21 September 2008

Can good Catholics dabble in New Age practices? (Revised)

In this post I want to offer what most Christians believe to be the very basics of our faith. By way of comparison, I will offer as well the New Age/neo-pagan revision of these beliefs, concluding that the two are incompatiable in a single spirituality. For those Christians who may be considering engaging in some sort of spiritual practice that might be suspect, I offer a series of questions at the end to help you decide whether or not any particular practice is compatiable with the faith. This comparison and my questions are of necessity incomplete but nonetheless a good start. Also, as a Catholic priest, one shouldn't be surprised that I have written from a decidedly Catholic perspective.

I. Christian Basics

GOD: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, all this is seen and unseen…” GOD is. No predicate the human mind can discover or invent, no predicate that the human tongue can pronounce or garble can follow the verb “is” in that sentence and be absolutely accurate. In fact, “GOD IS.” God is not a being, the sort of being that possesses existence as a quality. GOD is BEING, per se. Paradoxically, God is wholly Other and intimately Father; He is Absolute Distance and Necessary Love. In more traditional terms, God is both utterly transcendent and personally immanent. Given this, Christians cannot think of their Creator as The Watchmaker Who Makes and then abandons what he has made, or as Earth Spirit, our planet as a god. The Watchmaker image denies God’s immanence in His creation. The Earth Spirit image denies God’s transcendence.

CREATION: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . .and saw that it was good.” Christians prejudice the description of all the things around us when we call these things collectively “creation.” By definition a creature is something that is created, that is, made by its creator. A wedding cake is a creation of the pastry chef. We do not find wedding cakes growing naturally in the forest. Cars are designed and made by engineers. We do not dig up new cars like we would potatoes. Creation, the whole universe seen and unseen, is a creation, designed, made, and sustained by its Creator, God. Creation cannot be its own Creator. This follows logically. That which is created cannot be its own creator since it would first have to exist in order to create itself. That which does not exist cannot cause itself to exist because it would have to exist first in order to be a causal agent. Given this, Christians cannot believe that creation is its own creator. All of creation is necessarily dependent on its Creator, utterly contingent, wholly and completely gratuitous. Creation is worthy of our care because the Creator called His creation “very good.” However, since “goodness” applied to creatures makes sense only in reference to Goodness Himself, Christians cannot worship God’s good creation as they would God Himself.

CHRIST: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…who for us men and our salvation… was crucified…suffered, died, and was buried and rose again…” For Christians, Christ is understood simultaneously in three different ways: Christ the Anointed One (both human and divine), Christ the Event (the coming), and Christ the End (the coming again). Christ the Anointed One is both human and divine, fully man and fully God. He is the Word spoken at creation (“God said…”). He is the Word made flesh (“Born of the Virgin Mary…) and He is the final and unique Self-revelation of God (“And the Word was God…”). The coming of the Christ into human history was an intervention, a breaking into both our lives as humans and into the stories we tell about our lives. He came for a very specific purpose: to offer us the chance to be reconciled to the Father and to live with Him eternally. To accomplish this purpose, he suffered for us, died for us, and rose again in order to make it possible for us to follow him back to the Father. He not only shows us the way back, he is the Way Back. And not only is he the Way Back, he is right now who we will be once we are back: both human and divine, immaculate spirit and resurrected flesh, perfectly human. Given this, Christians cannot believe that Jesus is merely human, or merely divine, or only a teacher/prophet/sage, or that he is one of many saviors sent by God. Jesus Christ is final. He is unique. And his is the only name given under heaven and on earth of our salvation.

To sum up: Christians believe that God is wholly Other and intimately present and working in His creation, a creation that is entirely dependent on His will to exist. Christians believe that the Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation for creation. No other god, prophet, sage, teacher, or savior can offer God’s human creatures the intimate relationship necessary to draw us to Himself.

II. New Age/Neo-Pagan Revisions

Typically, the New Age movement rejects these ideas and replaces them with what amounts to pantheism, that is, a belief that God is His creation, that creation is not only holy but divine, and that Jesus is one savior among many who make it possible for us to find ultimate happiness and peace.

Since the beginning of the Church at Pentecost, Catholics have embraced some combination of these false teachings in order to do what Adam and Eve wanted to do in the Garden—make themselves gods without God. The serpent offered our first parents the knowledge they needed to bypass the laws of their Creator so that they might join the divine pantheon without His assistance. Since that time, various “Gnosticisms” (salvation by knowing how) have plagued the Church. These Gnosticisms are easily identified in the Church today: the rejection of the finality and uniqueness of Christ by overemphasizing his “cosmic” character and by turning his incarnation into an archetypal event that has happened many times before and after the birth of Jesus; the rejection of the apostolic Church as Christ’s living body in an attempt to diffuse the authentic witness of the apostles so that personal experience becomes the sole criterion for the truth of the faith; the rejection of the historical character of the Christ event as essential to determining the nature of the Church herself, that is, by rejecting the historical facts of Christ’s life (that he was a man, that he was a first-century Jew, etc.), New Age Catholics foster false teachings such as the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and that the primacy of Peter among the apostles was merely an organizational convenience; the rejection of the Church’s liturgical heritage in favor of syncretistic ritual, novelty for the sake of novelty in sacramental practice, and an emphasis on the sacred feminine that borders on goddess worship (for example, the so-called “Sophia Christologies” of feminist theologians and the insistence of these feminists that the Church embrace inclusive language when addressing God in liturgy, “Our Mother who art in Heaven…”).

Most all of the religious practices of New Age Catholics are in some way a rejection of the proper relationship between the Creator and His creation. Believing that they will make themselves into gods without God, these folks embrace any number of liturgical practices that focus their intellect and will on themselves, making themselves into their own end. In other words, they worship themselves as already divine but fundamentally ignorant of their own divinity. Liturgical worship then becomes a matter of “coming to know” themselves more fully as always-already divine. Of course, this sort of Gnostic salvation creates a class of Fully Knowing Christians who are enlightened in their divinity. And, predictably, this elite class chafes at the authority of the Body of Christ when taught the truth that they are not enlightened but rather darkened in their rejection of the faith.

III. Discernment Questions

Given all of this, how does a faithful Catholic avoid New Ageism in his or her spiritual journey back to God? Ask these questions:

1). Does this practice clearly embody the proper relationship between myself as a dependent creature and God as my creator? Am I being taught to see myself as divine rather than good and holy?

2) Does this practice require me to reject the historical facts presented to me in scripture and tradition? (e.g., does the practice require me to reject Jesus as both fully human and fully divine incarnated as a first-century Jewish man?)

3). Does this practice lead me outward to God, or inward toward myself? (NB. A properly Catholic practice might lead you inward to God but in the end God is always both immanent and transcendent; that is, God is not found solely “inside me.”)

4). Does this practice have a reputable history in the long tradition of the Church herself, or is it something recently invented, cobbled together from other traditions, or merely an updated Gnostic practice rejected in the first four centuries of the Church?

5). Does this practice require me to involve myself with “spirit guides” or “energies” that lay claim to an existence apart from God as Creator?

6). Does this practice require me to reject as fundamental to my created nature my dignity as one made in the image and likeness of God Himself? Or to reject in another person his/her dignity as a creature of a loving God? (e.g., any practice that requires you to reject your embodied spirit as male/female, or violates human dignity by making the person into something easily killed, enslaved, neglected, etc.).

7). Does this practice ask me to ignore God’s providence by seeking answers to questions or seeking after insights into my future through divination?

8). Does this practice ask me to worship other gods or make created things into idols? (e.g., some forms of meditation, yoga, healing all rest on false notions of the body/spirit relationship and require a certain amount of willful negligence of one’s Creator).

9). Does this practice assume my accomplished divinity and then ask me to become more aware of this divinity as a means to salvation/enlightenment?

10). Does this practice explicitly make Jesus Christ the only mediator between myself as a member of the Body of Christ and the Father, or does it require me to place someone else or something else between me and my Creator? (e.g., some forms of “dedication to the Blessed Mother" dangerously push this essential spiritual truth, that is, some prayers in private liturgies explicitly require the believer to acknowledge the B.V.M. as the savior.)

11. Does this practice rely solely on the power of God to achieve His desired end for me and with me, or does it require me to believe that I am capable of manipulating God through ritual or prayer? (e.g., some forms of popular devotion border on the magical in practice, "guaranteed never to fail novenas")

12). Finally, does this practice require me to understand my blessings and gifts as self-made, or am I encouraged to give thanks to God for all that I am and all that I have.

IV. Conclusion: Obedience

This list of questions could go on for several more pages. These are a few of the essential questions to get you started. The best way to avoid New Ageism in your spiritual practice is to obey the Church, that is, to listen carefully to the teachings of the Church and submit yourself to the long wisdom of our mothers and fathers in the faith. This is not some sort of “blind faith,” but rather the practice of humility and trust. Before rejecting a teaching of the Church as false or harmful, ask yourself this question: “Am I smarter, wiser, holier than 2,000 years of God’s saints?” And even if you still find yourself wanting to reject a teaching of the Church, rather than assuming that the Church is wrong and that you are right, assume for the sake of argument that you have misunderstood the teaching and seek after clarification. In my experience, people who have rejected the Church have done so not because they disagree with what the Church actually teaches but because they have failed to understand the Church. I am reminded of the example of a young man who approached me one time and informed me that he had left the Catholic Church because his roommate’s Bible Church pastor had shown him that Catholics worship Mary, a practice condemned by the bible. He was shocked to hear me say that the Catholic Church also condemns the worship of Mary as idolatrous. Without first understanding the Church’s teaching, this young man left the Church not because he disagreed with the Church, but because he failed to understand.

UPDATE: If you would like for me to answer a specific question, I will do so briefly in the combox. Unfortunately, email/comboxes are not the best forum for protracted spiritual direction. If your question is a little more involved, go ahead and leave it in the combox and I will either answer it or refer you to a source for more info.

While you're here, you might as well check out my
U.S. WISH LIST and/or my U.K. WISH LIST (scroll down the list for the philosophy books) and help a friar out with the books he needs for classes this academic year! (I know, I know. . .shameless. . .but my book budget is VERY small this year! Tom, I saw that!) :-)

Oh! And the Sunday homily is almost done. . .I'm a little behind in my work. . .we start past tense Italian verbs tomorrow and I'm not sure I know the present tense all that well.

My Occult Past (such as it was...)

What I want to do with this post is point out an ancient theme in the life of the Church that shadows her ministry of teaching the apostolic faith. To do this, I want to tell a bit of my story (a VERY small bit) as a kind of witness to what happens when we give ourselves over to the relativism of the zeitgeist. My goal here is not to denounce or condemn but to inform and caution. This post is written specifically for Christians who are either dabbling in New Agey ideas and practices or those thinking of doing so. This post is not intended to persuade those who have left the Church for various occult practices to return to the Church. Nor am I offering here a systematic philosophical critique of occultism/neo-paganism. I am writing as a Christian priest for Christians who are tempted by a darker side. . .

Was I involved in the occult? Yes. How much so? More than most, not as much as some. Basically, I was an observer and a sympathizer but never a practitioner; that is, I was an avid reader of occult books and an eager audience for occult ideas, but I was never initiated into any occult group nor have I ever really participated in any occult ritual. At most, I can be faulted for attending a few Wiccan Circles at Halloween and invoking angels as a kind of magical power. The worst thing I ever did was become an expert Tarot card reader.

My interest in the occult was always a conscious rejection of Christ. During my years of occult interest I was an Episcopalian, mostly fallen away, but nonetheless fully aware of my baptismal duties and readily admitted to communion in the Church as a confirmed member. Nothing in my family background or schooling or childhood would have predicted an interest in the occult.

My earliest memories of the occult revolve around an near obsession with the TV shows Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Nothing exactly dark and loathsome there. However, the idea that it was possible for me as a human to manipulate matter with my will alone was very, very compelling. Now, I never believed that the kind of magic done on those shows was really possible. But they stoked my imagination and lead me to further studies.

As a teenager I played with a Ouija Board with one of my friends. We did all the things that kids do to scare themselves—looked for ghosts, chanted “Bloody Mary” in front of the mirror, etc. My first inkling that this sort of thing might be dangerous came when I read a second-hand book on demonology. Is this stuff really, really real? This book scared me just enough to push me into a deeper curiosity and further research. By this time I had been introduced to the Catholic Church on a class trip to Mexico. All of the sacramental elements of the Church were on full-display in the Mexican Baroque churches we visited, especially the National Cathedral. Our Lady of Guadalupe grabbed me in Mexico City, and I had a profound conversion experience at 17, feeling powerfully the call to be a priest. Never having been to Mass or confession or anything else remotely Catholic, this experience of being called to priesthood was confusing and scary.

I decided to become Catholic. My parents objected, though not very strenuously. I became an Episcopalian simply because the Catholic Church in my university town looked like a Quaker meeting house—brick box, no sacramentals, glass doors. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church at the time (early ‘80’s) was slavishly following the zeitgeist and slowly abandoning its apostolic heritage. With the irregular ordination of women into the priesthood (something I fully supported) and the revision of the 1928 Prayer Book (again, fully supported), the Episcopal Church became a church given over to restrained liturgical experimentation and utilitarian morality. I was enthralled to modern philosophy and postmodern critical theory (feminism, Marxism) and the Episcopal Church gave me nothing solid to hang on to during this bumpy time. It was easy to stay in the Church and worship the zeitgeist. So I did.

The one occult practice that I became very good at was Tarot card reading. It was something of a game for me at first. I would bring my deck to a party and sit in the corner doing card readings for my friends and colleagues. As I did it more and more, it became more and more necessary for me to do it. Two events lead me to see the danger of the practice. One of my Episcopalian friends asked me if I could do a reading through her for her brother; in other words, she wanted me to read her brother’s future without him present. I agreed. I didn’t know her brother. Didn’t know she had a brother. So, I read the cards. What the cards said was exactly on target. Her teenage brother was having an affair with a married woman and the husband knew. Her brother was in danger of being seriously injured or killed. My friend was so horrified that I knew this through the cards that she stopped speaking to me for months. Another incident happened while I was at a party. One of my married friends was having an affair with a married man. I knew this and thought nothing of it. When I read her cards, they told me that she and her fellow adulterer were going to get married. But before this happened her husband would die. She was freaked out to say the least. What I didn’t know at the time was that wedding plans were underway and that her husband was indeed dying. These two incidents caused me to put the cards away. I haven’t touched them since.

Another frightening incident occurred years later when I was at my lowest. While working in a psych hospital in the last 90’s I had two radically different spiritual influences in my life: a Wiccan roommate and a charismatic Protestant supervisor. My life was in shambles. Emotionally and spiritually, I was a disaster. Clutching at any and every spiritual fashion that Barnes & Noble put on its “spirituality” shelf, I drifted from Wiccanism, Druidism, angelism, various kinds of divination, esoteric Christianity, anything but the Real Thing offered through Christ.

During a particularly low period, I came home one evening from work and my Wiccan roommate began to question me about my spiritual life. This was very odd because he was always “open to the diversity” of all spiritualities and encouraged my exploration. When I remarked that his questions were annoying and inappropriate, he told me that earlier that evening he came out of the bathroom and saw a dark cloud hovering outside my bedroom door. The cloud moved away from my door and toward him. He said that he cast a “banishing spell” on the cloud several times and it drifted away outside the house. I was incredulous, of course. He was worried nonetheless and “blessed” the house with salt and incense, etc. Whatever, I thought.

The next morning, I went to my second job and my supervisor (the charismatic woman) pulled me into her office and started pelting me with questions about my spiritual life. Déjà vu. I answered very vaguely, not wanting to know of my interest in the occult. She grew frustrated and blurted out that I was under attack by demonic forces. This woman is insane! Then she told me that she and her prayer group were engaged in spiritual warfare against dark forces trying to influence the local population, and that I was a central target. Needless to say, I was more than a little dubious. She told me that during their prayer group she had a clear mental picture of me being attacked by a black cloud in my home. I asked her when this happened. She said: yesterday, Sunday. The same day my roommate saw the cloud outside my door. I became so rattled that I had to leave.

About a year later I left the Episcopal Church and became a Catholic. After a failed attempt to join what I now know is a dissident Catholic religious order, I moved home and continued working in a psych hospital. There I injured my back and got a staph infection from a patient in the injured disc. I spent two months in indescribable agony. Finally, my doctors discovered the internal staph infection (something rare I’m told) and they began treatment. For seven weeks I administered I.V. antibiotics through a PIC line inserted in my arm and running internally to my heart. It took almost seven months for me to recover fully. My infectious disease doctor told me that I was very lucky to be alive after going more than two months with an internal staph infection! Apparently, staph destroys heart valves. Anyway, during those two months I was completely dependent on my parents for everything—feeding me, dressing me, putting me to bed—I was nearly paralyzed by the pain. The humility of that experience returned me to a desire for Christ and his Church. That’s another story.

I joined the Dominicans in 1999. Being on the inside of the Church as a religious has opened my eyes to a number of problems that I recognize from my days as a fan of the occult. Everywhere, I see religious, priests, the laity giving themselves over to radical feminism and Earth worship; theologians preaching Gnostic doctrines like pantheism and pagan mythologies; the profession of various kinds of utilitarian-situational ethics in the public square; Catholics teaching pro-choice, sexual libertinism; various kinds of syncretistic liturgical theology (a dash of Hinduism here, a pinch of Native American religion there, some Wiccan rituals as decoration); but the final straw for me was then and is now the prominence of “social analysis” in among the “peace and justice” crowd in the Church, an analysis that was nothing more than Marxism in vestments. I should know. I was professed Marxist for years, and I am very familiar with the primary and secondary literature. There is also a superficial interest in postmodern philosophy and critical theory that informs some of the biblical research and instruction in the Church’s seminaries. Again, one of my areas in my doctoral studies was postmodern theory. I know it when I see it. And I know from personal experience what it does to one’s allegiance to the possibility of knowing and acting on objective truth.

Now, I have to say here something that some of my readers won’t like every much. There is nothing wrong on the face of it with being required to read texts that oppose the Catholic faith. I taught an entire seminar on post-metaphysical theologies using thinkers who would never darken the door of a church much less a Catholic Church. Categorically, I am NOT opposed to the academic pursuit of truth. What bothers me is that this stuff is often taught uncritically and presented as compatible with the Catholic faith. There is a difference between reading texts that oppose or deny the truths of the faith in order to “know the enemy” and combat him and being required to read these texts as a replacement for the faith. I firmly believe that most of those who read and believe these texts understand themselves to be believing Catholics in good standing with the Church. I’m not suggesting some evil conspiracy. Like me years before, they have been lead down a primrose path into a garbage heap. And frankly, I have done a poor job of challenging these tendencies, preferring stubborn resistance and polemic to good old-fashioned Dominican disputation. My unease is wholly my own creation.

Then I was despondent that I had left my postmodernist occult life behind only to find it again in the Church. As I grow in the faith, I see less and less of this sort of thing among my immediate peers (professors, younger priests, religious, and laity) but more and more in the Church at large (diocesan chanceries, retreat centers, etc.). We have all seen the websites of religious orders and dioceses that feature one sort of New Age-Gnostic practice or another. It’s out there in the Church as it has always been. But that it has always been there is no reason not to call it by name. For those Christians interested in mediation, bodily prayer, ritual, esoteric philosophy, mystical theology, revelation, and the holiness of the feminine, you won’t find a deeper treasure box than the Church. Keeping in mind the questions I presented in the post on New Agey Catholicism, it is entirely possible to live a good Christian life thoroughly steeped in the mystery of God’s love and in His “hiddenness.” If you choose to spend your time denouncing The Rules or finding loopholes in the rules, then I would suggest that you are as legalistic as the hierarchs you denounce. It takes a lawyer to challenge a law-giver head-on and find the way out of a merely legalistic attempt to control.

My goal here is not to point fingers or denounce but rather to give those who think they need help the help they need to avoid these pitfalls. I tell my story as a way of saying, “I’ve been there.” You may see “demons” as nothing more than the dark side of human consciousness or as truly fallen angels. Fine. Regardless, we are tempted by something or someone to deny the truths of the faith and to seek after our own divinity without the help of our divine Creator. This was Adam and Eve’s mistake. Don’t make it yourself.