Matt Stone at curious Christian recently asked the question “Can Evangelicals Learn from Occult Traditions?” on his blog. It’s a questions that deserves way more comments and discussions than he did get. In it he did refer in his post to a book with a similar title called ‘Can evangelicals learn from world religions’ by Gerald R. McDermott that I haven’t read but that looks very interesting.
McDermott wrote a superb book entitled, “Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?” The text explored the ways theologians of the likes of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had historically engaged with Pagan philosophers of the likes of Plato and Aristotle and asked what a similar exercise might look like today. In the process McDermott explored aspects of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Islam that Christians, evangelicals included, could profit from … even if only to rediscover forgotten aspects of their own tradition.
I do believe that every tradition, Christian or otherwise, is most likely to have things we can learn from, and things we should not learn at all. So I would definitely answer the question with ‘yes’, and for my own post (which is also part of the March 2015 Synchroblog – What I Appreciate About [Other Religions] I will broaden it a bit “What can evangelicals learn from neo-Pagans and ‘magickal’ traditions?’.
I’ve been having online conversations with neo-pagans, witches, other ‘occult’ folk and newagy types for a while now. A lot of my prejudices, weird stereotypes and outright lies that some Christians told me about them were shattered there, and I did meet a lot of wise and interesting people (as well as negative creeps and dangerous idiots, but Christians, atheists or Muslims do have those as well…), and I did learn a lot of things from them.
(Yes, I might have entered conversations and places that wouldn’t have been safe without Divine protection and the gift of spiritual discernment, but hanging out with other people, even Christians isn’t without risks either and might require the same amount of discernment and Divine protection actually…)
So what could we learn from Occultists, neo-pagans, wiccans and others who practice magick as a part of their religion?
1. Recover some of what we’ve lost in modernity
Modernity as we know it is a strange place for Christianity to find and contextualise itself, and getting too modernised can be quite dangerous for the Christian faith even. (Which is true both sides of modern Christianity, fundamentalism and liberal Christianity, although often in opposite ways)
A lot of modern Christians for example are quite handicapped when it comes to the ‘invisible world’ after what the enlightenment did to our culture. (See also Thoughts about the spiritual ecological naivete of modern Westerners for a more thorough exploration of that problem)
There is much more than meets the eye and can be dreamt of in our modernist philosophies, but even if we try to go there can can really struggle with finding ways to understand and conceptualise it from our modern paradigm in a way that makes sense…
Yes, we lost a lot in the age of disentchantment that protestantism and the Christian renaissance-humanism of Erasmus started and that has been influencing us for roughly 500 years now, creating a very non-supernatural world for us. (Which might ironically be the biggest magical trick ever , seeOur nonmagical modern world as the biggest magical trick ever…)
But Christianity is deeply connected with the supernatural world, and has a lot of claims that are quite useless in a purely naturalist/materialist paradigm. Which is not so strange; Christianity as we know it has pagan and Jewish roots, not enlightenment ones, and was born inside of a much more enchanted world than ours. And no matter how hard we try, we won’t make much sense of a lot of the gospel writings without an understanding of a world that is more than our modern materialist one.
Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity are probably one of the ways in which the Spirit sent us a correction of this disenchanted false worldview, but sometimes even those religions are through and through modern in a photonegative way. And here it can be interesting to connect with those who have retained their connection with the supernatural. (Yes, I know neo-Paganism and Wicca are mostly modern reconstructions, but we still can learn a lot from how they try to make sense of the Spiritual world in modernity sometimes.) I also think that the thoroughly postmodern chaos magick and its understanding of paradigm shifting could have taught the emerging church a lot that it needed to not fall into the rigid and very dogmatic bounded-set neo-left-liberal trap that it ended up in… Which doesn’t make sense for a disappointed postmodern oecemenical evangelical as myself…
(See also: Some postmodern paradigm-shifting: from C.S. Lewis to chaos magic and back…)
2. See who the other really is without prejudices
In some Christian circles there are very scary views of ‘the occult’ that are worse than fiction, and that should be placed in the library net to stuff like the medieval maleus maleficarum. Some people even paint a view of non-Christians being just different groups of demon-influenced groups that all work together to hinder Christianity, mostly in the form they regard as ‘the one true faith’, liberal Christians or even churches who have a slighly different view on god knows what bible verse might even be on the other side too with all of the other evil infidels… Which does not mean that there’s a lot of dark stuff going on among the magickal folk, but sometimes what Christians think occultism is is complete nonsense. (Take this Carman song as a good example)
We should never forget that as Christians we should care for the truth, and not spread lies about anyone, not even about Satanists. (most of which follow Anton Lavey and don’t believe in the entity Christians call Satan anyway) So it is always etremely inmportant to listen to people and let them self-identify instead of spreading wild stories and conspiracy theory. And even if we completely disagree with what someone believes we should not distort it if we describe it.
A lot of Christian descriptions of ‘occultism’ are not just slander but just outright ridiculous. Frank Peretti in his ‘darkness’ books for example lets new agers, devil-worshipping Satanists and atheists work together to oppose Christians (of a very conservative American variety). I’ve you’ve ever met people of any of those groups, the chance that they will work together and have common goals with the other 2 groups are not bigger than with fundamentalist Christianity. No atheist will like new-age or satanist superstition more than Christian superstition. A Satan-worshipper will not bother with secular atheism andd look down upon fluffy new-age BS. And no Newager in his right mind (hmmm) will get involved with either inverse-Christian Satanism or a worldview that excludes the supernatural…
Most of these people are not concerned with opposing Christianity, except where it hinders them in being who they are and doing what they want to do. If people are opposed they will try to stop that opposition. But non-Christians who agree with the Christian ideas about God and that want to oppose that God are quite rare. Most have totally different ideas about God/gods/the Divine/whatever… and are not interested in fighting with a misconception although they might fight the power of Christianity when in power, or criticise the things they see wrong in it (sometimes rightly). People generally do not want to attack a God they don’t believe in. Opposing God as Christians see Him is meaningless and out of the question for most non-Christians. There is no specific anti-God conspiracy!
So it can be very interesting to just talk with people like neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and others and let them explain what they believe and practice in their own words. FB groups like the Pagan and Christian moot or Watchtower are very interesting here for example.
It’s true there are a lot of people in and far beyond magickal traditions that are not very positive towards Christians. But that’s often because Christians have been very negative towards them. The least we can do as Christians is try to listen, try to understand who they are. They are all humans like us, and a lot of them want to do a lot of good in their own way. And there’s really a lot of people in those communities who have been hurt and are still regularly hurt by Christians who spread all kind of weird accusations about them. Nothing Christlike about that, we can do a lot better, guys!
3. Acknowledge the parallels and learn from them
This will probably be my most controversial point here. But yes, studying magick (even if it’s in theory in my own case) as a Christian can open our eyes to certain parallels between certain beliefs and practices within Christianity and paganism or magickal/occult traditions. (Let’s not forget here that most Western Occult traditions are derived from Christianity btw., except for paganism, Wicca,chaos magick and the like… )
Yes there are parallels between ‘energy healing’ and faith healing, and there is a lot more to say about ‘Divine energies’ (an Eastern Orthodox concept). Jesus seems to be doing forms of ‘magick’ in some of his miracles. We can even see shamanic motifs in the gospels. (this bible study by ‘Captain Longpost’ on Marks gospel on the Pagan and Christian Moot forum is recommended for everyone.)
A lot of magick is done with the invocation/evocation of deities or other entities, and our Christians prayer can be seen as in the same category. We are oathed to Christ, the incarnation of the Creator of the Multiverse, and we do find our spiritual power and authority in Him.
This does not mean that other gods do not exist btw, we only do not regard them as gods to worship as Christians. My view about them is that they are more on angel/archangel level than the same species as the Supreme Being anyway…
But there also is a grey zone with human power that most people don’t believe in… A lot of magick is about projecting strong will (think also about ‘the secret’, ‘the law of attraction’ and even pop-chaos magick sigils) and recognising this can help us discern where Christians move outside of Christianity to revert to human magick. Without being focussed on God miracles are not something to be impressed by, and not something that needs to even be connected with Christianity at all. Just magick… And some ‘name it and claim it’ stuff very easily rolls into these kinds of magick, with a lot of miracles and rock’n roll going on…
…while Elvis has left the building already…
What we should never forget as Christians
We should not forget that as Christians, we are ‘oathed to Christ’. We are to root ourselves in God, the Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, Creator of the universe through the incarnated and resurrected Christ, God-with-us, and through His Spirit in and around us. It is important to see this as a Reality, not just an article of faith to intellectually accept. Heaven and Earth are full of His Glory, as the ancient Hosannah-hymn says. In Him we live, in Him we move, in Him we have our being…
We live in a Spiritual world that is bigger than we can understand or grasp, and more Real than we can perceive with our senses. The material dimension is only one part of it (although not unimportant to us embodied beings, and apparently to God, who incarnated in one of us!).
One of the most-neglected but most-needed gfts of the Spirit might be the discernment of Spirits. I do think we should all ask the Holy Spirit for a bigger dose of that, and not only when we participate in interfaith dialogue with world religions or magickal folk, but also within Christianity. A lot of stuff, from theology to miracles does have other sources than the Holy Spirit, sometimes human, sometimes darker than that. And we often don’t recognise that at all…
This post is part of the the March 2015 Synchroblog – What I Appreciate About [Other Religions]. Be sure to read the other participants too::