Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A magician in the classroom?

A magician visited "Lived religion in NYC" today. I mean that almost literally, in two senses. The visitor is a specialist in helping couples design interfaith marriage services (for which she also officiates). She described to us the long process of exploring the partners' religious backgrounds, practices and hopes with them, soliciting accounts of their understandings of their relationship and of marriage, and of her work translating it into the at once mystical and dramatic "language" of successful liturgy. She had brought along two liturgies she recently developed for us to look at, one Jewish and Hindu, the other Kabbalistic and Wiccan, and as she talked us through the second one, you really got a sense of how the "change in ontological status" she had told us a marriage service needs to effect was effected. It's a kind of magic.

But she's a magician in another, more technical (and anachronistic) sense as well. I'd invited her to our course at this point because we have explored all the things ordinary religious people do for themselves, without the support or sanction of "organized" religion or religious specialists. And yet ordinary people support organized religion and religious specialists too. Why? It's not just external compulsion and the temporal power of spiritual organizations. I've been suggesting that there are things one might feel the need for a specialist for, and this visitor was supposed to exemplify this. As she explained how difficult it is to do what she does well, this seemed confirmed.

But then it became clearer and clearer to me that she may be a religious specialist but is no sort of segue to organized religion. To my surprise I was thinking in Durkheimian terms (terms we all supposedly learned to shed in graduate school!). What she offers is not religion but magic. She works as an individual for individuals, and maintains her standing through her ability to effect results. Her authority comes from this effectiveness, and comes from her distinctive life and personality, not any sort of authorized training, lineage or ordination. (The answer to the question how she could marry a Mormon and a Catholic, for instance, is simply and finally that she has. Now that's magic!) When I quipped that, in light of the fact that half of all Americans now marry across religious lines, her line of work might be something one might mention when asked "what can you do with a religious studies degree?" she put me in my place: she didn't learn how to do this from books.

We all shed Durkheim's religion/magic distinction, though, because he seems simply wrong to see in one the guarantee of a shared moral life in community, in the other an individualistic and amoral practice which could not generate anything like such stability and meaning and may even undermine it. (I've often quoted John Gager's suggestion that in fact "magic" is no more than a name for "religions we don't like," "religion" a name for "magic we do like.") In this specific case, is not the interfaith marriage liturgist helping individuals transcend individual needs and deepening and extending moral communities?

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