Saturday, March 29, 2014

Do Christians Make Better Magicians?

Back in December, Peregrin Wildoak wrote an article in his blog “Magic of the Ordinary” where he argued that Christians make better magicians. You can find it here. Reading it kind of reminded me of the old joke that used to get passed around (and found its way onto lapel buttons) that expressed something like  “Italians Make Better Lovers,” and you could put whatever ethnic group you wanted into that expression to make yourself feel proud of your ethnic tribe. I think that Peregrin has used the same approach in his article and while some of his arguments are interesting and thoughtful there are some profound flaws in his arguments as well.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in his article to lump all Christians together into one big massive group and not to differentiate them. Still, I suspect that Peregrin had a mostly esoteric brand of Christianity in mind when he wrote up his article, or at the very least, that the Christian magician would have to be broad-minded and of an esoteric cast in order to practice magic in the first place. Christian magicians would have to adopt this perspective so as not to succumb to the cognitive dissonance that they would experience when exposed to the many pronouncements in Christian churches and organizations against such practices.

While Peregrin opines that the Christian magician must go against the basic grain of Christian theology and social consensus in order to be a magician, he also ignores the fact that most of the Christian population would find such a digression to be very troubling. He says this little statement to bolster his argument: “You are flying against the wind in both contemporary egregores and you have to be pretty clear and be able to examine, refine and explain your point of view, beliefs and practices really, really well.” Of course the obvious response is that to be considered a good Christian and allowed to worship unmolested amongst one’s peers, a Christian magician would be better served to not explain his or her point of view to anyone. Here’s where keeping silent has its advantages and it should be adhered to for some very good reasons.

Peregrin also dismisses the established boundaries between what would be considered orthodox laws and beliefs about magic and occultism in Christianity. According to what he wrote adopting an obvious heterodoxic extension would allow a Christian magician to acquire a peaceful coexistence between these two conflicting perspectives. About these boundaries, Peregrin says: “The general exoteric Christian doctrines are so limiting and many of its spokespersons so stupid, to be able to accept Christianity AND be a magician is no small feat.” So basically, to lay his foundation for a general acceptance of magic and occultism within the body of the Christian teachings, Peregrin refers to those who would passionately disagree with his basic premise as “stupid.”

What that means, according to Peregrin, is that there are a lot of stupid Christian spoke-persons who have preached against deviating from accepted doctrines and tenets down through the ages and into modern times, beginning, I believe, with St. Paul himself. (Such as what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4.1: “We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils.”) Perhaps St. Paul anticipated Peregrin’s arguments for being a Christian magician. Still, it’s my opinion that to cavalierly dismiss these objections in order to practice magic and adhere to an orthodox Christian faith is to sweep quite a large number of important objections under the rug as it were. I imagine that it would be difficult to walk around such a metaphorical room and not trip over that huge mound of objections protruding from the center of the carpet on a regular basis.

A couple quotations from Catholic Catechism should pretty much set the standards for how mainstream religions reject magic and divination, even though this is something of a mild rebuke. You can find the source document online here if you really want to check whether I am fabricating these claims or not.

Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.”

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.”

A better approach, in my opinion, would be to admit that a Christian magician is going against basic doctrine in order to find greater truths, even though such a divergent path is fraught with spiritual dangers and warnings from the scriptures themselves. Magic and the occult are not topics that a good Christian lightly undertakes, and cherry picking those elements in the doctrine and scriptures that are encouraging while ignoring the many warnings and condemnations is nothing short of fatuous. The truth is that Christianity is principally against the practice of divination and magic, or for that matter, the adoption of occult philosophies. Some practices (like astrology or healing through the use of sacraments) are considered grudgingly acceptable, but adopting any kind of philosophy or spiritual practice that would inherently contradict Christian doctrine would be considered completely unacceptable.

A modern Christian magician walks a very fine line between what is an acceptable magical practice or one that is specifically condemned. Some churches are more open minded and accepting of external practices and beliefs (such as the Unitarians) while others are quite strictly against them (such as Protestant Evangelism, Mormonism, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, Lutheran and Episcopalian Protestantism, etc.). Even the Church of England has made strict pronouncements against the practices of magic, divination and occultism, although they might not be strictly enforced. Thus a Christian magician not only moves against the grain of the foundational Christian faith, but he or she also ultimately stands alone (or in a distinct minority) and if prudent, silently so. This is why most Christian magicians that I have heard about or know espouse a Hermetic or Esoteric/Gnostic Christian religious perspective, since their practice of magic is typically unacceptable to most mainstream Christians.

That being said, this revelation appears to collapse Peregrin’s arguments that he has made because Christian magicians are not part of the mainstream variety of Christianity. They can use the themes and tropes of Christianity in their magic (as can many of us who aren’t even Christians), but they are really outside of the faith from a mainstream perspective. Therefore, they can’t claim to have solidarity with the established Christian faith nor reap the riches of its centuries of religious heritage and thereby gain its inherent spiritual grace.Solidarity is a two way street, and mainstream Christians would reject being bedfellows with Christian magicians.

Christian magicians must become revisionists and apologists for their practices and beliefs, since the body of Christian scripture and thought condemns their practices. Only a few centuries ago Christian churches would have accused magical practitioners of being heretics or apostates and would have dealt with them severely. This is no longer the case, but there is an inherent stigma for anyone who professes to be a Christian and practices magic, at least as far as the mainstream churches are concerned. It is my opinion that an esoteric or occult version of Christianity is the only kind of spiritual faith that would allow for a simultaneous practice of magic; but esotericism and occultism are not limited just to Christianity. Esotericism and occultism are, by definition, pan-religious, so someone who is an occultist or an esotericist would not be confined by Christian theology. They wouldn't be considered even nominally Christian, either.

There was a time, however, when magic and Christianity found a common but tenuous thread. Back in the Renaissance and even somewhat later, Christian magic was well represented by the traditions associated with the grimoire manuscripts and a handful of published works. If we examine this material, both the manuscripts that are now being published and the republished works from that time we will see a form of Christian magic that was pretty much comprehensive. While Europe waged terrible sectarian wars between Catholics and Protestants, the grimoire tradition was based ostensibly on Catholic traditional magical ideas and practices.

What was omitted from most of these works was the world view of Catholic magical practices that included the Mass, Benediction, votive offerings, idol worship, the basic methodology of discursive meditation and the whole of the monastic tradition of prayers, fasting, purification and consecration. It could even be conjectured that vestments, talismans, magical tools and special character sigils written on parchment (or etched on metal) were all extensions of the basic sacramental systems that were a normal part of Catholic practice. I have also shown in a previous article that the basic spirit invocations employed by magicians (and written down in the old grimoires) was based on a reverse application of the classical rite of exorcism.

It would seem that Catholic rituals and practices provided a basic foundation for the corpus of ceremonial magic, even though such practices would have been condemned by church authorities. While some like Ficino and Bruno sought to bring in the old Gods of Pagan Hermeticism, perhaps to augment or even replace Catholic theology, others just added them to the accretion of practices and beliefs that were already in vogue at the time. A case in point is the 16th century incorporation of the Olympian Spirits into planetary magic, such as was done in the grimoire, the Arbatel.

Therefore, with this in mind I can make the case that the origins for ceremonial magic are to be found in Catholic liturgy, since these rites and beliefs were available to nearly everyone, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, during the epoch of the great grimoires. However, the minds of the individuals that practiced these rites and wrote the grimoires of this period were not those of the progressive free thinkers of their time. This is particularly true since the intelligentsia of the 17th and 18th centuries had already passed over the practice of magic and considered it a quaint superstition when it had reached its zenith of popularity.

Since most of the oldest copies of the grimoire manuscripts in libraries and museums today were actually produced during the 17th and 18th centuries, we can conclude that this time period represented the high water mark for the public’s preoccupation with ceremonial magic. This interest lasted into the first half of the 19th century where it became the proclivity modern occultists. However, I can say with some authority that the spiritual demand made upon those practicing ceremonial magic at that time was to engage with their base religion in an extremely pious manner. Magicians from that time period would have represented the most conservative adherents of their religion on one hand, and the most daring, arrogant and hubristic practitioners on the other hand. Even so, it was not until the late 18th century that magicians were completely safe from persecution for practicing Christian magic, and by then, it was already becoming a dying tradition.

How ironic it is today that only the most esoteric and free-thinking religionists would ever consider performing the rites of ceremonial or ritual magic. This should indicate to everyone that the times have certainly changed people’s beliefs and spiritual practices. It would also seem to indicate that the time of the great grimoires is long past and it is likely that the mental context that these individuals employed to practice their art is also extinct. What we have left is a massive collection of various materials all of which have lost their cultural and religious context. Those who practice magic today, whatever they think they are doing, are actually in the process of creating something new that didn’t exist at all in the epoch of the great grimoires.

If magicians consider themselves Christian magicians, or Pagan magicians, Witches, Theosophists, Thelemites, Demonalators, or whatever, they are actually representing something that bears little or no resemblance to what was practiced anywhere from three to five hundred years ago when ceremonial magic was culturally relevant. Because all modern magicians had to recreate and redefine their magic so that it would function in the post modern world, they have all started at the same place, which is a veritable ground-zero of materials, practices and beliefs representing countless ages of accumulated knowledge. Still, all of that knowledge is useful only to a point, since to build a working system of magic requires the facile ability to experiment, adapt and to create.

Thus, no one magician, whether Christian or Pagan, has any kind of advantage and cannot represent themselves as a continuous line of initiation and practice drawing from the very source of their religion. The heritage of magical practices of the past belong to everyone equally today and no one can exclusively claim them as belonging to their religious creed. 

Modern mainstream Christianity is a religion that has rejected magic as unacceptable and it has also intensely resisted any theological revisionism based on esoteric perspectives or general occultism. Even Catholics have been steadily removing the magic from their liturgy and practices since Vatican II. Magic and Christianity can no longer be considered analogous spiritual systems, and we who are practitioners should understand and accept this fact. Whatever our spiritual foundation, we will never be accepted by mainstream adherents of Christianity. They will always see us as being antithetical or even completely hostile to their accepted traditions and theological tenets. Of course, this should not be a surprising revelation to anyone, particularly we who are magicians.

While Peregrin can talk about his solidarity with mainstream Christians and how he stands in alignment with the greater heritage of Christian belief and practice, the truth is that we who practice magic are all completely at odds with adherents of mainstream Christianity today. We actually have more in common with each other than differences, and certainly we have far less in common with mainstream Christians. So if we are wise we will join together in solidarity despite our minor theological differences to protect our inherent rights and civil liberties. Only in this way can we guarantee that we will be able to practice our beliefs without interference or persecution, as well as advancing our art for the coming age of trials.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. "Narrowmindedrightwingbigotedfundamentalists" say "You aren't a REAL Christian unless you are exactly like Us."
    "Openmindedliberalfreethinkingpagans" say "You aren't a REAL Christian unless you are exactly like Them."
    What is wrong with this picture?

  2. @Will: And your point about the contents of this article is..what? Considering that I have carefully represented mainstream Christian church theology vs. Christian Fundamentalism or any mention of extreme Christian theological ideas (which do indeed exist) can only show that I have highlighted that faith in a fair and balanced manner. Your point is noted but it doesn't have much of anything to do with this article. My point is that a practice of modern magic would not be acceptable to most mainstream Christians. Period.


    1. That was a very intelligent and pertinent post, and should give a lot of people much to think about, thanks for posting!