Do Mormons Believe in Magic?

06/09/2015 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

In his early years before founding the Mormon church, Joseph Smith admitted that he sought after gold through magical means. Some might argue that his search for "magic" never ended, that the "golden plates" which he translated by use of seer stones in a hat were an extension of the same search. I personally honor Joseph Smith as a prophet, despite some serious flaws, but I have wondered sometimes how often Mormons talk about the power of God as if it were magic. What's the difference, you might ask? Isn't religion itself just a more socially sanctioned way of talking about superstition?

In many ways, I consider Mormonism to be the most "scientific" of religions. Before you scoff at this, let me explain. When I was in grad school, I studied Hume's "Of Miracles" in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" where he argues that a miracle is "a violation of the law of nature." I argued with my professor that not all religions believed that miracles defied the laws of the universe. In fact, I told him that Mormons believe that God always follows the laws of the universe, only sometimes not always the laws as we understand them incompletely in our mortal state. My professor thought my religion was very strange indeed. I claimed that Mormonism did not require us to suspend our belief in any of our practical knowledge. I sometimes tell my friends who write science fiction that Mormonism is a science fiction writer's dream religion--and this isn't just because Battlestar Galactica's original writer Glen Larson was a Mormon.

Mormons believe that God created worlds without number and that there are other worlds that are inhabited by His children. Mormons believe that everyone will be resurrected into some form of heaven (with the exception of a handful of those who have chosen to live away from God), and that all of us will continue to grow and learn into the eternities. Yes, we even believe that God is an exalted man with a body of flesh and bones, and that we humans through eternities of growth can become like God. We believe that God Himself is bound by the rules of the universe which He created, and that part of our growth and learning in the eternities will be to extend our own knowledge of these laws. So if we have such a scientific religion, what do I mean when I say that I feel sometimes like Mormons believe in magic?

In Mormon culture, there are stories passed around that are the equivalent of urban legends with Mormon magic. Some are stories about people who were involved in fires or traffic accidents whose bodies were only burned where they weren't wearing Mormon temple garments. I've heard stories about Mormons who were saved from 9/11 or from earthquakes or floods because they were "warned" in a Joseph-of-Egypt type of dream or heard a voice that told them to take a different plane or road, which ended up saving their lives. And I hear Mormons pray sometimes for what sound to me like requests for God to intervene in magical ways in the lives of His children: to protect people from car accidents, to bless food to nourish us when it's clearly indulgent dessert fare, to change global weather patterns to bring rain or stop snow for a particular event, or to bring world peace as if it were as simple as God snapping His fingers.

While I would not try to argue that every scientific belief in the modern-day is necessarily the kind of eternal law of the universe that binds God Himself, I find it troublesome when I hear Mormons (who perhaps are trying to sound like other mainstream Christians?) dismiss out of hand various well-understood scientific principles or theories. All truth, surely, is for us to find a way to reconcile in one way or another. When my oldest son, who graduated as Valedictorian at his high school recently and had taken 15 AP tests--including many science tests--came home and complained that his Mormon seminary teacher had argued that laws of science are unreliable because gravity was "different" on the moon that it is on earth, I was pretty upset. In church, I've heard people dismissing evolution, global warming, dark matter, chaos theory or "The Big Bang" out of hand and to me this seems wrong and contrary to the principles of Mormonism, which encourage us to find truth in everything.

Because of my own evolving view of the non-magical power of God in Mormonism, I have found myself in recent years changing dramatically the way that I pray. I don't pray for God to do things that seem to me to be contrary to the laws of the universe, even if I admit that my understanding of those laws is limited. I don't pray for my friends or family to be protected from certain disasters simply because I think that God loves them more than others because they are Mormons--or because He loves me. I don't pray for rain when I feel that global climate change is something we have brought on ourselves and need to do some serious work to change. I don't pray for world peace when I believe that we have a long way to go as humans in understanding other people's concerns. I don't want a world peace that simply silences others. I want greater understanding between peoples of the earth.

I want more compassion in the world, but I don't pray that people are forced to be compassionate. I don't pray for Mormon missionaries to convert more people because I am not convinced that Mormonism is the right choice for everyone. I don't even pray for people to "do the right thing," because I think making mistakes is an important part of life, and that we learn many valuable lessons from mistakes, something that surely God put us on earth to learn. Mormons believe that God values free will above almost all other things and that is why we live in the broken world in which we do. How can I pray away something that is fundamental to my own view of the purpose of life?

I pray to feel more love. I pray to see my own mistakes. I pray for forgiveness for my own off-hand judgmentalism. I also pray for God to help me to see what I can do to help others, or simply to see that others are in need at all. I pray to see more clearly those around me and the world itself. I pray to be less stubborn, to understand who I am and how I've become this way. I pray to become a better me, and not a perfect version of a person I would not recognize if I became it.

I pray to express gratitude for every little thing in my life that makes me joyous, from the carpet on my floors to Netflix and toilet paper, yarn for my knitting projects, the sweet and delicious cherries I just ate, the family I have around me, my running shoes and my bike helmet. I believe feeling gratitude makes me closer to God and it also helps me see more clearly His hand in my life--which also makes me a better servant in God's hands.

Do I sound like someone who doesn't really believe in the power of God? Do I not truly believe in miracles? I have seen people change in ways I never believed they could. That is a miracle. I have seen people choose to help others when they needed help themselves. That is the power of God. I've seen people healed from guilt and from family patterns that they would otherwise have suffered from all their lives.

But I don't think it makes me less of a Christian to say that I would go to the doctor to get a cast on a broken bone rather than rely on a Mormon priesthood blessing. I don't believe that God cures cancer, only that God offers us comfort while we are in many kinds of pain. I don't believe in a God who does magic. I don't believe in a God who can break the rules of the universe He set up Himself. I don't believe in a God who cannot be comprehended and who is so far beyond humanity that we can only shake our heads in wonder. I believe that my religion is about trying to understand God as much as possible, asking hard questions, and trying to find answers. And that is what is the miracle. We don't need magic when we have that.