Is God Constrained By Magic?

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?


  1. Very interesting thoughts on a fascinating topic…but I disagree with your premise that “our doctrine teaches us that if the priest errs, Jehovah honors the ritual itself rather than ‘what was meant’.” Sometimes ordinances have to be perfect (sacrament, baptism), but as a temple-worker, I’ve always been told that if we as workers make minor mistakes, the ordinances aren’t invalidated. In those cases, it’s what was meant that matters more than perfect execution.

    Can you explain further your statement 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”? Are you saying that the very arbitrariness of rituals makes us realize that we’re dealing with a capricious Being?

  2. 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.

    That is a very, very odd way to look at it and one which I don’t think is valid. (Not trying to be attacking, just not sure how to phrase the idea.) God has ordinances that we must do. He will make sure that everyone has the opportunity to choose or reject His gospel and those ordinances. It’s free will at work.

  3. I suppose one could define magic however one wants, but I wouldn’t put ordinances in the same category. I’ve usually defined magic as an object or formula that has inherent qualities that act outside the known laws of nature. Ordinances may act outside those known laws, but they can’t force anything in the spiritual or heavenly world. I think they only honor us according to the laws they themselves obey. I think Elder Scott could add to this:

    “Teach your students that one cannot “call down”
    the Spirit as some are prone to say. We can create an appropriate environment for the Holy Ghost to instruct us. Spiritual communication cannot be forced. We must qualify ourselves and be ready to receive the Lord’s guidance and direction when He determines to provide it. No matter how urgent our personal timetable, the Lord responds according to His own will.”

  4. cadams,

    I agree with you, but it runs contrary to some of the pseudo-doctrine I read in some motivational missionary books that said IF we do A,B,C, then God is bound to perform X,Y,Z.

    Great post, kishkilili.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    “Magic” is a loaded term, especially in mormon circles, but there are definitely elements of the inscrutable in our beliefs: seerstones, temple garments, etc. Even the atonement itself, the center of our religion, is unknown and in some ways unknowable. Somehow I hate to debase these concepts by associating them with David Blaine parlor tricks, but I do agree that we need to appreciate the mystery of our faith.

  6. I don’t have an initial problem with the usage of “magic” here because any understanding of magic involves religion. That said, I don’t think that LDS ordinance qualifies as magic in the Assyriological sense, as it must be performed in certain holy spots. This isn’t the household magic of the local priests.

    Regarding the importance of the ritual, as opposed to the importance of the heart of the individual, while I would say that both are important aspects, I don’t believe that the former universally trumps the latter. Certainly, there are prayers and ordinances that must be performed correctly, but I don’t know that, as Laura O pointed out, minor errors necessarily violate the efficacy of the ritual. For that matter, we seem to teach that it is individual worthiness, not accuracy of ritual presentation, that determines the efficacy of ritual for individuals (both the performers and the recipients).

  7. There was a pretty good article in Dialogue a while back by Denniss Potter arguing that ordinances were a form of magic. I actually used the idea of magic to teach a priesthood lesson one time.

    I want to question one premise of your argument, namely that an ordinance is invalid if not done exactly right. I don’t think this is quite correct. I take it that if the Bishop forgets to correct the Priest who does the sacrament, the ordinance is still valid. Likewise, I assume that if I messed up some of the iniatory ordinances that I used to do back in the day on the graveyard shift at the DC temple, the work is still valid. It seems to me that doing ordinances word (and act) perfect is more like an ethical requirement than a condition for their validity.

  8. We seem to teach that it is individual worthiness, not accuracy of ritual presentation, that determines the efficacy of ritual for individuals (both the performers and the recipients).

    I disagree, John. If you are baptised correctly but it later turns out that the one who baptised you was a child molester, the ordinance would still be considered valid. Conversely, if a worthy person baptises you, but keeps getting the prayer wrong, you will go under, and under, and under, and under…

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I was going to mention Dennis’ Dialogue article, but I see Nate beat me to it. As I recall, he explored different theories of the efficacy of ordinances. One was a contract theory, no doubt catching Nate’s attention. But the one he favored was a magic theory. It was an interesting piece.

    (How many Assyriologists are there in the Bloggernacle, anyway?!)

  10. Or is God capable of waiving this requirement, should he choose?

    He apparently has for people younger than 8 yrs old.

  11. Kiskilili says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    “Magic” is perhaps too derogatory a term for us to be comfortable applying it to sacred ordinances. I apologize if I came across too negatively by adopting it. (I personally am very drawn to ritual and even “magic”–the term carries a lot of positive connotations as well. :))

    Laura, I’m fascinated that you’ve been told minor mistakes do not invalidate an ordinance. This has interesting implications. I guess my questions are: a) why is precision important to baptism? b) how do we make sense, theologically, of the person who lives a righteous life, exercises faith in Christ, and just by chance makes commitments to God that exactly mirror the commitments we make in our ordinances?

    The answer to the first question is what I’m trying to get at in the post: I don’t know. I don’t reject baptism by any means because I don’t understand it theologically; I’m just acknowledging that lack of understanding.

    The answer to the second is, as I understand our doctrine, the ordinances are still necessary. The person can’t attain salvation without them. So what I’m wondering is, what is it about our ordinances that makes them necessary? I recognize that worthiness is essential. But worthiness alone is nevertheless not enough.

    In answer to your question (does the arbitrariness of rituals make us realize that we’re dealing with a capricious Being?), I guess I would say that I’m considering this as a possible justification for ordinances–they make our worship personal. (I think this solution poses some further problems, but it interests me as an idea anyway.)

  12. Ah the perils of of internet communication (or, at least, mine). I meant that the individual’s worthiness determines its efficacy for that individual. So, I can ruin its worthiness for me if I am unworthy, but not necessarily for other people.

    By the way, does anyone have a reference for that belief? I couldn’t find one off the top of my head and I am uninterested in searching for one.

  13. Kiskilili says:

    Dennis Potter’s article is definitely worth a read. As I understand his argument in terms of the question I’m posing here, he seems to be essentially arguing that the very necessity of ordinances indicates to us that they must not be arbitrary. In some way we fail to understand, they effect ontological change in the natural world. They’re “magical” from our persepective only because we don’t understand how they effect that change.

    I’m attracted to this solution for several reasons. It seems to work to the degree we’re willing to throw up our hands and accept that we simply can’t make sense of the way the universe operates. (Which is certainly true.) Still, from my very limited perspective (subject to change), ordinances appear basically ethically arbitrary, and I’m not sure how to make sense of that to myself.

  14. Kiskilili says:

    (John C., do I know you? Is there a chance we took Ugaritic together many moons ago?)

    Of course, in the Assyriological sense, there’s no distinction between magic, religion, and science. But magic as I’m using the term here plays out very differently in a polytheistic landscape. I’m interested in how it looks in a (more or less) monotheistic cosmos.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Ugaritic, Assyriological…. are you guys just inventing words? Talk about magic.

  16. Kiskilili says:


    Watch what you say–the last person who offended me turned into a newt.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    …but got better. No, I’m mostly jealous. I’m wondering though to what extent your anthropological/sociological definitions are really varying from commonplace notions of magic. In my mind the usage is not as different as say uses of the word “myth” between literary/sociological and commonplace. no?

  18. Kiskilili,

    I don’t know you… but you’re already one of my favorite people. You’ve articulated something I’ve long thought about–I’m not sure there’s much consensus on the correlation of ordinances with magic as you’ve defined it, but I’m glad the discussion is out there.

  19. Kiskilili says:

    A couple of interesting points have been made that I’ll try to address.

    One is that we cannot compel God to behave in a certain manner. In this life, this is certainly the case. But in the eternities, if God is good, his behavior should be consistent. That is, we very much can compel him to behave in certain ways. If an individual lives worthily and receives all necessary ordinances and exercises faith in Christ, our doctrine teaches us that she or he will be exalted. A just God cannot arbitrarily choose to punish that individual.

    The possibility that precision is unimportant interests me. (I’m speaking here of salvific ordinances; the sacrament is a complicated issue of its own.) Baptism remains a problem, because my understanding is that precision matters very much. In terms of temple ordinances, assuming a lack of precision is acceptable, the fact is that something in the temple is still required for exaltation. There’s a boundary around that range of behaviors. So the underlying theological problem remains.

  20. It’s possible. Did you take it with Hoskisson at BYU?

    Actually, I see all magic as being theologically constrained because even in a monotheistic system, you have to have a God that allows it to happen, even if he personally doesn’t approve of it.

    I wonder about the necessity of precision even in baptism. Are we always 100% certain that no stray hair floats? We’re very reliant on those witnesses to get it right.

  21. Kiskilili says:

    I did! I was the, um, female in the class. :)

  22. Kiskilili says:

    Wow, Aspen, thanks! I’ve always very much enjoyed reading your comments as well. :)

    Steve, I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at. I’ll try to rephrase the problem as I understand it without reference to “magic.”

    A. God is good and just. His behavior is therefore consistent.

    B. Ordinances are essentially arbitrary actions. (Their efficacy is contingent on worthiness, but they themselves are nevertheless ethically neutral.)
    C. A good and just God, by definition, holds everyone to an ethical standard (preferably, an ethical standard that makes some sense to even our puny brains). He may command idiosyncratic behaviors of individuals in specific contexts. But he does not issue universal arbitrary commands and hold everyone to them.

    Which of these three propositions is false?

    (I’m admitting to my own philosophical biases: I like to believe God’s justice makes sense to us; I like to believe there is a law that is above even God.)

    As I said earlier, I’m absolutely willing to believe ordinances have value to the participants. My question is why they’re necessary, or why certain ordinances are necessary.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks for the restatement. I like it.

  24. Kiskilili says:

    (It’s an interesting possibility that precision may actually be theologically unimportant. But is NO precision required? Is baptism by sprinkling acceptable? Is imagining being baptized acceptable?

    Is there not some core action involved that we’re claiming is necessary for salvation/exaltation?

    My question is, why?)

  25. Is there not some core action involved that we’re claiming is necessary for salvation/exaltation?

    I don’t think so. I know there are many Mormons who feel we have “the one true church” and a uniquely necessary path to exalation. But, at a minimum, we believe everyone is saved (resurrected), and the vast majority of people go to heaven.

    No action is involved for resurrection. Many do assume that the non-Mormons end up in heaven because they are baptized in the afterlife. I think that’s an unnecessary projection of our earthly practices onto the afterlife. I don’t think core ritual is required for someone to reach heaven.
    Of course, it follows that though I’m an active, believing Mormon, I don’t think of our religion as offering a uniquely necessary path to heaven.
    Thanks for your post.

  26. I have always believed that the function of the rituals is to change our mindset rather than binding God.

    There is, of course, plenty of scriptural evidence to the contrary. But it never made sense to me that God would be bound by formalities like a Prussian bureaucrat.

  27. Here’s a Hard Question:

    If everyone NEEDS baptism for exaltation, then temple work makes a lot of sense…

    …except, to baptise EVERY SINGLE person who ever lived, even in some millennial utopia, would take AGES! So, why does God NEED people to file in and out of the temple for a thousand years to submit to this ordinance?

    Here’s the Catholic solution:

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1257-1261):

    Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

    More reasonable? (In other words, if you would have submitted to baptism given the chance, then in God’s eyes’ you are baptised.) Whence Mormon legalism?

  28. Steve Evans says:

    Sushi: “But, at a minimum, we believe everyone is saved (resurrected)

    okay… (though that’s the first time I’ve seen saved=resurrected)

    and the vast majority of people go to heaven.”


  29. I think that the arbitrary nature of ordinances has much more to do with our need to develop humility than any assigned salvific power. As with all things taken on faith, making sense is the least of God’s worries.

    “I don’t think core ritual is required for someone to reach heaven.”
    What is it exactly that gives you this idea?

  30. Kiskilili says:

    I absolutely agree that ordinances can have value to the living. I’m certainly not opposed to baptism. I’m perfectly willing to submit to any ordinance the church requests of me that I feel is ethically neutral. And I think there’s real value in creating a discrete moment at which one becomes a church member and officially takes specific obligations on oneself.

    But I’m still confused about the theological necessity (and I just like to wonder about things for their own sake). I guess I think that at least to some degree, God does have to make sense to us. I’m uncomfortable with a system in which the ethical standard to which God subscribes is inaccessible to us.

    It’s true that developing humility by submitting to God in the absence of understanding may have value. But to the degree that we tie humility to ordinances, we’re assigning ordinances ethical value (they are no longer arbitrary). And that ethical value is not inherent. It is, of course, possible to develop humility without ordinances or to undergo ordinances without really developing humility.

    Ronan’s question is worth considering. To take it even further: does the work that I do by proxy for the dead enable them to develop humility? And in a way they otherwise could not?

  31. Very interesting questions, Kiskilili.
    I might be outside of standard doctrine on this one, but I’ve always thought that the purpose of proxy work had a lot to do with us and a little to do with the defunct themselves. I’ve always felt (or at least suspected?) that we perform proxy ordinances for the opportunity to re-experience those key moments in which we made covenants through semi-arbitrary (it’s not clear to me that we can fairly label transparently symbolic actions as arbitrary, but that’s another post…) actions which have been required of us. This way we can be reminded of what baptism is long after joining the church (particularly important in the case of an 8 yr. old baptism, certainly). I for one had next to no appreciation or understanding of ANY of the ordinances of the gospel on the occasion in which I first received them and am pleased to be able to repeat them with an appreciation of their significance.
    Going even further out on my limb: acting as a proxy is a form of service, and (whatever the level of necessity which we attribute to the service rendered,) the mere fact of serving is a way in which we participate in the gospel plan and demonstrate selflessness and love for people who most often we don’t even know. On that point, how much greater the value if the service is to our own kin, strengthening or creating family bonds?
    Conclusion: God has not yet seen fit to open the veil to me and explain in detail the inner workings of the spirit world. I believe Him to be both loving and merciful, so I don’t worry too much that He might exclude people based on ritual. He knows what He’s doing. However, participating in these same ordinances is a commandment which I have received(and am thus responsible for), and proxy ordinance offers me the chance to broaden my understanding of these ordinances of these ordinances through participation (as opposed to observation or study), and gives me an opportunity to serve (whether or not I understand exactly HOW).
    I’m quite interested to know how off the mark people think I am (or if there are others who feel the same, and I’m just preaching to the choir).
    On a personal note: another Assyriologist?? BCC is amazing!

  32. I’m with Sushi on this one. I view rituals and ordinances as being symbolic of the truths behind them and symbolic of the decisions made in the hearts of the participants. The forms can change–look at the OT v. the NT.

    Take Baptism for the Dead. We took something Joseph Smith taught within a fairly limited scope and transformed it into an unbelievably mammoth program.

    JS taught Baptism for the Dead was for our dead family members (direct ancestors) who were thought to be sympathetic to the ordinance. At most, 3-4 generations was expected. (See TWJS p 98, n 23) Now it’s the entire human race (except for certain Jewish people who lived in Europe during WWII–at least for the time being).

    I see nothing inherently fixed in any rituals, regardless of the rhetoric or doctrine. Polygamy, if you followed the rhetoric of the 19th Century, was to be never-changing. Well, unless you see Big Love and the harbinger of things to come, I think the doctrines surrounding polygamy were propagandistic at some levels.

  33. Rhetor: Amen to “nothing inherently fixed in any rituals, regardless of the rhetoric or doctrine,” etc. The “mystery” is in recognizing that, even so, they have some sort of significance and/or power which excercises a very real influence over us and, by extension, others as well.

  34. Steve Evans says:

    “nothing inherently fixed in any rituals, regardless of the rhetoric or doctrine” is a troublesome phrase. Rhetoric and doctrine are what determine the rituals. Further, rhetoric and doctrine are all that we have to determine whether or not the rituals ought to be fixed. How then are we to state with any assurance that there is nothing inherently fixed therein? Or is the assumption to be that rituals aren’t fixed?

  35. Just a quick note.

    (1) necessary doesn’t imply unnecessary.

    Consider I need to be able to identify someone I’ve never met without giving away my identity. (Say a spy during the cold war) Solution? Some secret phrase. The secret phrase is necessary but the particular form is not.

    (2) ordinances need to communicate.

    This suggests that ordinances must be symbolic and yet representative in away. That is they must act as a sign of what is signified in such a way that even primitive people can participate.

    (3) ordinances must be socially binding.

    This suggests that they have to produce a community. That is they unite communities in some way. Thus there must be something shared which originates or orients the community. They must be repeatable and thus similar to each repetition.

    There are problem other limits. The point being while I think our ordinances are in some was arbitrary, there clearly are limits on them. I think this tends to undermine Dennis’ theory in some ways.

  36. there is a philosophical question that comes to mind:
    Did God invent the rules (what is good and so forth), or did the rules exist before Him. I’m betting most Mormons will say the later.

  37. Eric Russell says:

    Even if we agree that precision is important, I think we’re making assumptions as to why it’s important. I don’t think precision is important to God, but that it’s important for the sake of the community.

    If there weren’t strict rules about baptism, you can be pretty much guaranteed that, in obscure locations and in places where leadership were new, it would start to take some pretty strange forms. We have an extraordinarily simplified, correlated version of doctrine in our auxiliary lesson manuals and still there are whacked out doctrines being taught all over the place. Perhaps insisting on the ordinance being done in a specific way is the only way that the church can ensure that you can’t get baptized by a garden hose.

    The fact that we have two witnesses standing there to make sure the whole body goes under gives the impression that precision is extremely important, but I think that’s culturally developed too. I think the witnesses are really there just to ensure that the ordinance is indeed done. The development of two men standing on the edge of the font with hawk eyes to make sure that every piece of cloth went under is, I think, really just a result of generations of anal Mormons.

    If it happened that all witnesses somehow missed a bit of cloth, that the person didn’t go fully under or that the speaker slightly misspoke during the prayer, I don’t think God would see the ordinance as invalid.

    Thus, I think it’s fair to say that the ordinances are wholly symbolic. A physical manifestation of the fact that we have chosen to devote our hearts to God. In the end, I think, it is only the heart that God really wants.

  38. #34 asks:

    “Or is the assumption to be that rituals aren’t fixed?”

    Yes. Although we won’t talk about it, consider the temple endowment over the last 100 years. It has changed. Nothing was said.

  39. Regarding the humiliating effects of proxy ordinances for the dead, is there anything more humbling than being completely dependent on someone else for your salvation, even you have done all you can do?

  40. being completely dependent on someone else

    Don’t we already have this in Jesus?

  41. Kiskilili says:

    Thanks, Ronan. That illustrates the problem nicely.

    The fact that rituals obviously change makes things interesting. Potter deals with this by assuming there’s an underlying core ritual which is still required. But to the degree the ritual can be changed (and only to that degree, whatever it is), we’re tacitly acknowledging at least some degree of arbitrariness, cultural situated-ness, and lack of transcendence. What then about the experience is “crucial” for every soul who’s ever lived and been accountable?

    I like Potter’s magic argument in many respects (to reiterate and rephrase): if ordinances are necessary, they must not be arbitrary. But one could just as easily argue the converse: if ordinances are arbitrary, they must not be necessary. The problem with the former is that, to all appearances, ordinances seem arbitrary; we have to admit that they have no comfortable place in our current understanding of ethical and natural laws. The problem with the latter is that it runs explicitly counter to what the church teaches.

    As I understand our doctrine, a saving ordinance (or any other ordinance) must have some physical component. Otherwise why couldn’t the dead undergo it themselves? It’s the physical component that I’m inclined to label “magical.” The question is, what exactly does it do, and how?

    SJP, your understanding makes a lot of sense to me. I tend to see a lot of value in ordinances (as an idea, that is) for the living, and I even see the value in repeatedly performing those ordinances, to the living. Ordinances obviously build community (essentially by exclusion). And they give us an opportunity to perform service.

    So this construal has ethical value in its individual application. But it still fails to explain the apparent universal application of the necessity of certain ordinances. I can’t help wondering, theologically, why this service has to be performed at all. It absolutely makes sense to me that we perform ordinances basically for our benefit, and much of what we teach would support that. But, as Ronan mentioned, our doctrine also paints us a picture of hordes of otherwise worthy souls clamoring at the Pearly Gates (so to speak) and a God whose hands are tied. He simply cannot admit them until we discover their names and undergo the rituals in their place. I still can’t help wondering, why are God’s hands tied?

    Eric Russell, your point is well taken and interesting. My question is, if all God requires is the heart, what exactly is the purpose of ordinances by proxy? I wholeheartedly agree ordinances have symbolic value as a way of formalizing a commitment to God. Can the dead not formalize their own commitments to God, in their own way? Why is it not valid when they do?

    Surely the dead can undergo a symbolic action. An ordinance, to be truly salvific and truly crucial, requires a physical component as well. As I see it, if ordinances are indeed “wholly symbolic,” they are not crucial.

  42. Kiskilili says:

    Rhetor, thanks for your comments. God has seemingly commanded different things in different eras; no one can read the scriptures literally and conclude anything else (let alone observe how ordinances have changed in our own lifetimes). I guess I’m assuming, on the basis of what the church teaches (baptism is necessary for salvation, for example), that the church must believe there’s something core, something fixed to this idea “baptism,” or how could it make that claim?

  43. Going back to the question of ritual and how exact it needs to be, I think the answer lies in the degree of “magic” being invoked. For small things like prayers, there’s not a lot being called upon and so there’s more room for error. For bigger things, like the washing away of sin, there’s more “power” involved and so there’s a greater need for accuracy in the ritual. Chemistry might make a good analogy as well. Every little change affects the outcome of the product and some products are too important and/or delicate to allow room for fudging.

  44. Eric Russell says:

    Kiskilli, it seems “wholly” would be misstated. Though they are generally symbolic of greater things, they are also necessarily in themselves because God commanded them. Why does God command an unconditional physical completion of certain covenants when the things being covenanted are what’s really important? I don’t think we have an answer to that.

  45. Kiskilili says:

    Clark, your ideas are very interesting. Is number 1 essentially illustrating how it’s possible for the form of a ritual to matter, but not the content (thus, explaining why ordinances can change and still be required)?

    I guess I’m stepping back and wondering why even the form matters, regardless of the content. To press your example to a degree that I hope is not irreverent, we worship a very knowledgeable, very powerful God (maybe even omniscient and omnipotent). Why would he need to rely on “secret phrases” or ritual actions at all?

  46. #43 Proud Daughter of Eve: That’s a very interesting point that you make, but I’m not sure yet whether I agree entirely. I mean, I seldom pray privately without asking for forgiveness for something or other. Granted, I suppose there’s the sacrament as a precision-requiring (and thus “powerful”) ordinance which officially (doctrinally) accomplishes the purification of the repentence process. But what about non-salvific ordinances? (Can I call them “elective ordinances”?) Naming babies, annointing the sick and aflicted, patriarchal blessings, consecration of graves, laying on of hands, etc. These ordinances seem to have both a fixed an a “freestyle” section. Does that mean that they require more power (having a relatively formal component) or less power (you can freestyle part because it’s just the person’s life or future on the line, rather than his/her salvation)?
    Then again, maybe I’ve drawn the line too sharply since some ordinances with a free component are salvific nevertheless (confirmation, priesthood ordination for men), and there’s that trouble about labelling the sacrament (perhaps the most prominent “fixed” ordinance) as salvific or not…

  47. Kiskilili says:

    Thanks, Eric. You’ve stated my question very well.

    Proud Daughter of Eve, interesting ideas. As I’m using the term “magic,” prayer is not “magical” at all simply because it appeals to the volition of a powerful Being. That is, God will answer as he chooses; there’s no universal response from him. So I think it belongs in a separate category.

    But ordinances are “magical” because God’s volition is not a factor in their efficacy; they are contingent only on the worthiness of the person for whom they are performed. Your analogy to chemistry hearkens back very nicely to the point of Stark’s quote. When accuracy is important to an action, it suggests very strongly that either a natural law or a supernatural force is being invoked.

  48. Kiskilili says:

    SJP has hinted a couple of times at another issue I find fascinating: we’re lumping together all sorts of theologically disparate actions under the rubric “ordinances.” Some of them are essentially symbolic actions; we more or less get out of them what we bring to them, and they have no direct bearing on salvation. Others are basically personal prayers buttressed by divinely bestowed authority. (These raise interesting questions in themselves that are not directly relevant here.) But saving ordinances, if they really are saving, must be more than symbolic–they must effect ontological change.
    This strikes me as odd.

  49. Kiskilili, by your definition, the sacrament clearly (I think?) falls under the category ordinance. But I have long wondered whether it is a saving or non-saving ordinance, and have found no “official church position” on the subject. Consider:

    1) It is a ordinance performed in a social setting with a physical component wherein precision is required.

    2) It could be “magic,” in that we understand it to have some cathartic or purifying effect, even after our own repentence.


    3) I can’t see that a non-magic interpretation (Deity is not necessarily bound by our partaking of the sacrament in any way that He was not already bound by our own baptism) would be apostate, per se.

    4) For all intents and purposes, the ordinance appears to be non-salvific: there is no “sacrament for the dead.”

    So where does that put it? Does it potentially (but not crucially) effect ontological change? It certainly has social meaning for the community (in some places and some cases, unwanted ones, unfortunately) and rich, powerful symbolism which can and should be personally meaningful.

    It has also certainly changed over time; it was pretty clearly a meal that was shared in NT times. In fact, my current ward has a wonderful tradition (“linger longer”) which amounts to one New Testament meal-sacrament per month (after block meetings, of course).

    Ok, one last thing, on a personal note: is “Kiskilili” the same as Sumerian ki-sikil? And does it have a clear Akkadian gloss? (There’s some debate among the Sumerologists that I know, akin to the thing with Greek koure)

  50. Kiskilili (#45), note that this was just an example of how the assumptions fail. I make no claim of knowing all the functions of the ordinances through time. Presumably though, especially in the ancient world, tokens of identification were much more important. (Indeed they were rather ubiquitous in certain ways) It would be tied to the social aspect I mentioned. If believers are scattered yet form a community, then identifying fellow community members so as to offer aid or enter the local community would be essential. They might appear mere “trappings” now, but may have an important role in the past or even in the future.

  51. Amri Brown says:

    1)Ordinances are magical because we do an act that produces a result that cannot be explained or deserved? That’s not magical enough for me. There’s plenty of science and physics that even scientists can’t quite explain that is still not magic.

    2)God is our judge. We look at people’s worthiness and determine whether or not a ritual should be counted but we could be all wrong about everything since we know so little. What if we are all wrong about the child molester? Which is to say I think plenty of God’s volition is involved in accepting or rejecting ordinances.

    3)I think that our belief in these specific rituals makes them less arbitrary to Mormons. If we believe they’re potent and meaningful then they are.

  52. Ronan,
    Yes, we are completely dependent on Jesus. So, there is an added layer of dependency. Why do you think we wrench that “saviors on mount Zion” quote out of context all the time when discussing work for the dead?

    The reason that I am saying that ordinances are arbitrary is that they could be anything. There is no particularly importance to going underneath water (if there was, regular bathing would be a much more significant event). This in no way invalidates the symbolism in an ordinance like baptism; rather, I am arguing, that there would be symbolism no matter what we did.

  53. Amri #51:

    1) Yes, but I’d been bathed and gone swimming by immersion countless times before being baptized, yet I insist that my baptism was not another bath. We’re not using the term “magic” to mean smoke and mirrors. I believe that Mormons don’t (or at the very least aren’t required to) believe in that kind of magic.

    2) God is our judge. That’s exactly why we don’t need smoke-and-mirrors magic (or unknown-science magic, either) for our ordinances to be effective in the cases where they should be, and not in the cases where they shouldn’t. He handles that for us.

    3) Our belief makes them potent and non-arbitrary. Potent, definitely. Non-arbitrary? Let me ask a question: What if tomorrow (or this weekend, more likely) the First Presidency announced that together with the new world standard building plan we will be allowing baptismal showers. You still get all wet, just not all at the same time. It’s faster and takes less preparation than filling the font, especially useful for the local mini-temples springing up everywhere. I don’t think that will ever happen, but if it did, would you denounce the church or that ordinance? OK, now what if it were a change in washings and anointings? Or the endowment?

  54. John C., you beat me to the punch-line! I agree completely.

  55. Wait a second… rereading the original posting, Kiskilili: speak-without-vowels Egyptian, speak-without-vowels Tamazight/Berber, speak-without-vowels languages from the Caucasus, or speak-without-vowels Hebrew/Arabic? The last one really seems like “read-without-vowels” to me. Ok, no more threadjacking.

  56. Amri Brown says:

    SJP #53
    You miss my meaning. I think that not being able to link action and result does not make magic. It was also referenced that God cannot use his will in rituals–that if we do them in worthiness then somehow a law bigger than God guarantees a certain result. My problem is that he gets to decide all the worthiness. I assume he’s willful in that.
    Also the actions that make a ritual to me are arbitrary until a profound belief in those rituals changes world view, behaviors and relationships. Once we believe in a certain ritual no other arbitrary act will do. If it’s arbitrary it is replaceable. But as a Mormon who believes in baptism by immersion, I can’t replace it with sprinkling or a good bath. Both cleansing but I have no belief in their power to baptize me.

  57. I can see the genius in God requiring physical ordinances to accompany our internal conversion. Perhaps I am way off, but I’ve always thought that one simple reason that God requires physical ordinances is to give us the sense that something has been done. Countless times on my mission I ran across people (evangelicals, pentecostals, etc.) that inevitably brought up the Holy Spirit and didn’t see the need to receive the Spirt by the proper authority because they already thought they had it. They felt like God had touched them and given them the gift already. Talk about arbitrary; having a physical action performed like the laying on of hands to give the Holy Ghost is important for the simple fact that we can know for a surety that the action was completed. There is no middle ground – either you have it or you don’t. It helps us keep things straight in our tiny minds.

  58. Kiskilili says:

    SJP (#49): Your thoughts on the sacrament are really interesting. I have no idea what to think about its status; the issue is obviously quite complicated. But it’s interesting to note that while it may have (magical?) cathartic effects, the specific ordinance itself doesn’t seem to be required (as you noted). That is, people can theoretically be saved without ever taking it. So I think that leaves the issue of whether it effects ontological change completely open. However, I think it’s worth noting that we do not believe in transubstantiation. The emblems are just that–emblems–so the ordinance is essentially symbolic. That leads me to tentatively conclude we do not believe it effects ontological change.

    (Kiskilili is Akkadian for the Sumerian KI.SIKIL.LIL2.LA, a “female demon.” I think it’s only attested in the genitive, but presumably was Kiskililu in the nominative. It’s a little complicated to spell, though, so I’m thinking of changing my screen name to Kiriel.)

    (And as for speaking without vowels, I’m thinking of “speaking”; by judiciously arranging stops and fricatives and practicing a bit, this is quite possible! Unfortunately it tends to involve a lot of spitting . . .)

  59. Kiskilili says:

    (55–That is, I would like to speak languages from the Caucasus, but unfortunately I’m just referring to gibberish. Which is what I often spout, even in English. :))

  60. Kiskilili says:

    Amri, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that not being able to link action and result does not necessarily indicate “magic”–it only indicates our lack of understanding. So the theological move you’re making seems perfectly valid to me, to the degree we’re comfortable with that lack of understanding. We’re essentially saying that this law is above God. It’s a natural law that when a worthy person is baptized by the proper authority, sins are washed away, in the same way gravity is a natural law. We don’t have to reject it just because we don’t understand the mechanics of it. (This is essentially Dennis Potter’s argument.)

    In answer to the problem of God’s volition, I guess I’m inclined to see God as subject to some ethical standard. If God is completely capricious and completely arbitrary, neither rituals nor righteous behavior nor anything else is going to guarantee anything. God will just do whatever he wants in the moment. So this is a second possible theological move to solve the problem: God behaves unpredictably. Again, it works perfectly well, but only to the degree we’re willing to let go of the idea that God is good or just.

    The third possible theological move I see you hinting at is to suggest that ritual is meaningful to the degree we invest it with meaning (hence the symbolism). I can understand how this explains the value of ordinances, but not their necessity. I absolutely believe in the value of ordinances. As Jack said (57), they create a discrete moment in time at which the nature of our relationship to God is formalized. But value does not equal necessity.

    I’m attracted to the first possibility, and willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that I cannot understand the mechanics of ordinances but they are nevertheless effective. But I have reservations: chiefly, I would like to think the workings of the natural world are not entirely opaque to us.

    I’m also attracted to the second possibility, because it solves a number of theological problems. But I cannot respect a God who is not good or just. And if God is good, I maintain that, not necessarily in this life, but in the eternal scheme his behavior must be somewhat predictable. (There’s a range of acceptable behaviors.) The reason I’m claiming God’s volition is not involved is that I want to believe there is some standard apart from God whereby our worthiness is determined, and it is this standard, and not God, which determines the efficacy of the ordinances. So if a child molester receives the necessary ordinances, the reason the individual is not saved involves this standard–let’s call it “justice”–and not God’s whim.

    So we’re in agreement that ordinances can have enormous value to the individual. But if 1 and 2 (above) make us uncomfortable, we’re still stuck with a theological conundrum. If God is good, by definition he follows some ethical standard. An ordinance is ethically neutral. To the degree that God requires it universally, he’s deviated from that ethical standard.

  61. Sorry I’m not commenting on the rest of the conversation. It looks very interesting when I see it but I’ve got a bit much on my plate at the moment.

    As to the necessity of perfectly done ordinances, well, words have power. By that I don’t just mean the meaning of the word; I also mean the sound of the speaker’s voice. Someone can be as sincere as the sun is bright but if they fumble, mutter, and trail off that sincerity isn’t going to come through. In effect you have to convince those listening — humans, spiritual beings, the universe — of the strength of your conviction. Someone who stutters may still do so because of the effort they put into their words. Someone who “ums,” “ahs,” and misplaces words (or whole sentences) can’t.

  62. Proxy baptism would make sense if it is a ritual that transforms the mindset of the living.

    Ronan, apparently the New Apostolic Church baptizes by proxy. Once a year one their apostles is baptized for everyone who died last year.

    At least that is what my Lutheran religion instructor taught us.

  63. Kiskilili says:

    Here’s the thing about God’s will.

    If we believe God’s will is not involved in ordinances, i.e., some inscrutable natural law requires baptism for salvation, we’re claiming a belief in a transubstation of sorts. Not only is the relationship between cause and effect utterly obscure to us, we can’t even observe any specific effect. So the process itself is utterly beyond investigation.

    Okay. Maybe. I’m baptized and I’m somehow quite literally changed in a way rendering me fit for salvation in accordance with my worthiness.

    But how does this apply to ordinances by proxy? When I’m baptized I’ve physically undergone an act, so it’s possible to see how a literal change could have occurred. But the only thing connecting the event to the dead is the individual’s name, and a name is not an inherent feature of a person (I ought to know, having legally changed my own). So how on earth could this possibly be effective?

    If, on the other hand, God’s will IS involved, i.e., God knows which individual I mean and CHOOSES to save him/her when I jump through the hoop, God is starting to look terribly capricious. In the words of Hellmut Lotz, he’s holding us to “formalities like a Prussian bureacrat.” (#26)

    This is why I think we have to choose between believing that God is capricious and/or incompetent, or believing that ordinances are unnecessary. Like Hellmut, I think proxy ordinances are really for the living.

  64. Amri Brown says:

    It seems to me that God is going above the law when he provided Jesus. In our explanations of the Garden of Eden and possible fall it seems clear that if they eat the fruit they are lost forever. So God says, I’m going to circumvent that and have a Jesus who can bring all my kids back to me and then we’ll judge. I call that mercy not being capricious or unpredictable. JS says God is merciful and just beyond our imaginations (TPJS) which to me makes his actions unpredictable since it’s beyond anything I can think of.
    I also don’t think we have a lot of historical evidence that God is predictable. I mean, I love God but he doesn’t present himself to me in a very reliable way.
    One other random thought on magic: I think that ordinances and the saving that we feel from them is magical but the fact that results of the actions do not occur until after death and resurrection and a few judgments and probably some more changing on our part makes it non-magic. Magic to me has to produce an effect that is more readily available. Like say, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow performs a spell, that is a ritual and it’s got all sorts of parts that produces an result (that is inexplicable and maybe undeserved for the arbitrary actions) almost immediately. Our ordinances do not produce such immediate results other than our emotional connection to them and our belief in them.

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