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  Occult Sciences


Text: Acts 8:1b-24; 13:4-12


Let me tell you where this sermon comes from. There are two main sources. The first is a recent paper I completed while on vacation. I'm scheduled to present it at the Fall meeting of the infamous Jesus Seminar. It's on the theories of literary critic Rene Girard as applied to the Gospels. My head's still full of Girard, I'm afraid. And so you're going to hear a bit of the overflow this morning. 

The second source was my daughter Veronica. The other day I asked her, "Veronica, what should I preach about this Sunday?" And without hesitation, she said "Magic! And science!" Okay, I thought, I can do something with that. And this is the result. Thanks, Veronica! 

In the passages from Acts I just read, we find a lot of characters who are parallel to each other, even more than appear at first sight. The stories are obviously similar to one another. In one tale, the Apostle Peter bests a magician, Simon Magus. In the other, it's the Apostle Paul who takes down another magician, one Elymas, or Etoimas, or Bar-Jesus. Let's count the doubles. It might be fun. And then we'll see what may be going on.  

First, there's the obvious Pater/Paul parallel. As F.C. Baur pointed out in the nineteenth century, this just has to be some kind of attempt by the writer Luke, writing some generations after the time of Peter and Paul, to reconcile the rival factions of Petrine and Paulinist Christians in the second century. If you like Peter, then you should stop bad-mouthing Paul, and vice versa, since God did the same sort of miracles through both. There are, by the way, several sets of Peter/Paul parallels like this in Acts. 

But then you notice that in the Simon Magus story, there is a parallel between Philip, who first does the evangelistic work in Samaria, and Peter who comes in, takes over, and steals the credit. It seems the story was originally just about Philip, but later on Peter's faction grabbed the story and replaced Philip with Peter. Philip remains as a mere vestige, a shadow. He has been shoved aside, though not completely eliminated.  

Paul has a counterpart, too. What is his convert's name? Sergius Paulus. No coincidence, I'd guess. Luke himself points it out. "Saul, who was also called Paul." So Paul is preaching to the converted, so to speak. Preaching to a mirror. Sergius Paulus is also a twin of Cornelius, to whom Peter preaches over in chapter 10. But even the sorcerer is Paul's counterpart. What happens to him? Paul temporarily blinds the poor charlatan. Does that have a familiar ring?  

Gee, isn't that just what happened earlier in Acts, in chapter 9 to be exact, when Paul himself met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus? And whereas then it was Jesus magically blinding Paul, this time it's Paul blinding a guy named "Bar-Jesus!" Son of Jesus? Reminds me of the similarly suspicious name "Jesus Barabbas," or "Jesus Son of the Father" in Matthew. What's going on here, pray tell? 

And who is the other sorcerer? Simon Magus is the mirror image of Simon Peter. Simon Magus was known as the father of heresy in the early church. He was said, like Jesus, to be a disciple of John the Baptist, as was Dositheus, another Samaritan Messiah. Baur thought, and I suspect he was right, that Simon Magus, the anti-Simon, if you will, was really a thinly-veiled version of Paul, Peter's great rival. But it gets worse! 

Let's put the sandal on the other foot. Suppose Bar-Jesus, Paul's opponent, is a thinly-veiled version of Peter! Given the claims made for Peter as the successor of Jesus, he might indeed be called "the son of Jesus." Maybe in the tales of Peter versus Simon Magus and of Paul versus Bar-Jesus we have two garbled versions of the rivalry between Peter and Paul. Luke disguises both of them, garbling them further, because after all, he is trying to paper over the oppositions that gave rise to these mud-slinging tales. This is why, I'd guess, he shifts in mid-stream, changing both "Saul" to "Paul" and "Bar-Jesus" to "Elymas." In a later edition, the so-called Western Text, he seems to have changed the name again, this time to Etoimas. 

Why all this doubling? Here I think of Rene Girard's theory of "mimetic desire." He says that all desire is imitative in nature. We come to admire someone and to want to be just like that person. We model ourselves after them. And we begin to want what they want. But soon that thing we want starts to come between us and our model. We begin to look at our model as a rival in competition for the same goal. And our love turns to envy, coveting, and hate. Finally we may want to eliminate the model. We may be satisfied with resentment, or we may go the whole way and become like Mark David Chapman. 

The other person becomes our emotional focus. We walk the Chinvat Bridge between love and hate. We become mirror image twins with our model/rival. We begin to project our dark fantasies onto the rival and he becomes what Girard calls our "monstrous double." So where you see twins in a text, you see rivals and struggle. Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Jesus and Judas. 

I have already remarked on the Peter/Paul rivalry seen in these texts. But I think we can see a larger issue. Notice that the characters both Paul and Peter square off with are not simply called heretics or false teachers, but magicians. What does that mean? Remember in the Gospels, Jesus, too, is called a magician. In short, it's mud-slinging. You can't deny that your rival has charisma, something to offer the crowds he draws. But you dismiss it as magic. It's a trick. His followers are brainwashed. Let's get them deprogrammed. "He casts out devils by Beelzebul!" 

My religious feats are miracles, but yours are magic. My beliefs are orthodox, simply because I hold them. Yours are heretical simply because they don't coincide with mine. What further evidence do we need? 

None of this has passed away. I remember reading about one Pentecostal preacher who rebuked his congregation for indulging in superstitions like rabbits' feet and root bags--but then he told them how he would make them immune to demon possession, how he had had victorious contests with strange creatures including the Spider Woman and the Snake Woman. In other words, "My superstition is better than your superstition!" They were mirror images of each other, and this preacher had stepped through the looking glass! 

But I wonder if it is not just religion and magic that are identical twins who hate each other, each regarding the other like one of those "evil twins" like on a soap opera. I think that magic and science are mimetic twins, too. They are diametrically opposed, but they are much more alike than either supposes.  

Bultmann says that "even occultism pretends to be a science." And Gunter Lüling says that Western science is simply another form of magic, that science tries to distance itself from magic only in order to cover its own tracks. These two statements seem to cancel each other out. They seem, in short, to be mimetic twins. Apparently opposed, they are two ways of saying the same thing! And that thing is that science and magic are pretty much the same thing.   

I will admit, there is a kind of magic that has little in common with science. That is the childlike belief that one may simply invoke an authoritative name and get the trick done. That is just what exorcism means; it derives from the Greek exousia, "authority." Short-hand for the fact that you called in Big Brother Jesus or Solomon to kick the stubborn demon's butt! The idea that God creates by simply saying, "Let there be light!" is magical in this way. As easily done as said. 

Even here, the same error hangs on in so-called respectable academic circles when we hear people try to settle an argument by appealing to supposed authorities. Einstein said it, so it must be right. Yeah? Einstein would never be taken in by such a ruse. 

What is the presupposition of science? Isn't it the uniform action of natural laws and forces in the universe? That was the big step away from myth and into science: the rain doesn't fall because Zeus decided it would one day. No, it falls because of something called the water cycle, evaporation, condensation, all that stuff. Magic proceeds from the same assumption. It operates on the postulate that there are more forces, hidden forces, than most people count on. That's what the phrase "occult science" implies. Hidden science. "Supernatural" is a misnomer. It's just that there may be more to nature than most folks think. If you believe there are occult energies and that there is a way to tap them, you may in fact be mistaken, as plenty of scientists have been. But you are saying the same sort of thing that nuclear scientists once said. They had stumbled upon a mighty force hitherto unknown and unavailable. And once it was unleashed, we began to feel very much like the sorcerer's apprentice. 

Science is supposed to be open to new data, and to the possibility that every theory accepted today may be called into question tomorrow. And I think most scientists are pretty good about this. Certainly better than almost all religious believers who will not admit they're wrong, that their beliefs are outdated, come hell or high water. That is obstinacy in belief. Pig-headedness made a virtue.  

Why has magic become discredited?  Many of us think that people who still believe in astrology and alchemy, for example, are being bad scientists. What they believe in was viable at one time, at least in the sense that it hadn't been debunked. But now the evidence makes it look pretty bad. So they ought to move on. And occultists seem to accept all manner of beliefs on very little evidence, third-hand anecdotes, rumors. But that just means they are being bad occultists. 

But then look at the guys on CSIOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal. I know some of these guys personally, and usually I think they are right on the money. But I can't escape the feeling that no evidence, even if it were available, could ever convince them in a million years--any more than you could convince Jerry Falwell there's an error in the Bible!  

But, as Stuart Smalley would say, "That's okay." You see, the only way to know if an assertion about the paranormal or anything else will stand is if we try to explain it away--and can't. That's the scientific method. If you want to pursue this further, let me suggest you look into two books, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method. 

So far, I've been saying that magic is a lot more like science than science wants to admit. Now let me explore the converse. I think science is a lot more like magic than it wants to admit, too.


One thing Kuhn and Feyerabend make clear is that scientific investigation is not a matter of discovering new facts. Making new inventions, yes. But Copernicus didn't "discover" that the earth orbits the sun, did he? No, he simply came up with a simpler method of predicting the retrograde motion of the planets. If you started from the assumption that the sun was the center of planetary motion instead of the earth being the center, then it was a simpler formula, though it would work either way. That's all he "discovered." And that's the way it is. Science is simply a progression of new theoretical models replacing old ones because they seem to make sense of more of the evidence and in a more simple way than the old models.  

So it turns out that the "world of science" or the "body of scientific knowledge" is really an entirely human invention. It is like a language system, like a work of literature or art. It is culture, not nature. It isn't simply "what's there." Or what Sartre would say "is the case." I'm not saying there is no reality beyond our perceptions, no. I'm just saying that what we think we know is really a system of educated guesses that enable us to do some mighty handy things with electricity, magnetism, force, energy, etc. And we are always looking for new theories that might provide new ways to tap these forces.  

We might be right, or we might just be lucky. Like the ancient Hebrews who had a theoretical model that made them avoid eating pork. They didn't get trichinosis. Their model was that since pigs didn't chew the cud, even though they did have cloven hooves, they didn't qualify as cattle and were off limits. Huh? Our model is different. We think of parasites and germs. But our models also helps us not get trichinosis. 

Now how is this magical? Keep in mind the origin of the word "magic." It comes from the Sanskrit maya, which means illusion. It came to mean that the whole world of appearance is an illusion. 

This is what Tibetan Buddhists believe. If you know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, you may have marvelled that the same people who hold to perhaps the most sophisticated metaphysics of any religion--also happen to believe in sorcery! How can they embrace both? Because their philosophy entails the belief that the world is an illusion, and that if we can understand this illusion, we ought to be able to learn how to manipulate it. Sort of like trying to control your own dreams. But also sort of like science! If you can learn how the forces work, you can get behind the controls. So the Tibetan adepts believed they could do magic. It was only a matter of special effects. 

Can we accept the idea that the world we see is an illusion? Yes, I think we can. We need not believe it is all simply not there. That's not the Buddhist idea anyway. No, the point seems to be that this world of maya is a matter of construal, of misconstrual. We misevaluate it; we let our beliefs and words and ideas about reality substitute for reality, while we take the real thing for granted until we can't even really see it anymore. Is it real or Memorex? We don't know the difference anymore.  

We live in language, in ideology, in beliefs, like a fish lives in water. It is not nature, it is culture. Human creation. Theoretical models, conceptual paradigms. Maya. The Real is like God: we touch only the edges of its ways.    

Let's cut to the chase. I hope I have suggested a new way to look at both science and magic, at epistemology. But I want to suggest how these speculations might translate into every day life. My house is a house of study, to borrow the Jewish term. And I welcome you all here to share classes and discussions. To think is to pray, or if not, it is better than praying. But I believe a sermon ought always to involve an existential dimension. It ought to offer something to make wiser the living of life, not just to inspire new thoughts. 

There are three bits of concrete advice I offer you. The first is the old saw from Hamlet, which like reality, has become dull to us through familiarity: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." Each scientist hurls that challenge in the faces of his predecessors. The magician casts it in the teeth of skeptics. But you need to remember it, too. Only the cocksure adolescent really believes he has reality all figured out. But not you. So you think. You think you are broad-minded. And I know all of you are, when it comes to intellectual matters. 

But remember that it applies on the existential level, too. Do you believe your options are closed off? Are you nearing despair because all doors seem barred? Does it seem to you that the logs are jammed, that old destructive patterns can never be broken? I am saying that you are closed minded. You in your pessimism have become an inflexible dogmatist. It is a simple matter: there is more to heaven and earth, there is more in the way of unforseen possibilities, than are dreamt of in your philosophy! Wake up! Have the intellectual humility to admit that you don't know what is around the corner, what the future may hold. It may be hope! It may be unsuspected good fortune, new abilities, new associations that will get you where you ache to be going. 

The second thing: your world of interaction with others, with the economy, politics, religion, society, its values, your goals--all of it is maya. All of it is a socially created game, a tissue of assumptions and shared conventions. And you may be able to play the game and succeed.  

This is what Siddhartha does in Hesse's novel. He has withdrawn from the world to meditate. Then he returns, knowing that meditation was but a game, but so is everything else. So he decided to experiment with the world of maya. He still had a Buddhist sense of inner detachment from it, and that gave him the needed perspective of distance to see what was going on, what the tricks were, and how to win the game.  

You can do that. Read some books on communication skills, on body language, on gender communication difficulties, books on what the opposite sex wants. Books on speech acts. It is all a game, all maya. I find that reading books on literary criticism helps me appreciate both the reading and the writing of fiction. In one sense nothing has changed, but I know better how to do what I am doing, because now I know the rules of casting the illusion. It's the same way with your life. Take the trouble to learn how the game works, how to manipulate the illusion. Become a magician!  

Or if you prefer the terminology of science, call it a technology that you need to master. That's what Tony Robbins calls it. A technology. The owner's manual of the complicated device called life. 

Third and finally, remember what I said about childish magical thinking? Say the magic word and your wish will come true? It won't. Much religion says it will. You can turn your back on your problems, they say, give them to God, and he will take care of them. Nope. You will only be repressing problems you need to face and deal with. Maybe with help. But real magic is science: it uses a method. It knows there is something to do. Religion speaks not merely of grace, but of the means of grace. That is what you dare not neglect. Take your problems as a task, assume there is a way to tackle them, and set about finding it. There is a science to it, and it might even work like magic!


Robert M. Price
September 2, 1995




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