The famous science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, once wrote that “Any technology that is sufficiently advanced, seems like magic to earlier generations.” Both magic and technology are exercises of power to better control the environment and our ability to function in that environment.
Science is presented as practical and concrete in its focus on nature and material reality. It attempts to distinguish itself from religion and magic because of this, describing religion and magic as rooted in myth and the human imagination, as if myth and imagination were bad things. I suggest that this is a false understanding and that myth and imagination are essential to any form of understanding the world around us. They are faculties essential to structuring our knowledge of the world.
Humans organize their understanding of their lives and the world around them in terms of stories. If you wanted to know something about the Shewman family in general, I would tell you about Wilhelm Shewman and his wife, Margarethe, who came to North America from Germany in 1752. I would share their adventures and the adventures of their children and grandchildren and so on for several generations. If you wanted to know about Richard Shewman, I would tell you a story about me. In both cases, you would learn about me or my family through stories. The Bible is mostly a collection of stories about people who identify themselves as Hebrews (Old Testament) or as Christians (New Testament). These stories may vary in their historical accuracy, but they contain truth about Judaism and Christianity that has given meaning and understanding to billions of people over the centuries. That meaning, and insight is just as true as E=mc2, though in describing a different aspect of reality then the conversion of mass to energy. Myth is a different way from science for conveying truth. The truth is found in the story, even if the details of the story are not meant to be literally true. The story is a product of the imagination meant to convey truth.
Imagination is a basic faculty that humans use to shape complex ideas and meanings in images that are more accessible to the average person than advanced mathematics. Humans think in images. To understand complex ideas, we try to find images that are a metaphor for the idea. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is most completely and accurately expressed in the E=mc2 formula, which is almost meaningless to the average person. However, in explaining the theory to the average layperson, Einstein used the image of two trains running on parallel tracks and the impact of their relative speed on the perception each had of the other as the trains roared along on the tracks. Though even the mathematical formula is an exercise in imagination for those who are able to comprehend the language of mathematics.
So, what is the point of this reflection on religion, magic, science and the imagination?
Human beings come to understand the world in many different ways. Some approaches are better than others for a certain type of knowledge. If your goal is to understand the meaning of life then religion, and its cousin—philosophy—may be the most productive approach. If you want to understand how the world works, then the methods of science might be the best approach. The realm of magic might be considered a middle ground where the traditions of story and scientific observation come together to understand and take control of the world around us; sort of an early form of technology.
Scholars encourage us to understand the stories of scripture in their metaphorical sense and in the context of the literary purpose they serve. Most of the stories are not meant to be literal historical accounts but parables expressing a spiritual truth. When we read Genesis, we are being given a reflection on the relationship between God and humanity, as well as on the suffering we experience as part of daily life. It is not presented as an historical account on the details of creation or the day to day experiences of persons known as Adam and Eve.
On the other hand, contemporary science reveals not a clockwork universe but a mysterious universe with many dimensions and possible multiple universes. Material existence may require conscious observation (Mind? God?) and all of material reality can be reduced to the vibration of miniscule strings at different frequencies. While we have a pretty good understanding of the visible matter that makes up the universe, this accounts for only 4% of the known mass in the universe. Some 96% of the energy and matter that makes up the universe is “dark”. That is, it is not visible to us and we don’t know what it is.
The point is that most of the universe is still a mystery and in a very real sense the border between the natural and supernatural is vague. Respecting the boundaries that arise between science and religion, when we properly understand the type of knowledge that each method produces, gives us a much more reliable and accurate understanding of the universe. However, realizing the limits of our knowledge and the extraordinarily strange universe that the imaginations of our top scientists reveal to us helps us to respect the mystery and “magic” that is still part of our lives.