Friday, October 29, 2010

Magic, Sorcery, Witchcraft, and Alchemy–A Natural Science Rather than A Spiritual One?

Opponents of Christianity often point to supposed atrocities committed in the Name of Christ, particularly during the so-called “Dark” Ages and the Late-Medieval Period, such as the Spanish Inquisition and witch trials, to demonstrate that Christian faith is inherently superstitious, ignorant, and violent. Once again, however, David Bentley Hart masterfully and scholarly demonstrates the historical aberrations, misconceptions, and exaggerations in such claims in his book Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Hart demonstrates that heresy and sorcery during this time was much more a concern of the state rather than of the church. The Inquisition and, later, witch hunts, were more about maintaining political power than fending off the powers of darkness. This is not, however, to exonerate the Church completely of periodic complicity with the state in the violence of early modernity, but the contemporary portrait of this period and the Church looks nothing like that which emerges when honest historical scholarship commands the palette and brush.

In the following paragraph, Hart demonstrates that magic, sorcery, witchcraft, and alchemy were not spiritual or religious by nature but were more akin to an emerging modern scientific understanding in which there is no transcendent, spiritual realm but rather subtler, hidden material forces and substances to be discovered and manipulated by men to achieve ever-increasing dominance over the material world. This is always sinful man’s greatest desire – to be god unto himself.

In truth, the rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery were not merely contemporaneous currents within Western society but were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world. There is nothing especially outrageous in such a claim. After all, magic is essentially a species of materialism; if it invokes any agencies beyond the visible sphere, they are not supernatural – in the theological sense of “transcendent” – but at most preternatural: they are merely, that is to say, subtler, more potent aspects of the physical cosmos. Hermetic magic and modern science (in its most Baconian form at least) are both concerned with hidden forces within the material order, forces that are largely impersonal and morally neutral, which one can learn to manipulate, and which may be turned to ends fair or foul; both, that is to say, are concerned with domination of the physical cosmos, the instrumental subjection of nature to humanity, and the constant increase of human power. Hence, there was not really any later modern triumph of science over magic, so much as there was a natural dissolution of the latter into the former, as the power of science to accomplish what magic could only adumbrate became progressively more obvious. Or, rather, “magic” and “science” in the modern period are distinguishable only retrospectively, according to relative degrees of efficacy. There never was, however, an antagonism between the two: metaphysically, morally, and conceptually, they belonged to a single continuum.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, p82

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