I was just reading … a scary book

No, no. I was just reading a, uh... a scary book.

(In case you are not familiar, Shrek was just caught reading the old childhood diary of his now-wife, Fiona. This clip should help you imagine the title of this blog post being delivered in a Scottish accent.)

But, here is the actual book that skeered everybody real bad:

BEHOLD!

And … behold! I have posed it with my scary black nail polish.

In my experience so far, the people who are most alarmed by this book are just reacting to the title. And it is a scary title, because Wolfe is trying to do something that many people try to do, which is take a derogatory term and own it, while of course redefining it somewhat or at least clarifying the definition. In fact, this book is nothing more nor less than one big, extended definition/explanation of what Wolfe means by the term, and what he thinks Christians should mean by it.

Most of the people who reacted to the publication of this book as if their hair were on fire, apparently did not read it, because their definitions of Christian Nationalism are very different and, in many cases, the opposite of the extended definition found in this book. I will demonstrate this with quotations from the book, below.

(To be fair: the other possible problem is that they did try to read it, or else they listened to an interview with Wolfe trying to explain it. I have heard a few such interviews, and I cannot say that Wolfe is the clearest at expressing himself in person. The book, too, is … dry. It sounds like it was written by a lawyer, or a more-than-usually-dry theologian. Combine this with the fact that many of the concepts in this book are entirely foreign to modern Americans, especially those who have not been raised Presbyterian, and I can easily imagine that someone could dip in, get dizzy, and quickly flee … or else fix on a phrase or two and completely misconstrue them. If you want to hear Wolfe’s ideas expressed in a vivid, accessible, and much clearer way, seek out the blog posts of Douglas Wilson.)

But anyway, here are a few of the assumptions people often make when they hear the phrase Christian nationalism, and quotes from the book that show Wolfe’s actual take on the topic:

Here’s what the scared people are saying:

Nationalism means imperialism or jingoism

Several ethnicities can share the same language, of course. But since language is a particular and is necessary for civil fellowship, it follows that at least some particularity is a prerequisite for civil fellowship. Hence, sharing only what is universal — viz., common humanity — is wholly inadequate for a complete social bond. And even a cursory reflection on one’s daily habits and everyday life reveals that more extensive unity in particulars is necessary for living well. We do not, and indeed cannot, live (let alone live well) according to universal rules. Nor can we live well among contrary particulars; there must be a normal to which all conform or assimilate, at least in order for people to live well together. Thus, an instinct for a suitable normal is a good instinct; so too is the moral expectation that people conform to that normal or else face some degree of social separation.

Exclusion [of out-group members] follows not necessarily from maliciousness or from the absence universal benevolence, but from a natural principle of difference that recognizes for oneself and for others the goods provided by similarity and solidarity in that similarity. To exclude an out-group is to recognize a universal good for man — a good made possible only by respecting and conserving difference. Since it is a universal good, you and your people are entitled by nature to a right of difference. This is a natural right, because particularity is necessary to live well according to the nature of man.

pp. 144 – 145

The principle of exclusion does not preclude the reception of foreigners absolutely. Nations ought to be hospitable. At the individual and family levels, hospitality demands generosity to strangers, especially to those in need. A nation, as a sort of corporate person, can and ought to be hospitable as well. But hospitality is subordinate to higher duties: no individual, family, or nation is duty-bound to welcome strangers to the detriment of the good of those most near and bound to it. Furthermore, guests have duties toward their hosts.

p. 167

Christian nationalism is a code phrase for wanting an all-white America (a.k.a. White Supreme Pizza)

Nations express Christianity like they express gender through dress — a universal is expressed in a particular way. Christianity perfects the whole not by eliminating earthly particularity, just as any man who comes to Christ does not lose his personality and other unique characteristics. The Christian nation is still a nation as described in the previous chapter, having intergenerational memory and love, degrees and types of loves, and a delight in people and place. Grace sanctifies sinners, but it does homogenize personality; likewise, Christ sanctifies nations but does not eliminate national distinctness.

p. 175

“Christians should not have any loyalty to any particular country or family, because ‘all are one in Christ.'”

Man’s limitedness is expressed in the natural need for a sort of directed gregariousness. That is, he is close at heart with a particular, bounded people, who ground and confirm his way of life in the world and who provide for him his most cherished goods. [Even] Unfallen man is benevolent to all but can only be beneficent (i.e., act for the good of) to some, and this limitation is based not merely in geographic closeness but in shared understanding, expectations, and culture.

Cultural diversity is, therefore, a necessary consequence of human nature, and so it is good for us. It is good that particular practices are made habitual by localized socialization and are “owned” in a sense by a particular place and people. It is good that the particularity of each community distinguishes it from the others. Man’s limitedness was not a divine mistake; neither is cultural diversity, separated geographically, an error. It was God’s design for man and thus a necessary feature of his good.

p. 65

“Christian nationalism” mean getting rid of the First Amendment, and establishing a national church to which every citizen is required to belong.

Althuis states, “Franz Burckhard therefore errs, and the Jesuits with him, who think that the magistrate is not able to tolerate diverse religions.” Burckhard, a Roman Catholic professor at Ingolstadt, is reported to have said, “What more just than to cut off the heads of all these villains of Lutherans!” Burckhard … called for Roman Catholics to rescind the Peace of Passau (1552), which granted religious freedom to Lutherans within the Holy Roman Empire.

This rigid position is natural enough for Roman Catholic theology, which asserted that it is the one true visible church … But in Protestantism the church is essentially invisible and composed of the elect by faith, and belonging to that church is not conditioned on or grounded in one’s outward belonging to a visible, centralized communion. Thus, Protestants of different doctrinal persuasions can mutually recognize their shared faith. This is the basis for principled toleration and religious liberty in Protestant commonwealths. Indeed, the unfolding of Protestant principles — not Enlightenment or Roman Catholic “doctrinal development” — is what led Americans to affirm religious liberty in the 18th century, which I demonstrate in the next chapter. The point here is that a Protestant people have principled flexibility when faced with religious diversity. How a Christian magistrate navigates this complexity requires wisdom, prudence, and resolve.

p.375

The political status of non-Christians in a Christian commonwealth is a matter of prudence. Since civil society is a human institution, it must guarantee equal protection and due process with regard to human things for all people. That is, it must guarantee justice and secure natural rights. But this does not entail equal participation, status, and standing in political, social, and cultural institutions. Thus, they are guaranteed a basic right to life and and property (the absence of which would harm the common good), but they may be denied by law to conduct certain activities that could exploit or harm Christians or the Christian religion.

This position, though fairly standard in the Christian tradition until recently, will be received with controversy today, and few would stomach any legal discrimination on the basis of religion. But even in the absence of legal distinctions, the cultural norms of a Christian nation will require non-Christians to be the exception to the norm.

pp. 392 – 393

“It means that the same person is the leader both of the church and of the country in a civil sense.”

I think that a strictly indirect role for civil leaders in intra-ecclesial affairs is both preferable and most consistent with Protestant principles. There is, I admit, a natural fittingness to Christian nationalism and the [civil leader] as the “head of the Church.” But granting the leader this title would be, in my view, an abuse of power and constitute the usurpation of Christ’s kingship over the church. I offer my reasoning below.

p. 300

It means giving church leaders political power.

God does not (ordinarily) declare by special revelation that this or that person has civil power. Rather, it is “a characteristic property resulting from nature,” writes Suarez. He continues:

‘This [civil power] does not emerge in human nature until men gather in one perfect community and unite politically … Once constituted, this body is at once, and by force of natural reason, the site of this [civil] power.’

The people possess civil power as a necessary and natural consequence of their combination.

One important corollary is that recognizing the true God (or Christ) is unnecessary to possess this power, for having this power is simply a natural consequence of the people’s combination into human society. And they can likewise devolve this power upon those who do not recognize the true God. Hence, true civil authority does not depend on true religion, though certainly in failing to acknowledge the divine source of civil authority, the people and civil ruler are in a perilous situation. It doesn’t bode well for them, but being godless or idolatrous does not itself preclude true political order. Hence, Peter instructs his recipients to “honor the [Roman] emperor.”

pp. 283 – 284

Though we can in principle disobey unjust laws, we should recognize the difficulty in determining whether a law is unjust. It one thing for a law to be unjust and another for you to know that it is unjust. Civil magistrates are necessary, as I’ve said, because of natural epistemic limitations in individuals to determine expedient actions for the common good. … [M]any or perhaps most laws evade a simple evaluation, mainly because civil authorities are typically in a better position than private persons to make judgments about what serves the common good.

Pastors can admonish erring magistrates to correct injustice in the law, but pastors must not mistake their theological training or scriptural knowledge for expertise in jurisprudence. Pastors as pastors are no more competent to analyze or make civil law than any other private person.

p. 274, 275

“People who advocate Christian nationalism think that they can use outer means, such as laws, to compel people to believe.”

Civil power cannot legislate or coerce people into belief; it can only command outward things — to outwardly do this or not do that. No classical Protestant has ever claimed that civil action can itself bring about assent to, let alone true faith in, the Gospel. Though the ultimate purpose of civil action can be the spiritual good of the people, the direct object cannot be the conscience. Spiritual good is a matter of the heart before God in Christ. Thus, civil action for the advancement of the Gospel only indirectly operates to that end.

p.182

As for power over conscience, implicit power can influence beliefs, such as assent to Christian truth, but civil law cannot command belief. It can only direct bodies. It orders outward action. Civil power cannot touch the conscience. Why? Because the conscience is a forum of persuasion and civil power is the power of command. The civil command “believe in Christ” violates a necessary condition of belief, namely, that belief is a matter of persuasion.

p. 253

It means that the entire Mosaic law, including the ceremonial laws, would become the legal code of the land.

[W]hether any civil law is good depends on the circumstances, which requires the discernment of a prudent man. Calvin writes, “[E]ach nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges as beneficial.” Nothing about this disparages the Mosaic law — a law of God. It is a perfect example of law. But it is not a universal body of law.

Some civil laws in the Mosaic law are universal in a way. But they are universal because they are necessary for any just and commodious human society.

Though not universally suitable, the civil laws of Scripture provide certainty as to their inherent righteousness. They are, therefore, morally permissible in civil law, and the closeness of the circumstances aid in determining whether any of them is suitable.

pp. 267 – 268

We can just have a neutral, secular nation, with no national religion at all.

This “neutral” or “common” space lasted only about twenty years, which shouldn’t surprise us: the most common human arrangements in history for public space are decidedly not neutral. It is a shame that we treated this neutral world as normal and universal.

Experience over the last decades has made evident that there are two options: Christian nationalism or pagan nationalism. The totality of national action will be either Christian, and thus ordered to the complete good, or pagan — ordered to the celebration of degeneracy, child sacrifice (e.g., abortion), mental illness, and idolatry. Neutrality, even if it was real for a time, will never hold, because man by his nature infuses his transcendent concerns into his way of life and into the place of that life. The pagan nationalist rejection of neutrality is correct in principle

p. 381

For decades, theologians have developed theologies that exclude Christianity from public institutions but require Christians to affirm the language of universal dignity, tolerance, human rights, anti-nationalism, anti-nativism, multiculturalism, social justice, and equality, and they ostracize from their own ranks any Christian who deviates from these social dogmas. They’ve effectively Christianized the modern West’s social creed. The Christian leaders most immersed in the modern West’s [actual] civil religion are those who loudly denounce the “civil religion” of “Christian nationalism.”

p. 5

Why Everyone Should Be Educated about the Ancient Near East: A Repost

Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31

Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.

On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East.   It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.

Description Is Not Prescription

First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding that nevertheless seems to be widespread.

Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history.  The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors.  In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape.  In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism.  And so on.  It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.

God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy

But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff.  It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force.  Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad.  If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.

I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves in at the time that God gave them all these laws?

Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence.  Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them.  They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices.  They had no war, no rape, no slavery.  They did not even eat meat.  They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.

No, no, no.  Come on.  That picture is the exact opposite of the truth.  There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.

The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East

Public Domain. Maarten van Heemskerck’s interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the background, the ziggurat (temple) towers over the city.

When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:

In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.  If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or were a farmer attached to, a city-state.  At the center of your city would be the temple of that city’s god.  Typically the king was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her representative on earth.  So, the god was ruling you through the king.  Every citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service and sacrifice.  And how was that religion practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures in which livestock represent wealth.  But actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.  Temple prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of and in some places it was common. 

Public Domain image of Moloch, the Phonecian god. Children were sacrificed by being placed inside the fiery metal statue. In some versions, the statue is shown with arms stretched out in front of it, into which the baby is placed. This god was popular in Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest.

In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy.  All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites.  The power of the ruling class was considered absolute.  Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king.   There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law.  Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.

For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.

It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World

Public Domain. The temple of Jupiter towers over Rome during the days of the Republic.

Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East.  The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical.  The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia.  Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.  Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture.  In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.

Public Domain. Pre-Aztec pyramid/temple complex at Teotihuacan.

But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and secular, with lots of social mobility (and no animal sacrifices whatsoever).  For many people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized theocracy comes when they open the Bible.  They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had commanded all of this.  But no, He was not instituting theocracy, animal sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it.  Those things were already universal.  He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the norm.  He spoke to them in their terms, but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His character.

Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?

You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?”   This would, of course, have made no sense to them.  They would have been completely unable to understand the message.  If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies.  You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it.  But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.

Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again, limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their own land … where, for many years, there was no king.

If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.

Sources

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)

Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.

Quote: How do you tell someone, “You are not God”?

In her silence, Winter’s eye flicked to the gold cross gleaming on her blouse. He began to compose a speech in his head. In the speech, he told Molly Byrne that her husband had had a vision, a drugged vision in the jungles of Brazil. He had seen a god who was both the mind of the universe and somehow his own mind at the same time. In his speech, Winter confessed to her that he did not know anything about God. He did not even know whether or not God existed. But he knew this: if God did exist, He might be many things, but He was not Gerald Byrne. And Gerald Byrne was not God.

He did not make the speech out loud. He didn’t have the nerve.

A Strange Habit of Mind, by Andrew Klavan, p. 205

O Come, All Ye Faithful Is Much Better in the Original Latin

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant”

Venite, venite in Bethlehem

“Come, come into Bethlehem”

Natum videte, regem angelorum

“Born see, the king of angels”

Venite adoremus [3x]

“O come, let us adore him” [3x]

Dominum

“The Lord”

Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine

“God from God, light from light” *(these are direct objects, so the subject and verb are coming up)

Gestant puellae viscera

“A girls’ innards carry” (the subject and verb, and by far my favorite line)

Deum verum

“True God” (and still the direct object)

genitum non factum

“Begotten, not made”

Refrain: Venite adoremus, Dominum “O come, let us adore/The Lord”

Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum

“Sing it now, chorus of angels”

Cantet nunc aula caelestium

“Sing now, heavenly court”

Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo

“Glory, glory to God in the highest”

Refrain: “O come, let us adore/The Lord”

Ergo qui natus die hodierna

“Therefore, who is born on the day of today”

Jesu, tibi sit gloria

“Jesus, to you be glory”

Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum

“Word of the eternal Father made flesh”

Refrain

See how the Latin is actually more direct/efficient than the English? Kind of shockingly so?

I think because the original Latin version had so many syllables, to translate the lines into English, additional words had to be added, and sometimes even new ideas such as “Yea, Lord, we greet thee,” which is how the fourth verse begins in English and is one of my favorite lines in that version.

I Never Realized I Cor. 13 Was About Hermeticism (But It Is)

“But you are eagerly desiring the greater gifts.” (Yes! Yes we are! We want to be initiated into the spiritual mysteries!)

“And now I will show you the most excellent way.” (Oh goody! He is going to let us in on the esoteric secret that only the initiates get to know.)

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (Do you mean that neither secret knowledge nor the ability to work miracles is the most excellent way?) “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (And neither is asceticism or heroic feats of denying the body?)

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (This is actually harder than secret knowledge would be. The leaders of esoteric mystery religions do tend to be impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, and proud.) “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (You mean that there is such a thing as truth? And that evil is not a necessary part of spiritual enlightenment?) “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (It will??? Do you mean that humans are not perfectible through learning? That knowledge is not the path to salvation?) “For we know in part and we prophesy in part,” (We are not gods. We are limited.)

“… but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” (So all our enlightenment now will disappear as unnecessary when Christ comes.) “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (Perhaps the idea that we can be given secret knowledge that will make us better than everyone else is a child’s way of thinking.) “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (The ultimate revelation is knowing Christ as one person knows another.) “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (The important thing right now is not that we know all the secrets of the universe, but that our Shepherd knows us and calls us his own.)

“And now these three remain: faith” (in the one who calls us) “hope” (in his promise to save us) “and love. Follow the way of love [as you] eagerly desire spiritual gifts.”

(What follows is a discussion about how to engage in prophecy and speaking in tongues in a way that doesn’t show off, create chaos, or confuse or exclude anyone from the worship service.)

“In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

taken from I Corinthians 12:31 – 14:1, 19 – 20, NIV

More Horrors of Hermeticism

This two-volume book, The Devil’s Redemption by Michael J. McClymond, is just too good of a resource to fuel only one blog post.

Last week, it was McClymond who helped me sort through the (intentionally?) confusing tangle of different claims about what Hermeticism actually is. We scratched the surface of Hermetic/Esoteric/Gnostic/Platonic/New Age thought enough to recognize that we have all encountered it before, and that it has had a pervasive influence on our culture in all sorts of ways. This week, I’m just going to list a number of characteristic doctrines of Hermetic/Esoteric thought.

Each of these bullet points (or cluster of them) could have a volume written about it (and probably has). I could write a 1,000-word blog post about each one: My personal history with it, the damage it does to people, why it seems to make sense, how it differs from biblical teaching. But today, I’m not going to do that. I just want you to be able to recognize these doctrines when you hear them, so you know that they are neither just common sense, nor orthodox Christian teaching, nor are they a profound new insight that was just had on the spot by whoever is asserting them to you. They are characteristic doctrines coming from an ancient, broad and deep, but erroneous, stream of human thought. All of these bullet points are paraphrased from the section “Common Esoteric Teachings” in McClymond’s Appendix A: Gnosis and Western Esotericism: Definitions and Lineages, pp. 1069 – 1070.

  • The godhead has within it some or all of these things: inherent crisis, inherent evil, inherent or intrinsic suffering, temporality or process arising from inherent imperfection.
  • Apophatic theology: God does not know himself, because “the infinite or unbounded cannot in principle be known” (p. 382).
  • A divine feminine principle (sometimes called Sophia) exists in the godhead.
  • Coincidence of opposites
  • God did not create from nothing, and/or nothing is not really nothing; instead, nothingness or chaos is a “constitutive principle.”
  • Spiritual things are somehow material, and material things are somehow spiritual. (“Spirit stuff”)
  • All things are alive.
  • “The material universe [is] ontologically inferior.”
  • “The material universe [is] generated by human desire and imagination.”
  • God/heaven/etc. was originally somehow human, or defined in human terms.
  • And was also an androgyne (male and female at the same time).
  • Christ: only seemed to have a material body (docetism); was an example or teacher rather than a savior; and did not atone for human sins.
  • Humans have divine or godlike powers; human imagination has the power to create material reality; therefore magic, divination; and astrology are OK.
  • Souls are reincarnated or transmigrated; this life (and sometimes, processes in the life beyond) acts as a purging fire to get rid of the soul’s imperfections.
  • Following from all this, salvation is understood as “self-knowledge, self-realization, or self-integration” (p. 1070). Therefore, “love, not law.” Strict justice is understood as mean and unenlightened.
  • Spiritual elitism: the good people are not those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in God, but those who have secret knowledge. Hence, we do a lot of allegorical and other nonliteral readings of the Bible, and we make authoritative religious claims based not on the text but on “visions, dreams, or supernatural encounters” (p. 1070). (What could go wrong?)

I hope I don’t need to point this out, but … none of these doctrines are remotely Judeo-Christian. They cannot be reconciled with the picture of reality that is painted, both explicitly and implicitly, in the Old and New Testaments, unless we are willing to do violence to the text by reading it in an arcane, “symbolic” way which allows us to import our own esoteric doctrines. Esotericists, of course, are completely willing to do this, because they don’t like doctrines or definitions anyway.

Making things even more confusing, many of these ideas are alluded to by the New Testament writers, because they were “talking to” the estoeric philisophies that were already popular in their day. For example, John begins his gospel with “In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In first-century Gnostic and Platonic thought, the Logos was a character which was sort of embodiment of the organizing principles of the universe. John is saying, by implication, that these thinkers were close, but not quite right in their cosmology. The Logos, for John, is an actual person, namely Jesus, who is also actually a member of the godhead as God was understood by the ancient Israelites. He is not immanent nor present in everyone, and rather than there being inherent conflict within the godhead, He and the Father are one. John does all of this in just a few phrases. But if we bring esoteric assumptions to the gospel of John, it will be easy for us to “prove,” from this and other lines lifted from this gospel, that John supports our Hermetic or Mormon or New Age theology.

Next week, we will see how the apostle Paul upbraids esotericism directly in just one short, beautiful paragraph.

Non-Man-Centered Quote of the Week: Paul vs. the Esoteric Gurus

I have become [the church’s] servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness — the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. My purpose is that [you] may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that [you] may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that [you] may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human wisdom and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given the fullness of Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

from Colossians chs. 1 and 2

Hermeticism: The Awful Truth

Discovering the Extent of the Problem

I learned the word Hermeticism recently.

Here’s an extended simile of what my experience was like in doing a deep dive on this word.

Imagine that your drain keeps backing up. You take a look, and discover a root. You have to find at what point the roots are coming into the pipe, so you do the roto-rooter thing. It turns out that the roots are running through the pipe all the way down to the street and across the street and into the vacant lot, where there is a huge tree.

And oh, look, it’s already pulled down the neighbor’s house!

That’s what it was like. (Oh, no! It’s in my George MacDonald pipe too!)

What Methought I Knew

I’ve listened to a number of James Lindsay podcasts, and he talks a lot about Hegel. In discussing what exactly went wrong with the train wreck that is modern education and politics, James has to dive deep into quite a few unpleasant philosophers, among them Herbert Marcuse, Jaques Derrida, Paolo Friere, and the postmodernists. And Hegel.

I had heard James describe before how Hegel saw the world. Hegel had this idea that progress is reached by opposite things colliding and out of them comes a new synthesis, and then that synthesis has to collide with its opposite and so on until perfection is reached. This process is called the dialectic. Marx took these ideas and applied them to society, where there has to be conflict and revolution, but then the new society that emerges isn’t perfect yet and so there has to be another revolution and so on until everything is perfect and/or everyone is dead.

Obviously I am simplifying a lot. James can talk about this stuff for an hour and he is simplifying too, not because these ideas are themselves complicated but because Hegel produced a huge dump of words, and he came up with terminology that tried to combine his ideas with Christian concepts so that they would be accepted in his era. Anyway, the word dialectic is still used by postmodern writers like Kimberle Crenshaw, and it is a clue that they think constant revolution is the way to bring about utopia.

So, I was familiar with Hegel through the podcasts of Lindsay, and I was also familiar enough with Gnostic thought to at least recognize it when it goes by, as it so often does. For one thing, you kind of have to learn a little bit about Gnosticism if you are a serious Christian, because gnostic (or at least pre-gnostic: Platonic, mystery religion) ideas were very much in the air in New Testament times, and many of the letters of the New Testament were written to refute these ideas. Also, Gnosticism, particularly the mind/body duality, has had such an influence on our culture that it’s hard to miss. It’s present in New Age and neopagan thought, and it’s called out in Nancy Pearcey’s book Love Thy Body for the bad effects it has had on the way we conceive of personhood.

So that’s the background.

Several months ago, I was listening to Lindsay give a talk summarizing his recent research to a church group. He was talking about theologies: systems of thought that make metaphysical and cosmological claims, and come with moral imperatives. And he dashed off this summary, something like the following:

“You could have a theology where at first all that exists is God, but He doesn’t know Himself as God, so in order to know Himself he creates all these other beings, and they are all like pieces of God but they don’t know it, and their task is to become enlightened and realize that they, too, are God, and when they realize this, eventually they will all come back together, but now God is self-conscious because of the process of breaking He’s been through.”

And I’m thinking, Sounds like Pantheism, or maybe Gnosticism.

And James says, “That’s the Hermetic theology.”

And I’ve got a new word to research.

Kind of a Weird Name

So, why is it called Hermeticism? Does it have to do with hermits?

My first foray into Internet Hermeticism immediately showed that the school of thought was named for a guy named Hermes, as in this paragraph from wiki:

Hermeticism, or Hermetism, is a label used to designate a philosophical system that is primarily based on the purported teachings of Hermes Trismegistus (a legendary Hellenistic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth).[1] These teachings are contained in the various writings attributed to Hermes (the Hermetica), which were produced over a period spanning many centuries (c. 300 BCE – 1200 CE), and may be very different in content and scope.[2]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeticism

One of my search hits, I can’t remember which one, said that Hermeticism is “often confused with Gnosticism.” O.K., so if it’s not Gnosticism, that means I know less than I thought and it’s all the more reason to research.

I also found avowedly Hermetic web sites like Hermetic World, whose “summary” is actually more of an attempt to draw you into their movement:

Hermeticism – The secret knowledge

Hermeticism is an ancient secret doctrine that dates back to early Egypt and its innermost knowledge has always been passed on only orally. In each generation there have been some faithful souls in different countries of the world who received the light, carefully cultivated it and did not allow it to be extinguished. Thanks to these strong hearts, these fearless spirits, truth has not been lost. It was always passed on from master to disciple, from adept to neophyte from mouth to ear. The terms “hermetically sealed”, “hermetically locked”, and so on, derive from this tradition and indicate that the general public does not have access to these teachings.

Hermeticism is a key that gives people the possibility to achieve everything they desire deep in their hearts, to develop a profound understanding of life, to become capable of decision making and responsibility; and to answer the question of meaning. Hermeticism offers a hidden key to unfolding.

Nobody can teach this knowledge to himself. Even in competent books like Kybalion, the teaching is only passed on in a veiled way. It always requires a master to pass on the wisdom to the able student. Today, as in the past, authentic mystery schools are a way to acquire this knowledge. The Hermetic Academy is one of these authentic schools.

https://www.hermetic-academy.com/hermeticism/

This is certainly the genuine article, but it is perhaps not the first place to go. I wanted to learn about the basic doctrines from a neutral source, simply and clearly described. I didn’t want to have to wade through a bunch of hand-waving to get there, at least not at first. Still, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Hermetic World tries to cast a mysterious, esoteric, yet somewhat self-help-y atmosphere on their first page. After all, it is a mystery religion.

Well, at least now I know why it’s called Hermeticism. It’s basically an accident of history, due to the name of the guy to whom the founding writings were attributed.

Time to move on to a book.

Moving On to a Book

I am fortunate to be descended from a scholar who has a large personal library, heavy on the theology.

I asked my dad.

Serendipitiously, he had just finished reading Michael J. McClymond’s two-volume history of Christian universalism (the doctrine that everyone is going to heaven), and he remembered that Hermeticism entered into the discussion. He was happy to lend it to me. You can see all the places I’ve marked with tabs. Those are just the ones where Hermeticism is directly mentioned. I hope you now understand my dilemma.

In McClymond’s Appendix A: Gnosis and Western Esotericism: Definitions and Lineages, I found at last the succinct, neutral summary I was looking for:

[“Hermetism”] as used by academics refers to persons, texts, ideas, and practices that are directly linked to the Corpus Hermeticum, a relatively small body of texts that appeared most likely in Egypt during the second or third centuries CE. … “Hermeticism” is often used in a wider way to refer to the general style of thinking that one finds in the Corpus Hermeticum and other works of ancient gnosis, alchemy, Kabbalah, and so forth. “Hermeticism” sometimes functions as a synonym for “esotericism.” The adjective “Hermetic” is ambiguous, since it can refer either to “Hermetism” or “Hermeticism.”

McClymond, p. 1072

O.K.

So it isn’t that different from Gnosticism after all.

“Esoteric,” by the way, means an emphasis on hidden or mystical knowledge that is not available to everyone and/or cannot be reduced to words and propositions. “Exoteric” refers to the style of theology that puts emphasis on knowledge that is public in the sense that it is written down somewhere, asserts something concrete, can be debated, etc.

Even though I have literally just found an actual definition of the word that is clear enough to put into a blog post, in the time it took me to find this definition I feel that I have already gotten a pretty good sense of what this philosophy is like. Perhaps it helps that it has pervaded many, many aspects of our culture, so I have encountered it many times before, as no doubt have you.

I began to peruse the tabs in the volumes above and read the sections there, in all their awful glory.

Yep, James Lindsay in fact did a pretty good job of explaining the core metaphysic of Hermeticism. Of course, this philosophy brings a lot of things with it that he didn’t get into. If we and all beings in the universe are all made of the same spiritual stuff as God Himself, it follows that alchemy should work (getting spiritual results with physical processes and the other way round). It follows that astrology should work (everything is connected, and the stars and men and the gods not only all influence each other, but when you get down to it are actually the same thing). It follows that reincarnation should be a thing (the body is just a shell or an illusion that is occupied by the spirit, the spark of God). It follows that there are many paths to God, since we are all manifestations of God and will all eventually return to Him/It. It follows that the body is not that important (in some versions of this philosophy, matter is actually evil). Therefore we should be able to physically heal ourselves with our minds. Our personhood should be unconnected to (some might say unfettered by) our body, such that we can be born in the wrong body, or we can change our sex or our species if we want to. There might also be bodies that don’t have souls yet (such as unborn babies), and so it would be no wrong to destroy them. Also, since matter is not really a real thing, it follows that Jesus was not really incarnated in a real human body and that He only appeared to do things like sleep, eat, suffer, and die. Also, since we are all parts of God like He is, He is not really one with God in any sense that is unique, but just more of an example of a really enlightened person who realized just how one with God He was.

I imagine that about twenty pop culture bells have gone off in your mind as you read that preceding paragraph. You might also have been reminded of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, which teaches that we were all pre-existent souls literally fathered by God out of some sort of spiritual matter before we came to earth to be born.

So, What the Heck Is It?

Hermeticism is not just one thing. It’s a whole human tradition of thought. It had a lot of streams flowing into it, like Plato, first-century mystery religions, Gnosticism, and early attempts to reconcile Christianity with these things. It has a lot of streams flowing out of it, like many Christian mystics of varying degrees of Christian-ness; Origen; Bohme; Hegel; medieval and Renaissance alchemy; the Romantic literary movement; Mormonism; New Age thinking; identity politics; transhumanism; Shirley McLaine; The Secret, and the movie Phenomenon.

Not all of these thinkers hold to the exact same set of doctrines. In a big philosophical movement like this, almost every serious thinker is going to have his or her own specific formulation that differs from everyone else’s in ways that seem really important to people on the inside of the system. So anyone who is an insider or who has made it their life’s work to research any of the things I mention above (and many others besides) could come along and point out errors or overgeneralizations in this article and make me look like I don’t know anything. That’s partly because it’s a huge historical phenomenon and I actually don’t know much of all there is to know. It’s also partly because these mystery religions delight in making things complicated. They love to add rituals and symbols and secret names and to discover new additional deities that are personifications of abstract ideas like Wisdom. It’s supposed to be esoteric. That’s part of the fun.

Another reason it’s difficult to describe Hermeticism accurately is that when all is one, it is really difficult to talk about anything. In this view of the world, when you get right down to it there is no distinction between spirit and matter, creator and creature, man and woman, conscious and inanimate, and the list goes on. I called it Hermeticism at the beginning of this paragraph, but I was tempted to write Hermeticism/Gnosticism, or perhaps Hermeticism/Gnosticism/alchemy/mystery religions/the New Age/Pantheism/postmodernism. If you’ve ever read any New Age writers, you’ll notice that they tend to write important terms with slashes like that (“Sophia/the divine feminine”). That’s because it’s all one. They don’t want you to forget that. They don’t want to forget it. Even if these ideas do not go very well with the human mind, and they tend to break it if you keep trying to think them.

In a sense, Hermeticism and all these other related movements are very diverse and not the same at all. In another sense, it’s all … the same … crap.