Christian Hermeticism: On Magic

The standard narrative around magic and the supernatural is that we used to describe things as magic when we didn’t understand them. The sacrificial acts of the Greeks and Romans, of the Jews – these were attempts to placate divine beings, which stood in for natural forces. These cultures gave shape and name to wind and weather, making the elements into people – because people can be reasoned with. You give something to God, and God gives back to you. It’s reciprocity. Today, of course, we understand things like thunder and lightning – we know that natural forces aren’t personal, that it’s a simple matter of cause and effect. We understand the science of how things work, and we can put these anthropomorphic coping mechanisms behind us. Magic is similarly demystified: it doesn’t exist, it’s all just tricks and illusions. It’s rational, quantifiable, known.

In the 20th century esoteric Christian text Meditations on the Tarot, the anonymous Catholic author takes a different slant on that whole story. In the third letter, which meditates on the Empress, he divides magic into three sorts: chief for our purposes are divine and personal magic. Divine magic, in the author’s view, is what happens “where there is simultaneously an accordance of divine will and human will.” This is the essence of miracles, for example – these are acts of divine magic, where the will of the individual believer is aligned with the will of God. We can draw on a range of Biblical passages for evidence – to take one, in Exodus 17, Moses is told by God to strike the rock with his staff. He does so, and water gushes from the rock. It’s a miracle: the will of Moses aligned with the will of God. It’s divine magic. The anonymous author uses the example of Peter healing Aeneas in Acts 9: “Peter could do nothing if his will was not united with the divine will. He was fully conscious of this, and this is why he says to Aeneas: ‘Jesus Christ heals you.’ This means to say: ‘Jesus Christ really wants to heal you. Jesus Christ has sent me to you in order that I might do what he has said to me. As far as I am concerned, I am doubly happy to be able at one and the same time to serve my Master and to heal you, my dear brother Aeneas.'”

As a claim, that’s maybe not controversial. The term ‘magic’ is a little unusual in that context, but it lines up with plenty of the other material we’ve been looking at this year. It clicks into place alongside von Balthasar’s idea that time is for waiting – the idea that we have to wait and do things in God’s time, rather than our own. When we wait for God’s time, and act in accordance with His will, miraculous things can happen. That sounds pretty orthodox. Nobody would be startled by that in a 10am sermon. And we might idly note in passing that the point of ‘divine magic’, so-called, is that we don’t know what’s coming. If God’s will is revealed to us moment by moment, then we don’t know what we might be called to do in the future. We find ourselves led by the divine will – the scope of the possible is only bound by our obedience.

Personal magic, on the other hand, is what happens when divine magic is treated as “a branch separated from its trunk.” It is the human will separated from the will of God, seeking to harness the forces of the universe for its own ends. It is Moses striking the rock a second time in Numbers 20: God tells Moses to speak to the rock and tell it to pour out its water, and yet Moses, in a fit of pique, strikes the rock instead. The water still gushes out, but God punishes Moses for his disobedience – he is told that he will not bring the Israelites into the Promised Land. Notably, in this passage, the forces of the universe are still available to be harnessed. It was possible for Moses to strike the rock and have water erupt out of it – that was a power or force that remained available to him. And it’s met the same practical goal, in that it’s got the water out for the Israelites – but it wasn’t obedient. It’s Moses doing what he wants, rather than demonstrating obedience to God’s will. That’s personal magic.

The writer goes on to identify the scientific principle with that of personal magic. Science is all about understanding how things work – getting to the laws or principles that govern the behaviour of things in the world. Where sacred magic focuses on obedience and receiving God’s will, science is grasping, possessive, and controlling. These aren’t my personal beliefs, by the way – I just think it’s very funny to watch this anonymous author collapse the scientific enterprise back into the framework of magic. Where the standard narrative has science replacing magic as a more accurate way of knowing, the anonymous author of the Meditations sees science as in some ways disobedient, as prying into things in order to seize control rather than listening to and following the sovereignty of God. “Science wants to compel Nature to obedience to the will of man such as it is; Hermeticism – or the philosophy of sacred magic – on the contrary wants to purify, illumine and change the will and nature of man in order to bring them into harmony with the creative principle of Nature and to render them capable of receiving its willingly bestowed revelation.” Science is just magic that we control. Divine magic is when our will aligns with the divine will, and personal magic – science – is when we strike out on our own, not following nor listening, but seeking to our own ends.

And – you know – obviously you can formulate all your counter-narratives and counter-arguments and whatever else – what if it’s God’s will for us to do scientific research? And you can weigh in about the perils of an anti-scientific worldview, citing for example the rioting anti-vaccine movement – and that would all be fair. This anonymous author does fire off at separate points about both heliocentrism (the idea that the sun’s at the center of our solar system) and the theory of evolution – he’s hostile to a bunch of scientific discoveries, and it’s a little weird. But I think there’s still value in digging into this alternate paradigm of knowledge. What if knowledge was relational rather than a series of facts or laws? The idea of the possible as bound only by our obedience to the divine – I think that’s an interesting way to approach the idea of miracles. And it is genuinely important to have questions about what we’re doing with our knowledge rather than just accumulating it in ever-greater amounts. The anonymous author draws a line from steam and electricity to atomic energy, from “the little regular explosions of petrol” in your car to “the destruction of atoms” in the production of atomic energy, and argues that the practical aspect of science is based on the “destruction of matter, by which energy is freed in order to be captured anew by man so as to be put at his service.” Destruction is the mode or character of our self-directed inquiry, he argues, of knowledge and power pursued for our own ends rather than under the direction of the divine will. It’s a rhetorical gesture, rather than a closely-reasoned study of the history of scientific discovery, and the whole thing is very definitely anti-science. But it’s still interesting as a challenge to the rational-scientific way of thinking. Under this conception of sacred and personal magic, the divine erupts back into the world, and we are reoriented towards reality not as something to be grasped and conquered, but as the domain in which we practice obedience to the voice of God. It’s unhinged, but not necessarily entirely incorrect.

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