New to the blogroll

22 10 2009


From The Lonely Goth’s Guide to Independent Catholicism

Found this essay, on fairies in early modern Scotland, from of all people, David B. Hart, and from all places, First Things. Seriously, I like what they are smoking over there, because this essay is completely jaw-dropping. Maybe the world is finally coming around after all.

Secondly, a comment by the blogger himself, on the book, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism:

The author makes an ugly and sharp high magic/low magic distinction (also going back to his Neoplatonic sources – the old distinction between theurgy in which magic is transformational and sacramental and witchcraft in which magic is directed towards instrumental goals). I think this betrays serious class bias, since only the most elite have the luxury to divorce their practice of magic entirely from practical concerns in order to realize this absolute distinction. It also amounts to a kind of slick polemic – my magic, the magic of the right and authorized group of people, is spiritual and good, but everyone else’s magic is mere technical trickery and a manifestation of technological will-to-power rather than spiritual Gelassenheit. (He didn’t claim to have read Heidegger or directly reference him, but the basic Heideggerian opposition between techne and Gelassenheit and critique of modern technological society seems operative in much of his work). In the end, it’s not necessarily that I thought anything the author came up with was wrong or dreadfully uninsightful. It’s just that the implicit spirituality came across as tedious, over-codified, and ideologically-overdetermined – pretty much exactly how I feel reading medieval scholastic commentaries on Indian philosophy like the Tattvasamgraha.

This is something that I have also perceived as a problem in the Neoplatonic system: the completely hierarchical, ordered descent of all things from the One, and the stark distinction between theurgical or sacramental acts and their dark, “superstitious” counterparts. Basically, if we like you and you are from a civilization we consider “civilized” (i.e. you’re white), you practice theurgy, or at the very least, you have a “real religion”. If we don’t like you, and you are black or brown, what you practice is demonic and dangerous. Athena and Zeus, good. Yemanja and Erzulie, bad. Get how this works?

Similarly, if a priest prays some weird prayer in Latin, baptizes bells, or excommunicates locusts, that is God-given, real religion. If a curandero sweeps you with rue or a Creole treater whispers a French prayer over you, that is superstition. No wonder people think religion is such bullsh*t. The categories that we often consider obvious these days are really very arbitrary.



7 responses

24 10 2010
Bernard Brandt

P.S. Thanks for the link to The Lonely Goth’s weblog. Fascinating stuff there.

24 10 2010
Bernard Brandt

Having come late to this particular blogroll, I am not sure at this point that anyone will be listening.

Nonetheless, let’s try a little eironia here (aka: irony), and perhaps a little reductio ad absurdum as well.

Perhaps what most people (including the guyz in the favillas, or the ghettoes, or out on what we call ‘the street’) object to about magic, is what we call ‘black’ or ‘bad-@$$ magic.

You know, the sort where some one curses your burro, or your car, or your child, and they die as a result.

Now when that happens, we don’t say “this is not in accord with Plato’s maxim ‘it is not the act of a wise man to return evil for evil'”. We use what ever means we can (including the law or a shotgun) to get the damned bastards to stop pulling that kind of stuff. And ‘we’ is a pretty far range, which goes from the people in a pagan Roman urbs, to the people in a little village in Peru.

In the same way, when some one in the next house over seems to have a better grasp of how to plant their garden, or build their house, or live their life, and it involves their doing rituals, we pretty much leave them alone (except for those given to envy or meddling with other people’s lives, and unfortunately, we find those bozos everywhere, and not just white bread Our Towns).

So, you’ll pardon me if I do not buy Hart’s attempts at bringing a multi-culti Marxist agenda of class struggle into “the Politics of Fairyland”. It fits neither what I know about history, or what I’ve seen in small communities from Bello (a suburbs of Medellin, Colombia [sorry, no accent]), to Ensenada, Baja California, to my home town in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to where I’m living now in San Pedro, California.

22 10 2009

Thank you for touching upon Meditations on the Tarot and linking to the Goth site. The thoughts have been very helpful. I pick that book up from time to time and have long wondered what you would think of it.

Since you mention Lewis, I assume you would not generally be inclined to read him or about him, but there is one truly exceptional book about Lewis that I would love to learn your thoughts on:
Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis
see ( )
Particularly, I would love to learn how Lewis’ apparent cosmology compares to your own neoplatonism and to actual folk Christian traditions.

22 10 2009

Thanks for the blurb! I think most of what you’re saying is dead-on.

On whether the “real” religion is what people actually do vs. what elites write down – there’s definitely been (and continues to be) a bias on this. I think in academic religious studies the situation is starting to improve somewhat but there’s a long way to go. People who study Hinduism and Buddhism typically won’t simply go to the texts anymore, and most intro classes stress that there’s often a disconnect between the two and scholars have been one-sided in emphasis in the past so we need to take a more anthropological approach and account for the variation in what people actually do. On the other hand, the reality is that even fundamentally important folk religious phenomena (such as possession in India) are still so neglected that my advisor ended up seeming like something of a revolutionary just for writing a book on the subject and arguing that it’s something that needs more research. I see no movement in the study of Christianity – scholarship there seems to be entirely textual, elite-centered, and normative in tone. The only serious and respectful treatment I have ever seen of curanderismo, Santeria, etc. came in an anthropology of religions class taught by anthropologists, not members of the religious studies faculty. (Exception: my advisor the Indian religions expert likes it when I bring back Spanish-language religious literature from botanicas because it reminds him of his own research).

My hunch is that scholars of Western religions generally want to tell practitioners of Western religions what they ought to believe/practice, rather than trying to describe what practitioners actually believe/practice – more theological than anthropological.

22 10 2009

Peter Brown argues in “The Making of Late Antiquity” that this conflict between sorcery and ‘legitimate’ spiritual power was crucial to much late antique religious debate, and especially the rise of monasticism, and the role the monks played as mediators of such ‘spiritual power’:

“supernatural power did not only exist, it had to be seen to exist, securely vested in an observable and continuous manner in certain human beings and in no others. This the ascetic could offer. His power did not come from discontinuous moments of trance, vision, or dream… Instead, an utterly distinctive lifestyle, clearly delineated from the moment of his first move from the settled community to the desert…” (94).

“Clients” of the monks could be sure his powers were not like sorcerer’s “because they were wielded by a man dead to human motivations and dead to society” (94). “

22 10 2009
random Orthodox chick

Your last point is so true. For example, outside of the context, I find the Rig Veda incomprehensible. I think it’s supposed to be that way.

22 10 2009
Arturo Vasquez

The flip side of this is that people tend to consider “religious tradition” to be whatever the elites passed down in writing. Want to know what Catholics think? Read the Summa. Want to know what Hinduism is? Read the most scholarly version you can find of the Upanishads. Want to know the enchanted nature of reality as it survived into the modern period? Read the school boy adventures in the imaginary lands of Tolkien and Lewis. Not the actual folk magic that all those swarthy brown people practice. How uncivilized…

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