Between High Theory and Low Praxis

29 09 2008

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Some notes towards a Christian theory of magic

In response to some of Christina’s concerns :

I think Christina is correct in asserting the first principle to consider: magic that manipulates and does harm is demonic and against the will of God. In Mexican folk practices, the women and curanderos who practice these feats of preternatural healing are usually devout Catholics. Magic is often considered a defensive mechanism against los brujos  and la brujeria  (witches and witchcraft). As E. Bryant Holman, an expert in Mexican folk religion, points out, it would be an insult to these people to associate them with Wicca or other New Age forms of the occult. Most curanderos  are merely trying to clean up the mess that witches cause, and they do so using common objects: a cross, an egg, a branch from a tree, water etc. Many sociologists would like to see in these practices survivals of a pagan past, but in reality these practices are tied into the Catholic nature of these societies. The priest is often seen as the curandero  par excellence, and many treatments in Mexican folk medicine involve taking the patient to the priest.

People practiced these forms of “white magic” not because they thought they were interesting or because they wanted to rebel against the Church through the preservation of pagan practices. They did them because they had to; there were no modern doctors and hospitals back then, and they had to make due with what they had. In Mexican folk medicine, as in its modern counterpart, it had specialized folk healers for various ailments: sobadoras, parteras, hueseros, yerberas, etc. Most of these used Catholic prayers in their healing. What we may all be missing in these discussions is that perhaps these people knew how to cure in qualitative ways whereas modern medicine is driven, through its modern scientific bias, to cure only quantitative symptoms. Various ailments that folk medicine addressed (susto, empacho, el mal ojo) are perhaps alive and well among us today. We would rather just sedate people into a stupor rather than cure them. The prejudices of modern medicine may make it blind to certain conditions of the human spirit. The fact that the Church can see one medical system as scientific and the other as superstition is a historically determined phenomenon. While it is permissible to treat childhood neuroses with a chemical pill of questionable effectiveness, it is somehow forbidden for the same child to be crossed various times with an egg while the Apostle’s Creed is said over him. The medieval man, as well as peasants in traditional Catholic societies, would see such distinctions as nonsensical. A cure is a cure.

This brings us to the first theoretical point that I want to make: modern science and thinking have a bias towards the quantitative side of reality, and the Church has been complicit in this prejudice by regarding many qualitative arts as superstition to its own detriment. This is the insight of Ioan Couliano in his book, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. In this book, Couliano shows how magic in Christian culture was an accepted form of knowledge up to the time of the Reformation. Alchemy and astrology were personified and put up on the facades of cathedrals next to the other sciences of rhetoric, medicine, and theology. St. Albert the Great experimented with these practices, and scientists up to Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy. That one could manipulate reality using amulets, incantations, images, and other material things was seen as one science among others. True, many saw dangers in these practices, just as many saw dangers in the practices that are forerunners to modern science. (See on this the work of M.D. Chenu on the twelfth century.) But that did not make them all automatically demonic. It just meant that their idea of the universe was more enchanted and haunted than ours. Not everything worked by quantitative laws; the laws of sympathy penetrated all the realms of the cosmos, as best illustrated by Giordano Bruno’s axiom: Vinculum quippe vinculorum amor est  (for the bond of bonds is love). If the universe is conceived as a living being, the anima mundi, this being can be charmed into doing certain things through the bonds of love. The macrocosm (the universe) is the reflection of the microcosm (man).

Thus, we have the second theoretical insight that is the basis of any theory of magic: true magic is really self-knowledge, as the Platonic theories best describe, and thus primarily a philosophical exercise. In studying the that great theoritician of theurgy, Iamblichus of Chalcis, we know that magic for him was a way of mimesis; the remembrance of the Divine as it exists in the soul. One would thus not be surprised that in his masterwork, De Mysteriis, there are severe invectives against idolatry and working with evil, inferior spirits. The aim of the Neoplatonic theurgist, whether in his pagan or later Renaissance Christian manifestation, was to obtain purification of the mind so that he could ascend to the divine Beauty of the One, the True, and the Good. It was not, as it is in modern New Age wicca, about empowerment or revolt against old systems of thought. It was the re-education of the soul as to her primeval dignity and origins.

In its Christian manifestation, the practioners had to tiptoe around certain practices that the Church would consider heretical. Astrology, for example, could never be contrary to the Christian idea of free will. Marsilio Ficino at one point asserted the idea of “star memory”: since the soul “fell” through the stars in her trajectory towards incarnation in the body, it could remember the insights of the stars with their help or without them. We must remember that in this vision of the universe, things below are governed by the things above, and this system passed into Christianity via Pseudo-Dionysius. Their motions, however, cannot determine what a man will do, but only the tendencies to which he is prone. Ficino also had to negotiate around the Hermetic writings on the animation of idols. He even said at points that he experimented with this as well, but did not know if the affects were from natural forces or demons, so he had to stop doing it. Perhaps these dangers were enough to make any Christian idea of magic untenable in the long run.

As to your last question, I think any idea of Christian magic in a modern context is no longer viable. For one thing, we live in a different world now. Curanderismo, Italian benedicaria, and the practices of the traiteurs in Louisiana all occured in societies where Catholicism was the hegemonic religion and thus could determine the limits and scope of these practices, even if indirectly. Curanderos in Mexico now, with the liberalization of society, use Tarot cards, Kardecist spiritism, and various other New Age and pagan practices that they are “recovering”. One need only look at the cult to Santa Muerte  or the Fidencista  movement in northern Mexico to know that this has been going on for some time. If the Catholic Church continues to “de-catholicize” in many places, so will its folk practices, and they will look to other sources for their cosmological foundations. Any attempt to swim against this tide is probably all but futile.

This does not mean that we should stop studying them as examples of traditions that we may be losing to our own detriment, nor should we discard the cosmological premises that are at the foundation of these practices. As I said above, the militant theorists of rationalist scientism are imprisoning reality in a series of tight boxes due to their own prejudices against any form of qualitative knowledge. Christian ideologies, as Couliano points out, often allied themselves with these prejudices since they thought that they were more compatible with Christian revelation; any form of qualitative manipulation of reality outside of the strictly governed Christian sacramental system was demonic and against the will of the Church. (This is also probably part of the centralization and regulation of Church life in the Counter Reformation.) I would argue that these prejudices have now turned against Christianity itself. While we cannot bring back the magus  and cannot practice theurgy without the danger of demonic influence, we can recover the full sense of the Christian universe: angels, demons, mysterious forces, and all. Indeed, this is a task that we must do for our own sanity and survival, and I think the study of the old folk ways is key to its success.

I hope that answers some of your questions.


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10 responses

20 04 2010
Don

To those who search for a true tradional Curandero. One is very well know for his faith. The Curandero Of Dallas.

8 10 2008
christina

>What in our contemporary world is called magic (or even magick) is not necessarily the same as what was called magia in the renaissance and the meaning of both was different from what was called magia in medieval times. Additionally, all of these uses have layers of meaning very different from what was called mageia, theurgy etc. in pagan Greek and early Christian sources.

Please explain the differences for me, if you have time.

>While we may find certain quotes by certain Christian authorities that condemn mageia etc. we will often find in the works of the same authors rather ambiguous or even positive statements on beliefs and practices that many would call magic today.

Could you please provide me with examples of this? I have searched in vain for any patristic statement in favor of any form of magic, and would love to find a positive statement in their writings.

>Even the infamous Malleus Maleficarum is ambiguous regarding these issues.

AFAIK, that book claims that a Christian can be a “lawful enchanter” if s/he observes seven conditions which supposedly remove any possible interference by demons or superstitious practices. I find this heartening in one way, but the fact that the Malleus Maleficarum was put on the Index of Forbidden Books doesn’t fill me with confidence.

>especially among the established mystics we can find many quotes pertaining to prayer that express essentially the same ideas that many traditional Wiccans/ Hermetic Magicians / Theurgists etc. have and had regarding magical work.

I’d appreciate a few of those quotes, too.

8 10 2008
Lily

Hello, very interesting post!

Well, I feel that most of the unease of (usually modern and educated) Christians with the issue of magic just simply is based on problems of…let´s call it linguistic intelligibility…problems of translation.

What in our contemporary world is called magic (or even magick) is not necessarily the same as what was called magia in the renaissance and the meaning of both was different from what was called magia in medieval times. Additionally, all of these uses have layers of meaning very different from what was called mageia, theurgy etc. in pagan Greek and early Christian sources.

There is a linguistic-etymological continuum between all of these uses of the word magic and they are all part of the same cultural process.
But they are not identical.

Coming from that position it is a bit misleading to e.g. use quotes of certain Christian authorities of the past regarding magia, mageia etc. to find a position on the relationship between what we today call magic and what we today call Christianity.

I understand Christina`s reasons to separate “Divine power/miracle” from “magical manipulation”.
However, this separation was only rarely completely realized in most traditional communities and also in the history of both Christianity and European magic.

While we may find certain quotes by certain Christian authorities that condemn mageia etc. we will often find in the works of the same authors rather ambiguous or even positive statements on beliefs and practices that many would call magic today.
Even the infamous Malleus Maleficarum is ambiguous regarding these issues.

Let´s also recall in this context how e.g. many traditional Wiccans (Gardnerians, as opposed to New Age Wiccans) describe their magical works as “giving the Divine a chance to work through us”, an act of entering a reciprocal dynamic between the human being and the Divine.
Christian prayer is quite often understood in the same way as well; especially among the established mystics we can find many quotes pertaining to prayer that express essentially the same ideas that many traditional Wiccans/ Hermetic Magicians / Theurgists etc. have and had regarding magical work.

3 10 2008
Alice C. Linsley

“magic in a modern context is no longer viable. For one thing, we live in a different world now. Curanderismo, Italian benedicaria, and the practices of the traiteurs in Louisiana all occured in societies where Catholicism was the hegemonic religion and thus could determine the limits and scope of these practices…”

This is true. Today practicioners of magic are eclectic, drawing on many streams of magic. Magic without limits or context quicky becomes occultic.

3 10 2008
triunepieces

As I said above, the militant theorists of rationalist scientism are imprisoning reality in a series of tight boxes due to their own prejudices against any form of qualitative knowledge. Christian ideologies, as Couliano points out, often allied themselves with these prejudices since they thought that they were more compatible with Christian revelation; any form of qualitative manipulation of reality outside of the strictly governed Christian sacramental system was demonic and against the will of the Church. (This is also probably part of the centralization and regulation of Church life in the Counter Reformation.) I would argue that these prejudices have now turned against Christianity itself.

Amen. What an interesting post. Surely scientism regards bathing in the water of Lourdes as superstition as much as it does wearing amulets, regardless of the attempt at objective inquiry into miracles by the Vatican.

As a student of a healing art which has its materialist reductionists side by side with its soul charting new age gurus, I think a great distinction in our understanding of magic or magical thinking has to do with the intention behind the manipulation of “forces.” We have to recognize that control over the uncontrollable is what is at stake, particularly when it comes to issues of disease and health. (And why do we often assume that modern medicine is only overreaching in its sense for control when it comes to genetics?) In my mind there is an important distinction between the magic that is applied for the sake of healing and magic that is meant to bring wealth, see the future, consult the dead, assuage the desires of ancestors, etc.

In fact, if you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, he often relies on the physical application of some medium in order to bring healing. You could say this is the incarnational principle at work. But to the mind of your village peasant, I’m not sure restoring sight to a blind man’s (boy’s?) eyes via the application of a mud is anything else but magic. You’d think if our Lord desired a greater appreciation of scientific materialism he would have stopped and explained that was about to occur was a miracle that transcended physics and had nothing do with the properties of his hands and the properties of mud.

Keep up the good work in parsing this stuff out. As someone that has had some unexplainable experiences in the context of energetic medicine, I have a great interest in this. Magical thinking is not dead, and it never will be as long as the human body continues to live under the curse of Adam.

1 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Yes, but it is part of how humans relate to the world.

By the way, the greatest worker of the Hermetic tradition, Cornelius Agrippa, was a devout Lutheran. He actually went farther than Ficino ever did.

1 10 2008
Josh S

You realize that most people who would say that Catholics practicing magic are hearkening back to a pagan past would view you as confirming them when you say that it’s actually a Catholic thing. “That one could manipulate reality using amulets, incantations, images, and other material things” hardly originated in the Catholic Church.

29 09 2008
christina

Okay, I made a mistake above. the sentence:

“The former included goetia, necromancy and any other form of ceremonial or folk magic…”

Should really read: “The former included goetia, necromancy and MANY other formS of ceremonial or folk magic…”

It would be wrong to say that all forms of cermonial and folk magic fell under the “demonic magic” category, since ceremonial magic made use of astrology and folk magic made use of herbalism!

29 09 2008
christina

Thank you for your answers. A few thoughts.

I wholeheartedly agree that the Christian folk medicine practices are “tied into the Catholic nature of these societies”. I’m tired of hearing some claim that every popular practice in any Christian society was “stolen” from paganism. As if Christians have no creativity whatsoever, can’t invent their own games, festivals, etc. Sure, some pre-Christian practices were “baptized” and given new significance, but surely other practices were invented during the millenium or more since a certain culture adopted Christianity.

Re. magic: the Christian rejection of magic goes back much further than the Renaissance. The Church Fathers and Scholastics issued strong condemnations of magic. I said in the original post that I could provide numerous quotes from early Christian writings to show that. I’ve decided the best way to do that is to post them online, so here they are in an HTML document, if you’re interested:

http://www.geocities.com/christinam70/index.html

Now, I’ve read in various places that at some points in Christian history there was a tendancy to make a distinction between “demonic magic” and “natural magic.” The former included goetia, necromancy and any other form of ceremonial or folk magic, since they were seen as involving either explicit or implicit cooperation with demons. Such magic was, of course, condemned and forbidden.

Natural magic, OTOH, included such things as astrology, herbalism, belief in the virtues of various gems and minerals, etc. I think alchemy might have fallen into this category as well. These were often permitted, since they relied on (either alleged or actual) natural forces or virtues which God was believed to have bestowed upon certain creatures. Such “natural magic” was, in effect, the forerunner to modern science and medicine. Alchemy would pave the way for Chemistry, astrology for astronomy, herbalism would become modern allopathic medicine, etc.

You are, of course, correct about the general acceptance of astrology (with some reservations) during the Middle Ages. Though the astrology of today is but a pale shadow of medieval astrology, which still included what would later be known as astronomy. Today’s astrology is almost completely divorced from modern astronomical knowledge. Apart from the minor practice of sidereal astrology, modern astrology doesn’t even pay much attention to what’s actually happening in the sky. The “sun signs” commonly used today don’t correspond to the actual position of the constellations on the zodiac because of shifts in the earth’s axis over the past two millenia. Thus Leo is actually ascendant when astrology claims Virgo is, etc.

St. Albert the Great may well have dabbled in “natural magic” as defined above (herbalism and such). But I remember reading somewhere that he explicitly condemned other forms of magic, as did his greatest pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for the use of amulets, Christianity appears to have always condemned them, offering the faithful instead various saint’s medals, relics, the beginning of the Gospel of St. John written on paper and worn around the neck, etc. Yes, there were Church-approved alternatives to magical incantations and paraphenalia: the Sign of the Cross was an all-purpose protective gesture against demons, magic and curses, holy water also expelled evil spirits, a St. Benedict’s medal dipped into a glass of water is said to give the water curative powers, etc. I would not call this “magic,” however, since it relies on Divine power. It properly belongs to the realm of the miraculous.

This is the area that fascinates me: prayers and sacramentals that can heal or protect by the power of God. Though I balk at calling it “magic,” it is truly a Christian alternative to folk magic. As for theurgy, I’m skeptical that it really works; seems to border on Pelagianism. IMHO the Christian alternative to that would be the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

As for the modern world being hostile to magic, it is interesting how modern man still longs for and seeks after the lost sense of the magical or miraculous. Faith healers are still popular with modern Christians – though here in the US faith healing is more often of the Protestant Pentecostal variety rather than the Curandisimo variety. Still, if we were perfectly content with modern medicine, would so many of us still seek out a miracle? Among Catholics, pilgrimages to Lourdes are another case-in-point. I think modern Western Christians still long for miracles, and alternative medicine also remains popular with some.

Thank you for your time and patience with me. God bless you.

29 09 2008
Leah

To me, there are three positions that a Catholic can take concerning magic:
1. Magic exists and there are people continue to use it for evil purposes (i.e. witches).
2. Magic exists but is a phenomenon that died out 100 to 200 years ago and when it did occur it was rare. In this view, magic is akin to miracles; something that can happen but seldom.
3. Magic does not exist. People who believe in it are either confused or semi-barbarous.

The discussion of magic is very interesting when applied to the situation of Christianity in Africa, whether either Protestantism or Catholic. Exorcism, potion making, and fears of hexing are quite common across the continent. In many communities, the spread of AIDS is bound up in fears of witchcraft. I think that many Christians in developed countries view practices like this with embarassment, particularly when they contradict the sort of scientific facts that we’ve been taught since elementary school. I think Catholics believe in a sort of deism when it comes to the existence of angels, demons, and black magicians; they existed in Biblical times, but then mysteriously disappeared after the events in the book of Acts.

The kind of folk practices mentioned on this blog are crucial to Catholicism, but I don’t see how they can be recovered. They are part of a certain cosmology that is antithetical to the scientism that pervades our society. The modern cosmology shows man as one creature among millions on an obscure rock in a tiny, unimportant solar system. This is completely different than the enchanted universe that people in the middle and renaissance periods perceived. Outwardly we may profess that the world is filled with sundry spirits and the wonders of an incarnated religion, but in reality I would suspect that most modern Catholics tend to feel the coldness of postmodern ennui.

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