For many orthodox Christians, the Bible is, of course, the largest hurdle to the idea of accepting occult practices and esoteric theories. I spent a long time reconciling my interest in the occult with my understanding of the Bible, only coming to a holistic view of Scripture and occultism in recent years. In this short post, I want to share a reflection I wrote a few years ago on a passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which is often cited by traditional Christians to outlaw the notion of working with elemental spirits or powers. A closer reading of the passage, however, complicates such a simple interpretation.
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? (Gal. 4:1-10)
It would be pushing it to claim that Paul espouses anything other than a negative view of pagan religious observations in this passage. However, there are a few points here that are more complicated than they appear to be at first glance. Enslavement to worldly elemental spirits is a very different situation than acting as co-workers with such spirits, or honoring such spirits. Elemental spirits are on a rather low rung as far as cosmic divinities are concerned, and even in Pagan and occult circles tend to receive veneration or acknowledgment, not adoration (see the difference between dulia and latria, especially in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas). To adore an elemental spirit would indeed be a form of enslavement to that spirit. Elemental spirits are clearly not the Judeo-Christian God, nor are they the One of Neoplatonism. They are worldly cosmic powers, which Paul calls “weak and beggarly,” but whose existence he does not deny.
Paul argues that the Galatians were enslaved by such spirits before they knew God, or rather before God knew them. At that point, the Galatians were like minors who, though inheritors of their father’s property, remained under the control of guardians until they came of age. After the coming of Christ, the Galatians have “grown up” and are no longer slaves to their elemental guardians, as through Christ they now know and are known by the One God.
Yet the comparison to guardians can have both negative and positive (or, more accurately, ambivalent) connotations: minors need guardians until they come of age, and just as the Fifth Commandment urges us to honor our fathers and mothers (and as St. Thomas uses the example of feudal lords to explicate the concept of dulia), it is not clear from this passage that guardians should be despised once they no longer have control over their charges. If your uncle is your legal guardian until you come of age (and has been a positive one), do you cease to honor him once you have gained complete control over your inheritance?
Paul is also making a comparison here between the Gentile Galatians’ pre-Christian enslavement to the elemental spirits, and their recent (and, in his opinion, mistaken) adoption of the Hebraic Law – which is, according to Paul, the equivalent of a return to that enslavement. Yet, though Paul has harsh things to say about this development, contemporary Biblical scholars argue that the traditional interpretation of Paul as urging the abandonment of the Law for all Christ-followers – Gentile as well as Jewish – is mistaken. Paul, as a Jewish follower of Jesus, would not think of abandoning the Law, or for advocating its abandonment on the part of other Jews. Even though it is faith in Christ, and not the guardianship of the Law, that ultimately justifies the sinner, this still does not mean that the Jews should dishonor the Law. Paul’s point is simply that the Galatians, as Gentiles, do not need to honor a guardian that is not their own.
By comparing the elemental spirits to which the Galatians once offered adoration to the Law of the Jews, however – a Law which the Jews should still follow, even after the coming of Christ – Paul inadvertently suggests that the elemental spirits, while creatures and lower powers and thus not deserving of latria, are deserving of veneration or honor. To offer the spirits honor is not the same as being enslaved by them; instead, it is the proper honor one offers one’s extended family or godparents – those people who saw one through their childhood until they were ready to receive the full inheritance of their Father.
This perspective on elemental spirits is not so different from the perspective of a host of Neoplatonic Christian thinkers from the Renaissance to today. Take, for example, this quote from Ralph Cudworth, one of the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century:
Thus we see plainly, that the Hebrew Doctors and Rabbins have been generally of this persuasion, that the Pagan Nations anciently, at least the intelligent amongst them, acknowledged One Supreme God of the whole world, and that all their other Gods were but Creatures and Inferior Ministers, which were worshipped by them upon these two accounts, either as thinking that the honor done to them redounded to the Supreme, or else that they might be their Mediators and Intercessors, Orators and Negotiators with Him, which inferior Gods of the Pagans were supposed by these Hebrews to be chiefly of two kinds, Angels and Stars or Spheres, the latter of which the Jews as well as Pagans concluded to be animated and intellectual. (Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe)
Cudworth drew upon a tradition that conflated the angels and the heavenly spheres, a practice initiated by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola during the Italian Renaissance. Cudworth succinctly describes here a Neoplatonic Pagan cosmology that would influence the development of Western esotericism for centuries – a henotheistic view of One God above all the lesser gods of traditional belief and practice. Yet rather than outlawing the veneration of lesser gods and spirits, Neoplatonic philosophers like Iamblichus utilized ritual work with such beings in order to rise to the level of union with or restoration in the One.
It is not hard to imagine the transition from this Late Antique Pagan perspective to the medieval distinction between latria and dulia, present in Catholic belief and practice to distinguish between the veneration paid to the Virgin Mary, the saints and the angels from the adoration due to the Holy Trinity. Working backwards, the Christian esotericist can restore the world-view of the Neoplatonic and Hermetic tradition, while maintaining the orthodox Christian belief that it is the Triune God alone that deserves our worship.