Monday, February 13, 2012

Sorcery and Pollution

In the Apocalypse of St John on Patmos, he writes that some will be excluded from heaven by their wickednesses. [1]  He describes them with florid metaphor, calling them "the dogs," for example.  He goes on to name some of them: sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and so on.  A nasty lot, to be sure, all of them worshiping things not worthy of worship.

Of course, sorcery isn't much of a problem for us these days.  At least, that's how most of us see it. But some folks are concerned that magic in modern fiction poses a threat to sanctity.  Several years ago I wrote a book called From Homer To Harry Potter, in which one of my aims was to help Christians (many of whom were concerned about the sorcery of young Mr. Potter and its influence on their children) think about myth, fantasy, and magic.  Not all magic is equal, I argued, and not all of it should alarm us.  

So this word "sorcery" in St. John's Apocalypse caught my eye recently.  Perhaps sorcery is a bad thing, after all?  The word St. John uses is pharmakos, related to the Greek pharmakeia and to our word "pharmacy."  It means one who makes potions, and especially potions used to poison others

What's wrong with this version of sorcery should be obvious to everyone: it amounts to the idolatry of power and the abuse of nature to worship that idol.  To put it in simpler terms: it is an idolatry of power because it regards human lives as things to be sacrificed on the altar of power.  We kill because we desire to dominate.  Selah.

And it is an abuse of nature because it regards chemistry as a tool of domination of others.  It concocts in order to destroy, and, again, it destroys in order to dominate.

Christians who are concerned about magic should ponder this.  Is God concerned with hand-waving, spells, and incantations?  I doubt it.  But it would appear that God is not pleased with using chemistry to do violence, and with regarding natural science as a tool for domination of other people.  I know it alarms me, at any rate.

I haven't got a quick conclusion here.  My point is not that we need to do away with chemistry or hold witch-hunts for chemists.  But I frequently return to Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, [2] where he offers a way to speed up science by dividing up the four causes that Aristotle said all scientists need to seek.  Bacon suggests that if we can find the material and efficient causes of things - the matter and energy that cause particular contingent states and arrangements of things in the world - that should be enough for science.  Seeking the other two causes - formal and final causation - amounts to something like seeking the meaning of things and their purposes in the world.  To require scientists to seek these things is probably an undue burden on the natural sciences, and it certainly bogs down their progress by engaging them in endless debates about metaphysics and ethics.  Bacon leaves these latter questions to theologians and metaphysicians, freeing natural scientists to much more rapid progress in their research.  Bacon's division of causes was a brilliant stroke, and modern science owes it very much.

In the same book, Bacon finds he must make a defense of chemistry.  He does so by means of an analogy between chemistry and sorcery. [3]  It is prohibited to converse or do business with evil spirits, he says, but it is not prohibited to inquire into their nature and power.  Those who do the former are sorcerers, but those who do the latter are theologians.  Bacon adds, as an aside, that he's not sure either one is doing anything real, because those alleged spirits are "fabulous and fantastical."  Still, the analogy is helpful: it may be unethical to use poisons on other people, but it is certainly not wrong to seek to understand the nature and power of poisons.  So natural science, when it seeks to understand the nature and power of chemical compounds, for instance, is doing something like theology.

Here is where I find myself at a loss: theology has a story it can tell about why we should not converse with demons, and for those who live in the community that is shaped by that story, it is compelling.  But what story can we tell that will teach us how to avoid modern sorcery?  We have traded albs and chasubles for lab coats, and for the most part, this has been a positive development.  But we have not been intentional about telling a good story about science, and we have liberated it from questions of meaning and purpose - a liberation that we have recently begun to question, as we "have become death, the destroyer of worlds."  We have become unwitting sorcerers all, crafting potions that do wider and greater violence than the ancient theologians could have imagined.


[1]  Rev 22.14

[2]  See Bacon, Of the Advancement of Learning, 2.VII.3, e.g.

[3]  Bacon, op. cit., 2.VI.2.


  1. I find the relationship between science and magic intriguing. For example, the idea that Ron Weasley’s car has a “flying gear” is a fabulous blurring of that line. Someone told me once that magic is simply “sufficiently advanced technology”.

    I don’t have any answer for your question about how to avoid modern sorcery, but I do think about this question pretty much all the time. A couple summers ago I thought hard about giving up my job as a physics teacher, because I had lost so much faith in the industry of science. Specifically, I had lost faith the capacity of science to check itself and not harm society. The multitude of environmental dilemmas in which we now find ourselves could all arguably be traced back to misapplied science.

    One of the practices I have kept (read, stolen) from my mentor teacher was to have my physics students write their own version of the Hippocratic Oath. I tell my students the stories of Dr. Mengele and Mr. Midgley, but they’re easy targets - so easy, in fact, that I feel like something is lost by epitomizing them as villains in the story of science. There’s something much more common that irks me, and I suspect, for me at least, it’s wrapped up in the question of what science is for. It’s in the absence of the “other causes” that Bacon has suggested. During that time a couple summers ago when I almost gave up being a physics teacher, I asked many other science teachers what they thought science was for, and most of them had something to say about ultimately making people happy, and that was usually connected to saving people time. My conclusion from that string of conversations was that, “well if science is about making ourselves happier, then scientists ought to be experts at being happy!” Or at least, it behooves scientists to know what makes people happy, since I don’t think people are innately aware of that. But I should say that at this point that’s not a satisfying answer for me.

    So, going back to theology I find the question “What Jesus is for?” or “What function does he play in the story of salvation?” helpful. If Jesus is the mechanism for healing broken relationships, then maybe science can be a part of that. There exist broken relationships between God and humankind, between people (and other people), between people and their own bodies – and the church is more or less accustomed to praying for the reconciliation of those types of broken relationships, but what about the broken relationship between people and the Earth, or between people and the physical universe? Perhaps science can play some role there. Science as a tool for reconciliation and healing. However, I’m not sure how to frame that for my students in a public school setting. ☺
    --Anne Watson

    1. Anne, thanks for your thoughtful reflection. Your practice of having your students write their own Hippocratic Oath sounds like a good step in the right direction: you're asking students to consider science in the light of ethics, and since you're asking them to write their own oaths, you're managing to do it without dogmatically imposing ethics on them. Nicely done.

      I also think you're on to something in thinking about science playing a role in tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. I'm inclined to think that every discipline can be used towards that end.

      In a public school setting, you're right - it's not appropriate to put that in the very particular language of a religion that not everyone shares. I also often find that much of that language is so freighted with cultural baggage that using it sometimes obscures rather than clarifies. On the other hand, I see no reason why you can't continue to ask students to consider what physics is for. Even if you never answer that question in words, the fact that you take the question seriously is bound to make an impression.