Traditional Christianity as Magic

22 10 2008

Fearsome Pirate gives us some food for thought:

I first noticed this when he talked about the monasteries in Russia. The first word he used to describe monks was “powerful.” The fastidious life of monks allows them to tap into great power and profoundly shape invisible realities–it really sounds a bit Star Wars the way he talks about it–and they basically live on a higher plane than the rest of us. At one particular monastery, they have saved bread cooked by a particularly powerful monk hundreds of years ago and bake it into new loaves in order to distribute the holy energy to others. Icons work a similar way–by being painted the right way, blessed with the right words, and anointed with the right reagents, they too are imbued with great power, many of them with miraculous healing power.

He has read my mind. Stay tuned for next week…


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5 responses

23 10 2008
Huw Richardson

I think we might be talking about “Christianity as thaumaturgy” or even Theurgy rather than magic. Don’t know. Magic, at least all the treatises I’ve read on it, seems to imply a disbelief in the deities invoke. “Energy” is a friend of Magic. “Gods” and “Angels” are invoked but not usually as “real”. (In my Neo-pagan past I remember discussions of “are the Gods real?”)

Thaumaturgy, however, treats these entities as real. Theurgy even moreso: one is entering into a pact, a deal. Do ut Des is the rule.

I notice the Wiki (where I went to look up the spellings…) has this: “In Greek Orthodox Christianity, many of the services, including even baptism may contain theurgy (as Vladimir Lossky refers to Christian theurgy) in a thaumaturgical way, unlike magic, and not considered such within the tradition.”

I don’t know if “powerful monks” leads one to speculations on Kabbalah and Christian Ritual Magic (a la John Dee) but ok: that’s the reading took me.

23 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

People seem to think that religion starts from a manual, catechism, or a treatise on dogmatic theology, and sort of just logically grows from there. That is I suppose the reason why I have always been profoundly uncomfortable with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine: it is far too cerebral to be viable. You can argue until you are blue in the face about the Patristic or Scriptural evidence behind Purgatory without ever referring to how the people actually believed in it, when it became popular, what form it took, etc. In other words, it can end up portraying things in a very orderly, logical progression that never really took place. It is drawing a human body without flesh, or rather, perhaps only a skeleton, and for me that is profoundly uninteresting.

The question is: is it the hierarchy or the people who are the real seat of orthodoxy? That is not an easy question to answer. Entire populations can be duped by heresy on the one hand. On the other hand, a hierarchy without a laity would look a little silly, to cite Newman. So what is the answer?

In the end, I think the manuals of theology only come later, and try to catch up with the actual experiences of the Church. In the end, don’t let your theology interfere with your religion.

23 10 2008
The Shepherd

What kind of magical powers does your bread have 😉 My bread is just kind of yummy…

22 10 2008
Leah

Posts like this make me realize why Christianity is so difficult for modern man. The materialist mindset is so pervasive that any talk of magic, rituals, angels, and demons is like talking to a brick wall. I know there were materialists in antiquity, but I don’t think they were of the ilk that we see today (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Mahr). The ancient pagans of yore agreed with Christians that there was such a thing as metaphysics. It was a matter of showing them the correct system. This is not true today. When we discuss religion with our agnostic and atheist peers, there is no shared point of reference. Most discussion revolve around just trying to convince the other person that there is a God to begin with. Assuming you even get around to discussing particulars, you have to then explain why the Church is not the evil patriarchal, racist, antisemitic, pedophilic institution everyone thinks she is. Attempts to make Catholicism appealing to the modern man usually mean making it look somewhat like Unitarian Universalism; tasteful, polite, and with no hard sayings or obligations. We all agree that the Church needs to evangelize more, but how is that possible when we speak a different philosophical language than our interlocutors?

22 10 2008
Christopher Orr

Well the Fathers do say that angels are lights to monks and monks are lights to men. Monks are called to live the ‘angelic life’, which is life ‘above’ the norm.

The bread story is really just about the power of relics, including secondary relics such as the ‘things’ associated with a holy person: his/her cloak, prayer rope, bible, etc. It also echoes a difference between Russians and Greeks regarding the Presanctified Gifts the faithful commune from during Great Lent. One group holds that the addition of the previously sanctified Holy Gifts transform the added wine into the Blood of Christ; the other holds that it is only the previously sanctified Holy Gifts that are the Body and Blood of Christ, while the added wine is merely a medium to help the faithful commune of the ‘diluted’ Gifts. This saint’s secondary relic (bread, in this case; I would guess he was a baker and this was an important aspect of his Life) can thus be ‘diluted’ and ‘distributed’ to the brotherhood of the monastery down through the ages in the same way that the ancient churches of Rome used to (still do?) share a piece of their communion with the other churches as a sign of their communion with each other.

The repetition of the correct forms in iconography, liturgy, etc. are not just magical acts. As Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex says in his “The Enlargement of the Heart”:

‘In the life of the saints, “repetition” or “copying” is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).’

I look forward to your thoughts on the quote you gave.

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