As long-standing readers of this blog know, I have not always been a Catholic; I embraced Catholicism in 2004 after a Protestant upbringing and then about a seven-year stint in which I followed a neopagan spiritual path. Indeed, I wrote a number of books about paganism, a fact I discussed in an earlier blog post, You Wrote Books About Paganism? These days, my work as a writer is primarily geared toward Christians, but I do not consider myself hostile to paganism (the Catholic tradition has always taught, even before Vatican II, that Catholics should respect what is good and true and beautiful in other religious traditions).
But just because I am not hostile to paganism, does not mean that I do not have opinions about paganism — including some criticisms. Today’s post, inspired by an email I received from a reader recently, looks at some of those criticisms. The reader wrote to me because a friend of hers, who is a Christian, is exploring magic and witchcraft, and she is not sure how to respond to this. So she turned to me for my thoughts on that question.
The Reader Writes:
I have a dear friend who is a follower of Christ and also has a fascination with magic and witchcraft. At this point, they have not pursued their interest but I know it continues to be a draw for them. I was just wondering if you have any concerns, thoughts, or wisdom to share concerning whether or not a Christian should pursue the magic arts. I personally don’t have any experience with this and feel it would be helpful to seek wisdom from someone who does. I care about this person deeply and don’t want them to get hurt. Thank you for your time!
Thanks for reaching out. Many Christians find magic and witchcraft interesting or appealing. I imagine there are many reasons why this is so. By the same token, other Christians are drawn to explore Hinduism or Buddhism or other traditional religions. All of this falls under the umbrella terms “interfaith dialogue” or “inter-religious dialogue” or “interspirituality.” I do believe God calls some of us to function like bridges between the different faith traditions, in the interest of promoting understanding and unity as much as we are able. There are very real cultural and values differences between the different faith traditions, that should not be glossed over. Even so, it’s important to remember that we are all human beings, we share the same planet, and it is important we learn how to love one another, without violence and without constantly trying to control or change each other.
But to your specific question. I think the first question your friend needs to wrestle with: are they thinking about leaving Christianity altogether? It’s one thing to be a Christian with a lively interest in another tradition (like I described above), and another thing to change one’s spiritual path altogether. I think having clarity about their intentions (which may mean doing some deep inner work, so that they are aware of what is driving them, even subconsciously) is really important. God loves us whether we remain Christian or not, but of course the decision to change one’s spiritual path should not be made lightly, as it can have real repercussions with one’s family and social network.
If your friend is clear that they want to remain Christian, but still wants to learn more about magic and witchcraft, then I would recommend reading a few books on the topic. Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon is very important; it’s academic but easy to read, and it is the most balanced and in-depth history of modern witchcraft and paganism that I have come across. So I think that is a “must read.” Another classic is Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, which looks at witchcraft from a feminist perspective. Finally, at the risk of a bit of shameless self-promotion let me suggest my own When Someone You Love is Wiccan, which I wrote back when I was still a practicing pagan. In fact, that might be a good book for you to read, especially if your friend does go ahead and begin to practice witchcraft.
These books are all sympathetic to witchcraft and magic. To try to keep things balanced, normally I would also recommend one or two books that take a more critical view, but unfortunately most of the anti-witchcraft books, at least that I know of, are very poorly written, usually from a fundamentalist Christian perspective. I think anyone with an open mind who reads those books would think “gee, witchcraft sounds better than Christianity!” Fundamentalism is NOT the answer to magic or witchcraft.
So maybe I should give you (and your friend) just a few thoughts to be able to think about magic and witchcraft objectively. In writing this, it is not my purpose to gratuitously attack or denounce paganism. Rather, I am trying simply to be honest about my own concerns. I think anyone who explores the topic needs to have a balanced perspective, and so I offer these points in the interest of that balance.
My Honest Concerns
First of all, I would caution anyone interested in magic to think carefully about the basic premise: that you can use spiritual power to attain your goals. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing: after all, isn’t the purpose of life to be happy and make the most of it? My question would be: where is the balance? If my life is all about just making myself happy, isn’t that ultimately rather narcissistic? Isn’t love more important than wish-fulfillment? For example: let’s say I want a new lover, so I cast a love spell to get that person. They show up. I may have a torrid love affair but in the back of my mind I’ll always be wondering if the person really loves me, or if they are just bound to me by the spell. In other words, if I hadn’t cast the spell, would they have still come into my life? If so, then the spell was unnecessary; but if not, then that means the “love” is not real, it’s just a product of the spell.
There are all these spell books on the market, filled with spells to lose weight, make more money, become more attractive, get a lover, get lots of lovers (!), find the perfect job, boost self-confidence, etc. etc. etc. At the end of the day, it seems like “it’s all about me.” That’s why I think it’s narcissistic. Love, on the other hand, focusses not on how to make myself happy, but rather how to build happy relationships, which means balancing my own needs with the needs of my friends, my spouse, my neighbors, co-workers, etc.
So I came to see that magic is really unnecessary, as long as I have dedicated my life to becoming a more loving person. When I realized that, that’s when I started to let go of witchcraft and return to Christianity.
Now, some people will say that witchcraft, and especially paganism, is more about spirituality than magic. It’s about reverencing the earth and the Divine Feminine (the Goddess). And I think for some people this is really true. And I think Christianity, historically, has done a poor job at acknowledging that God encompasses both masculinity and femininity — the Goddess in many ways is a “reaction” against the hyper-masculinity of traditional Christian ideas about God. Likewise, I think because Christianity has tended to emphasize heaven above earth, paganism’s emphasis on venerating the earth is a similar reaction agains the excesses of Christianity.
But here’s my question: if witchcraft/paganism venerates the Goddess and the Earth as a reaction against Christianity’s emphasis on the Father God and heaven, doesn’t that make modern-day paganism simply a protest movement against Christianity? And if that’s the case, perhaps what Christians need to be doing, instead of becoming witches, we need to be cultivating a healthier form of Christianity: one that acknowledges that the earth is good (but without worshipping it), and that acknowledges that God ultimately is our Mother as much as our Father.
What is most important, for you and your friend, and really for any Christian who feels drawn to magic or witchcraft, is to remember simply this: that God is Love, that God loves us very much and wants what is best for us. I think many Christians turn to magic and witchcraft because they have been hurt by Christianity or have found Christianity to be boring and stifling. That certainly happens. But I believe when Christianity fails to live up to its own mystical beauty, the answer is not to abandon Christianity for another path, but rather to discover the beauty and wonder that lives at the heart of true Christian mysticism.
I’ll keep you and your friend in my prayers. Please pray for me as well.
A Final Word
Finally, here are a few thoughts specifically for the reader, and for anyone who is facing a situation where a Christian loved one is turning away from Christianity to explore a different religion or spirituality.
It can be scary when a friend or loved one explores a new or different religious tradition, and even scarier if he or she abandons their old faith to embrace something new. Christians sometimes feel as if their friend’s soul is now in eternal danger, and therefore may try to dissuade the friend from their spiritual exploration. But such efforts often backfire: they too easily come across as fear-mongering and controlling, if not judgmental.
If your friend thinks you are trying to frighten or control them, they may cut off your friendship. So I think it’s important for Christians to focus on loving our friends, which leads to a delicate balancing act. Sure, it’s only fair that we express our misgivings when a friend abandons Christianity: but we need to own that this is our misgivings. “It saddens me to think that you and I will no longer be doing ministry together, or going to church together, or studying the history of Christian spirituality together.” Maybe even take it further: “It even scares me a little to think of you embracing a different type of spirituality.”
Always finish with: “But I want you to know that I love you and I want us to remain friends, and I hope you’ll feel like you can talk to me without judgment or condemnation. And if I say or do anything that seems to be judgmental, please call me on it — after all, I’m only human!” I think what people who abandon Christianity need from Christians, more than anything else, is love — we need to be conduits of God’s love and grace to the world, which is after all our mission as people who recognize we are created in God’s image and likeness.
So if you feel sad, or afraid, because someone you love has embraced a non-Christian form of spirituality, own your feelings as your feelings. And then take a look at your own relationship with God. Do you harbor any secret fears that God will reject your friend now that they’ve changed paths? Do you see God primarily as wrathful and judgmental? Or do you recognize that God is love, which means that even when someone says “no” to God (directly or indirectly), God still loves them, unconditionally? Those are good questions for Christians to explore; as we become more secure in God’s love, we become more capable of relating with compassion and clarity to those whose spirituality is different from our own.