Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The perils of mysticism and magic

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The Eastern Orthodox tradition regards mysticism as easy - all too easy – but as strongly tending towards demonic and not divine influence.

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(If you doubt the easy-ness and deceptiveness of mystical experience, talk with some of the users of psychedelic drugs: they are often convinced that the chemical has yielded esoteric insights of great value. And they believe that that those who have not had the drug experience cannot recognise the truth and validity of what they know. The cost of this 'enlightenment'? just a few micrograms of LSD. Why bother with prayer, fasting and meditation when 'truth' is so cheap... This condition of near-invincible, un-refutable self-regard is termed spiritual pride or delusion - prelest in Russian - and is the major hazard of spiritual striving for Christians because pride is cutting oneself off from God; and is thus the worst of sins.)

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As fallen men in a corrupt world, most people will go into a search for spirituality and religious experiences with mixed motivations, or frankly bad motivations – from spiritual pride, sensation-seeking, or seeking knowledge to use for power.

Or, they may seek healing - for themselves (in their alienation), or for others (as in shamanic practices), or for society. This motivation is not so bad, but is yet corrupt - since it aims to use communion with God to achieve worldly ends - and the desire for healing is easily corrupted into the desire for happiness, for thrills.

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(Like Faust or Paracelsus or Renaissance magicians generally – people who seek to use spiritual knowledge/ magic to manipulate the world, especially other people. Or like Charles Williams - who used magical and tantric techniques to fuel his poetic creativity. Most of us are more or less like this.)

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The Orthodox belief is that in this world the mystic will quite possibly be given what he seeks - spiritual experiences, knowledge, signs, powers – but arising from encounters with demons (fallen angels) rather than God and therefore tending towards deception, damnation and working against the Good.

So the elaborate structures of monasteries, elders, startsy, Saints and so on is more a method of supervision (rather than apprenticeship) – to try and prevent the ascetic mystic from being corrupted by spiritual experiences (rather than training people to attain such experiences).

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I think our age desperately needs the mystical dimension of Christianity, yet we lack the elaborate structures of supervision by advanced Holy persons.

The hazards of mysticism are thus greater for us than for past Christians.

And the desire for Christian mystical experience can be satisfied only if the hazards are appreciated.

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And there is no safety in the path of outright rejection of mysticism, because the mystical hunger will come back in another form. Protestants have generally rejected monasticism and ascetic mysticism because of the kind of hazards described above.

Yet mysticism has returned to Protestantism in the Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations, which represent (supposedly) the fastest growing group of Christians in the world.

In some of these, mystical experiences are all-but mandatory and timetabled and apparently regarded (in practice) as necessarily Good and wholesome. Indeed, the mystical experience may be regarded as the necessary conversion experience.

Here there are all the hazards of monasticism - but in a more vulnerable context of Christian 'beginners' and recent converts, without the ascetic disciplines, without the supervision, without even the awareness that for fallen men in a corrupt world it is most likely that mystical experiences will be demonic than divine.

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What to do?

The same as always. In the words of St Paul: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. That is with humility, and self-doubt.

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