I was six years old when I learned magic and miracles weren’t the same thing. I was sitting in a Sunday School classroom at Oak Forest Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, listening to the teacher tell us the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. She paused to ask us: How did Moses part the Red Sea? I smiled and shouted excitedly: “It was magic!"
That didn’t go over real well. Miracles, she explained, come from God, while magic comes from the Devil. That’s really the only distinction between the two, or at least the only distinction she was prepared to convey to someone my age. If I’d been a little bit older, maybe she would have told me that magic is mechanical while a miracle is an act of grace, or that magic glorifies man while a miracle glorifies God, or something else that would have helped me understand why Christian theologians don’t tend to describe the work of God as “magic.” But I don’t know that it would have helped if she had, because expecting God to perform magic tricks for me doesn’t feel much less presumptuous when I euphemistically refer to them as miracles, and the birth of a child or the unlikely survival of a friend feels no less miraculous when I think of it as a natural process.
Creation, according to the creationist/Intelligent Design worldview, was a unique event in that it was both the ultimate magic trick and the ultimate miracle. I find that idea a little weird, and I think Pope Francis—like most scientifically literate Jesuits—finds it downright distasteful. His endorsement of the Big Bang theory and evolution earlier this week was not particularly unique in terms of theology, as the Vatican operates its own observatory and has officially endorsed evolutionary theory since 1996 (with many Catholic clergy, such as the noted Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, endorsing it much sooner). But Pope Francis' statement was very unique in terms of how it was framed, and it may represent new opportunities for dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the scientific community.
Pope Francis’ exact words (using my rather loose translation), which he delivered during a plenary session at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:
When we read the Genesis account of Creation, we're in danger of imagining that God was a magician, complete with a magic wand that can do all things. But that is not correct …[T]he creation has been going on for centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, because God is not a creator or a wizard, but the Creator who gives being to all entities.
The idea of God as the source of being itself—what the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being”—provides a way for Catholics to preserve the idea of God as Creator without sacrificing their scientific literacy, as it assumes that God creates by running the universe behind the scenes and need never disrupt what’s happening on stage. But what really makes Pope Francis’ remark stand out, for me, is the degree to which he is clearly not interested in the popular idea of miracles as magic tricks. It lays the groundwork for him or a future Pope to talk about the miraculous in a new way, an opportunity that I hope they take. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has been at war with the world for too long. If a religious leader of Pope Francis’ stature were able to broker something approaching a lasting peace, that would be a miracle.