The discussion on God’s “magical” activity on a previous thread managed to jettison the theme of the thread, and the overall theme of the blog too, that is the doctrine of creation. But it’s actually worth devoting a post to the subject of magic, because in many ways it is a magical understanding of the cosmos that the biblical creation doctrine subverted.
The scholars find it quite hard to define “magic” adequately, and to distinguish it definitively from religion. But it’s probably even harder to distinguish it definitely from science (as I’ll indicate later), so everyone’s interests are served by the attempt.
Let me paint a broad-brush picture first. Magic is the effort to manipulate, or sometimes to supplicate, hidden (aka occult) powers that are believed to exist within the Universe. In contradistinction religion, as understood through Creation doctrine, holds that any truly hidden power exists outside the Universe, in God’s hands, and that humbly seeking his will is the only valid way of interacting with it.
Another parallel insight comes from the ideas we’ve recently covered from Owen Barfield. Barfield’s thesis in Saving the Appearances is that man’s early view of the world was personal, mystical and magical, and that humans were related to that reality sacrally.
Consider what seeing the world as a personal being, of which we are all part, entails. It means that every part is intrinsically interconnected. In my body, the movement of my fingers corresponds to activity in every other organ – I act as a unity. That seems to play out in most versions of magic. For example, Babylonian astrology and divination were both intended to seek the will of the gods. But we must remember that the gods were, themselves, products of the cosmos and subject to fate as well. So Wikipedia’s article gives an example of an astrologer covertly damaging a dyke to substitute for an astrologically predicted flood, explaining:
An astronomical report to the king Esarhaddon concerning a lunar eclipse of January 673 B.C. shows how the ritualistic use of substitute kings, or substitute events, combined an unquestioning belief in magic and omens with a purely mechanical view that the astrological event must have some kind of correlate within the natural world.
The same article hints at links between such magic and a scientific approach:
Ulla Koch-Westenholz, in her 1995 book Mesopotamian Astrology, argues that this ambivalence between a theistic and mechanic worldview defines the Babylonian concept of celestial divination as one which, despite its heavy reliance on magic… “shares some of the defining traits of modern science: it is objective and value-free, it operates according to known rules, and its data are considered universally valid and can be looked up in written tabulations”.
Similarly, speaking of a much later age, another source writes:
The principle governing natural magic in the Western occult tradition is the great Hermetic axiom “As above, so below.” Every object in the material world, according to this dictum, is a reflection of astrological and spiritual powers. By making use of these material reflections, the natural magician concentrates or disperses particular powers of the higher levels of being; thus a stone or an herb associated with the sun is infused with the magical energies of the sun, and wearing that stone or hanging that herb on the wall brings those energies into play in a particular situation.
This is associated with the mediaeval idea of the “great chain of being” adapted from the Greeks, which in theology saw all things as a hierarchy of authority emanating from God, but in the magical tradition (which essentially came back to Europe through the Hermetic writings in the early Renaissance) was seen in terms of the occult influence of the heavenly bodies being reflected in the events experienced on the lower realm of earth.
There are various contemporay classifications of early-modern magic, but the broadest is perhaps the division between natural magic, as above, and ritual magic, in which personal powers of demons and spirits were invoked. You can see how in the ancient world (eg amongst the Babylonians) the distinction was not clear – the gods and lesser spirits were inextricably bound up in what the stars, or the omens were doing, anyway. In European practice too the distinction between natural and ritual magic was blurred: spells, incantations and words of power were used in both.
A quasi-religious aspect became, if anything, greater in Christian countries because spirits were not value-free – one knew one was invoking satanic rather than angelic beings. Indeed, way back in Roman times magicians often pronounced the Jewish Divine Name as an especially powerful one, and even in Acts we read of Jewish exorcists co-opting the name of Jesus in the same way and suffering for it. But in the Bible the only word of power is God’s dabar – identified with Christ himself as the Logos in the New Testament.
And maybe that’s why Elijah, calling fire from heaven in a supernatural display of Yahweh’s reality and Baal’s non-entity, yet had subsequently to pray earnestly before God sent the rain he had promised: Elijah needed to be reminded that a faithful prophet is not a powerful magician, but utterly dependent on God.
So despite the sometimes confused interaction with late mediaeval and early modern Christianity (like Popes wanting their horoscopes cast!) one can see that the mindset behind early modern magic was essentially similar to that of the Babylonians.
In contrast the Genesis creation story is a radical, and revolutionary, departure from that ancient worldview. One obvious point is the way that the sun and moon, key players in the ANE in both religion and astrology, are simply called “greater and lesser lights”, to emphasize their placement by God for their functions in the world – and especially on man’s behalf. God is the sole power, and all that he makes is for his purpose, and answerable to him alone. And the stars serve, rather than ruling, man’s affairs.
Hebrew creation teaching is sometimes seen as a disenchantment of the universe. Certainly it’s both a de-divinisation and a de-personalisation of nature. But more importantly it’s a teaching about the individual diversity of nature, and a denial of the idea that we are all “just cells in mother earth’s domain.” The Universe is not just one being, each of whose parts are subsumed to its endless cycles of repetition. In one sense, the inhabitants of God’s Creation are his “artifacts”, each different, each accountable in its own way to its particular concerns and, ultimately, to God. He expresses his own creativity and multifaceted being through the diversity and contingency of creation. Such an idea was, and is, completely revolutionary.
Moreover, God deals directly with each part of creation, even when he institutes intermediate order and function, for example, in “laws of nature”. The stars do not govern us, nor the entrails of sheep. Rather, what happens to all is between each and its Creator. There may well be spiritual beings in the cosmos as well as physical animals and the uniquely animal-divine being that is man. But they are his servants (or, it seems, sometimes his rebellious servants), and are not beings to be appeased, supplicated or manipulated in their own right.
So when Leviticus and Deuteronomy prohibit divination, seeking omens, mediums who commune with the dead and spell-casters, it is not simply one cult defending itself against its rivals. Israel were called to be free from fatalism and to know what it means to be God’s own people, in creative relationship with their maker – and with all the other entities he has made, which are wonderful not because they rule us or have secret powers, but because they are all the provision of an infinitely creative Father. This clear demarcation of magic from faith is reflected in the mockery of the prophets, too. And so Isaiah speaks against necromancy because Israel has the word of the living God himself:
When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the torah and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isa 8.20)
And later he ridicules natural magic too:
Stand fast now in your spells
And in your many sorceries
With which you have labored from your youth;
Perhaps you will be able to profit,
Perhaps you may cause trembling.
You are wearied with your many counsels;
Let now the astrologers,
Those who prophesy by the stars,
Those who predict by the new moons,
Stand up and save you from what will come upon you.
Behold, they have become like stubble,
Fire burns them;
They cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame (Isa 47.12-14)
And the reason?
I am God, and there is no other.
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please. (Isa 46.9-10)
Even this polemic against idolatry (see Barfield for how idolatry arises from the magical wordldview) is ultimately about true relationship:
Even to your old age and grey hairs
I am he, I am he who wiull sustain you.
I have made you, and I will carry you:
I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isa 46.4)
And so the reason that the mediaeval Church, from Patristic times onwards, disapproved so much of magic was not solely because it was untrue – though that was a factor. It was because magic’s determinism denied both God’s sovereignty and people’s freedom. One might add that even nature was bound into a denial of its diversity under God by magic. The Church’s stance was not “anti-superstitious” (which is a modern category), but anti-fraud (eg regarding the supposed malevolent power of witches), anti-obscurantist (regarding the occult powers of natural magic as distinct from nature’s manifest powers) and anti-satanic (regarding ritual magic).
Now let’s turn to the links of magic to science, which paradoxically it helped to launch for about a century. As Brian Copenhaver writes:
Around 1600, some reformers of natural knowledge had hoped that magic might yield a grand new system of learning, but within a century it became a synonym for the outdated remains of an obsolete world-view.
One influence on this was a writer called Agrippa, who wrote a “notorious” handbook of magic De occulta philosophia, which circulated amongst the intelligentsia in manuscript form from about 1510, and remained influential though Agrippa later wrote a recantation of magic in favour of true faith.
Agrippa’s occultism was of great importance for natural philosophy because of its account of natural magic, which he described as the pinnacle of natural philosophy and its most complete achievement…
“With the help of natural virtues, from their mutual and timely application, it produces works of incomprehensible wonder…. Observing the powers of all things natural and celestial, probing the sympathy of these same powers in painstaking inquiry, it brings powers stored away and lying hidden in nature into the open. Using lower things as a kind of bait, it links the resources of higher things to them … so that astonishing wonders often occur, not so much by art as by nature.”
Agrippa’s book reflects entirely the “chain of being” mindset already described. The knowledge magic promised was a great inducement to natural philosophers working on astrological or alchemical magic, and consonant with the emerging ideas of those like Francis Bacon, who advocated the painstaking interrogation of nature for her secrets – those secrets being in large measure conceived as occult powers.
It’s not so much that occasional natural philosophers, like Newton, retained an interest in mediaeval magic superstitions, but that, for a while, an early-mdern revival of classical magic was a major impetus for natural philosophy. The experimental nature, and careful record keeping, of natural magic (you can get a feel for this from the Canon Yeoman’s Tale in Chaucer) was adopted by the natural philosphers intent on taming nature to human ends.
How then, did magic get sidelined? In the first place, because it simply didn’t work, and in the second because the experimental method began to produce genuine results of its own. It would seem that part of the reason for this was the genuinely religious sentiments of many of the new generation of natural philsophers like Robert Boyle, Galileo, Kepler and Newton himself, whose ideas were deeply rooted in creation theology (“thinking God’s thoughts after him”) and to whom the assumptions of natural magic became increasingly uncomfortable. That’s why Kepler’s day job was casting horoscopes, whilst his real passion was the Pythagoran order of God’s wisdom in the detailed movement of the planets. And it’s why Newton’s rather eclectic mixture of mathematics, magical speculation and secret Arianism seems so anomalous to us – it was inherently unstable.
One thing clearly missing from the historical reviews of this fascinating period is any clear example of a great natural philosopher without some kind of supra-natural metaphysical foundation for their work. There’s nobody who writes, “Just give me the facts, and leave the metaphysics out of it.” Rationalistic Materialism was the product of a later age, built on the foundations, in part, of natural magic.
But has occultism, even now, been completely replaced in science? After all, what is Newton’s gravity but the occult action of the heavenly bodies on even earthly affairs? Has anybody a clear idea of what gravity actually is, apart from a distortion of the even more occult space-time continuum? Magicians often produced illusions using lenses – which is why some of Galileo’s opponents weren’t too impressed by his telescopic discoveries. Now, very much of our science is only discernible because of instruments that few people understand.
Let me end with another provocative quote from Brian Copenhaver’s work: perhaps it would be helpful to unpick, in any discussion, just where the real difference between science and magic lies – it’s far less straightforward than one would suppose:
The corpuscles theorized by Robert Boyle (1627-91), though endowed with picturable properties of size, shape, and motion and redefined as primary qualities, were just as hidden as occult qualities and no more observable. Boyle argued that observable properties emerged only when these least bodies aggregated in structures; however, the resulting secondary qualities, such as color or odor, were not the scholastic entities that Molière mocked and Boyle found incomprehensible. Never entirely escaping the world of magic, Boyle improved on occult qualities by replacing them with other indiscernibles, tiny bodies to which he imputed properties like those of ordinary objects…
By reducing causality to structure, Locke and Boyle brought occult phenomena within the scope of the new science. Boyle even proposed a theory to cover action-at-a-distance and its unobservable agents. Rather than attributing an electrical property to amber in order to explain its power of attracting chaff when rubbed, he argued that this familiar but puzzling effect resulted from an effluvium, a structure of imperceptible particles with no properties but size, shape and motion. Agrippa had referred amber’s attractiveness to an occult virtue that was not only unobserved as anything distinct from its visible effects but also unlike anything otherwise observed. Although their smallest parts were ultimately no more perceptible than Agrippa’s occult qualities, Boyle’s effluvia had two advantages: an imputed structure made them seem concrete and intelligible; and an analogy with visible vapors brought them within range of everyday experience.