Modern Witchcraft, pt. 5

robert-schuller

by Randall S. Frederick

Cont. from part 4

It is my sincere hope that by now, it has been established that witchcraft in the popular imagination is a collection of fundamental misunderstandings and twisting of true beliefs, and incendiary accusations without basis. That which is true and has survived are  suffers once again from the generalization of paganism. While this is true to some extent since paganism is that which is outside of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, even Europe, it doesn’t provide much clarity or even distinction within a generalized, vague, and encyclical term. It is the same as saying a piece of art is “not a statue.” There are many things that are not a statue, many creative expressions, but if we are not referring to a statue, there are still dozens of artistic expressions that we could be referring to. We are no closer to understanding this thing that is “not a statue.”

While “paganism” is a religious term, it is too vague to mean anything. Paganism includes the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and American Indian religions as well as most nature-oriented religions and many localized folk religions. Put another way, if we group together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we have accounted for over 50% of all active religions right now. “Paganism” accounts for literally everything else. So, in saying witchcraft is a pagan religion, or part of Paganism, we are in effect saying nothing at all. If we pressed it and did our very best to exclude the religious expressions just named – Eastern and Native American religious expressions – we might be coming to something resembling a bland (though arguably still interesting) amalgamation

The term itself, paganism, comes from the Latin pagini or paganus, meaning hearth, home-dweller, or simply “country person.” Originally, a pagan was someone outside the Roman governance. The Germanic people who overthrew Rome were pagans. “Barbarians” were pagans. Politically speaking, saying witchcraft is a pagan practice is insightful when we see it, again, as something outside Western convention. That is perhaps why I find it so easy to say that the major religions are indebted to witchcraft more than they acknowledge – indeed, as witchcraft has been depicted as the vehicle for Satanism, and as we have discussed previously, the dualism of the major religions necessitates a good/evil or upper/lower division, even that Paganism accounts for almost 50% of all religious activity, it would be woefully ignorant to say the two “sides” do not borrow from one another.

For me, what this means is that I see witchcraft all around – though I am not inclined to call it this. When Tony Robbins speaks of personal empowerment, I hear strands of witchcraft, strands of humanism, and strands of Christian ideology. Historically, Christians have formally rejected paganism for political and civil reasons (to better align themselves with Rome so as to prevent oppression) and, by extension, witchcraft in all it’s forms. This part is not new – Jews rejected witchcraft early in the Torah to place their allegiance with God. But their resistance and later antagonism abated after the excesses of the witch hunts of Europe and Salem Trials of America in the 17th century. Public sentiment turned sharply at that point, turning towards disbelief in the superstitious. We can see how played out – in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes his essay, The Over Soul. In 1862, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and President Lincoln are involved in a seance conducted at the White House to reach her dead son. Spiritualism and a new language for “transcendental” realities provide a strong alternative language for expressing the great upheavals of the American Renaissance and Civil War, greater perhaps than those availed by Christian scripture.

Having studied the American Renaissance extensively, I am confident that the religious rhetoric shortly before and during the Civil War borrowed extensively from the “pagan” influence of Germanic philosophy. In fact, it is undeniable. And I would put forward that what is politely referred to as “spiritualism” is really yet another expression of this vague and ethereal matter we have been concerning ourselves with, witchcraft.

The evidence of a healthy religious organism is its adaptability to new environments or hosts. A religious adherent who borrows from other religions is not, as Christians might claim, necessarily a syncretist but someone who avails themselves to the diversity of religious expression. Buddha’s enlightenment and nirvana sounds a lot like the Christian’s expression of Heaven – infinite calm, infinite knowledge, and no need to rush as one is finally outside of the constraints of time and termination. It was during the American Renaissance, when Americans were seeking an authentic “American” (not Anglican, not Roman Catholic) religious experience that they begin to adopt many facets of other religions. This makes even more sense when we call to mind that the first settlers, the Puritans, had brought with them the religious practices of England, Germany, and France. Once an isolated generation and their children began to die off after the Revolutionary Period, when nationalism reaches a fever pitch to construct a sufficient origin narrative (think again of the first religions focusing on purpose and narrative before they establish a pantheon) we will soon see a small collection of heroic god-like “fathers” of America, each with their own identity – Washington’s stoic but all-knowing war maneuvers; Franklin’s earthy aphorisms and bawdy behavior; Jefferson’s compunctious grand standing. By the American Renaissance, there has been a new wave of settlers who have brought their own views to the nation; something must be done to adapt to this new dilemma and assimilate. Within religion, this assimilation means taking on the unique qualities of other religious expressions. Germans with their folklore, the French with their educational reform, equanimity, and promotion of women towards chastity, and again, England’s detached stoicism. And it is to all of this that Emerson and the Transcendentalists, the spiritualists, and the atheists begin to push away from. Emerson borrows extensively from his Congregational background – how could he not? He was a minister before he was a writer and philosopher, as was Thoreau. That the writers of the American Renaissance were well-versed in scriptural narrative would be an understatement, and their audience was an America of diverse groups and cultures each equally as versed in scripture, all competing for the future of a nation. With so much synthesis and assimilation, there can be no doubt – nor even much criticism – that strands of paganism, even and especially witchcraft came through and was adopted into local congregations. D.L. Moody will push against this tendency in the late 19th century but will never be able to eradicate it.

And so we come to the close of this brief survey: the 20th century. With the rise of television during the Atomic Age, Christianity found a new avenue to express their beliefs. Marshall McLuhan posits that “the medium is the message,” and within three decades, televangelism took a hard turn towards commercialization and simplification to fit within a 27 minute time slot and open up new avenues of revenue for churches-come-”worldwide ministries.”

Arguably, for the first time since the Reformation, Christians began to turn against other Christians, reawakening those old divisions between Roman Catholic and Protestant and, digging further, between white and black theologies, Reformed and Pentecostal, Reformed and Anglican, Reformed and other Reformed, and ultimately Reformed against “fake” Christians. Part of this can be attributed to the competitive nature of television for ratings, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that by exposing one’s beliefs to large audiences, those beliefs are subject to wider, broader, and more intense degrees of scrutiny, exposing where the beliefs of a speaker do not align with traditional beliefs and mainline practices. Dave Hunt in his 1987 book The Seduction of Christianity writes:

One word that is often used to encompass all pagan/occult practices is “sorcery”… any attempt to manipulate reality (internal, external, past, present, or future) by various mind-over-matter techniques that run the gamut from alchemy and astrology to positive/possibility thinking…. Moreover, similar “mind powers” are being developed by the general populace through a smorgasbord of psychological methodologies. These are not only taught by well known mind-over-matter cults such as Scientology, the Forum, Lifespring, and Silva Mind Control, but are standard fare at today’s PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) motivational and success seminars.

I’m not fully convinced of Hunt’s thesis, especially where he talks about the perils of psychology, but I will firmly agree that there are a great many pseudo-psychological efforts being made by ministers and gurus who know just enough terminology to get by without the formal training of psychotherapy and psychology. Because of their societal station as a “shepherd” of the (obedient and dimwitted) “flock” of the local church, pastors and televangelists have often exploited these gaps between knowledge and understanding, then harshly attacked those professionally trained in social sciences who would seek to correct them. However, while I might challenge some of what Hunt says, his claims have a measure of veracity. Napoleon Hill, father of the modern PMA movement, wrote in 1967’s Grow Rich with Peace of Mind, that

Now and again I have had evidence that unseen friends hover about me, unknowable to the ordinary senses. In my studies I discovered there is a group of strange beings who maintain a school of wisdom… The School of Masters who can disembody themselves and travel instantly to any place they choose to give knowledge directly, by voice… Now I knew that one of these Masters had come across thousands of miles, through the night, into my study [saying] “You have earned the right to reveal a Supreme Secret to others.”

Occultist and historian Manly P. Hall, writing two years later in 1969, comments on the work of Hill in his text Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy that “there is abundant evidence in many forms of modern thought (especially the so-called ‘prosperity’ psychology, ‘will-power building’ metaphysics and systems of ‘high pressure’ salesmanship) black magic has merely passed through a metamorphosis and although its name may be changed, its nature remains the same.”

By now, a chain of sequence has brought these inherently “pagan” beliefs to Christianity. Oral Roberts in the ‘70s begat Robert Schuller in the ‘80s begat Kenneth Copeland in the ‘90s begat Joel Osteen in the ‘00s and dozens of replicants in the Teens. This development, in a profound way, has created the seedbed for neo-Christianity’s strongest opponent: the New Reformation of John Piper, John MacArthur, and the disgraced Mark Driscoll. All of this is not a deviation from my discussion of witchcraft, but rather a discussion of how the doctrine of Christianity remains resolutely against “witchcraft” even as their practices have made allowances for, even been revitalized by, magic, sorcery, witchcraft, and all manner of paganism. In a very real sense, if we remove Satan from our understanding of witchcraft and replace him with God, are the practices any less “witchcraft”? I would aver that “witchcraft” as we have previously conceived it is alive and well within Christianity – to the exclusion of other religions – because the last century has changed the nature of all religions, radicalizing them. Those of the Calvinist or Reformed tradition and especially Southern Baptists, have become foreign to the teachings of historical Christianity. This week, president of Liberty University Jerry Falwell Jr. (founded by his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., sustained by the Moral Majority, and endorsed by Billy and Franklin Graham) said that he encouraged the students at his seminary to seek open-carry permits to defeat Muslims. Despite absolutely no scriptural support, no support within modern Christianity, and denunciation by major religious leaders of every faith, Falwell presents this as a “true” form of Christian expression or Evangelicalism. It is implied from his statements that those who do not share his militarized vision for Nationalized Christianity (again, Evangelicalism, which is not the same as historical Christianity) are “wrong” and have been “led astray” – primed rhetoric for the misinformed and ignorant in local churches. In response to the increasing levels of hostility, many Christians are disavowing these behaviors by their leaders. They see that their faith, which has so often been on the wrong side of history, can only move forward by relaxing their practices to allow, even agree with their supposed enemy, “pagans” and seek a more positive, hospitable, and ecumenical religious world together with them.

To be concluded in part 6 (coming soon)

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