On Casting Lots, Amor Fati, Prayer, and Magic

Have you ever reflected about casting lots in the bible? Why don’t modern Christians use this decision-making mechanism? It’s biblical, is it not?

My friend Matt Richie just posted on this topic. I made the following comment to Matt’s post:

I’ve often struggled with this [issue of casting lots]. Even in the NT we see casting lots to make important decisions. Why don’t modern Christians do the same?

I think the issue boils down to ancient versus modern views of human agency. Ancient people were much more fatalistic, and in a good way. Amor fati was a big deal. In our modern world, we don’t like amor fati. We like to think we control our own decisions. Plus, we feel the need to make our decision come out “right.” We fear the sub-optimal outcome. Why? Because our inflated sense of agency makes us feel responsible for the outcome.

Thus, I don’t think we cast lots because we have lost our amor fati. We want to CONTROL the outcome. We are not interested in RECONCILING ourselves to outcomes. Thus, although we “consult” God in prayer we rarely let the choice fall completely outside our powers. We won’t, literally and figuratively, roll the dice.

All this makes me think of the distinctions anthropologists make between religion and magic.

Generally, religion is relational. That is, in a religion, to use an economic metaphor, “goods and services” are exchanged between the people and the gods. The gods have expectations of the people (e.g., worship, gifts) and the people have expectations of the gods (e.g., protection, good harvest, rain in West Texas). And because religions are relational the dance between people and the gods can get complicated, with lots of potential for hurt feelings on both sides (read the Old Testament for just one example of this emotional rollercoaster ride).

Magic is different from religion. Magic is not relational. Magic is a kind of spiritual technology where a “spell” is performed to compel some supernatural agent to perform an action (e.g., curse or attack an enemy, cure an illness). Note the idea of compulsion or force.

Sometimes I wonder about prayer as a form of magic. This may be a strained comparison as I do think prayer is more relational than technological, metaphysically speaking. But sometimes in church it feels like people are praying to get a very specific response from God, like a sign or a cure. I don’t know, but those prayers feel “magical” to me, as a way of using prayer as a spiritual technology, a way of compelling a response from God.

But, oddly, casting lots strikes me differently. When you cast a lot you’re just trying to get some information. You don’t really have an expectation about the outcome, unlike with a prayer for a specific outcome you want to see. Thus, compared to certain kinds of petitionary prayer, casting lots looks a lot less magical to me.

Now, how weird is that? Casting lots as less magical than prayer.

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6 thoughts on “On Casting Lots, Amor Fati, Prayer, and Magic”

  1. Along these lines, here's one of my favorite quotes from Buber's "I and Thou":

    "What distinguishes sacrifice and prayer from all magic? Magic wants to be effective without entering into any kind of relationship and performs its arts in the void, while sacrifice and prayer 'step before the countenance,' into the perfection of the sacred basic word that signifies reciprocity. They say You and listen."

    In my life, I often use prayer as a form of magic to control circumstances rather than "stepping before the countenance" relationally and listening...seems like there's a hint (scream?) of defensiveness in this process...to do otherwise would be to have to face my finitude/impending death and to trust that God really is the God who brings order out of chaos, life out of death, and an open future out of what seems like a closed situation.

    Your post makes me think of the link between our inflated sense of agency and our increased separation/alienation from nature, each other, and ourselves. Again, it seems like there is a defensive function at work here...we deal with the anxiety of too much separation with grandiosity ("I can control everything") which keeps us blind from our finitude and need for connection.

    Buber has some interesting stuff to say about fate and freedom as "promised to each other" too.

  2. Richard, Ron,

    If I believe that God is mysteriously involved in an ongoing faithful way in creation, in space and time, then I can occasion in my limited faith a glance into the abyss of the future. Much of the time I accept the modern gnostic myth of individual control of my destiny. When a shattered, uncertain future forces choice or bewilderment upon me or seems too great for words or for my habits of thought--all too linear mostly--I turn in my fear to ritual sayings and actions. These may or may not be "magical." My prayers can be manipulative self-protection but casting lots can be a way to avoid thinking through hard choices.

    Is praying for a parking place the same as praying for God to heal a terminal disease in a child? Moving mountains? For me to ask is to answer? But not for some others. It seems to me that I (and others) act and believe along a continuum of unbelief, superstition, and belief. (German is better here: Unglaube, Aberglaube, Glaube.) All too often I live in respectable unbelief--and I know I'm not alone--claiming God as my father but acting as a functional atheist, behaving as if God is not faithfully involved in God's creation.

    God have mercy,

    George C.

  3. So Richard, I'm curious, why do you pray and what kinds of things do you pray about? I ask this looking for inspiration. The older and more educated I get, the more my perception of God has changed into some sort of hybrid Christian-deist conglomerate. The importance of prayer in the usual sense (asking God to intervene in the world, to direct my choices, etc), has diminished with my changing beliefs. But if you take that out of prayer, what is left? Listening to God? I have yet to feel like God has ever spoken to me... Prayer for me lately has mainly consisted of asking for help in my transformation of character, but I'm on the lookout for other reasons to pray.

  4. Ron,
    I think your connection with inflated agency and alienation from nature is right on. I think that is a very deep insight. I think the ancients felt, for lack of a better word, "smaller." We feel "bigger" and, as a consequence, might suppose that make our prayers "bigger" as well (in the sense that God should listen more to us). So, maybe we need "smaller" prayers, as you suggest, where listening and awe are the main themes.

    Following up on what I just said to Ron, I think I hear you speaking about humility in prayer. That prayer is the moment when life overwhelms me and all I can do is turn heavenward.

    Well, I use the words of the psalms quite a bit. As you might guess, I prefer the lament psalms. The best single book I've read on different forms of prayer is Richard Foster's book Prayer. That's the place to explore all the different kinds of prayer (many are wordless) in the Christian tradition. I'd also recommend Walter Brueggemann's Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. It's a collection of WB's prayers that he composed and read before teaching his seminary classes. They are really wonderful. Finally, I've just received a book called Chanting the Psalms (complete with audio CD!) by Cynthia Bourgeault, but have not gotten into it yet (I plan to learn to chant while we drive for hours during our summer vacation).

  5. The article (and the comments) are sprinkled with the phrase, "I think." Perhaps the answer is elusive because it shouldn't be about what "I think." Maybe it should be about what God thinks. (The 'Lord's Prayer' doesn't begin, "Our genie, which art in heaven...".) We are never told — specifically or otherwise — to cast lots in order to know the will of God. 

    Try this. Take a quarter and determine that 'heads' is "yes" and 'tails' is "no." Now pray over this question, regarding the Will of the Father... "Should I cast lots in order to know Your will?" Now flip the quarter three times. If you get three "no's", you have your answer. But if you even get ONE "no", it means God is not speaking to you through the "casting of the lot." That is, the random flipping of a coin is NOT eliciting a valid, consistent and therefore reliable communication with the Spirit of God. Frankly, it would take three "yes'" to convince you that God wants you to consult Him in this way — and even then, you might be led down this path merely to teach you of its fallacy.

    Too often we need an answer from God and we need it right now. And, too often we 'step out in faith' when we should have been merely patient. We are never told to 'step out in faith' this way, but are rather told — literally hundreds of times — to wait patiently on Him. 

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