Here There Be Dragons?

As legend has it, once upon a time, mapmakers would mark the unknown places on their maps “Here there be dragons.” The actual history is a little more complicated. Sometimes it was drawings of sea monsters, or warnings of icy wastelands, or fiery deserts inhabited by lions. But this proves the point: There are few things more human than the assumption that what is unknown to us must both be wholly different from us and dangerous.

Whether it’s the village down the road, our immigrant neighbors, an unfamiliar food, or what lies beyond the horizon, humans tend to automatically assume the worst about what we don’t know. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” It’s even more true when we think about the dark and shadowy places in our hearts and minds. It’s just not on our maps but in the unknown expanses of our lives that we write, “Here there be dragons.”

The unknown may indeed be scary, or it may actually be harmless, or even wonderful. We can’t know until we see for ourselves.

This is the open-minded and open-hearted attitude with which I set out to explore the wild and wooly world of intuitive or psychic/psychological spiritualities in my ‘year of magical thinking.’ And yet it’s clearly the case that Christianity has always been suspicious at best and murderously oppressive at worst of many of these esoteric or ‘witchy’ traditions. And so an important part of my process this year has been to ask why that has been the case: what the objections have been and in what ways they are true and in what ways they are false and a result of simple ignorance.

There have been, as I see it, three major lines of Christian antagonism towards the kinds of practices I explored this year. These are the claims that: 1. They are a quest for power and control; 2. They claim they can tell the future and therefore meddle where we have no business meddling; and 3. They lead to fatalism. All three of these revolve essentially around a question of boundaries and trust in God. (Interestingly, falsehood is not one of the traditional accusations. When mediums or astrologers show up in the Scriptures they are always right.)

I addressed the first of these claims in my post at the start of the year about wanting to re-enchant my world:

There is a lot of wisdom in this concern [that the magical is about seeking after power that is not ours]. But, it doesn’t tell the whole story. While some of the stories about magic do involve such a desire to manipulate the world, those are often cautionary tales. Most magical stories are more about being caught up in the synergies and the flow already at work in the world: This is the magic of the Muses, the magic that ignites a budding romance, the magic of a blanket of fresh snow, of potential and possibility, the magic of meaning. And in this sense here at least, there is a lot of overlap with the Christian tradition, with providence and grace, those energies of God that “work all things for good.”

This sense was reinforced over the past year. I never got a sense of people trying to control or bend the world to their wills, but rather a deep longing to work with what was already happening. It was far less a spiritual version of harnessing the atom than it was like an old-fashioned water wheel.

The second argument has its roots in Leviticus: “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft” (Lev.19.26). And fair enough. While the origins of this law were likely more to do with a concern over the Israelites turning to the ways and customs of the peoples around them than to do with any particular question of Right and Wrong, it’s easy to see how the idea of wanting to know the future can be understood as a lack of trust in both God and ourselves. Much to my surprise, I found this line of discomfort to be largely not applicable in my explorations this year. The vast majority of what I encountered, even in explicitly divinatory practices, actively discouraged questioning about the future. In fact I encountered the exact same concerns about wanting to learn the future from within these traditions as I have heard from Christians. At least as it is widely practiced today, divination is not understood as fortune- or future-telling. Tarot doesn’t tell the future, but tells a story. And, astrology is more like a weather forecast than anything else.

I also found the charge of fatalism to be largely unfounded. Certainly the superstitious sensibility that often makes such practices objects of ridicule can be present, but crucially, I found this only to exist in the most casual practitioners, rather than in people who knew what they were talking about. For the most part, I found devotees and teachers of practices like astrology and tarot to be less fatalistic than the general population, and far less fatalistic than many Christians. I think this is because, when these practices are present-focused, they require action on the part of the practitioner: In telling a story in response to a question, Tarot asks the practitioner to think through how the story relates to their lives and how they are going to respond to it. Similarly, by issuing a forecast for the ‘energies’ of a given period, astrology asks the practitioner to think through how they’re going to respond to those energies — just like how a forecast of rain doesn’t make us fatalistic about getting wet or cause us to cancel our plans, but simply encourages us to bring an umbrella.

If I’m honest, this experience made me feel frustrated at the state of Christian spirituality, and how passive so many Christians seem to be about their lives and faith. Christianity issues us a bold challenge for personal transformation and yet so many of us are content with the status quo. I envied the genuine desire for change I saw in so many practitioners of these other spiritualities.

While the accusations laid at these practices by Christians seem largely inaccurate, the concerns that lie behind the accusations are legitimate for any spiritual path, Christianity included.

No matter what path we’re on, we should be very wary if we are trying to use it, even subconsciously, to get what we want. Our desires are not the arbiters of goodness, truth, and beauty in the world. Any legitimate spiritual path takes us beyond ourselves, upholding our individual potential and created goodness, but also insisting that we are not the measure of all things and working ecologically — that is, with a keen and intentional awareness of the impact our actions have on others.

Similarly, the desire for knowledge and wisdom is good, but if we want to know how a particular chapter of our story is going to end, we need to ask what we would do with that information if we had it, what fruit that knowledge would bear in our lives, even if we think the ink of our future is already dry — which it isn’t. Far better simply to be diligent in the present instead of concerning ourselves with a future that at least in part depends on what we do today.

And so, all this being said, I don’t feel my explorations this year were unduly reckless or dangerous. All truth, after all, is God’s truth. In exploring past the edges of the known maps of my tradition, I didn’t encounter dragons. There were certainly some icebergs and wastelands along the way, but there were also peaceful harbours and fertile valleys, and good and generous people there, people to learn from with gratitude and respect.

Now that I’ve pondered the concerns I had in approaching the world of intuitive spiritualities, it’s time to turn to what I learned from them.

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