My wife Kathy has been watching some shows about a certain religious movement from the 19th century, one that is sometimes seen as a cult and that prompted a discussion that readers may find interesting, hence this post.
I’ve grouped Magic, Restorationism, and Gnosticism together because, at their core, these three practices attempt to reclaim power and glory by adherence to ancient practices and lore in hopes that, if we just get the details absolutely right, the storied past will be recreated and imbued with supernatural power, now, in the afterlife, or in the end times when the dead will be resurrected.
Full disclosure: I myself believe in, and count on, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come which is the Kingdom of God, but the path to acceptance in that kingdom, in my view, is in helping other people achieve their best potentials, not in adherence to ancient ways. I think that because of an ancient message, the good news of Christ Jesus, and I believe that all paths to that kingdom rely on the intercession of our friend and King, Jesus.
When we talk about magic, we’re not talking about tricks. We’re talking about the serious belief that certain spells, incantations, potions, and the like are effective in curing disease, in harming others, in warding off bad events, in telling the future, in causing love, and a host of other things that people want to do. This type of magic, often in what we’d call shamanism or the use of ‘witch doctors’, was prevalent throughout the ancient world and is still prevalent in many areas, including developed countries such as Korea.
Underneath the rituals, some very effective cures to disease did and do exist, but not through magical powers and incantations. It’s the ingredients, and the placebo effect, you see. Ingredients like tree bark that produced aspirin, molds that contained antibiotic elements, lots of things like this existed and exist. Indeed, remedies are still sought in the most exotic of places from natural sources that may be in use by people whom we dare call primitive.
We must guard ourselves against the seductive lure that the ancients had super powers, had some primary interface to the soul of the universe from which they were able to do wield great power as we see in the stories about Merlin. That is the lure of magic, that if you just get it right like the ancients did presto! you can change an enemy into a toad. Or kill a fig tree for that matter.
But it doesn’t “work”, and it never did. It’s not repeatable because it never worked in the first place, not because of the phase of the moon or an error in an incantation or an impure thought. If we talk about the supernatural or spiritual realm, the illusion of magic is that the magician is in control and that they can force supernatural powers to bend to their will. That notion is dangerous and theologically bankrupt. Humans do not control supernatural powers, without the help of other supernatural powers, nor do we control supernatural beings and any notion that one does have control is dangerous to self and others, even if the danger is a madness in the basic belief rather than a spiritual event.
Restorationism involves the general notion that we’ve lost something from the early Christian Church as practiced by the Apostles in the first century CE. There are several denominations, but the binding tie is that we’ve gotten it wrong and need to return to our roots. And why would one believe this? The reasons are legion. Some say that salvation will be withheld from those who do not return to the correct path established by the early church from which we have strayed risking our immortal souls. Some say that the trinity is nonsense and that all worship should be directed to the Ancient of Days. That’s not as far fetched as it may sound. The difference between Jesus being the image bearer of God and being a person of the trinity is significant, and Jesus is only called God one time in the Gospels (John 20:28).
What I want to point out here is that Restorationism, like the lure of magic, promises that if we just get it right like they did in ancient times, things will ‘work’. Some of these teachings presuppose that the Holy Spirit and the power of the Apostles has fled due to our disobedience or due to our failing to do things ‘right’ as the early church did. In that way, it’s just like magic, you see. We should note that the Apostles were almost all brutally murdered and remember that salvation transcends death.
In the case of whom God will bless, I have some personal experiences: I’ve been healed by Jesus twice, nothing amazing here, this happens all of the time. And I was not a member of a church at the time albeit I did call on Him for help. No, He did not cure my blindness due to Cataracts, but He did give me the confidence and all but a name of the person to whom I should go. The power has never fled, it’s just not ours to control in the first place. And why one person gets help and another doesn’t is beyond my comprehension. I am certainly not worthy of help from God, far from it. Maybe He likes hard luck cases, maybe He gives you what you need to believe, I don’t know. We must trust that He does know.
The bottom line is that when we listen to what people tell us regarding these things, remember that the burden is on you to study and understand what you’re being told. If you want to believe in magic, go ahead. But don’t think that it will be harmless, because it will require elements of ritual purity and strict obedience, shunning non-believers, and the like. Take time out and read community rule from the dead sea scrolls (1QS to be specific). That’s an ancient treatise on Jewish restorationism – the Yahad or community had rejected the temple as having become impure due to the incorrect lineage of the high priests. Those people were wiped out during the fall of Jerusalem, either in 70 CE or 135 CE.
Restorationism can be a manifestation of the same strict rules and rigor associated with the Temple Cult that Jesus overthrew. People thought that the Temple in Jerusalem would be protected by the Ancient of Days if they just got it right. They were wrong, the temple fell. Jesus predicted it. Consider these things, and also take a look at my bibliography post and read the writings of some of these early church fathers to see what you think. You will find, and uncomfortably so, that from the very start, Bishops (eposcopi) were seen as gods to the people, having immense authority. Did Jesus wield his authority that way? We should ask these things.
The most difficult study that I’ve undertaken in the past decade was that of Gnosticism, especially the Meyer’s treatment of the writings found at Nag Hammadi. It was difficult because the concepts are so vastly different from my own world view and I had to make a lot of accommodations to stop rejecting every concept in order to understand what was being said. I’m pretty open minded, at least so I think, but the concepts were so utterly irrational that, well, it’s as if 2+2 adds up to a dozen spheres rather than a sum of 4.
The primary element of Gnosticism, gnosis meaning knowledge, is that some secret knowledge is available and required in order to attain levels of spiritual enlightenment, power, and salvation. The knowledge attained by a seer who has made the trip to the ultimate destination, I suppose we could call this heaven, and is passed down to a select few. Sometimes this is in the form of progressive prophetic revelation.
Your basic movies and so forth will say that this is the belief that our world is not real and that other parallel realities are more real. That’s not quite correct. It is correct to say that most Gnostic systems involve multiple universes, most often called Aeons or ages, each of which contain all time. It is not correct to say that they are more or less real than our own existence; they are simultaneous if time can be used. Since each age contains all time, this is a difficult concept at best.
Many Gnostic texts view our plane of existence as an imperfect Age accidentally created by Sophia (wisdom personified – Sophia, in Greek, means Wisdom, deified) in imitation of the one true God whose Age cannot be approached but from which everything has proceeded. In her bungled creation, Sophia created a god-like being that Gnosticism holds to be the god that has interacted with the people on earth. Note the lower case g in god. This god, they say, did not actually breath life into mankind, it was Sophia without his knowing. Therefore the bluster of the Old Testament about one god is all arrogance on the part of this less-than-a-deity immortal, often called the demiurge or craftsman god – not a creator, a craftsman using what others have created. In gnostic texts, demiurge is a pejorative, always. This springs, partially, from Plato who viewed God has the ultimate craftsman, having used that which was present to craft the best of all possible universes but having a limitation of what was given him – not a pejorative in Plato’s view.
The secret knowledge provide through the seer in the Gnostic faith, in this case, provides the escape from the misanthropic god through to Sophia and, sometimes, Christ Jesus and the fullness, the pleroma.
Gnosticism involves very precise rituals and incantations. Glossolalia (sounds of people speaking in tongues) must be exactly produced. There is usually a progression in Gnostic circles as the initiate progresses towards being a master of the secrets.
And there we are again, it’s magic.
Like time, our lives move forward with wisdom gained from the past. The notion that great secrets from the past have been lost is true, after all, concrete was a Roman invention and we’ve just now found the last ingredient, a certain volcanic ash, that made their concrete better, stronger than ours. But the path to discovery is through research, not through recreating past cultures and rituals.
It is wise to study the past and learn from it. But records are imperfect, and incomplete. Even the Bible calls out books that we don’t have (2 Samuel 1:18 – Book of Jashan, 1 Kings 11:41 Book of the Acts of Solomon, 1 Kings 14:49 Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah, 1 Kings 16:4 Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. In all, 37 references to the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah or Israel are made). And, if we had them all, they still would not be complete because lots of things are unstated and depend on knowledge that we no longer have. Corroboratory sources are necessary to bridge the gaps and confirm historicity and accuracy. This simply must be taken into account.
Most of all, think. Don’t be led down the easy path, the promised short cut. That’s the bottom line.