The following question arrived in my email inbox the other day…
Why is there such a condemnation in the Christian churches for esotericism/occultism? I have my entire adult life ( I am now 63) been living and working in Anthroposophical circles, I have friends in the Rosicrucian movement and I am impressed with the wisdom of some Theosophical writers. I can say with my hand on my heart that these movements draw the best of sincerely good willing people who wish to cultivate a living relationship with the spiritual world to work for the good. I admit that this not always works out how it should, the devil infiltrates everything, but is this not the same in all Christian churches as well? I am a Christian and feel entirely at home in the Christian esoteric movement and feel esotericism can make a hugely beneficial contribution to the Church if only the two could come together.
This question is really a variation on “why don’t Christians get along with Buddhists?” Or Hindus? Or Jews and Muslims, for that matter?
But what’s fascinating about the esoteric communities that the questioner mentioned: Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and Rosicrucianism, is that they all incorporate at least some Christian ideas, teachings, and symbolism into their own spirituality and culture. So why are so many Christians so hostile to these communities?
Let’s break that down into two parts. First, why are so many Christians hostile to all other spiritual or religious paths? And second, why are Christians specifically uncomfortable with esotericism or occultism?
The Image of God Makes a Difference
To answer the first question — why are so many Christians uncomfortable with all religions or spiritualities other than their own — I think it really goes back to the question of how we visualize God. If we imagine God as wrathful, controlling, angry at the slightest disobedience, and utterly opposed to any deviation from the “one true faith,” then we will naturally be hesitant to find anything good or true or beautiful in any spiritual or wisdom tradition that is in any way different from our own.
Of course, this begs the obvious question: who gets to decide what the “one true faith” is? Pit an ultra-traditionalist Catholic against an ultra-fundamentalist evangelical, and you find they both are utterly convinced that God has blessed their flavor of Christian, to the exclusion of all others. One places his hope in the Catholic Church, the other places his hope in the Bible. And perhaps I should say, one places his hope in a very authoritarian understanding of the Catholic Church, while the other places his hope in a very authoritarian reading of the Bible. So they actually seem to have a lot in common, at least psychologically speaking. And I bet their “image of God” is very similar as well.
Thankfully, most Christians today are not in the thrall of such a mean-spirited way of thinking about God. And Christians who have an image of God which, I believe, is closer to the teachings of Christ and the New Testament — a God of radical love, profound forgiveness, endless compassion and mercy, who seeks to bring people together rather than sow division and discord — are more likely to be friendly to any non-Christians: Buddhist or Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, Wiccan or Rosicrucian, who exhibit a similar commitment to an evolved spirituality. But this still leaves us with the second part of the question: why are so many Christians — even beyond the ultra-fundamentalists — still so uncomfortable with the esoteric and occult worlds?
Differences in Belief Can Be an Obstacle
Above, I mentioned that Christianity has more in common with western esotericism and occultism than it has in common with most other religions, and that is true enough. But there are still significant differences in belief and practice. And those differences, for many people (even people of goodwill) can be a barrier to positive interaction.
For example, most occultists believe in reincarnation, or are at least open to the idea. Mainstream Christianity, however, has a long tradition of rejecting the very idea of reincarnation as a heresy. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds here, but mainstream Christianity will say each human being, soul and body, is a unique expression of God’s love, and so to suggest that the soul migrates from body to body, incarnation to incarnation, is a subtle way of rejecting the goodness of the body. This is why the Apostle’s Creed says “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The molecules may not be exactly the same (the human body cycles through many different molecules in its lifetime), but orthodox Christianity says that in heaven we will have bodies that are recognizably the same as what we currently have. Reincarnation doesn’t seem to make that possible (Again, my point here is neither to defend Christian orthodoxy nor to attack reincarnation, but simply to explain why mainstream Christians might find at least some esoteric teachings unacceptable).
Then there’s the question of magic. I know not all occultists or esotericists practice magic, but many do. And we need to acknowledge that magic often means different things to different people and groups. So, what is magic? Is it using the imagination to harness the energy of creativity, an energy which can then be shaped to foster positive change in one’s life? Or does it entail summoning spirits to get them to do your bidding? I imagine most Christians would be fairly open to the first way of understanding magic, but most if not all of orthodox Christians would be very uncomfortable with the second understanding — even if it’s just seen as metaphorical. Why? Because Christianity, at its best, eschews any kind of spiritual coercion or control. It is not our place to conjure spirits (whether angelic or demonic) to coerce or cajole them into submitting to our will. In the eyes of Christian orthodoxy, that’s spiritual slavery, and slavery is just as wrong in a spiritual sense as it is in a material sense.
There’s plenty more we can discuss, of course. And I know as I write this, that I am probably oversimplifying some very complex issues (for example, could the “conjuring of spirits” actually be a metaphor for trying to positively integrate one’s shadow?). But again, my purpose is simply to explain why Christians who adhere to an orthodox understanding of Christianity typically remain uncomfortable with occultism.
But What About All the Good People?
Now, the person who asked the question mentions that he knows a number of esoteric or occult writers and practitioners who have impressed him with their wisdom, sincerity, and goodness. I have no doubt that this is the case. And this is one reason why I believe that interfaith and interspiritual dialogue is such a good thing: it helps us to connect with people of integrity and goodwill even when their spiritual or religious affiliation is different from our own. I believe that we can all learn many good things from one another, and that when we form friendships and cooperative relationships, we are embodying the Christian mandate to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” So this kind of positive interaction is a good thing.
But it also requires a measure of tolerance, respect, and willingness to abide with differences — on both sides. For reasons related to the “image of God” issue I described above, many Christians are simply not ready to engage in that kind of positive, friendly interfaith encounter. But some are. And I hope that people in the occult and esoteric world, who are as willing to engage in interfaith dialogue as some Christians are, will choose to become active in interfaith organizations (there are many at both local and national/international levels, one good example is the Parliament of World Religions). That way they can, in fact, interact with Christians who will not summarily dismiss them or reject them just because they are “different.” And that, I think, would be a good thing, and perhaps could contribute to making the world a more kind and loving place.