Language and the is/is not of metaphor are both fundamental to the nature of ultimate reality. If you’ve seen Jesus (the Word), you’ve seen the Father…and yet the Word is not the Father. The creation is metaphor come to life, the infinite glory of God rendered by the spoken Word in finite matter. Like much great art, it is impossible in principle, believable only as a fait accompli.
We can interact with the creation through natural causality, the sort of thing the scientists deal with, or we can interact with the creation through word and metaphor. Blessings and sacraments operate by word and metaphor, respectively. When I pronounce a blessing on someone, there is nothing about vibrations in the air that causes their life to improve — no physical causality. That which I speak becomes real because it was spoken. When I eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s Table, it’s just bread and wine — run any materials analysis you want. And then again, it’s not. Christ is really present to me in the elements, and we are the Body of Christ in the world because we are what we eat.
Magic is an attempt to hijack the spoken and sacramental nature of reality. Casting a spell operates on the same principle as blessing: that which I speak becomes real. A voodoo doll operates on the same principle as the Lord’s Table: enacted metaphor changes the world. Perversions, to be sure, but they operate on the same principles.
The modern-day magicians’ error is in thinking that the principles are the ultimate reality — that there are “laws of magic.” But that is an attempt to reduce the world to impersonal principles, and the word-and-metaphor structure of reality is irreducibly relational. I can encounter the risen Christ as I eat the bread and drink the cup because He promises that it is His body and blood. There is a promise of God that undergirds the action, and it works because God is trustworthy.
No such promise of God applies to making a voodoo doll. But then, God is not the only agent with whom one could develop a relationship. The difference between a modern “laws of magic” practitioner and a traditional witch doctor is that the witch doctor understands that all reality is personal. If a witch doctor is able to extract a promise from an unclean spirit, and if the spirit keeps that promise, then the voodoo doll works. This is the principle of the witch doctor: he makes an agreement with powerful spirits that will do certain things in exchange for sacrifices and favors. They will even sometimes exorcise less powerful spirits. The “laws of magic” practitioner does not understand that he’s doing the same thing, and certain unclean spirits are happy to help him maintain his self-deception.
But does natural causality actually work any differently than sacramental causality, or is the atheistic scientist simply making the same mistake as the “laws of magic” practitioner?
Let’s think it through. When you drop a plate of salad, why does it fall down instead of up? Because of gravity, right? But “because gravity” is not an explanation. You’re just slapping a noun on the phenomenon, applying a label. Great, you call it “gravity.” But why does it do that?
Well, because objects attract one another in direct proportion to the square of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them. That’s a little better as an explanation — it’s a general statement of the principle that covers the movement of planets as well as the movement of a dropped plate of salad. But it’s still just a precise description of what happens. Same question: Why does it do that?
You can translate that natural-language description to the artificial language of mathematics and write it out as an equation, but that still doesn’t answer the question of why it happens that way. In the end, you believe that it is just there, or you believe that God decreed it to be so — which is to say, there is a promise of God undergirding it. (If you go with “just there,” then you are stuck with no reason to believe that gravity will work tomorrow — the problem of induction as aptly stated by David Hume — but that’s a topic for another day.)
So the real difference between sacrament and natural law is that sacraments expose the nature of things as they really are. With natural law, you have to drill down through layers of mechanisms before you get to the point where you find yourself face to face with the divine decree. In the sacraments, the decree of God is right on the surface, reminding you with Whom you’re dealing — in all your dealings.