On Facebook, a friend recently asked this question:

[My son] was just watching a kids show on Netflix. I caught one of the characters saying "magic is just science we don't understand yet." Am I wrong in seeing this as just more anti-Christian manipulation of kids?

Almost certainly, the idea being referenced was the third law of prediction made by Arthur C. Clarke, which reads, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Stated as Clarke did, this is clearly uncontroversial. To show somebody who lives in a grass hut and hunts with rock-tipped spears a modern cell phone doing a video chat, and to show them a magic hand-held mirror, would not be easily distinguished by them.

The form we see it in this quote is to take the converse — which logicians know is not necessarily true just because the original is true, but may be — that any magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. If this is limited to the observation that an observer has no way of knowing, then it is of course obviously true. As human beings we do, after all, mostly live in ignorance. That's the lot of most finite creatures. What the TV show did was to take things one step further, and to assert that all magic is sufficiently advanced technology. Whether this is objectionable to a Christian depends entirely on what one means by magic, and whether one is using the word in its original sense, or in a more metaphorical sense. (It is the original sense where this is unobjectionable.)

The original meaning of the word magic was the ability to control the world beyond what is directly given to us by our own nature. Thus magic often involved deals with more powerful creatures — spirits of earth and air are not necessarily evil, but at least of a different nature than our own. It didn't require spirits — that was really just an upshot of the cosmology of the time — and to greater and lesser extents learning the secrets of nature was indeed magic, so long as they remained secrets to everyone else, that is. As Chesterton observed in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas:

Albert, the Swabian, rightly called the Great, was the founder of modern science. He did more than any other man to prepare that process, which has turned the alchemist into the chemist, and the astrologer into the astronomer. It is odd that, having been in his time, in this sense almost the first astronomer, he now lingers in legend almost as the last astrologer. Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the mediaeval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards; the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting. The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists. Many an enquiring cleric was charged with mere magic in making his lenses and mirrors; he was charged by his rude and rustic neighbours; and would probably have been charged in exactly the same way if they had been Pagan neighbours or Puritan neighbours or Seventh-Day Adventist neighbours. But even then he stood a better chance when judged by the Papacy, than if he had been merely lynched by the laity. The Catholic Pontiff did not denounce Albertus Magnus as a magician. It was the half-heathen tribes of the north who admired him as a magician... He was called the Universal Doctor, because of the range of his scientific studies; yet he was in truth a specialist. The popular legend is never quite wrong; if a man of science is a magician, he was a magician. And the man of science has always been much more of a magician than the priest; since he would "control the elements" rather than submit to the Spirit who is more elementary than the elements.

In this sense, magic is, and always has been, an entirely natural thing, in the sense of a thing bound by nature. It has always been entirely inside of creation. An air spirit's ability to lift me in the air is not in a different category of action than is my ability to lift my two year old son into the air. We're each doing what is within our nature to do, but not wihin the nature of the beneficiary to do. In later conceptions of magic, like what you see in modern fantasy such as the game Dungeons & Dragons, magic tends to be more about harnessing an all-pervasive energy force, usually called mana. This isn't really different in concept from harnessing an all-pervasive magnetic field to create an artifact which can always show us which way is north. The only real difference is that the magicians alone know how to harness the energy field, and everyone and his brother knows how to harness the magnetic field. A magic wand that can summon fire is only a bit more compact than is a flame thrower.

It is true that in Dungeons & Dragons the wizard casts his spells not through electronics and tubes and pistons, but through chanting and gestures and material components like crystals and bat guano; this just means that the story involves make-believe about how the world works, just like C.S. Lewis made believe that there were martians living in the canals on Mars in Out of the Silent Planet. I should mention that make believe is not always positive; for example people have written fiction where they're pretending that fossil fuels never existed on earth (so no steam ships or airplanes or plastics or large scale mining that makes metals cheap).

That all magic, in this sense, is technology, is therefore entirely unobjectionable to the Christian, so much so that as Chesterton observed, the Catholic church spent more than a little effort trying to stamp out the superstition surrounding technology which would call it magic.

This conception of magic, it should be clear, stands in sharp contrast to the idea of a miracle. Magic is the control of nature, whereas a miracle is the creator — who stands outside of nature — changing it. This is one reason why if you look at the miracles of Jesus, they are often restorative. He makes the blind see, and the lame walk. He brings the dead back to life. The creator of the world re-creates it where it has become deformed from what it should be, where it now lacks the power to be what it should. The miracles of Jesus are not exclusively this, to be sure. When he told Peter to cast a hook into the water, take the first fish that bites, find a coin in its mouth, and give it to the temple authorities to pay the temple tax for Jesus and Peter readily comes to mind as a miracle which was not at all of this nature. Catching a fish with a baited hook is a natural action, and presumably at some point the fish had swallowed the coin in a natural way. The super-natural element here is the knowledge that Jesus had no natural way of knowing: that the fish had swallowed the coin, or that it would be there and bite on the hook when Peter put it in the water. (I'm only saying that Jesus had themes to his miracles related to his role as the savior of the world, not that that they can all be understood as the same thing repeated without variation, for which there is a simple cipher to comprehend them without effort or enlargement of the mind.)

The problem with the question this essay started with comes in largely when Christians — in an increasingly secular culture — started using magic as an analogy to help people understand miracles. You can see this in fairy stories — which I will note G.K. Chesterton thought healthy, and one certainly disagrees with him at one's own peril of being wrong — including the popular myths surrounded and play-acted around Santa Claus. And indeed if fairy stories are used to create a sense of wonder at the world, it's clear that they are quite healthy. The danger, I think, is when fairy stories are a person's only source of wonder. Some time before adulthood, the humility and its attendant wonder at the world which one finds in fairy stories is supposed to be transferred onto the real world. When it isn't, you get the worst of both worlds, because by competition with the more marvelous stories one was told, the real world will seem prosaic, but as an adult you know that the fairy stories aren't true.

And while I think that parental laziness (expecting that transferrence to happen on its own, without guidance) is certainly behind some of the lack of transferrence of wonder from fiction to reality, the expert culture in which we live greatly exascerbates the problem. For everything that a human being does, we expect that there are experts in it, and so for whatever we don't understand, we assume that there is someone who does — someone for whom the thing is prosaic. This is made even worse by the popular conception of physics which was lulled by unjustified simplifying assumptions in the 1800s into a false sense of comprehension. The real world turned out to be a much more complicated place than the physicists of the 1800s ever dreampt that it was, and then in the 1950s and 1960s physics changed from something which sought to explain the world into something which merely attempted to describe its behavior accurately. People who cling to the mythology of the 19th century hate to admit it, but modern quantum mechanics is a bit akin to understanding the court politics of the Chinese emperor in the forbidden city by being able to accurately predict, on average, his weekly schedule of sleeping, eating, receiving guests, etc.

But whatever the developments of modern physics, or the limits of any kind of physics, the hubris of the 18th and 19th centuries created a mythology of human understanding of the world which many people grow up with and take for granted. Against this backdrop, wonder at the natural world is especially hard. You can see this in certain strains of the excitement about the pictures recently returned from the New Horizons space probe.It's natural enough that the same people who find mountains and plains on earth to be amazing find mountains and plains on Pluto to be amazing as well. But you can also see the reactions of people who find mountains and plains here on earth so prosaic that they literally need to look at ones on another planet to have any stirrings of wonder within their hearts.

It is in this context which saying that all magic is insufficiently understood technology can possibly be an attack upon Christianity. But it's only really an attack upon Christianity begun but never finished. If a person never learns true generosity — giving to someone who can't possibly deserve anything of you — from Santa Claus, it doesn't really matter whether they still believe in a guy who flies through the sky pulled by reindeer. And if they have learned that, they'll never cease to believe in Santa Claus because the parts of the story that actually matter are true. If you learn from fairy stories that the world is a place we don't understand, you won't make the mistake of thinking that you understand the world merely because no one has ever successfully captured a fairy and put it in a scientific bottle.

Ultimately, wonder and humility are reactions to the world we discover through science, and so there is no danger to science expanding to the edges of all of its proper limits. The problem comes in when you think your smartphone is prosaic because somebody understands how it works, not when someone points out that there are people who understand how the things work, at least enough to build another one. If you don't marvel at technology, you've missed the main good to be gotten out of fairy stories. You'll also be a lot grumpier when your call drops.