Enchanted Protestantism – II

17 08 2009


Robert Fludd’s Anti-Papist Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone

Petra autem erat Christus

As I have written previously, to say that Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” took place along strictly confessional lines is erroneous. While Counter-Reformation Catholicism in the long run left more room for ancient visions of the world to persist, in its more official sphere, it was just as scrupulous and rationalistic as its Reformed counterpart. Within the last fifty years, what we have seen in the Catholic Church, at least in the developed world, is the consumation of the Council of Trent, not its negation. Theological principle becomes the only fountain of Catholic praxis, whether that principle be feminism, liberation theology, postmodern liberalism, or the official “party line” of the Vatican. Catholicism has been dissected and rationalized; no longer are practices encouraged that are “off the grid” of some institutionalized ideology. While these spontaneous practices still emerge in the survival of atavistic attitudes and in such phenomena as the charismatic movement, the Catholic mainstream has long ago tried to re-form itself along the lines of theological perfection and correctness. It is not the religion of saints and sinners, but of technocrats and specialists; it is not a faith in spirits and demons, but in committees and political action.

Protestantism in many ways went that route a long time ago, but at the beginning of it all, and at the margins of the Protestant world until recently, the blurring of the line between the sacred and the profane, of nature and supernature, was very much present even in this seemingly iconoclastic religion. I have written already of the persistence of such attitudes amidst the popular classes, so now it is time to speak of the religion of the elites at the time that the Reformation was still getting off the ground. In many ways, it would seem that, just as in Catholicism, “folk Protestantism” often received its inspiration from the religion of the elites that had been discarded in the name of “theological purity”. In the case of Reformation England, the “enchantment of the world” was not seen as something contrary to the reformation of Christianity, but rather intrinsic to it.

In spite of the destruction of traditional religion in England in the sixteenth century, there was a persistence in the belief in magic, astrology, and alchemy among both the learned and popular classes. Jonathan Spence in his book on Matteo Ricci cites that in one county in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, one was almost certain to live within ten miles of a “cunning man”. Such figures as John Dee and Thomas Vaughan, specialists in what we would call “modern science” as well as Hermetic occult philosophy, could be found both at court and in the halls of higher learning. Good Queen Bess herself was fascinated by astrology, and even asked Dee to pick an opportune date for her coronation based upon the position of the stars in the heavens. At that point throughout Europe, people had not yet separated quantitative and qualitative knowledge as we have done today; indeed, the precursor to the modern scientist and doctor could often be just as involved in magic and astrology as he could be with the “scientific method” and empirical research. Even Sir Isaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy, as many students of history well know.

Among these figures of esoteric learning was Renaissance man and scholar, Robert Fludd. Born in 1527, he, like Ficino, was a physician by trade, one of the first to discuss the idea of the circulation of blood through the human body based partially on his Neoplatonic vision of the universe. Like other Renaissance scholars, he was also involved in creating methods of the art of memory, and was influenced by the Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres influencing terrestrial motion and behavior. He was also fascinated by the Hebrew Kabbalah, and while he may have not brought the Rosicrucian order to England, he proved its greatest apologist, especially in the court of James I.

Since we have long ago assented to the idea of the schism between Christianity and magic, we would tend to come to the conclusion that Fludd would have dabbled in these things in spite of his Christian faith and not because of it. Such a historically tendentious prejudice is quite wrong once one scratches the surface of Fludd’s writings. The basis of Fludd’s philosophy was just as much Christian as it was Neoplatonic, or rather, it was Neoplatonic precisely because it was Christian. As we see from the illustration above, the foundation of Fludd’s vision lay in the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm: the triangle below, the world, is a mirror image of the triangle above, Jehova, or the Trinitarian God. In that sense, man is an image of both, and all layers of reality tend to reflect each other, the higher (as the Hermetic axiom goes) driving the lower towards perfection.

As the reader can already tell, the scope and depth of Fludd’s philosophy are far beyond the space that I can accord them in this essay. The one aspect I will focus on is the Protestant thinker’s description of the philosopher’s stone. Long ago derided as the imaginary being that charlatan a meptaphore for a higher reality. The Catholic Ficino, in a short work attributed to him, saw the philosopher’s stone as being something akin to the Virgin Mary, who brought the divine down into human flesh, having himself been healed by a miracle of the Most Holy Virgin. Fludd developed more Protestant if equally “Christian” view of it. For him, the philosopher’s stone is the stone spoken of by St. Paul: “and the stone was Christ”. It may have not been Christ Himself, and he called the quest for such a material manifestation of the stone foolish, yet he defended nevertheless the existence of such an entity.

Fludd imagined the philosopher’s stone to be akin to Christ in that it was a solar entity, a substance that had a perfect balance between the spiritual and material. As he explained in the work, Truth’s Golden Harrow, this elixir is:

the true temple of wisdom, the impregnable temple of Cupid, the powerful god of Love, the beautious city of the sages, the true pattern of the heavenly Jerusalem… the gold that is to be bought of Christ, the guider of mens actions, the house of wisdom propped up with 7 pillars… The earth shall open and bring forth a saviour. Light is in the darkness and darkness does not comprehend it.

Fludd goes on to expound upon the Biblical basis for the existence of this substance. He then writes:

We must therefore on these ground conclude that if all the mysteries, parables and oracles of holy writ alluded to such a wisdom as the spiritual rock… which is Christ risen again, [and is] composed of a divine spirit and a spiritual body, of which the true philosophers Elixir is said to be a type or pattern, we must not nor cannot justly affirm that this divine and spiritual stone can be excluded from materiality… It consists of a divine and plusquamperfect spirit and a body exalted from corporiety into a pure and spiritual existence, from mortality to immortality, and being the pattern of Christ risen again, it must needs have the power to multiply infinitely, according to the saying of Christ: When I am exalted I will draw all bodies unto me.

Like a good Neoplatonist (he prefered to call his philosophy, “Mosaicall”, after the Old Testament lawgiver), Fludd sees this outflowing of the divine not only into the elixir of the philosopher stone, but into all things:

Again, by holy writ we are warranted that the essence of God… fills everything in heaven and earth… [and is] attired in natural or material vestment… for in the highest heaven he is indued… with light as with a vestment, and in this light he dwells centrally; then in the middle heaven he is said to have planted his tabernacle in the sun, from whence he liberally disperses everywhere his multiplying graces; moreover, in the elementary heaven he made the dark clouds his dwelling place. In the lively earth of man he erected his spiritual temple. To conclude, his incorruptible spirit is in everything.

In these selections of quotes, concepts attributed by Weber and other theorists to Catholics are very much present and at work in this very Protestant system. In the first set of quotes, Eucharistic ideas will no doubt echo in the modern Catholic’s ear: though the philosopher’s stone is not a “transubstantiated” substance to be adored as the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, it nevertheless serves as a sacred locus from which the presence of the divine is disseminated throughout creation. In the last quote, Fludd describes an idea of the universe that would make many modern Catholics uncomfortable, yet it is based on Biblical principles: pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Also present is the hierarchy and interpenetration of the various spheres of the cosmos into each other. Nothing is separate and nothing gratuitous. In an orderly fashion, God’s glory moves and flows into all things, from the throne of God above the heavens down to the lowest realms of the earth.

Fludd’s Protestantism, however, is not a fluke in this scheme. The English physician knew of Catholicism and had studied on the continent, yet he remained a staunch defender of the Church of England. For Fludd, the philosopher’s stone itself, its ability to spread into all things, was a refutation of the “sophistry” of the Papists, as one author cites in a conclusion of a work attributed to Fludd:

1. That all Christians are said to be living stones, they bear the same name and are the same in significance as S. Peter.

2. That all Christians are stones, members of the great “petra Catholilca,” it follows that no single man, not even S. Peter, can alone be said to be the foundation of the Catholic Church.

3. As Christ lay hidden in the rock of Moses, and as the spiritual body lies hidden in the natural body, so the words of the apostle are true –“The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

4. The true corner stone is Christ.

5. The Incarnation opened the way to the knowledge of the what that corner stone is.

6. Vain, therefore, are all traditions and teachings which would persuade us that Cephas was this foundation.

7. God having willed to tabernacle amongst mortal men, uses the same imagery and confirms its explanation as now given. ‘Listen’ says the prophet, ‘and see the rock from which ye were hewn.'”

Of course, I will not comment on Fludd’s theological reasoning, but such arguments seem to adequately refute superficial arguments against Protestantism being inherently “anti-incarnational”. That is perhaps why I have posted these thoughts in the first place, not to promote indifferentism nor to attack the faith of my Fathers. Fludd was a full Neoplatonist and full Protestant, fully a scientist and fully a “magician”. He believed in a world that is more enchanted than even the most conservative Catholic in the developed world. Even as a reformed Christian, he did not draw a line between the sacred and the profane. Few Catholics nowadays could say the same about how they see the world. If Catholicism is to make a more convincing avatar of itself in order to “re-evangelize” the now defunct Christendom, we will have to leave behind the epithet of calling Protestantism “anti-incarnational”. At least in the modern context, such curt rhetorical jabs often amount to little more than the pot calling the kettle black.



6 responses

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18 08 2009
Leyla Jagiella

What a great post, Arturo, thanks!

I actually happen to live in a German town that has for some time been a centre for a very incarnationist and sacramentalist “high church” (to borrow an Anglican term…) movement in the Lutheran Church. Additionally, a local Catholic saint buried here is also highly respected and remembered with much love by the local Protestant population.

Even the otherwise very “puritanic” and Calvin-influenced Pietist branches of German Protestantism have had very “enchanted” episodes, due to the strong influence of the alchemist mysticism of Jakob Boehme. Let´s not forget that Johann Valentin Andreae, the originator of the Rosicrucian Myth, was deeply involved with Southern German Pietism.

You might be interested in the Kabbalistic master tablet of Princess Antonia, a beautiful piece of art commissioned by a deeply religious Protestant princess who was in close contact with Johann Valentin Andreae.
It displays a lot of “bridal mysticism”.
Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, another 18th century German Pietist who also happened to be a passionate alchemist, once wrote a lengthy commentary on this tablet.

Well, this is just the intellectual level.
On a “folk level”:
In many areas of Germany it was, until at least the 19th century, quite common that Protestant villagers would seek out Catholic priests from neighbouring Catholic communities for the performance of house blessings, cattle blessings etc..
These Protestants did indeed believe in the power of Catholic sacraments and sacramentals and they actually deemed them more powerful than a prayer by their own Protestant minister.
But still, due to old resentiments stemming from a “cuius regio, eius religio”-time they would never have even dreamt of converting to Catholicism.

In any case, what one could call a traditional European Protestantism is quite far away and very different from what would find nowadays in average US-American Southern Baptist, Methodist or even some Lutheran churches!
I can tell you from experience!
Interestingly, an “American style Born Again Protestantism” has made some small inroads over here as well in recent years, following a “second wave of secularization” that came with the German reunification.

17 08 2009
Death Bredon


The Greeks Fathers were actual Romans, not romanticists, they didn’t speak Russain, and were they warmed over phenomologists — then I think we all big trouble.

I only admire the Slavophiles and “neo-patristic synthesis” guys (whether slavic or hellenic) to the extent that they point back to the actual texts of the Ancient Fathers. And of course when the have a witty riposte for the modern rationalism in contemporary Christianity. I am well aware that arid, disenchanted philosophical “theology” is big in the East (whether rehashed phenomology or existentialism, etc.)

I read the Fathers own words, albeit in translation, as like the great Hippo, my Greek is a bit rusty. And, if any lens distorts my reading, its that of the Caroline Divines — as none of us can completely escape or earthly patrimony ’til Kingdom Come!

17 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

You would have a point if most of the theology you like was not just rehashed romanticist phenomenology warmed up in the microwave and sung in a Russian accent. How tiresome!

17 08 2009
Death Bredon


As for mystical, enchanted, and incarnational Protestantism, look no further than Lancelot Andrewes and his merry band of Caroline Divines.

17 08 2009
Death Bredon

I like the turn of phrase “disenchantment of the world.” And your equation of the ascendant Catholic and Reformed parties on this point is spot on, Arturo. I believe that this is precisely what Vladimir Lossky had in mind when he (in)famously stated that Catholicism and Protestantism “are two sides” of the same coin.

Moreover, this “disenchantment” of most of the Western Church, as well as large portions of the Eastern Church, is why Lossky entitled his magnus opus, “The MYSTICAL Theology of the Eastern Church.” He was trying to emphasize that the divine is known noeticaqlly, or “intuitively,” as we know a friend or other person, and God the Father’s fundamentally and ontologically arational, though revealed, character, which transcends all maths, philosophies, and sciences.

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