The two questions I am asked most often by those who know me best are, “How can you be both Christian and Hermetic (or a magician, alchemist, a.s.o.)?”, and “How did you become a Christian?” The latter is a very long story with many convolutions; I intend to tell it, but it will be a long time before I have the history entirely straight in my own head. The former, however, can be mostly covered in a few broad strokes. It should be obvious that I cannot cover every point in the space of a blog entry, but I will try to at least make an accounting of the major points of overlap or seeming contradiction.
The concept of God is essential to both traditions. Hermetics is not concerned with an impersonal god, as is often supposed. That is, Hermetics is not Platonic, nor Aristotelean. While Hermetics draws on many Greek philosophical systems, it was also heavily influenced by Egyptian, Babylonian, Hebrew and Christian modes of thought very early in its development. Some of the earliest “philosophical” or “religious” Hermetic documents contain prayers, hymns, and passages of praise specifically addressed to God-as-God rather than a pantheistic “animate Nature” or the abstract First Cause of Hellenistic philosophy. Take, for example, the “Secret Hymn of Hermes” (found in Book 13, verses 17-20 of Corpus Hermeticum) in which God is treated as a Person with a definite identity. Some abstract terms are used in reference to God by such Hermetic documents, but always in a context directly relatable to Jewish and Christian usage. God, for instance, is said to possess Nous; Nous is a nigh-untranslatable Greek philosophical term which is often rendered simply “Mind”, but which carries the connotation of “enlivening Spirit” whenever it is used in religious and philosophical works. Nous is used identically to the “Spirit of God” (Ruach Elohim, rendered “a wind from God” in the NRSV) which “was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2 NIV) in Genesis. This Nous is also identical with chokmah, or the Divine Wisdom which was used by God as the foundational energetic matrix in the act of Creation.
A brief aside on the Creation. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” (Gen. 1:1 NIV) right? Not quite. According to the Biblical account in Genesis, things happened a bit differently than we are generally taught. Gerald Schroeder, physicist and Old Testament scholar, tells us that B’raisheet, the word often translated as “in the beginning” is more accurately rendered “In the beginning of.” Here’s where things get linguistically interesting. In the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, there is no object for the preposition “of”, so the Greek and Latin translators omitted the “of” to try to make sense of the statement. If we take the literal translation, however, we find: “In the beginning of God created the heavens and the earth,” as B’ is “with” or “using”, while raisheet is “a first cause.” Many Jewish scholars and commentators have thus found that a much more poetic, and linguistically accurate, translation is, “With a first cause God created the heavens and the earth.” (God According to God by Gerald Schroeder, pg. 50) On page 51 of the same text, Schroeder is also kind enough to point out that this “first cause” is elucidated in Proverbs 8. In verse 12, we read, “I, wisdom” (NRSV) and in verses 22-24, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.” (NRSV; Proverbs chapter 8 goes on at length along similar lines, defining Wisdom as the ‘first’ element of the creation.) We find a very similar message in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos)”. Thus, Chokmah, Nous, Logos, Wisdom, Mind, wind, or Spirit was the First Cause of Creation, and remains as the underlying order of our reality as observed by mystics and scientists of all ages. This accords perfectly with big bang cosmology. The fiat lux of the Judeo-Christian Genesis is identical to the explosion of pure white light described by physics, and the Hermetic conception of Fire being the first step of cosmogenesis.
Now, all of this makes obvious that Nous is a part of God, but it is not coterminous with God. In a pantheistic or Platonic system of thought, Nous in the sense of Mind would be God, the “ground of all being” which lies back of every existent thing, a “mind” in the sense of being a flow of ideas and information but without possession of self-consciousness or volition. That is neither the Hermetic God, nor the God of the Bible. It is also true that in Hermetics, as in the Bible, God is attributed with different personal names and titles. Among the most common in early Hermetic literature (again, see Corpus Hermeticum) is Agathos Daimon, which literally means “Good Spirit”, or sometimes just Agathos, “Good”. Always, though, this is treated as a name rather than a mere object of contemplation or discussion.
The question then becomes, does Hermetics allow for God to be active in history? Christianity requires it; the entire edifice of Judeo-Christian faith hinges on the fact of God’s direct involvement in the unfoldment of the human epic. This brings up the apparent contradiction between magic and miracles. To many, magic is the use of mostly-unknown natural metaphysical laws in the production of effects which are only miraculous to those ignorant of the particular laws at work, similar to how a gun may seem miraculous to those who have never heard of black powder or the concept of controlled explosions. This view often precludes the idea of miracles, prima facie, because the existence of both magic and engineering would seem to prove that we can eventually understand and learn to exploit any given law, leaving less and less room for miracles until they are eventually entirely explained by mere reference to “brute facts”. What this argument leaves out, however, is the Judeo-Christian acknowledgement of the fact that God needs us. It is true that God makes use of the natural laws of His own design when interacting with the universe, not because He is powerless to do otherwise, but because He is powerless to do otherwise without destroying the orderly structure of the creation. As such, the miracles described in the Bible (as well as those performed by saints and mystics throughout history, in many religions and cultures) are always performed via a human agent. That is a vital point, as it defines the realm and meaning of sacred magic. (See a previous article on Magic & Christianity for more on this topic.) The only functional difference between miracles and sacred magic is that in the latter, we draw upon our analogous authority as Divine icons to bring Christ-like love and freedom into the world, while in the former our analogous divinity permits us to act as channel more directly for Divine Providence. Either way, God has acted in history without fouling the waters of continuity.
The next question is one of mystical methodology: is Hermetic mysticism congruent with orthodox Christianity? I specify “orthodox” here because it is never hard to find heterodox forms of any given religion which allow for this, that, or the other variation of either doctrine or practice. The real test of Hermetic and Christian compatibility thus lies in orthodoxy.
I will make a controversial, yet contextually important, statement now: my Christianity is purely orthodox. Take me to task as you will; I’ll explain myself in the future, but for now I let the statement drop and sit as it may that I may carry on to the meat of the present explanation.
There are multiple forms of mysticism found in every religion, the broadest divisions being ecstatic, natural, and contemplative. Most forms of mysticism combine elements from two or more of these divisions, but the divisions themselves stand as guidelines for studying those elements and how they fit together or contrast with other methodologies across the board. To give two famous examples, Saint Francis of Assisi combined modes of natural and contemplative mysticisms by using meditative prayer with study and adoration of the creation, while Rumi combined contemplative and ecstatic mysticisms in his particular practice of prayerful and artistic Sufic Islam. These forms of mysticism are sometimes called “paths of sainthood.”
Hermetic mysticism may be described either as a fourth category of mysticism, or perhaps more accurately as a synthesis of the other three, producing a system which may be called the “path of perfection” whereby we seek to live up to Christ’s instruction, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48 NRSV) To explain in greater detail, I invite the reader to ponder the division of Hermetics into four equally important modes of activity:
- Yod – Fire – Spirit – Mysticism
- Heh – Water – Mind – Gnosis
- Vau – Air – Soul – Magic
- Heh – Earth – Body – Hermetic Philosophy
These four modes can best be understood in relation to one another. (For a more profound examination of the following, please see Meditation on the Tarot, anonymously and post-humously published.) Mysticism is the direct perception and experience of Divine Reality. In mystical meditation, contemplation and prayer, we come into direct contact with God. This experience is not abstract as may seem when reading descriptions of mystical states. Instead, they are quite concrete, more concrete than either waking reality or dreams. They simply seem abstract from the outside because of the lack of human ability to express in language something so very powerful beyond measure. Consider, by way of analogy, the phenomenon of describing one sense in terms of another. We talk about the “texture” of music, knowing full well that music as such as no texture, but the sounds of it at times admit of no better description than “rough”, “smooth” or “rolling”. When dealing with a subject beyond language, we must do the best we can and often end up sounding quite abstract and, thus, meaninglessly removed from ordinary life.
Gnosis—roughly translatable from Greek as “knowledge” but with a definite skew toward knowledge gained by actual “doing” and experience—is the reflective counterpart to mysticism. In gnostic contemplation, we abstract the concrete experiences of mysticism into words and symbols. This process also aids us in mentally integrating whatever we have gained through mysticism, and thus giving us an opportunity to apply it to our lives and the lives of others.
It is by magic that we do so apply gnosis. “Magic” here is used very generally to describe any act of outward manifestation. Whether that act be painting or sculpture, cooking, writing, gardening, or an actual magical spell or ritual, what must be clear here is the process rather than the results.
The results, then, are what I term Hermetic Philosophy. Hermetic Philosophy is not one philosophy among many alternatives, but rather the culmination and total integration of the entire process (mysticism -> gnosis -> magic) described above. Thus, it is philosophy in the literal sense rather than the modern one; it is the love of Wisdom rather than a mere code of thought. When I say that I believe in God, it is not because I have been convinced by a rational argument (although that was one thing that led me to investigate the matter in the first place) but because I touched and was touched by God (mysticism), reflected upon that experience extensively (gnosis), changed my ways of thinking and acting in the world (magic), and finally integrated the entire process as a holistic approach to life (Hermetic Philosophy). I am a Christian not out of mere curiosity, but because I had an unbidden experience with Jesus Christ, thought long and hard about it, applied it to my daily life, and finally came to an understanding of what Christianity means for me and what it can mean for the world.
A word must be said here about Hermetic magic, and how it relates to Christianity. In Hermetics, there is no such thing as magic without alchemy. Every magical act, even the very simplest, is acknowledged to be part of the process of perfection and unfoldment. Nature, having been given free will by Eternal God the Creator, is capable of fouling-up and, in fact, does so every step of the way. Thus, the old alchemical axiom that “Nature, unaided, fails.” It is not that Nature is evil, but that, like us, Nature has “rebelled”. Because of the Divine tzimtzum, the literal partial withdrawal of God from creation which was so necessary in the act of cosmogenesis, empowered us and all of Nature with the capacity to do, within the confines of natural laws, whatever we want. When God says “it was good” in the book of Genesis, He means it. That is, He knew ahead of time that nobody would play exactly according to His rules and that was ok; we had to be given a free-wheeling Nature in addition to our own capacity for misbehavior in order for the glory of goodness done freely to be possible in the world. All of that said, alchemy is the process of what is known in Kabbalah as tikkun olam, repairing the world. All Hermetic magic has this in common: it exists solely for the purpose of producing greater wholeness and freedom. As such, it is biblical in the purest sense. We have been given “dominion” (really translatable as something more like “stewardship”) over Nature not that we can exploit it, but that we can be God’s helpmates in turning the “good” creation which God saw into perfection.
I believe that I have demonstrated to the best of my ability, within a limited space, that there is harmony rather than contradiction within Christianity and Hermetics, up to and including the practice of magic. There are other points that could be made, certainly, and I’m sure that other arguments will crop up against me in both Christian and esoteric contexts, but the above ought to provide at least some food for thought on most of the truly important points of possible contention. As always, I look forward to any comments or questions which may arise. God bless.