Magic and Religion: an LDS perspective, Part 1
Far away, across the fields
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell
-Pink Floyd: “Breathe (Reprise),” Dark Side of the Moon
Christianity has an uneasy relationship with magic, to greater or lesser degrees among its branches. Mormons are some of the wariest of all, which is ironic when you consider the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The regions of North America that nurtured this faith have also hosted folk magic practices for hundreds of years. Since the rise of various new age movements, notably Wicca and Neopaganism, modern aspirants to magic have been attracted to these homegrown systems. In response to this, people who work to preserve these traditions take pains to point out that they are firmly based in Christianity, and are not to be taken for any kind of crypto-paganism. The purpose of all these charms, incantations and concoctions was to bring about miracles – usually healing – by the power of God.
Along with this went a very real belief in and fear of witchcraft: if God could give power through special rituals, then so could the Devil, and much of the work of a Cunning Person (of whatever tradition) is to protect against evil enchantments. (As a side note, the notorious “heavy metal sign” with the index and little fingers extended comes from an Italian gesture of protection against the “evil eye.”)
Mormon attitudes to magic range from dismissive to fearful, with a healthy dose of defensiveness along the spectrum. Such defensiveness is perfectly understandable: the difference between “faith” and “miracles” on one hand and “magic” on the other looks entirely relative from a psychological perspective. Much depends on what words are chosen to describe phenomena and experiences – and who chooses those words. Any given group may identify its practices and rituals as religion and others' as magic – and in so doing, project its shadow.
And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics, and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land
- Mormon 1:19
These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 76: 103-105
Church members should not engage in any form of Satan worship or affiliate in any way with the occult. ‘Such activities are among the works of darkness spoken of in the scriptures. They are designed to destroy one’s faith in Christ, and will jeopardize the salvation of those who knowingly promote this wickedness. These things should not be pursued as games, be topics in Church meetings, or be delved into in private, personal conversations.’ (First Presidency letter, Sept. 18, 1991).
-Handbook 2: Administering the Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Official teaching holds that Satanic minions do in fact roam the world seeking to do mischief, and in popular understanding, “messing with magic,” even experimenting with common divination tools like Tarot cards or Ouija boards is a perfect way to open the door to such mischief. While Joseph Smith canonized instructions on how to tell if an otherworldly messenger is trustworthy or not (Doctrine and Covenants Section 129), and the early days of the Church were noted for angelic visitations and dramatic manifestations of spiritual gifts (like speaking in tongues), in today's church that sort of thing is greatly downplayed.
Still, from a psychological perspective many rituals and practices still exist in the LDS Church that could be considered magical. The Mormon version of the Eucharist lacks the dogma of transubstantiation but is still seen as a potent renewal of baptism, itself a ritual that enacts a transformation of the soul through a symbolic enactment of death and rebirth.
Mormon fear of magic goes along with a general unease with ceremony. For the most part the really important thing in Mormon ordinances is the faith and worthiness of those taking part. As such, the working of miracles through faith in Mormon belief might not look very magical: “no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations.” Though there are points of mechanical procedure that are prescribed with some precision, in the non-secret rituals these are minimal to the point of austerity.
The secret rituals are another matter (and Mormons get touchy about the use of the adjective “secret” even though it fits). These are understood as a gift of power from heaven which enable a soul to reach its final destination in unity with God. And then there is the remarkable “Patriarchal Blessing.” The title, so unfortunate to modern ears, is a metaphor of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their prophetic blessings to their sons. The practice offers an individual a private prophecy to help direct their life, given by a man with a special calling (in the early days of the Church, such men were referred to as “evangelists").
Describing these rituals as “magic” might seem very disrespectful or offensive to those who identify strongly with the tradition. While a psychological imagination can see the kinship between magic and religion, some believers find this hard to take: Dr. Jung constantly defended himself against accusations from Christian clergy that he reduced the message of our faith to nothing more than a working of the mind.
Jung's work gets it from both sides: believers who resent their faith practice sharing any names with what they regard as devilish counterfeits, and skeptics who despise magic and religion alike as a pathology unbecoming enlightened and civilized people.
Since Jung's great work was the reconciliation of opposites, I write in service of that goal.
Magic and Religion: an LDS perspective, Part 2
In 1994 the journal Dialogue published an article by Dr. Lance Owens: “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection.” One of Owens' sources was Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn – who had been excommunicated the year before. Quinn's work had been used as source material for the popular anti-Mormon comic book The Visitors, so Owens was hitting a nerve. The mid 1990s in the Utah Mormon culture zone were also marked by lingering fears of Satanic cults (anyone who lived in Provo at the time probably heard all sorts of urban legends about goings-on in the old Academy building before it was renovated as the new city library). The word “occult” had picked up plenty of negative baggage through popular media already, and the use of it in such a context at such a time was bound to ruffle some feathers, as Owens himself anticipated.
In 1996 William J. Hamblin wrote a footnote-laden dressing-down of Owens' article. In pointing out its scholarly shortcomings he elegantly missed the real point, because after all the purpose was not only to deflect suspicion of any “occult” connection to Joseph Smith's experience or mission but to continue deprecating and depreciating any similarities between the two at all – similarities which I for one came to find inspiring rather than alarming. It took another nine years for the Mormon establishment to come around to admitting Joseph Smith's magic background, after a fashion: in Richard Bushman's authorized biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling we read that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture” (p. 50) and there is even a frank admission of the seerstone “blending magic with inspired translation” of the Book of Mormon (p. 131). Even so, Bushman downplayed the association, casting magic as a “preparatory gospel” for Smith's prophetic calling (p. 54).
The original meaning of the word “occult” after all being “hidden,” it would behoove us Mormons to consider how often our unique scripture mentions hidden knowledge. One striking example comes from the “Word of Wisdom”:
And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments . . . shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures (Doctrine and Covenants Section 89:18-19, my emphasis)
We might consider Alma's sermon to the Zoramites, with a beautiful metaphor of a Tree of Life growing in each individual soul (Alma 32), the gnostic experiences of several Lamanite rulers (Alma 19, 22), and disciples of Christ at the time of his visit (3 Nephi 26, 28). Sometimes people shared what they learned through their experiences, sometimes they were told to keep it a secret, like Nephi (1 Nephi 14:28), Alma the younger (Alma 12:9), Mormon (3 Nephi 26:11), the Brother of Jared and Moroni (Ether 4).
Our religion is of God, their magic is of the Devil – this is too easy an accusation to make. Even in the Book of Mormon there are several instances of the true prophets being accused of deceiving people by their “cunning arts” (1 Ne 16:38), “the power of the devil” (Alma 15:15), and “the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one” (Helaman 16:21). Accusations, labels, meanings, are so easily used as weapons against those whom a group fears or distrusts, that an earnest truth-seeker can't afford to take such words at face value.
A psychological understanding, or a psychological imagination, helps us understand that magic and/or the occult is a way of engaging with the unconscious or the realm of the imaginative (one modern practitioner calls it the science of experiencing Truth). To recognize this means to admit the close kinship of magic and religion as branches from the same root – indeed interchangeable depending on one's point of view. There can be two ways of dealing with this:
- a fundamentalist rejection of any religious expression outside one's own,
- or a curiosity about the different ways that Truth is perceived and sought from different perspectives.
If the theologian really believes in the almighty power of God on the one hand and in the validity of dogma on the other, why then does he not trust God to speak in the soul? Why this fear of psychology? Or is, in complete contradiction to dogma, the soul itself a hell from which only demons gibber? (Jung: Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works Vol. 12, p. 19)
In a series of lectures on the gnostic myth of Sophia, Dr. Owens talks about this secular age and its intolerance for transcendence. Fueled in part by absurd fundamentalist insistence on impossible dogmas as fact, a rationalist attitude has grown which pathologizes myth and gnosis (an attitude reflected by Korihor, one of the most notorious figures in the Book of Mormon). To believe in any religion or myth in light of modern scientific knowledge requires setting aside or overcoming both the rationalist dismissal of myth and the fundamentalist dismissal of fact.
When we open our mind to the possibility of revelations of something from outside the secular or even religious ego – and if we also open our minds to a pragmatic means of measuring the claims of such revelations based on the criteria given in Alma 32 – then we have the opportunity to see the dogmas of our professed creeds with new eyes: to recognize their value as myth (here I would also recommend Dr. Owens' lectures on Tolkien's mythopoeia). This means ceasing to disparage or even define myth as false distraction from truth, and instead seeing it as a way to approach Truth. This is how we can truly recognize the value of others’ myths, and our own.
No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning, and beauty and that has given a new splendour to the world and to mankind. He has pistis and peace. Where is the criterion by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such experience is not valid and that such pistis is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live? (Jung: Psychology and Religion - Collected Works vol. 11, p. 113)
We might evaluate the ways our neighbors engage with myth and the psyche by truly perceiving the fruits of their actions rather than relying on rumor or applying the yardstick of dogmatic correctness like a punishing rod. We may still have the option of holding out faith in metaphysical facts concerning the “ultimate things,” but even if that loses traction to a more pragmatic approach, might we not find that the humility, empathy, respect and compassion we gain in return is after all the treasure our faith enjoined us to seek?
Those who found these posts interesting might also be interested in a pagan's view of Joseph Smith in this article.