Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Secular Age Part 2: The Revolt Against Magic

So the first post in this series brought us up to the Middle Ages, with an entrenched social division between the Christian “virtuosi” and the other folks who were still going about their worldly business, participating in the Christian life more indirectly by supporting the Church, taking the sacraments, and praying to saints, often embodied in holy relics. Taylor writes that this sort of social arrangement was common throughout Christendom, and indeed everywhere that the more otherworldly religions had become established, such as Platonism and Buddhism. But, the late medieval era in western Europe was distinguished by people being bothered by it.

Here Taylor (who is Catholic) differs somewhat from the Protestant version of history that I learned, in that he sees this concern about religious inequality coming as much from the elite as from below. He admits that he doesn’t know exactly why they were so concerned about it at that time, but offers a few plausible theories. For one, even the 1200s were beginning to see the appearance of new elites, alongside the old landed aristocrats, who would come to define modernity: the merchants, the scholars, the bureaucrats, and so on. They were, in other words, early meritocrats, so I suppose it’s not surprising they’d be bothered by a gap between standards and practice. Another point Taylor makes is that, while Christianity in its eastern Mediterranean homeland had a chance to spread as a grassroots movement before it became a state religion, those in the Germanic world adopted it much later — Sweden didn’t officially go Christian until the 1100s — and often at the fiat of a king. So Taylor suggests that the peasants in these regions were still pagan in many ways.

In Taylor’s view, the peasants basically absorbed Christianity into their worldview by seeing the Church as a source of beneficial magic. In some ways this was not hard, because of medieval Catholicism’s use of rituals, sacred objects, and pilgrimages, which fits paganism’s view that certain places and things are “charged” with magical power. However, due to the worldly concerns of paganism that I mentioned in the last post, the way people tended to interpret “beneficial” was “beneficial to me and my kin in some practical way.” So we have reports of people taking home the eucharist and trying to use it as a love charm, or saying a funeral Mass for someone who’s still alive, in the hopes it would make him die.

The reformers at the time — which included wandering freelance preachers as well as some actual church officials — tried to counter such behavior by emphasizing the transience of those worldly concerns in the face of eternity. In time, according to Taylor, this turned into a kind of obsession with death. Apparently this era sees the birth of the evangelism tactic we all love to hate: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” Which was a change in practice not just because of its emphasis on fear, but because of the whole idea that when you die you’ll face immediate judgment. This was, actually, something I’ve always wondered about, because it seems to take away the whole point of the Last Judgment that the Bible spends so much time on. And indeed, Taylor writes that in the first millennium of Christianity, once the idea of an immediate apocalypse faded, the Last Judgment was basically tacked onto the end of the existing popular view of the afterlife, where the soul separates from the body and persists as a kind of shadow.

The new emphasis on instant judgment scared people not only on their own behalf, but also on behalf of loved ones already dead. Taylor writes that the conflict over the sale of indulgences for souls in purgatory, which was such a hot issue in the Reformation, was set up by the public’s rising fears about the departed’s suffering and corresponding sense of responsibility. But the people’s rising sense of their own sinfulness also scared them away from the more earthly manifestations of God. Taylor points out that another feature of the pagan view of magic is that even when it’s beneficial it can be sort of dangerous to work with, like electricity. With God’s moral judgment so at odds with their own desires, many common folk started avoiding sacraments altogether, even communion, for fear that contact between God’s magic and their own wickedness would make something bad happen.

But one lesson that Taylor draws from this — which I can always get behind — is that if you scare people too much, you’re setting yourself up for a backlash. Thus, even before the Protestant movement as such got going, some late-medieval heretic groups such as the Waldensians were challenging the idea that the sacraments and relics actually had powers at all. They did this basically by invoking the purity of monotheism, and claiming God’s power over and above all magic, unconstrained by particular places, times, and things. Martin Luther, for one, believed in sacraments, but you can see how his doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, answered the overriding concerns of the time. Essentially, it assured the fearful masses that God’s grace was not a magical energy force, but an act of forgiveness and love, and to be a Christian is simply to believe in that. In this way, God’s action moves from ‘out there’ to inside a person’s soul — a first step toward the buffered self.

But it’s not like anyone back then was going to instantly displace the enchanted world with a modern mechanical one, because such an theory of nature didn’t exist. This emerges in Taylor’s answer to a question all this raised in my mind: if one of the key features of Protestantism was demystification of magic, why did Protestants participate in the witch-hunting craze that broke out at that time? Taylor suggests that came from the developing view that since the Church was no longer a source of ‘white magic’, all magic was black — the work of Satan, whom all the reformers definitely believed in. And actually, when I think about it I can imagine how depriving the populace of white magic could in its own way lead to paranoia. In societies nowadays where witchcraft is practiced, the way to fight magic is with magic: if you think someone’s hexed you, you go to the local sorcerer to figure out how to undo it — and perhaps cook up a revenge hex of your own. If Christians now believed they couldn’t do that, but still believed they could get hexed, it’s not all that surprising they tried to violently stamp out witchcraft altogether.

The actual development of a mechanical worldview in which magic is totally ineffectual would take much longer. And that is the subject of the next post.

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