Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic?

I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

—J.R.R Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, wrote the above in a letter to a lady in which he discussed Frodo’s attitude towards the weapons and war.  He was expressing his own skepticism about how much was possible to accomplish for the good of man through the force of arms.  In so doing he quoted a remark of Galadriel about Gandalf and how for many ages they had together “fought the long defeat.”

History often appears to be a long defeat and under its burden we may break, or we may just live for the day and damn the consequences, or we may fight like hell in spite of it all.  In any case, the “long defeat” itself may contain “the glimpse of victory” in spite of the fact that no such victory seems to be written into the historical circumstances we experience. Continue reading

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Alternate States of Unreality

As I have mentioned before, I have been researching the subject of the occult with a special focus on the Christian esotericism of the Renaissance.  Before I started the research, I really was not aware how syncretistic historical magicians have been.  I assumed they were mostly self-proclaimed apostates, or simply hid their occultism behind the shear underclothing of Christian trappings in order to hide their real intent.  The reality is more complex, but not less diabolical.

Christian Occultism?

The origins of Western occultism are largely connected with the Christian Gnostic writings pseudonymously attributed to a pre-Christian magician by the name of Hermes Trismegestus.  The writings are largely mythological and philosophically connected with neoplatonism, an amalgamation of both Christian and pagan ideas.

The context of my research is the formulation of a critique of the Harry Potter series, a matter about which I have thought for more than ten years.  During that time I have been reading the books, and, for reasons I will mention in my own book on the subject, have until now remained silent.

One of the principle defenses of the Harry Potter series by Christians who are thoughtful readers is based on J.K. Rowling’s assertion that her own research for Harry Potter concerned, not magic, but alchemy.  This defense goes on to assert that alchemy was not principally about the transmutation of metals or the acquisition of the Elixir of Life, but about the purification and transformation of the soul.  According to this argument, the alchemical transformational process is consistent with Christian mysticism.  I do not accept this argument and will explain why in my book.

Magic and Mysticism

The specific matter of this present post is the modern non-Christian approach to mysticism, which is not really modern at all and shares much in common with Eastern forms of pagan mysticism.  The fact is that Eastern meditation, New Age attempts to acquire altered states of consciousness, and classic Western occultism are bosom buddies.  It may indeed be that the magical tradition of the West is only thinly veiled with Christianity, meaning, that it only has the benefit of Christian trappings. However, this tradition is longstanding and deep veined.

I have been reading a particular occultist take on Harry Potter that relates alchemical, mystical transformation to the tradition of shamanism. The word “shaman” is of Turkic origin, the original meaning of which is not clear.  It has been assumed into the English language as an anthropological term that refers to the practitioner of communication with the spiritual world.   The term “shaman” is of universal connotation, that is, it is a general term that refers to the spiritual leaders of many different cultures and religions, such as those belonging to Native American tribes, African and Asian cultures, and even, as some claim to Celtic tradition.

The word “shaman” is generally used to identify a member of the priestly cast of various pagan cultures who act as intermediaries between men and the spiritual world in order to obtain guidance, solutions to community problems and healing.  Shamans can also use their powers to obtain knowledge of the future, and to adversely affect targeted individuals.  They perform these functions by means of their ability to contact the spiritual world through a trance or an altered state of consciousness.

In other words shamanism is a form of witchcraft that operates by means of a state of consciousness through which the shaman is an open channel to occult powers.  From this we come to understand that spiritual channeling is the substance of pagan mysticism.

Hipster Spirituality

In postmodern Western society, which has largely rejected the dogmatic approach to morality and spirituality, and which has been spiritually starved for two generations, this approach has a great deal of appeal.  Postmodern society has rejected ultimate meaning and metanarratives that attempt to explain origins and destinies in terms of doctrines and laws.  It has also rejected the whole concept of spiritual authority.  Not only has authority become the universal enemy, but so has the adult.  Adolescent rebellion against authority epitomized in the ideals of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll is the philosophy of postmodernism.  The geriatric, burned-out icons of rock culture, such as Ozzy Osbourne, proclaim the triumph of the philosophy of Peter Pan.   In this context the mysticism of the altered state of consciousness, induced variously by drugs, sex, the occult, and various combinations of the three, is the preferred short-order spirituality of postmodernism.

But, as I have said this is nothing new.  It is in fact the tradition of shamanism, rooted in pre-Christian societies and dolled-up in the form of Renaissance Christian esotericism.  What might actually be new is the fact that the Rule of Esotericism, that is, the practice of keeping the arcane hidden, is no longer needed to protect the “great mysteries” from the prying eyes of the unworthy.  Secrets are always fun for their characteristic ability of supplying ambiance and mystique.  However, postmodernism is incapable of attributing enough meaning to something so as to consider it sacred or worthy of keeping it hidden.  No, our society throws everything to the swine.  We strip mysticism down to its raw, tender and sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly nakedness, exploit it for all its worth and throw the rest in the compost heap.

Fringe

The particular occultist take on Harry Potter mentioned above, as I said, relates alchemical transformation to shamanism.  Indeed, alchemy, as a spiritual process of purification and transmutation, is an alignment of spiritual, psychic and material powers, of which the alchemist is the mediator.  The particular author I am referring to prefers to identify this psychic state as an “alternate state of consciousness,” rather than an “altered state of consciousness.”  The latter expression implies that the mystical state is other than normal, whereas the former implies nothing concerning normality, nor does it provide a point of reference.  This is because, for the author, the mystical state involves neither knowing nor willing, but “awareness.”  The author refrains from using any more specific term, like “contemplation,” “trance,” or “ecstasy,” because the practitioner alone is able to both find the way and attach meaning to the experience.

As a side note, my research has brought me to a number of sources, including the specific one mentioned here, that make reference to modern science, especially, quantum physics.  It seems to be a popular brand of secular spirituality and hinges on the idea that the universe is not explainable except through imperfect models, and that the observer of the universe is as much a giver of meaning as the things observed themselves.  I do not pretend to understand quantum physics.  But associated with it, in the opinion of some, is the existence of parallel or alternate universes in which the same persons and things can exist simultaneously under different circumstances and with different outcomes.  In this connection, alternate states of consciousness are in part movement between universes.

Awareness as an alternate state of consciousness, and one opposed to knowing and willing, is posited on the basis of the rejection of any radical distinction between the knower and the known.  What is common to Eastern spirituality, shamanism and Western witchcraft is the rejection of objective thinking in respect to spirituality, that is, the rejection of dogma.  The shaman, the witch, wizard or alchemist is an open channel to the universe and has tuned himself or herself to the spiritual powers that will to communicate.  In other words the occult mystic is an open door the hidden powers of the universe.

It really makes no difference what nature the shaman attributes to the spirits.  Definitions are counterproductive.  I well believe that the vast majority of occultists consider the discussion about what is and is not satanic to be irrelevant.  Marilyn Manson, for example, believes he is bigger and badder than Satan and has no commitment to any particular form of the occult, even though he is a high priest of the Church of Satan (content warning).  I honestly doubt that most satanists and occultists have embraced enough metanarrative to draw any stable conclusions about much of anything.  They are lost, quite contentedly, in a maze of perpetual ambiguity.  They are seekers, not finders, who repudiate definitions and points of departure.  They live in various states of consciousness, all of them alternate and none of them normal.

Magicians

Another interesting connection to the occult and alternate states of consciousness is the prevalence of sex magick within various traditions that seek mystical transformation through psychic experience.  Recently, I became aware that Hieros Gamos (Sacred Marriage) made famous by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the most important of all the rites in Wiccan witchcraft.  In Wicca Hieros Gamos is known as The Great Rite.

For those of you who spared themselves of Dan Brown’s potboiler, Hieros Gamos is a kind of “sacred” play in which a high priest and high priestess act out the union between god and goddess, by means of sexual intercourse, and symbolize the coincidence of opposites, as in alchemy and psychology.  In Wicca the Great Rite may be performed “in token,” that is symbolically by means of the penetration of chalice by a blade, or “in truth” through the actual commerce of the high priest and priestess.

Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca casts The Great Rite in terms of a heightened and magical state of consciousness that is not focused on sex but on the intended object of transformation.  It is, according to him, an aid to “The Great Work,” that is, whatever transformation is the object of Wiccan magic (ultimately wisdom and personal transformation).  Gardner writes that the mind of the participants in The Great Rite “must seize and mold the power generated, and redirect it to the desired end with all the force and frenzy of the imagination.”  So this is sex as mysticism and personal transformation via a sex induced alternate state of consciousness.

Interestingly, the term “The Great Work” is also a Hermetic/alchemic expression for the transmutation of metals and most especially, the transmutation of the soul.   This alchemical process is conceived as a marriage of opposites.  The fundamental alchemical text is named Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.  Alchemy and sex magick are familiar bedfellows, so to speak.

Aleister Crowley, who is also defended from accusations of Satanism, was a pioneer of modern sex magick, as well as an experimenter in recreational drugs.  He placed a special emphasis on working with prostitutes and considered in the highest form of magick to be achieved by means of homosexual acts.  Crowley, the Great Beast himself, inducted the founder of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, into the former’s Ordo Templi Orientis, shortly before Crowley died.  Gardner took up the torch and carried the flame.

Kumbaya

Also interesting to note is that the only critique of Dan Brown’s work to draw out the Wiccan connection to Hieros Gamos, is that of Steve Kellmeyer.  Carl Olsen’s and Sandra Meisel’s The Da Vinci Hoax, says surprisingly little about Hieros Gamos, even though in the novel its full revelation by Robert Langdon to Sophie Neveu is also the full revelation of the “Holy Grail” to the reader of the novel.  It is kind of the whole point.

Even more interesting is Sandra Meisel’s rather soft critique of Wicca, which seems to be me more ecumenical than warranted.  There she is careful to distinguish the ancient “fertility rites” antecedent to Wicca from Satanism and to hold Christianity responsible for misinterpreting pagan intentions.  And while she touches upon the sexual license of Wiccans, Meisel never mentions The Great Rite at all, and instead recommends sexualized method to evangelize them:

Catholic responses to paganism would be stronger if we could recover that sense of incarnational “bodiliness” the Middle Ages knew. The common perception that Catholicism itself is somehow puritanical — to say nothing of the sad fact that some Catholics are puritanical — needs to be addressed. On the positive side, the late-Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body offers a bold new understanding of human sexuality that would startle pagans, especially in its popular exposition by Christopher West.

In fact, in his first edition of audio recordings, Naked without Shame, Christopher West referred to the Catholic Easter Vigil as a “fertility rite.”  I have not heard that language from him since he made that series more than a decade ago.  However, the substance of his presentation has not changed with respect to the phallic interpretation of the Easter Candle.

BTW, what the “hell” is this image taken from subliminal soft-pornographic flash animation on Father Loya’s Theology of the Body site:

There is something genuinely creepy about all this.

Playing with Fire

Sex as mysticism is an inherently dangerous idea, not because sex has no orthodox theological meaning, but because eroticism and sexual ecstasy are simply not the same thing as prayer.  It really can only be identified with the contemplative life by means of the inversion involved with occultism.  It is true that grace builds on nature, and that the sexual experience is a sign.  But nature and grace are not identical.  Sex is not prayer.

In respect to this particular problem, the Theology of the Body popularizers would do well to remember that in the domain of sexuality, when compared to the Prince of this World, they are amateurs.  The Old Boy has been at it for a long time.

It is good to avoid prudery, but as one writer points out:

the danger lies in stripping us of the inhibitions and sublimations that occasionally protect us from harm.  Insofar as [Christopher West] and [Hugh] Hefner recommend to us more “exposure” both are misguided.  Between the beautiful and the demonic there is no clinically neutral middle.  Our sexuality is anything but “harmless.”  As Donald Keefe has said, there is no common ground between yes and no. Sexual love in marriage, he would note, is the occasion for blissful joy, not simply the elements of fun.  Any attempts by West or Hefner to domesticate the beautiful, to make the holy into something manipulable, even manageable, will be about as successful as rap music has been in lowering the crime rate.

I have posed several questions to the Theology of the Body gurus that have remained unanswered for a long time (Under the heading “Looking for Answers”).  Perhaps the popularizers are insulted by the questions or otherwise do not take the questions seriously.  But I am dead serious.  I think they are very good questions and they need to be answered.  I really want to know how I am to distinguish Christopher West  & Co.’s defense of shamelessness from advocacy for liturgical sexuality.

Knowing and Loving

Personal transformation via alternate states of consciousness is not Christian mysticism.  It is not the goal of the contemplative life to make oneself a channel of the spiritual, but rather to converse with God.  Knowing and willing, objective thought and personal love must never be abandoned, though if one clings to Christ and his Word (objective truth) the Shepherd may open the Sheep’s Gate so that the soul can pasture in the fields planted by His own hand (cf. Jn 10:9).  In the Catholic tradition, contemplative knowing and loving does at times presuppose a suspension of the ordinary functioning of the faculties of the soul, but this is never a generic awareness, something other than knowing and willing.  Contemplatives should never make it their goal to induce alternate states of consciousness or to make themselves open channels to the spiritual world for the sake some experience of the transcendent.

What can and cannot be formally identified as Satanism is of little importance when compared with the satanic elements that run clean through every form of the occult.  Satan uses both ambiguity and overly fine distinctions imbed himself in peoples consciousness.

Beautiful Lies

Satanic alternate realities are being sold to us as an aesthetic experiment and marketing ploy.  Ozzy is recast as a pious God-invoking do-gooder who just happens to adopt dark, gothic outer clothing.  In his melodic “Dreamer,” his honest yearnings are sanctified with the presence of angels, albeit dark, gothic, child angels:

Your higher power may be God or Jesus Christ
It doesn’t really matter much to me
Without each others help there ain’t no hope for us
I’m living in a dream of fantasy
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah

If only we could all just find serenity
It would be nice if we could live as one
When will all this anger, hate and bigotry …
Be gone?

I’m just a dreamer
I dream my life away
Today
I’m just a dreamer
Who dreams of better days
Okay
I’m just a dreamer
Who’s searching for the way . . .

Yes, Ozzie is “living in a dream of fantasy.”  He is a searcher and a dreamer, a drug-driven shaman, singing into the great void for an end of hatred and bigotry.  It is generic “awareness” that summons up the conviction that what we need is an end to the equally generic “hatred and bigotry.”  What the occult urges us to do is to open our minds ever wider to subjectivity and embrace universal brotherhood, without conviction in a metanarrative like the one connected to “God or Jesus Christ.”  Christ condemns sin by name and closes the door to it.  But alternate states of consciousness encourage us to open the door wide to alternate realities and alternative lifestyles.

There actually is a normal state of consciousness, and this is not it.  Wicca and gothic, postmodern, occult culture is not in the least harmless.  Good faith has nothing to do with it.  The question of overt Satanism has little to do with it either.  The choice for Christ is not compatible with contemplative experimentation and Christian esotericism, because the light is not compatible with the darkness, and Christ can have no concord with Belial (cf.2 Corinthians 6:15).  We have allowed the bruised egos of the likes of  Ozzie Osbourne and Marilyn Manson to keep us making the most refined distinctions in regard to what actually belongs to the satanic.  This is the reasoning championed by Freemasonry, because the Craft is essentially militant occultism in a popular form.  Satan is king of the convoluted.

Just for the record, I have chosen not to draw any conclusions here with respect to Harry Potter.  That will come in due time along the lines of a reasoned argument which is not the burden of this post.  For now we can just say that Rowling deals with these issues and she takes them seriously.  Harry Potter is a serious work and not just a cartoon-like children’s story.  The issues at hand are about life and death.  May we all choose life and close the door to the spirits of darkness.