By Jeff Boldt
I was told that what I was looking at was a UFO. I had brought my son to the playground where he made a friend. The boy’s father was a talkative Salvadorian. Interested in the fact that, at the time, I was a theology student, he enthusiastically told me about his Masonic membership, his reading of Hermes Trismegistus, and his conversations with extra-terrestrials. One recently had contacted him during his time of meditation and had told him to look out the window.
Sure enough, on his iPhone he showed me a video of a floating speck hovering around his apartment building –– characteristically blurry, of course. I had recently delved into Wouter Hanegraaff’s Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, so I could actually follow his references and send him to an online sermon where, for some self-indulgent reason, I had charted the evolution of angels into today’s UFOs.
Encounters like this one, and my reading, have convinced me that theologians should know more about “esoteric” tradition, not least because the occult continues to intersect with theology when we try to fit together science and religion, iPhones and extraterrestrials. Moreover, wildly popular proponents of psychedelics (Joe Rogan) and of Carl Jung (Jordan Peterson) ensure that scientifically-inspired esotericism is not at all esoteric, but mainstream. Does pharmacology and evolutionary psychology have anything to do with religion? Many seem to think so.
Obviously, and despite the common misconception, our culture has not been disenchanted. Three quarters of Americans and Europeans believe in the paranormal (ghosts, telepathy, angels, necromancy, UFO’s, magic, astrology, channeling, and so on). Nor are we in a process of disenchantment. Studies show that belief in the paranormal holds regardless of level of education, and popular journals report on the explosion of exorcisms.
If one wonders why the myth of disenchantment persists, I must refer my readers to the work of Jason Josephson-Storm. I will simply take for granted the overwhelming evidence that only a few academics at certain times are consistent skeptics, and that most rationalizing movements had overlapping esoteric interests.
In fact, while respectable scientists have (only infrequently) shrugged off the occult as superstition, it makes sense that occult science keeps popping up even within their ranks: they have the same object of inquiry, namely, nature; and the same historical origin, namely, the now-neglected discipline of natural philosophy.
The revival of natural philosophy and esotericism bloomed during the Renaissance. Rejecting the old scholasticism, scholars like Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Pico Della Mirandolla (1463–1494) took advantage of the influx of Kabbalistic lore (a form of Jewish mysticism) from the expelled Jews of Spain and the Patristic, Platonic, and Hermetic literature from Greeks fleeing the Ottomans.
What this gnostic, Jewish, Patristic, and Platonic mysticism all took for granted was a worldview in which natural objects had heavenly correspondences and that the microcosm of the human body correlated with the macrocosm of creation and perhaps with the interior life of God. Theology, cosmology, and anthropology were mutually implicated. Jewish mystical accounts, for instance, often had the visionary catch a glimpse of an anthropomorphic God seated on a throne ruling over creation. The Visio Dei included a vision of creation. The Christian synthesis of these sources during the Renaissance no doubt fed into the overall fascination with creation evident in that time’s art and science.
For a time, this Christian Kabbalism, Hermeticism, and theosophy vied with Reformations and Counter-Reformations as the source of renewal for the Church. Heal the rift with the Jews and with antiquity, amass natural philosophical knowledge, and the divisions between Christians would sort themselves out. Peter Harrison and other historians of science have shown that these kinds of ambitious theological projects in fact gave rise to the sciences as we know them. For quite a while the three chords of Western culture – Christian, scientific, and esoteric – were one.
While they haven’t entirely unravelled, we normally think of both science and religion as having rejected occult forces. Never mind that the discovery of magnetism, electricity, gravity, the unconscious, and quantum mechanics all generated new occult theories. None of these fit into the push-pull assumptions about causation that materialist metaphysics assumed. The weirdness of action at a distance continually brings people back to the paranormal. Often a more subtle, spiritual matter is hypothesized to explain the inexplicable. A magnetic force, an astral light, a vibratory field, or some such medium mediates between different physical objects, between objects and minds, between different minds, and between God and creation – so the theories go.
Alternatively, the later Lurianic Kabbalah and its Christian-Theosophical counterpart deriving from Jacob Böhme and his many followers (e.g. Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Luis Claude de Saint-Martin, Schelling) saw creaturely life as an extension and completion of the interior life of God. Or, to use Eriugena’s language, God himself becomes the material cause of creation. And while Christian orthodoxies have rejected such panentheism (“everything in God”), esoterically inspired monisms of this sort have remained fairly mainstream in academic theology: Idealism, Process Theology, Teilhard de Chardin, Jürgen Moltmann.
There is an insight here in the panentheist’s insistence that the doctrines of God and of creation cannot be separated. The insight is found not so much in what they affirm as in what they deny. Take our own Anglican panentheist, the late Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson, who rejected what he called “supranaturalism.” In his mind, traditional Christian theism implied a three-story universe over which God sat. Orthodox Christians rightly rejected Robinson’s claim that the God of theism is another amped-up being within a universe of beings. But at the same time, as the Jewish and Christian traditions have affirmed, our knowledge of God is inseparable from our knowledge of creation. We do not know God without created intermediaries.
The Greek Fathers, especially Maximus the Confessor, provide an orthodox alternative that holds God and the world together, while also upholding their distinction. For Maximus, the mediation of Christ — in whom the divine and human natures are united “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” — holds together the Creator and creation without confusion.
Mainstream theology, however, needs to take note of what was lost when the three chords of Christianity, science, and esotericism (partially) unravelled, that is, the loss of a sort of synoptic ambition evident in the Fathers, who took for granted correspondences within creation and between creation and God that informed their figural exegesis and sacramentology. Such presuppositions were shared with other religions, not least with Jewish esotericists, but also with pagan, hermetic, and some Islamic traditions. While this has not been lost outright — Ficino and Pico’s heirs, including Russian Orthodox theologians like Soloviev, Florensky, and Bulgakov, have exploited these connections for Christian projects — it has nevertheless been muted.
Like Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism has had a special interest in creation. The early Royal Society was populated by Anglicans; Anglicans were at ground zero with Darwin; Process Theology began in the Anglican fold; and Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism went universal with William Temple, as Ben Guyer has shown. David Ney has recently traced the ways in which the more eccentric esotericism of John Hutchinson, which eventually fed into the Oxford Movement, could be used for purposes of theological renewal in the old High Church landscape.
Beyond just science and religion issues, Anglicans need to reengage the sacramental and hermeneutical implications of a robust doctrine of creation. That is to say that a Christian theory of correspondences will help chart the way through unavoidable occult byways that open when we re-engage with the doctrine of creation.
It pays to know the history of occult science in order to see that the latest science-and-religion dialogue will likely produce an occult theory. After all, occultism stands at the intersection of science and religion, being naturalistic without being materialistic. Theologians don’t always know the occult implication of their projects. For instance, when process theology rejected supernatural dualism in favor of a naturalist yet non-materialistic metaphysics, certain explanations of parapsychology became possible. Ironically, supernaturalism does not permit many occult causes.
While theology and esotericism share an interest in angels as one occult cause of action at a distance, for Christians they have generally functioned as the sole explanation of paranormal phenomena. How unfortunate, then, that having been taken in by the myth of disenchantment, modern theologians have had so little to say about angelology. Though Bulgakov has had a large influence, the field has been dominated by the Islamic esotericism of Henry Corbin. It is clear to me that any doctrine of creation that leaves out the angelic is seriously inadequate. By recovering a place for speculation regarding the angelic (and demonic), we can, at once account for things encountered by occultists, while also remaining grounded in the scriptural witness and imagination. If we fail to engage in this important intersection between the world of the occult and the biblical understanding of an occult (invisible) world, then we virtually guarantee that the conversation and people’s imaginations will be dominated by alternative voices.
I could go on with my own proposal, and delineate which esoteric traditions are helpful or unhelpful. I’m sure, however, that what I’ve already written is esoteric enough (not, of course, to “initiates”!). And, in any case, my kids are clamoring for time at the playground, and I wouldn’t want to miss any other coincidental meetings.
Jeff Boldt has a ThD from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest at Trinity Church Streetsville in Mississauga Ontario.