i first stumbled into the problem of systematically differentiating prayer and magic on my last teaching trip to pakistan in the spring of 2013. i had some sense that this would be a valuable question to think through with the students, and some preliminary sense of an answer, but i had no idea it would provoke such an extensive conversation. and those conversations have been subsequently formative for my direction of study over the past two years.
i posed the question just so: “what is the difference between prayer and magic?” the students chimed in with fascinating anecdotes from their experience, not quite venturing to address the underlying theoretical question, but with the kind of interest that indicated to me i had struck an important nerve. the conversation went on three or four times as long as i anticipated, and i found ways to sneak the question into some of my other classes and conversations.
as a somewhat off-the-cuff hypothesis, i offered the following distinction —
Prayer is rooted in relationship, and has as its ultimate end growth in relationship with God. Magic attempts to manipulate the impersonal forces of the universe for the sake of advantaging its practitioner. Magic is accordingly forbidden in the Church because we believe that the universe is fundamentally relational — there are no impersonal forces, and in attempting to manipulate them, we easily fall pray to the evil spirits.
that works, anecdotally – i’m still reasonably satisfied with offering that as a practical solution to establish and maintain practical boundaries for ministry; particularly given how i was able to apply that distinction as a principle to practical cases. although the definition seems rather clear cut, there is significant room for ambiguous practices – for instance, if it becomes a fad to pray a particular pslam every day, and going around with it are promises of some kind of personal benefit. that can go either way given this preliminary distinction: if the intention is relational, it is fine; if it is an automatic assurance, it places the one who gives the prayer as the primary cause of any spiritual blessing, rather than the one to whom prayer is due — and this is problematic.
still, there are a number of problems with this preliminary definition which we can point out without even getting into the astute questions posed in the last couple of decades by scholars of late antiquity who have been wrestling with this issue of giving a technical definition to “magic.” 
- there are several Reformation issues simply not addressed by this paradigm. without completely vitiating it, an ex operate operato view of the sacraments would seem to be excluded, yet the intercession of angels and saints would not. additional clarity is needed here.
- rendered in this way, it is difficult to avoid the claim that “science” is actually a form of magic. there is some historical truth to this, and some aspects of “scientific” thought or “sciencism” can verge on the magical, but on the whole, a more neutral relationship with natural contemplation of the created order needs to be clarified.
- by this definition, much (if not most) “magic” could actually be understood as “prayer,” since a lot of magic relies upon the intermediary aid of angels, demons, spirits etc, and the rituals are not usually focused around their manipulation so much as the supplication of these beings. a relationship is in fact established and enacted in many magical practices.
we can add to this list the realization that words like “magic,” along with “superstition” and “syncretism” are often used to “lump and dump” particular tendencies and practices without giving them careful thought and a fair hearing. (no one would call their own practices “superstitious” or “syncretistic;” magic is at least partially emic, but it is usually appropriated (so far as i can tell from its modern practitioners) in a spirit of contrariness and rebellion.)
there is so much weight attached to these terms that if the label can be successfully applied, the conversation is over before it began. “magical” practices are simply beyond the pale for believing, practicing christians; so if i can convince you it’s magic (or superstitious, or syncretistic), i don’t need to spell out anything else. if you dabble in it, you are distancing yourself from the Church; and if you want to remain in the good graces of the Faith, steer clear. while we need those kinds of boundaries for the Church, and they can be quite pastorally useful, there is more to mine for scholarship – and deeper truths about the nature of the unseen to be discovered, particularly respecting the possibilities of knowing and relating with created spiritual beings naturally, without any theological framework. for such a task, greater precision and clarity is needed — as well as caution, for those who in the midst of this maintain the obedience of faith and the responsibility for its transmission.
1. there’s a good rundown of the scholarship i’ve been working with in David Aune’s article “‘Magic’ in Early Christianity and Its Ancient Mediterranean Context : A Survey of Some Recent Scholarship.” Annali Di Storia Dell’ Esegesi 24, no. 2 (2007): 229–94.