Christian Hermeticism: On Identity

When Christians come to engage with other traditions or types of thought, you’ll often see one of two approaches: attack or absorb. The ‘attacking’ approach tries to undermine the credentials or the conclusions of these alternate traditions, while the ‘absorbing’ approach intimates that the underlying principles are identical, suggesting that the alternate tradition is sort of the heathen’s attempt to grasp principles that are implicitly known by everyone, but only fully revealed in the Bible. You can think about it in spatial terms – when Christians come across a new territory, the impulse is either to invade, or to set up at the border and lob rocks. Both instincts are an exercise in policing boundaries – we discussed this before in ‘The Argument A Frontier‘. The instincts of attack and absorb are both an exercise in identity management – the Christian uses the other group as a mirror, as a point of reflection from which to look upon the shape of their own faith. They look at the land, and decide whether it’s ‘Christian’ to enter into it.

We see this process of self-definition in this week’s text, which – we’re going to handle a little different to normal. The author of this book asked to remain anonymous (he didn’t ask me personally, just – you know, in general, it’s an anonymously published text), so in the spirit of that request, for now I’m not even going to tell you what the book is. I’ll say that it’s the last of our 20th century Catholic texts – after this, we move to writings from the Orthodox church. I can also say that it was originally published in French, and it’s got an afterword from the almost-Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, who we’ve been discussing a bunch over recent weeks – he wrote books like The Christian and Anxiety and A Theology of History.

In this book, then, the anonymous author writes that “the Catholic church, being catholic or universal, cannot consider itself as a particular church among other particular churches, nor consider its dogmas as religious opinions among other religious opinions or confessions.” That’s exactly what we were talking about before: Christians don’t like to share. This author doesn’t recognise a range of different religions all sitting together in the sandpit – there is Christianity, or more specifically Catholicism, which is true, and everything else needs to be either attacked or absorbed – it’s either secretly part of Catholicism, or it’s worthless. That’s the universalizing impulse in Christianity – if it’s true, it’s true for everyone, which in practice means that everything else people believe is just wrong.

There’s another similar example of that behaviour a few pages earlier, where the author is talking about hierarchy: “Without an Emperor, there will be, sooner or later, no more kings. When there are no kings, there will be, sooner or later, no more nobility. When there is no more nobility, there will be, sooner or later, no more bourgeoisie or peasants. This is how one arrives at the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class hostile to the hierarchical principle, which latter, however, is the reflection of divine order. This is why the proletariat professes atheism.” This book was finished in 1967, so the godless communists were still seen as a major threat – and we can see how the attack on communism is articulated in terms of their difference to Christianity. Social hierarchy reflects the divine principle, the proletariat are hostile to social hierarchy, and therefore the proletariat are hostile to God – “this is why the proletariat professes atheism.” The emphasis here is on the ‘why’ – their different opinion towards hierarchy directly causes their atheism. We might quietly note that there are plenty of socialist Christians, plenty of believers who don’t think hierarchy is a core part of the faith – but like Guardini, this staunch Catholic writer won’t hear it. Attack or absorb: either it comes under the auspices of our land, or we’ll fight it.

Given that attitude, it’s kinda interesting that this week’s text is itself a little unorthodox as a type of Christian thought. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism takes the 22 major arcana of the Tarot and uses them as an organising principle for reflection on Christian ideas. You’re probably most familiar with tarot in the context of card-reading, or cartomancy, where a person tells the future by drawing cards – that’s not so much what this is about. It’s not a text focusing on occult practice or ritual – here the arcana offer only a conceptual framework from which the author makes reference to Christian spirituality. As von Balthasar notes in his afterword, “it is only the symbols or their essential meanings which are important – individually or in their mutual reference to one another.” But I can understand a certain level of hesitation around this stuff. The most obvious question for a conscientious believer is why we’d even consider looking at it – even if it’s not Actively Bad, why would we need to draw on this random conceptual framework? Where did it come from? Why enter into that land?

In answering those questions, let’s maybe start with a bit of historical context. Originally, as far as we know, a tarot deck was just a deck of cards. When we think of playing cards today, we mostly think of the French-suited 52-card pack – there are obviously other forms, such as the German-suited or Swiss-suited decks, which have 32 or 36 cards, as well as different decks for 500 or whatever else. Tarot cards are just another type of deck – they’re still used for card games, particularly in Eastern Europe, without any particular occult connotation. The idea of fortune-telling from the cards starts in maybe the late 18th century, and after that the cards are slowly incorporated into a range of different philosophical and spiritual systems, including hermeticism and its Christian spinoffs. That’s really just to demonstrate that tarot cards don’t have their historical roots in some fundamentally pagan or anti-Christian worldview. They’re just playing cards that people got weird about. It’s a little strange to treat them as some deep and meaningful system of deliberate thought, but maybe on the whole they’re as good as – that is, as bad as – any other introduced set of ideas.

We know that Christianity is regularly and significantly impacted by alternate systems of thought – whether it’s the Neoplatonism of Pseudo-Dionysius, or the work of Aristotle and his Islamic interpreters filtered through the lens of Thomas Aquinas. In his afterword, von Balthasar writes that “it is known how Christian philosophy was widely influenced during the Middle Ages, from Arabic sources and elsewhere.” Similarly, he writes, during the Renaissance “the best minds were occupied with accommodating the Jewish magical-mystical Cabbala into the Christian faith.” Finally, the hermetic tradition was “attributed a place of honour” by the Church Fathers and “celebrated” during the Renaissance. It’s not surprising or new to bring different strains of thought to bear on Christian faith, and it would be kinda weird to act as if Christianity grew up in an intellectual vacuum. It adopts voraciously, mutating different systems to introduce its own peculiar slant. Why not here as well? As von Balthasar says, the archetypes of the arcana “merely form the cosmic material into which the unique Christian revelation finally incarnates.” It’s not really that different to Christianity’s relationship with any other system of belief.

But is that good enough for you? Is that convincing enough as reason to venture into this land? For Christians, Meditations on the Tarot offers an interesting exercise in exploring the boundaries of our faith. It’s something that the anonymous author is involved in – he is clearly just as engaged in managing the boundaries of what he considers to be Christian identity. He’s out throwing shade at the communists and arguing that a non-hierarchical society is necessarily atheistic (those quotes of his work above were all from the section on the fourth arcana, incidentally – the Emperor). It’s interesting to watch him work through the same impulses that his book will no doubt prompt in others. And for me personally, having spent a year reading Catholic authors – venturing into a space that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, both Christian and outside of my own tradition – this feels like an appropriate place to finish the year. The impulses to attack and absorb are maybe quite natural, quite familiar ways of responding to difference – but what we have here is a more complex way of negotiating that relationship. It’s a book about tarot that’s picking fights with communists. It hints at other, weirder ways of relating.

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