Sunday, 9 August 2015

Christians reclaiming magic, occult and animism from the New Age

It will be easy for readers to misunderstand (or misrepresent) the following; so please read it carefully before jumping to conclusions about what I am advocating - it is somewhat different from what most others who have written on this theme have been advocating.

I came to Christianity late in life and via a decade or so of being a New Agey kind of person (but only in my reading, in my mind and private life - I have never been in any group) - and this grew from a lifelong feeling for myth, folklore, and the like.

From my Christian perspective, and from inside knowledge, it is crystal clear to me now that modern world of 'paganism' is set-up in on anti-Christian predicates, and most of its main writers and advocates are seedy, exploitative, devious and untrustworthy characters - with not many exceptions.

This was made clear yet again by reading The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, the text of which gave me a constant impression of camouflaged dishonesty and sordidness: the discernment of the heart warns me that the material described is emanating from an essentially (albeit not wholly) untrustworthy and ill-motivated subculture.

The New Age set-up has claimed for itself a vast swathe of paganistic stuff, and the New Age is mostly a mixture of airy fairy nonsense and nastyness of one sort or another (generally, the usual modern sex, alcohol and drugs stuff) - united only in its explicit and implict 'anything but Christianity is good' orientation; and it is therefore understandable that most Christians regard the whole subject with abhorrence as either fundamentally evil, or just too risky to be worth considering.

But I do not think this attitude is a viable option for modern Western Christians - I think that modern Western Christianity needs to reconnect with its animistic and pagan roots - and therefore the risk must be taken, and the good aspects of (for example) Shaminism, Witchcraft, Druidry, Magic, The Occult, Divinisation, Mediumship, Clairvoyance and so forth must be reclaimed from the New Age into a Christian context.

In this I follow CS Lewis who believed that Christianity was Paganism-plus - crudely put: real Christianity takes paganism and adds to it and completes it. The reason that this is not explicit from scripture is simply that it was so obvious to the people of the time that it did not need to be said.

The error of too many Christians has been and is to try and build a religion on what is distinctive to Christianity, deleting everything which is shared with paganism. This leads to a cold, detached, alienated, rationalistic Christianity that leaves the heart unsatisfied - and enables the New Age to monopolize many natural and spontaneous and good human aspirations.

My view is that it is simply not-an-option for Christians to dissociate from New Age preoccupations - and although it is risky to engage with them, Christians must recognize that there is no such thing as a safe path through life - risk cannot be avoided; and the attempt to avoid risk, is itself one of the deadliest of snares - often leading to a cold, heartless and covertly hate-driven species of pseudo-Christian zeal, which is all-too-common among self-identified Christians of past and present.

What I think would be best is for Christians to engage with this realm of 'paganism' insofar as each is drawn to it for good motivations; and insofar as their powers of discernment of the heart tell them that it is good, sweet and wholesome.

It is this discernment which must be cultivated, used and respected - it is the divinity within us that serves as a compass of good, and it will warn us if we are approaching wickedness or if we have taken a step into wickedness: then we must repent and turn-round to retrace our steps.

This is hazardous, but mortal life is hazardous. Men cannot avoid making mistakes; Men are not built to avoid making mistakes, nor is the world; but we can and should recognize when we have made mistakes; repent, and learn from that experience. We ought not to be afraid of life - and we ought not to be afraid of making a fool of ourselves - and then admitting that we have been fools!

This is not a matter of deliberately putting ourselves into the path of temptation! - a very stupid thing to do; but a matter of following our heart and being guided by our deepest discernment, meditations and prayers. Yes, we can deceive ourselves; yes we need help and guidance from informed others whom we can trust (if we happen to know of any such, but most people do not, and such people are seldom found in mainstream Christian churches) - but self-deception applies in every direction, and temptations into pride are just as strong on the path of strict and narrow 'Christian orthodoxy' as they are in exploration.

I fully recognize that some of the above arguments have been co-opted by Liberal Christians and actually-apostate but self-identified Christians to justify their conformity with the world of mainstream secular Leftism; but that path is taking Christianity into a world of politics and sexual revolution; as if such social and hedonic gratifications were our deepest contemporary need, rather than intrinsic with the very problem which needs addressing.

I am talking about a very different direction - the direction of personal contact with and participation-in the living universe.

Mainstream Christianity is, in general, an incomplete and unsatisfying thing; paralysed by the futile attempt to make life risk-free - and what we need is seldom to be found in any modern Western institutions - therefore of necessity we must explore, as responsible individuals, to find what we need to be alive and engaged with this world.

Note: The above was stimulated by a valuable conversation with the well-known reactosphere/ orthosphere pseudonymous blog commenter 'Thursday'; with whom I met for lunch last week while he was visiting my neck of the woods. 


Mack Schuylkill said...

The OT bible says something along the lines of 'practice ye not witchcraft', and somewhere else it says 'follow not the whims of thine treacherous heart'. I enjoy your blog and some of your flights of fancy, but the text, sir, deserves an answer. Why not just keep it simple? Why retain pagan myth, tradition, trappings, and ritual? What have they to do with the cross and resurrection of Christ? (not a rhetorical question). Unless you believe that Christianity is relatively empty without those traditions. Perhaps we already do retain many pagan practices, unknowingly (I don't know).

Tangentially related, have you ever checked out the blog 'the spirit of the scripture'?
I'm not sure if LDS keeps up on the Hebrew Bible or the NT.

Valkea said...

Indeed, Christianity / New Testament is incomplete. Jesus referred constantly to Moses, and Jesus said (Matthew 23:1-7): "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their [a]phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men." Who are the Pharisees? They are the men who taught those things, which were later gathered to Palestian Talmud and ultimately to Babylonian Talmud. Babylonian Talmud is thus legitimate religious source to Christians. Also Christian Old Testament are full of errors. E.g. in ten commandments Christian Bibles say "Do not kill", but the right version in Jewish Bible is "Do not murder". (Legitimate) killing is not prohibited in the Bible. We could use e.g. this Jewish Bible:

Valkea said...

... When properly understood, Christians are at least to some extent Jewish, if not wholly.

William Zeitler said...

Francis of Assisi is someone to consider in this regard.

stats said...

Sounds suspect on the face of it, but your proposal is so vague it is hard to tell exactly what you are advocating.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MS- I think I answered most of your questions in the post - but you could also read:

As for the Bible verses, they don't settle anything at all since the Bible is not supposed to be read one verse at a time. For many people, including the Pharisees, Jesus and the Apostles would be regarded as doing magic, occult practices etc.The gifts of the Holy Ghost are also of this type (Healing, Speaking in Tongues etc). Exorcism is part of mainstream Catholic functioning.

It is a matter of motivation and context - 'magic' or clairvoyance or divination in a Christian context and for Christian purposes is something quite different from the same kind of thing done for power, gain, euphoria, manipulation, to harm etc.

I should clarify that I am not a Mormon except by conviction; but the Prophet Joseph Smith did not neglect, rather indeed revived, exactly these aspects I am discussing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@stats - You will have to read it more carefully. But would you also say it was 'suspect' if someone advised Christians to shun everything to do with paganism? Thereby surrendering a whole aspect of life and living to anti-Christians?

Then you would also need to shun art, literature, science, philosophy, dancing, feasting, sports... all of which are hazardous to Christians, in one way or another.

Bruce Charlton said...

@V- I think what you suggest is fairly mainstream doctrine - I mean the idea that after Christ all Jews ought to have become Christians - but of course Christianity was not *only* for Jews, meaning it was also for pagans - and (according to Acts of the Apostles and Paul's Epistles) these were not expected first to become Jews.

Odin's Raven said...

There's a withering comment on many New Age gurus, by a god-intoxicated American. 'The spirit is wilting, but the flesh is sleek.'

Joseph A. said...

Well said!

I have long pitied neo-pagan seekers for whom the Christianity of their parents or grandparents was so dessicated and lifeless that they have returned to paganism to find what should be abundantly manifest in Christian culture -- that the world is utterly enchanted -- that God, his angels, and the saints are active even in what the untrained eye sees as mundane. The sacramental approach to the world is super-magical -- from an unbiased perspective (with "magic" being the derogatory term for another religion's encounter with the super- or praeter-natural). And yet, Christian apostates delve into all sorts of alien, ancient, or fictional tradition to taste unripe wine, all the while their father's prized stock sits on the shelf at home.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joseph - Yes, that is what I was trying to communicate.

Mack Schuylkill said...

These are satisfactory answers. Thank you for taking the time.

Odin's Raven said...

Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote many works on symbolism in the scriptures. Most of them are freely available online.They're not for the literal minded.
A B Kuhn
Here's a reading list.List
Another source. Juan Schoch makes them freely available.
His basic work was 'The Lost Light'. Here it is.Lost Light
The letter kills, but the spirit gives light.

Wade said...


I'm glad you posted about this. I was raised in a "fundamentalist" christian setting here in the US South, and I am a practicing christian. Nevertheless, I've always been fascinated with our pagan past, especially that of the British Isles from which my ancestors (the Wade and Thomas families) hail, but by the same token turned off by the seedy new Age movement. Ironically, I was introduced to Tolkien's LOTR by a girl in college who considered herself a "witch." This turned me off immediately and made me not want to read LOTR at all (not knowing any better) because I associated it, wrongly, with new age "Magick" until I saw the first movie and realized that's not what Tolkien was about. Needless to say, reading LOTR was magic in a very good way.

Anyway, in school, even as a christian, I always felt a little sad whenever we covered the time period in European history when the conversion of the pagans to Christianity occurred through the expansion of the Roman Empire. I felt like something special was cut off from us: The heroism contained in the stories of Thor and the other Norse gods, beliefs in Elves, etc. The aesthetic of North European folklore and myth have an appeal to me that the Old Testament lacks. It is part of our roots and who we are whereas the Old Testament is about the past of a different tribe.

This might not be exactly what you are describing. I'm sure there is a lot more in your proposition than what I've described here but I hope that you elaborate on your thoughts more in the future because it's very interesting.

Tomas said...


I hope I'm not committing too egregious a necromancy on a 3/4 month old post.

Full disclosure, I'm a Latin Catholic worshiping in an Anglican-Use Parish entranced by Russian Sophiology with a sweet-tooth for science-fiction, fantasy, orientalism, and pagan myth and ritual (I sympathize with Proclus and Iamblichus over Plotinus, though I do love Plotinus). This is not a statement of credential but more a request of "Yes, I'm interested in this topic, help me see why that's okay?"

While you give a lot of large sweeping statements here, you're not giving any specific practicalities - what is present in paganism that would be useful for Christianity (coughCatholicismcough - sorry, my triumphalism is acting up)? You imply that a discerning spirit is needed to point out the good while putting away the bad, perhaps offering necessary orientations along the way. What are some examples of this specifically?

I ask, because I wonder if the things we would look for in paganism of any variety isn't already present in Christianity. You imply as much (sorry, I'm reading a lot of implications here and trying to get some explications) when you describe Christianity as "paganism plus". I can accept that. I think certain Buddhist or Zen practices are a good example - their efforts toward prayer is to calm the mind so as to have a more perfect focus. Christianity would agree with such practices and texts like the Philokalia and Abandonment to Divine Providence, the practices promoted by Carmelites and Benedictines and Eastern Catholic monks, agree with this. However, those texts and the practices of those order go a step further by saying one's perfected focus should not be an end in itself but a means to focusing perfectly upon Christ.

If this is the kind of appreciation you are promoting, I would wonder its usefulness. There's no doubt that many individuals will learn to perfect their Christian practice by appreciating non-Christian theory and practice. So too, a great many people can be brought to deny nihilism and accept Christ by a near death experience, but it would be imprudent to begin orchestrating such events for the greater number of people.

Now, I personally think we could list quite a number of things that paganism promotes that we could "learn from" - ritual, virility, living for a higher purpose, devotedness to a divine will, importance of earthiness. However, these are present in the Christian tradition. We have liturgy, we have militancy, we have abandonment to divine providence, we have iconography, statuary, St. Francis, the Theology of the Body.

The call to approach paganism seems, in my mind, just an attempt to hijack the natural exotic impulse many of us have, an excuse to indulge in our love for myth, the fantastic, the oriental, the pagan. However, in doing so we run the real risk of ignoring the treasures in our tradition, of attempting to reinvent the wheel when a well-tuned car is right next door (or worse, believing our wheel is, on its own, the equivalent of the car).

So back to my question - what are some examples of things in paganism that would be helpful to a Christian that they could not find easily in their own tradition?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tomas - Perhaps the most important example is animism - the sense that everything is alive, and in communication of some kind; reverence to natural phenomena. That, therefore, Man can be in relation with the world, at home in the world.

Other examples might be telepathy, the significance of dreams - including prophesy, communications with the dead, divination (foretelling/ advising), belief in fairies and the like.

My suggestion is that such things are in themselves neither good nor bad, but by motivation and context - but in the right context they help to cure that horrible modern pathology of alienation.

Tomas said...


Firstly, we're just going to assume that pagan beliefs and practices can be given a similar sense of veracity as Christian practices and truth. This is a dubious proposition at best, but let's make it.

I think you need to split up your categories here - let's make some good scholastic distinctions.

In your examples, you appear to have two categories of pagan "borrowings" - beliefs ("animism", "belief in fairies and the like") and techne/art ("prophesy, communications with the dead, divination"). Let's assume the, what I feel is another dubious, proposition that such things are amoral.

With these distinctions, I would offer the following questions and some reflections: In what ways do these things overcome the pathology of alienation in ways our current beliefs and techne can't? In what ways do they better overcome that pathology than Christianity can?

To the first question, I would propose that the techne/art run the same risks of aggravating alienation which our current techne/art have succeeded in bringing about. Take for example the phenomenon of social media. As a techne, it is supposed to overcome alienation. Especially for those homebound (I am myself fully wheelchair bound so could be considered semi-homebound), social media was to be a way to interact where one could not before. It was supposed to help cross borders and unite the world.

I would contend it has clearly failed. It's arguable whether or not that is the problem of social media itself. It appears, to my thinking, to be an amoral techne, akin to the pagan techne you list. Analogously, it appears to my thinking that any pagan techne is easily able to fall into the same problem. This has to do less with the techne and more with the problems of men (utilitarian-hedonistic impulses run rampant, capitalistic brainwashing, etc. - basically sin).

As for the pagan beliefs, especially animism, such a thing would be quite helpful, at first glance, in overcoming alienation - recognizing the world as a living thing to which one is in constant relation. Though, even human relations have been sullied in the past, exploited in a variety of ways. In what ways would animism protect itself from such a thing?

But all of this, I assume, is already assumed and accepted by you. Pagan beliefs and practices, while, we are assuming, amoral in themselves, will be given a moral quality by intention of the believer or practitioner. Thus the pagan techne must be used morally and the beliefs must be oriented toward some greater whole.

Still, I wonder how these pagan practices or beliefs do anything "better" than historical traditional Christian beliefs and practices?

Take animism, as you describe it, the belief that all things are alive and in communication, calling forth a sense of reverence from man. In what ways is this different, in the practical goal you seem to give it, from the belief that the world is created by God and thus shines forth with his glory, dignified as a creation of the uncreated? Eastern Christianity shows this well in their teaching of the uncreated light - the world shines forth with the glory of God as is seen by the Saints. Or the Early Desert Fathers (and a number of recent Saints especially among the Russians) and their unique relation with the deserts, the forests, and the wild beasts? St. Francis comes to mind to most, but he is only one of many.

Tomas said...


Or what of belief in fairies or the like? Well, what are angels? Especially as understood by the Early Church or the Fathers, it is the angels which are the animating principle of the world (they keep the planets in motion - perhaps an idea which needs to be returned to?).

And as for the techne's? These are present in the Christian tradition, and not only in the far past. Every Christian is called to open himself to the trusting of God's providence, to learn to recognize his will. Certain extraordinary gifts are given to others - in the Catholic tradition we still have seers, visionaries, who God has granted these gifts. We do communicate with the dead - prayers for the dead, prayers to Saints.

One could argue that these are, in fact, gifts from the pagan tradition which Christianity baptized. Thus returning to the pagan roots will return us to the purity of these beliefs and techne.

However, I would say that's an assumption based on progressivism - post hoc ergo propter hoc. Christianity came after paganism, so its similarities to paganism come from paganism. Why could these similarities not be the fruit of revelation? Why could not paganism be only the shadow of the beliefs and techne of Christianity? If Christianity is the truth, would not paganism, where it is true, be but the foretaste of Christianity?

In this way, it would seem that returning to paganism would be returning to a polluted stream when the pure fount is at hand. Perhaps the polluted stream is not so polluted as to harm (another dubium), but why go to it? Perhaps you can see the polluted stream better than the fount? Well, perhaps it would be best to clear away the blinders rather than act with them on.

Appeals to paganism or extra-Christian practice seem to be only proofs of Chesterton's words - "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The difficulty here is in actually living out the spiritual practices of the faith.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tomas - Well, as you say, this is a scholastic approach, which privileges abstract analysis. The end result is not the same as experience. It seems perverse to try and cram everything good into Christianity, rather than letting it grow from roots in Christianity. My bottom line is not philosophy but lived experience and the discernment of the heart. The important thing is to know, feel, uses one's internal guidance system (which is divine) to feel when one is being helped, and when led astray. Error is inevitable - like sin - but that should not terrorize us into avoidance of all possible hazards when there is also possible good - so long as we are aware of falling, and repent it. Repentance is our greatest weapon in this world (correction, our second greatest weapon - Love is the greatest. But repentance, multiple - repeated, is indispensable.). The fact is that there is no safe path through life - Christianity is not a safe religion - it always involves zig-zagging between hazards; and a phobia of paganism is certainly a hazard, leading to dry, living-dead legalism.