem, once and for all time, for all humankind. If they truly believe in the worthiness of that sacrifice, then humankind is and was redeemed by the Agnus Dei. The Christ they claim as Savior taught that God allows natural forces to work equally upon everyone.
He lets His sun rise on both good and evil people, and he lets the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.
If they believe Christ taught the truth, then they have nothing to fear in God’s judgment, nothing to fear in being tolerant of others. This is the message Christian Democrats must carry to our frightened brothers and sisters. For it is not hate that spawns their anger, but fear … a fear their own beliefs teach they need not carry.
We Christian Democrats must meet their fear with a professed faith in the Christ they also worship, with hope in the complete propitiation offered by the Lamb of God, and with a loving, open heart. We may not feel certain ourselves about that propitiation. We may have our own doubts, our own “dark nights of the soul.” That’s okay. We should admit to those doubts, and be willing to discuss them openly, honestly, and with love. For as Saint Paul wrote so beautifully:
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.