Postmodern Christian Hermeticism
Recently, I finished up a series of video lectures prepared to accompany an online seminar (described here) on Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot. (Angelico Press will soon publish a new English edition of the book with a foreword by German Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann). In doing so, I revisited the first steps of a path I have travelled since my early twenties. The subtitle of Tomberg’s book (though it was published anonymously, his authorship is a very poorly guarded secret) is A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. For me at least, “journey” is exactly the right word.
Educated by IHM sisters who often taught the love of Jesus through the business end of a wooden pointer before they embraced a 70s eco-feminist/social justice vibe (honestly, I don’t know which is worse) and serving Mass as an altar boy to one of the most notorious pederasts of 1970s American Catholicism, my formation in the faith was limited to being hit in the head with the dreadful Baltimore Catechism and being struck across the back of the legs with the aforementioned pointer. There had to be, I concluded, more to God than this. So, on my eighteenth birthday, I left the Catholic Church behind.
My problem (and it was a problem) was that I had had enough of people telling me about God when what I wanted was an experience of God. I was a musician and songwriter, so the making (poesis) always interested me far more than the explaining. Maybe it’s the Aristotelian in me.
In 1986, the year after it was first published in English, I stumbled upon Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot. Besides my amazement at the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge of spiritual traditions, East as well as West (Buddhism, Vedanta, yoga, kabbalah, Catholic mysticism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Sufism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and so forth), not to mention his familiarity with science, politics, and the arts and his discussions of reincarnation, astrology, and alchemy, I was particularly taken aback by his expansive vision of Catholicism. In short, I came away from the text with the understanding that Catholicism was a much bigger thing than the IHMs or my limited exposure to “tradition” had been able to show me. Much, much bigger. In my father’s house there are many mansions.
Not long after reading the book for the first time, I started saying the rosary on a regular basis. In time, I became a Waldorf teacher and biodynamic farmer, and I eventually wandered back into the institutional Church.
The “hermeticism” of Tomberg’s project often somewhat eluded me, even though he pays homage to Hermes Trismegistus throughout the book, much in the way of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla during the Florentine Renaissance. Nevertheless, in my doctoral work researching the work and lives of the Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan and his identical twin, the alchemist and Anglican priest Thomas—both of whom are often described as inspired by “hermeticism”—I had pause to reconsider what this term really means. As I write in Literature and the Encounter of God in Post-Reformation England,
Scholars often speculate about how “hermetic philosophy” informs both Thomas’s religio-scientific writing and Henry’s poetry. “Hermetic philosophy,” I think, is an incredibly (and embarrassingly) inexact term. Certainly, Hermetism, a theosophical school stemming from the body of late classical writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum and attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, was, along with Neoplatonism, an important ingredient in humanist thought during the Renaissance, especially following Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the works into Latin in 1471. And though Hermetic ideas trickled into early modern English intellectual life, as Robert M. Schuler has suggested, “among English writers familiarity with the actual texts of the Corpus Hermeticum was comparatively rare.”
Even though I am not comfortable with the term, I am content to live with it.
What is important in Christian hermeticism, as it is found in the Vaughans and Tomberg (not to mention Jacob Boehme, Robert Fludd, Rudolf Steiner, Sergius Bulgakov, and Nicolai Berdyaev among others—though the hermeticism of the latter two is filtered through their sophiology) is its dedication to an integral vision of the microcosm and the macrocosm and an ethos founded on a unified love of God, Man, and Nature. As the Vaughans’ fellow Welshman the poet Dylan Thomas described how his poems were “written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damned fool if they weren’t,” so these Christian hermeticists sought to bring such a commitment into the study of science. For them, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture were written in the same language. They would be damned fools if they weren't.
As Tomberg explains, “Hermeticism is the re-humanisation of all elements of human nature; it is their return to their true essence.” As such, hermeticism is engaged in an act of recovery: recovering the image and likeness of God that humanity possessed prior to the Fall. Henry Vaughan’s inaugural poem “Regeneration” from his collection Silex Scintillans (1650) embraces the same idea:
I entered, and once in
(Amaz’d to see’t,)
Found all was chang’d, and a new spring
Did all my senses greet. (lines 37–40)
Dylan Thomas in his poem “Fern Hill” expresses the same idea:
…it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise. (lines 27–36)
What Dylan Thomas here articulates is not a nostalgia for childhood per se, but desire for a cosmologically-configured and cosmologically-coherent life, something of which modernity is in short supply. This is precisely what the Vaughans were interested in; and they opposed the incursions of natura pura theology and Cartesian (anti)metaphysics because of it. Indeed, I would argue—and vehemently—that alchemy as a whole was primarily an investigation of the possibilities of the resurrection body, the body glorified and spiritually perfected. And the cosmos along with it. This may seem odd to us; but we have been conditioned by a science that ignores the realm of the spirit when it doesn’t explicitly ridicule those who suggest such a thing even exists. We really don’t know anything about science: we only know what we’ve been told to know.
This is why one of the essential elements of Tomberg’s project is the eventual union of science and faith, an element also found in the thought of both Steiner and Goethe. This was also the project of the Vaughans and Robert Fludd (all three were Paracelsian physicians—pretty much the “alternative medicine” of the early modern period). This is also why Tomberg’s project embraces alchemy as well as astrology not to mention magic (are the sacraments not the highest form of magic?). These ideas, too, cause many a raised eyebrow in our times. But is the hope (which we all possess) for a cosmologically-configured life really all that strange?
Of course, we would be mistaken to assimilate the astrology we have received as is, though there is room for its reimagination. As Berdyaev has written,
The undying truth of astrology was deeply convinced that all the layers of the cosmos, all the spheres of heaven, leave their imprint on man and on his fate; that man is cosmic in his nature. Although astrology cannot be reborn in a naively-naturalistic form, just as the pre-Copernican naturalistic anthropocentrism cannot be restored, the supra-naturalistic truth of astrology which sees other planes of being in the cosmos may be and is resurrected: you may say that it never died.
Similarly, Tomberg sees alchemy reimagined even in the twentieth century:
Purified of temporary and accidental elements—like the orientation towards the aim of producing material gold, a material philosopher's stone and a material panacea—alchemy today celebrates its apotheosis in the splendour of the rainbow of the synthesis of salvation and evolution. Today alchemy has come out of the sombre alchemical kitchens where its adepts often lavished entire fortunes and the flower of their lives—in order to be installed in a laboratory more worthy of it: the vast extent of the universe. Now, it is the world which has become the alchemical laboratory, just as it has become the mystical oratory…. today we are witnesses of the triumph of alchemy—an unparalleled triumph, surpassing the most rash hopes of the past.
All this is simply to say that a postmodern Christian hermeticism is not only possible, but already happening. It may not be present to the culture at large, but it is present.
Hermeticism, grounded in sacred tradition, nevertheless embraces the spirit of innovation and discovery. Such an ethos certainly exists in biodynamic agriculture (an alchemical enterprise if ever there were one), a method of farming acutely sensitive to natural and cosmic rhythms and cycles without becoming annoyingly medieval in the process. Biodynamics is a good place to start, actually; for the way to the stars begins in the soil. But this idea also whispers in scientific movements that have grown tired of materialism and seek other vistas in consciousness and quantum mechanics. And it also slumbers—and sometimes dreams—in philosophy and theology.
So, as the hierarchy of the mainstream Church in the West awaits the detonation of the sex-abuse time bomb and that of the Eastern Church gets mired in intramural turf wars, perhaps we should get about our father’s business despite them and find the union of science and faith (as well as the arts) wherever and whenever we can. For this is Christian hermeticism. As Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, one of Tomberg’s favorite thinkers, writes,
It is done.
Once again the Fire has penetrated the earth.
Alexandre Desplat's Clouds
 Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2014), 125.
 Clement Salaman, “Echoes of Egypt in Hermes and Ficino,” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology and His Legacy, ed. Michael J. B. Allen, Valery Rees, Martin Davies (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 116.
 Robert M. Schuler, “Some Spiritual Alchemies of Seventeenth-Century England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 41, no. 2 (1980): 309.
 Meditations on the Tarot, trans. Robert Powell (Amity, NY: Amity House, 1985), 96.
 Nicolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 62.
 Meditations on the Tarot, 475.
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, trans. Simon Bartholomew (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 23.