Christian Hermeticism: On Marxism

Alright, this is it for the crazy tarot book. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism is an anonymously written Catholic text from the 20th century. It takes the 22 major arcana as a jumping off point to reflect on Christian theology, and if it sounds like an unnecessary way to go about Christianity, it probably is. We’ve talked about its approach to magic, its weird little anti-evolution thing, and more broadly about the topic of identity, especially as it pertains to what we keep inside or outside of Christianity. Very relevant for a book of so-called Christian tarot. It is – I’m really happy with that identity article, by the way, I think it came out really nicely. It hits that sweet spot of reflecting on the text, and also saying something about Catholicism, and also something about my experience of reading Catholic texts as a filthy Protestant. It had a little thing about the communists as well – and that’s really where I wanted to land with this book. If we’re only getting a month’s worth of stuff on it, we’ve talked about magic, and now we’ve got to talk about the communists.

Probably one of the most interesting parts of this book is when it’s rabbiting on about the four-petaled lotus, and then it takes an aside to say ‘and see, this is why communism is bad.’ It moves between this abstract, symbolic system and very concrete political movements, which are often considered less in terms of their actual policies and more in terms of their orientation towards the abstract symbols under discussion. When it talks about hierarchy, it offers a little aside about how communism is bad because it rejects hierarchy and therefore rejects God. Similarly, in the meditation on the sixth arcana, the lover, the anonymous author uses a section on Adam and Eve to make an aside about Freud and Marx. The basic point I think is reasonable and even compelling: the author says that love is multifaceted and complex, and reducing it to sexual love is like reducing “white light containing the seven colours … to the colour red.” The same point is then extended to Marx:

“Just as Karl Marx, being impressed by the partial truth (reduced to its simplest basis) that it is first necessary to eat in order to be able to think, raised the economic principle to THE principle of man and the history of civilization, so Sigmund Freud, being impressed by the partial truth that it is first necessary to be born in order to be able to eat and to think, and that sexual desire is necessary for birth, raised this latter to THE principle of man and the whole of human culture.”

And that’s an interesting premise. There are different lenses on human nature, on what it means to be a person, and the economic and sexual have to be part of that analysis. But it’s probably also fair to argue that those lenses shouldn’t form the primary or sole basis for our understanding of human nature. There are other things going on – not everything is a phallus. And yet we should probably also look for a positive articulation of this idea. You can say that economics isn’t everything, and that’s fine, but then what is it? Where does it fit into the broader picture?

A few pages later, we get this text’s answer. The anonymous author is discussing the trials of Christ in the desert in Matthew 4. In the first trial, the tempter tells Jesus “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” Jesus responds “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” For the anonymous author, Satan is here testing Christ’s “vow of poverty”: “this is the very essence of the aspiration of humanity in the scientific epoch, namely to victory over poverty. Synthetic resins, synthetic rubber, synthetic fibre, synthetic vitamins, synthetic proteins and… eventually synthetic bread! – When? Soon, perhaps. Who knows?”

This whole passage is (technical theological term) coconuts. Setting aside the very strange attack on synthetic bread – again, part of the general anti-science attitude, and maybe not out of place alongside Guardini’s attack on technology – it’s also just bizarre to come out swinging against the end of poverty. His actual point takes a bit of unpacking – it’s about how we understand human nature, about the relative importance of the economic and the spiritual. If we were to say, for instance, that we should end poverty because everybody deserves to live, this author would reply – well, what do you mean by live? And we could say – well, being alive, walking around, not dead – and he would tell you that such a medical definition of ‘alive’ is insufficient. He would counter that being alive means more than eating food, and would use the first temptation of Christ to illustrate the point: Satan encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread, and Jesus refuses, saying that we do not live by bread alone, but by the word of God. This author has really just isolated the first part of that sentence: if we do not live by bread alone, then being able to eat doesn’t mean you’re alive. Therefore, ending poverty doesn’t bring people life – if anything, it merely elevates or threatens to elevate Marx’s economic principle (“that it is first necessary to eat in order to be able to think”) to be the central principle of human nature.

It is quite an obtuse argument – to take the really blunt reply, even if eating is not sufficient criteria for being alive, it’s certainly necessary. If you don’t eat, you won’t be alive under any definition. But we can maybe understand the broader idea that he’s trying to get across. If we are both creatures that eat and children of God, which one comes first? This author would say that the first option is Marxism. He describes Satan’s request using Marx’s language of base and superstructure: it is “the dominant motif of the doctrines overrunning the world today which regard the economic life as primary and the spiritual life as its epiphenomenon or as an ‘ideological superstructure’ upon the economic basis. That which is below is primary and that which is above is secondary, since it is matter that engenders spirit – such is the dogma commonly underlying ‘economism’ … and the statement made to the tempter by the Son of Man.” The author wants the spiritual component to be greatest, and all other considerations to be secondary. That’s the message he takes away from the first temptation of Christ.

We’ve actually seen very similar arguments put forward by other Catholic writers – for instance, the Granados article (one of the Zoom confession articles) argued that bans on mass during Covid “revealed the nonsacramental priorities of our society.” Granados noted that “a ‘zero risk’ policy has often been required when it comes to the sacraments, while reasonable risks were permitted to obtain food or drink,” and claimed “This corresponds to a notion of health as the essential or primary good, for which everything else must be sacrificed.” It’s the same argument – both Granados and this author hate how spirituality is perceived as a secondary concern, subordinated to the animal demands of food and health – which, they would argue, do not save the individual from damnation. No need to stop Covid, or end poverty – just make sure they get their communion. That way, regardless of what happens to the physical body, they’ll at least make it to heaven.

You know, I’ve criticized people before for reducing religion or spirituality to an economic frame – for seeing the spiritual life as a superstructure resting on a purely economic base. That was my critique of Maggie Mae Fish, for example. But we should also note that these Catholic bozos are out here doing the exact same thing. They’re contorting Marx’s economic arguments into a religious framework, associating them with the devil during the temptations of Christ. There’s not really any capacity for synthesis – in either context. And I’m aware that I haven’t provided any positive articulation of what that synthesis might look like either – I’ve criticised, but I haven’t offered anything of my own in its place. And – yeah, that’s appropriate. I’m not here to offer neat solutions, I’m here to read wacky esoteric Christian shit and tell you about it. The answers, as always, are deferred.

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