Thursday, October 23, 2014

Christianity and Magic #2: Natural Magic

                Last post I talked about the kind of magic that the Bible condemned - maleficium. Today I want to talk about something called 'Natural Magic'. An good grasp of natural magic is important for understanding a couple facets of western culture. First off, though, it’s best to define what natural magic is. Natural magic was a form of magic that was used with the intention of understanding, predicting, and controlling the natural world. It involved the quest to summon or tap into natural powers in the earth. It involved such disciplines as astrology, medicine, and eventually alchemy. Now, on the surface this sounds a bit like maleficium, like summoning infernal powers to do your bidding. I hope to show, however, that natural magic is a fundamentally different, and biblically unobjectionable practice.
           I think what’s most important to understand when considering natural magic is that it stemmed from a radically different way of viewing the natural world. When the ancients and the Medievals thought about nature they thought of it as an organism[1]. The earth and the heavens were alive and had a sort of intelligence. In ancient paganism these manifested themselves as different sorts of deities. When Christianity came to the west, however, the earth and the heavens retained their life and their intelligence but now as members of a created order. This wasn’t just a case of newly converted Christians retaining an older pagan system. Instead it was an instance of Christians seeking what true things the older pagans had discovered (these things were expected to be true in observation and not contradictory to the Bible). As far as early Christians were concerned the living earth was compatible with a Christian worldview. This was not pantheism, it was simply the belief that if God gave life to plants and other animals, why couldn’t the earth have a sort of life? Why couldn’t the heavens?
           This seems very strange to modern people. The main reason is that we’ve abandoned the view that nature is alive. We don’t think of it as a living organism, we think of it as a machine. There was nothing, however, unbiblical or sinister in the act of viewing nature as an organism. In fact, many verses in the bible seemed to support this view!  Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” Psalm 145:1 “All your works praise you, LORD; your faithful people extol you.” Even Christ in Luke claims that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Early Christians took for granted that, while there was an element of poetic license in these statements (and many other statements like these), there was also an element of truth in them. Christ seems to be very serious when he claims that stones would cry out in praise of God, so it seemed fair to think that there was some sort of life inherent in nature.
          So, natural magic. Like maleficium power does not come from the user, rather it resides in the object. The important difference, however, is that in this case these are natural powers. When God created the world, the living universe, he imbued it with its own powers (like he gave humans the power of reason). So plants, herbs, stones, the stars, etc all have their own life, their own secrets, their own properties and powers. Certain herbs could affect miraculous cures for diseases, the movements and positions of the stars exerted mysterious influences over the earth, and the natural magician attempted to learn those secrets and to use them.

You may have noticed this already, but in the ancient and medieval world there was no clear distinction between science and natural magic. There was no place where you could really say magic stops here and science begins. Natural magic and science as we understand it were closely intertwined. Alchemy is, perhaps, the example of this way of thinking that is most easily accessible to contemporary people. Most people are aware that there existed at one time a group of men who conducted chemical experiments designed to discover the philosopher’s stone – a stone that could turn all materials into gold. There was a practical side to this endeavor. Alchemists would play with metals and chemicals, conducting experiments just like a modern chemist – yet they were nothing at all like chemists. They believed that the universe was alive, that some metals were more perfect than others, that the universe had spiritual as well as material properties. In the end you could not be a successful alchemist if you weren’t also a virtuous and pious man. But if you were successful you would be able to exercise a transformative control over nature – turning lead to gold, changing people’s appearance, and healing sickness. Such were the efforts of the great magicians Paracelsus, Richard Boyle, and Isaac Newton himself[2].

This seems to be very different from maleficium. It’s founded on a view of the earth that, at the time, seemed to be supported by both the Bible and the best educated men leading all the way back to antiquity. While a pagan conception of this view of nature lead to a sort of pantheism a Christian conception gave full glory and power over creation to God. As Christians it seems as though our only real objection to this sort of magic (the magic that gave us herbal medicine and clockwork figures) lies mostly in the realm of the practical. Most of this stuff simply didn’t work, because it didn’t have a sufficient understanding of natural causes. We understand the physical workings of the world better now – no one would deny this. It seems to me, however, that natural magicians, while praising our material accomplishments, would mourn the loss of their spiritual view of nature, and, quite frankly, I think Christians should mourn this too.

Thanks for reading. This is such a huge topic, and there’s so much to be said about natural magic in particular that I just don’t have the time or scope to deal with. I have some good sources though if anyone wants to learn about it from real people. A few good places to start would be the works of Francis Yates, Keith Thomas, Richard Kiekheff (his Magic in the Middle Ages is interesting), and Benjamin Lipscomb’s Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology.  Next week I’ll do some posts on a topic that a special place in my heart: Faerie and literary magic. I hope to culminate in a post on how I think Christians should regard the magic in Harry Potter on Halloween. It should be fun!

[1] This was affirmed by the greatest thinkers of the past: Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato, etc.
[2] All of these men were well documented alchemists, even Newton, who was actually more interested in alchemy and theology than he was in physics (and a secret heretic!). He definitely did not have a mechanistic view of the universe, and even believed that gravity’s force was more mystical than it was material. Actually, fun fact, quantum physics is kind of backing up this view again. 


  1. Absolutely love this. This opinion is of course apparent in some of the great fantasy works written by Christians -- I'm thinking, naturally, of Lewis and Tolkien -- for example Aragorn's healing herbs, or the tree spirits of Narnia. I've been thinking a lot recently about religion, magic and fantasy - how then can be intertwined, specifically in the novel I'm writing - and one thing that's clear to me is that my magic gypsy character has a much better understanding of the world/life in general than the others. I'm hoping that through him will come some sort of idea of a greater power.

    Great post! I've mentioned it in my monthly roundup for October :)

    1. Thank you so much! (sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I had to take a break from the internet world due to school wrapping up for the semester). I definitely agree that this sort of thing is apparent in Lewis and Tolkien, because their writings on magic and myth heavily influenced my own view! :) Also your character sounds neat. Thanks again!


Ok children, here are some ground rules. Keep all posts clean and polite. Flamers and Trollers (unless they are legitimately funny) will be hunted down and destroyed. You are allowed to have, and express, your own opinion but make sure to keep it respectful or else I shall get very cross :).