Among her many talents, Kiskilili has the ability to speak without vowels. She is currently pursuing a degree in Assyriology (or would be if she could stop blogging) and is subject to a recurrent fantasy of moving into a library.
In the anthropological sense, “magic” is often used to refer to the manipulation of supernatural forces without respect to volition. Interacting with a personal deity, however, typically differs: one can implore a deity to behave in a particular way, and one can even submit to a law that arguably constrains even God. But incantations toward a deity using magical formulae which a personal, powerful, wise God is required to honor are, to my knowledge, observed infrequently.
In For the Glory of God, Rodney Stark explains the reasons for this theologically and makes reference to empirical observations supporting his suppositions:
“A substantial body of anthropological and experimental evidence has been assembled to explain that variations in the importance placed on ritual precisions reflect differences in the capacities attributed to the supernatural agents to which (or whom) the rituals are directed. When, as in the case of magic, the supernatural agent is an unconscious entity or is a supernatural creature of very limited capacity (such as a demon or an imp), it will be assumed that each ritual must be performed with extreme precision because the supernatural agency lacks the capacity to know the intent of those performing the ritual and is unable to overlook errors in ritual performance…
There is a substantial element of compulsion in interactions with small Gods, as well as with the creatures that are sometimes invoked by magic…Here, too, the rituals must be perfect; otherwise the supernatural agent will not find them binding. In contrast, the omnipotent Gods of monotheism are thought to be fully aware of the intentions of the supplicant. Consequently, rituals are of less importance, and precision is barely an issue…if the priest errs, Jehovah knows what was meant, and the efficacy of a prayer does not hinge on precise adherence to a sacred formula” (p. 371, emphasis added).
In contrast to these observations, Mormon doctrine teaches us that if the priest errs the ritual must be repeated because Jehovah honors the ritual itself rather than “what was meant.” Precision and “adherence to a sacred formula” seem to matter quite a bit, even to our personal and powerful God.
Under the definition above, saving ordinances can only be described as “magical.” That is, an ethically arbitrary (ritual) action is undergone, with careful attention to precision, but without respect to God’s volition. How do we reconcile this to our belief in a personal, powerful, wise God?
Several possible answers present themselves. One is that God commands arbitrary behaviors as a way of insuring that our relationship is with a sentient being rather than only a commitment to an impersonal but ethically valid law. Furthermore, ritual actions in the church go both ways — far from simply casting an incantation on God to save us, our rituals also involve our own commitment to ethical behaviors. So the value of the ritual to the participant is not in question: undergoing the ritual formalizes the terms of one’s relationship to God and, ideally, motivates one to live an ethical life.
This, however, fails to explain the theological necessity of ordinances. Our own righteousness cannot save us. Even faith in Christ cannot save us. In the end, they can only provide access to the essentially magical action that saves us. God either will not or cannot save individuals who have not undergone the necessary rituals, even if they are committed to the very same ethical principles the rituals enjoin on the participants, and even if they exercise faith in Christ. Why? Is this law above God? Or is God capable of waiving this requirement, should he choose?