The Terror of History: Lectures 19-24 (Witchcraft, Part 2 & Conclusion)

The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was one of the most influential books in early modern culture. It was written by two Dominican monks sent to investigate rural areas. They claimed that there was widespread use of witchcraft. What this most likely amounted to was a confrontation between the part of the Western world that was fully Christianized and the other part that was only partially Christianized. Also known as the Hammer of Witches, the Malleus showed the connection between women and the devil and was used to prosecute witches by both Catholicism and Protestantism. Persecution would have happened anyway, but it would not have happened on such a large-scale without the Malleus.

The Compendium Maleficarum

The Compendium Maleficarum was also very popular and describes in detail the steps to becoming a witch…

  1. Sign a pact with the Devil. Satan offers you something you want: wealth, power, knowledge, revenge… The pact is written in blood and placed in a crossroads. Crossroads were thought to be frequented by devils. Crosses were placed in the crossroads to scare away the devil.
  2. Receive the mark of the Devil. You are branded with a small mark in the form of a bat or a toad found in your genitalia, armpits, etc.  (probably a birthmark that looks similar.) The marks are insensitive to pain – they don’t hurt when they are pricked with a needle. (What a great job pricking must have been!) A third nipple could also be a mark, but this was sometimes a bit tricky because people would testify that they had seen a third nipple on someone, but when investigators would look for themselves, it would be gone! Magic, no doubt!! There was a sexual connotation to being branded with a mark. Slaves began to be branded on the forehead to indicate ownership during this time period, too.
  3. Abjure your faith.
  4. Cast away your rosaries and scapulars.
  5. Pay homage to the devil or his representatives. Witches were said to kiss the devil in his behind while the devil emitted a cold, fetid, filthy wind.
  6. Sacrilegious baptism. You are given new godparents and a new name. Naming is very important because it gives power.
  7. Cut a piece of clothing or hair and give it to the devil. This gives the devil power over you.
  8. Enter into the magic circle. (The Pentagram.)
  9. Promise to perform sacrifices for the Devil.

The Gathering of Witches

Of course, the Compendium Maleficarum is a hostile source. Not only does it describe how to become a witch, it describes the places where witches gather (known as Sabbath which comes from Sabazius Phyrigian deity and is not related to the Jewish Sabbath.). These were nocturnal gathering of witches and there are many books written about these gatherings. This can be linked with agrarian cults, too. It is well-accepted that people in Europe during this time period truly believed that at certain times of the weeks, the witches gathered to engage in orgies, do evil deeds, and worship the devil.

The Eve of May Day is the night of the witches. May Day is a very important day in ancient Europe because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of  spring. The Eve of May Day was considered "the night of terror". Other important days for witch gatherings were the Eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, Christmas Eve. (Basically the Eve of any big Christian celebration was considered an important day for witch gatherings.

According to the hostile sources, during these witch gatherings, people are dressed in animal skins (usually goats). They eat great amounts of foods prepared without salt and they drink monsie, a sweet wine considered to be an aphrodisiac. They engage in orgies. The devil will provide an incubus or succubus which will satisfy everything you want sexually. It takes the form of a little cat or other small animal and can turn into a human form. There is orgiastic dancing. The use of artificial phalluses is common. (Artificial phalluses were quite popular in Europe during this time period.) Children were sacrificed, their blood shed, and they were made into pies and eaten.

Murder and Cannibalism

People were often accused of cannibalism and child murder. These accusations were typically made against midwives because children died regularly during the time period. These same charges were made against the Jews, Native Americans, Gypsies… Those who are said to commit murder and cannibalism are easily identified as being utterly different from you. They have gone beyond the boundaries of humanity and therefore do not deserve to live.

Child sacrifice lies at the very roots of our civilization for Westerners. Judaism and Christianity are based on child sacrifice. (Think Abraham and Isaac/God and Jesus.) At the very roots of these accusations, is a series of charges that are as old as humanity, itself.

Witches of Loudon

Ruiz presents the case of the witches of Loudon as an example of how politics, new sexual mores, and handy accusations of witchcraft could be used to get rid of an enemy. It is also a good example of how witch trials functioned in early modern Europe when the witch craze was beginning to wane.

France, as elsewhere, was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural shifts. France, as well as other parts of Western Europe, had fully entered the post-Renaissance world of the Baroque. This was a culture of luxury and sensuousness. France had offered premier places of learning for the intellectual elite during this time period. Urbain Grandier was an intellectual elite who attended La Flèche, the same school Descartes had attended.

The Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian Method were creating new cultural fields and new cultural production that challenged the established order. The Counter-Reformation had created new standards for clergy and laity.

Loudon was a small city in France that was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics. It was experiencing conflict with the Crown and was facing economic transition. The Protestants were literate and middle class. The Catholics were the lower illiterate classes and upper class elites.

Urbain Grandier was ordained a Jesuit in 1615. He felt that becoming a clergyman would be more promising so left the Jesuits and became a priest at Loudon. He was a personable and handsome man who was very popular with the fashionable female parishioners. He had several sexual liaisons, getting the daughter of the local persecutor pregnant. This got him into trouble. The scandal was put aside, but he made powerful enemies.

A young, rich, beautiful widow who was much sought after by powerful men, fell in love with Grandier. He performed a marriage ceremony for the woman and himself, which also angered many people. Grandier obviously openly opposed celibacy (writing papers on it), which went counter to Church views. Another mistake was snubbing a young man who later became Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu never forgave Grandier for the snub.

In 1629, Grandier was imprisoned for sexual improprieties. He appealed to the higher court in Paris and was released back to clerical duties. Meanwhile, a new Ursulines convent opened in Loudon where middle class and impoverished aristocratic women became nuns. The head nun liked Grandier and asked him to become the nun’s confessor. He refused, which created another enemy.

Young novices at Ursuline, partly as prank, partly as constructed allegations, began to claim demonic possession. Grandier was accused of being the devil’s representative and imprisoned. Grandier was found guilty. He was tortured and condemned to death by burning. After terrible torture, he was burned in Loudon Square, pleading his innocence.

After his death, demonic possessions and lurid public exorcisms continued for 3 years, which delighted the onlookers of all denominations, and especially the Protestants who saw it as an example of Catholic misbehavior.

Essex Shire

Essex Shire in the 17th century was experiencing many of the major transformations that other areas were experiencing. Beggars were under attack. Peasants were taking to the streets to look for work and they were mistrusted. Authorities in Essex began persecuting witches in earnest. There was no torture in England, but the accused confessions were similar to those who were tortured. (The accused were not burned, although their bodies could be burned after death.)

Those accused as witches were primarily women who were past child-bearing years. Those doing the accusing were evenly divided between men and women. Many were in-laws of the accused. The accused were usually of a lower social class than their accusers, and were usually people who were lewd, begged for food, or had a propensity for cursing.

Salem Witch Trials

In 17th century Salem, a small colonial town in Massachusetts, the accusations and trials for witchcraft created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. In Salem, unlike Essex, the accusers were of a lower socioeconomic status than the accused. Salem marks the conclusion of two centuries of the witch craze.

Pre-Christian Agricultural Cults

As mentioned previously, there is much evidence to support the survival of pre-Christian agricultural cults in Europe. In Italy, there are the "good walkers" of Friuli. They were believed to be born with the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates and have unusual powers. When the harvests were at stake, they would go out to the fields and march with fennel stalks to do battle against the witches who were armed with sorghum stalks. It was believed this would save the crops.

When the inquisitors encountered this behavior, it was accused of witchcraft. The "good walkers" refused to admit guilt and claimed they were good Christians, too. The proceedings lasted for decades. After many years, they began to confess. Most were punished, but not executed.

Deep and Mysterious Past

Another influential tradition in the making of Western culture is the belief in a deep and mysterious past. Celtic lure is an excellent example. Many Druidic beliefs survived, including the power of mistletoe, the fabled golden bough. It was supposed to have healing and magical power so was placed on the door to defend against the power of witches. May Day is related to mistletoe. The Maypole is a phallic symbol and celebrations are related to fertility rites and the renewal of life in spring.

Magical Places

Another influential tradition is the belief in magical places that offer portals into a different world of nature and imagination. This was a pre-Christian belief that made its way into Christianity. Other folklore that survived was the belief in fairies, trolls, dragons, wizards, etc. This is not a widespread belief, but was quite popular in Celtic homelands. Celtic lore remains a powerful cultural motif.

The Golden Bough by James Frazer is an extraordinary record of Celtic folklore. Celts are a remarkable people. They brought their Druid religion and the sense of the mysterious which entered 12th century literature through Courtly Love.

From the Golden Bough, we learn of great fire festivals. The building of fires on the top of mountains probably goes back to human sacrifice. Man was sacrificed as a way to replenish the fertility of the earth. We also learn about the use of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the oak tree. It is the most important anti-witchcraft plant, the plant of the gods. The Oak Tree is the sacred tree of the Indo-European people and other groups. On the solstice and equinox, the fire festivals take place. When you burn the oak, you return the fire. It was believed the sun resides in the heart of the oak. This guarantees that the sun will burn brightly for another year.

Today

Today, May Day is Labor day because a group of workers in Chicago were killed on May Day while demonstrating. May Day had long been a day off for Europeans. Labor Day harkens back to a day no one worked. (It was eventually moved to September in the U.S. for political reasons.)

Today, there are still places so sacred that people flock to them. Pantheon in Rome. Stone Circles in England (Stonehenge). Cathedral of Chartres built on an old Celtic sacred place (you travel a maze in the building to the very center of the world).

The making and construction of ideas are the ways in which human beings deal with the terror of history. It isn’t just a medieval and early modern tradition. It lives on with us. There has never been a more cruel and irrational century than the 20th century. We’ve had one genocide and after another, without end.

History is made by the elites. It is written by those on the top. History is constructed. It is a way in which we try to explain what is often unexplainable. It is a way to give reason to things that are not reasonable. We live at the very edge of doom. We live in danger all the time. Around us is the uncertainty and irrationality of the world. It is our own actions that terrorize us. In order to deal with this and make meaning of it, we create religion, scapegoats and sacred places.

The terror of history remains with us. And as in earlier periods, society continues to formulate responses that seek an escape from history.

The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

The Terror of History: Lectures 9-13 (Heresy and the Millennium)

The first part of Prof. Teo Ruiz’s Great Courses lecture series, The Terror of History, was on mysticism. The second part is on Heretical and Millenarian Movements.

I find it so very interesting (although not surprising) that there is such a fine line between what is considered mystical and what is considered heretical. A mystic could very easily cross the line into heresy if they get too far away from what is considered orthodox, and what is orthodox varies. (What is now orthodox may have been heretical, yesterday.)

Heresy

Heresy is the denial of established dogmas or dissent from established truth. You can only be a heretic of the religion of which you are a part. Therefore, if you are Jewish, you wouldn’t be considered heretical by the Catholic Church even though your beliefs go completely counter to church dogma because you are not Catholic. You would have to be Catholic to be considered heretical by the Church. (Or more generally, Christian to be considered a Christian heretic.)

Heresy is defined by the victor. Many of the Catholic Church dogmas came out of what was once considered heretical. (An example is transubstantiation.)

Many of the heresies that swept Europe during the middle ages were a result of the Investiture Conflict (a conflict between the church and state) that occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries and later Church Reform. There was a lot of religious dissent during this period and five main heretical groups emerged:

  • The Reformers – those swept away by the spirit of reforming the church, like Martin Luther.
  • Eccentrics – usually isolated and held outdated and sometimes bizarre beliefs.
  • Dualism or Manichaeism like the Cathars.
  • Reactionaries – those who objected to Church reform and favored of an allegiance to tradition.
  • Heterodox views that came out of intellectual thought like that of Baruch Spinoza who was expelled from his synagogue.
  • Millenarian Movements

Millenarian movements are based on the idea that time has a beginning and end. This view of time comes out of the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the constant struggle between good and evil. Cultural and social constructs created this notion and it has had a lasting impact on the making of Western culture.

There are two orthodox millennial traditions within Christianity. One can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Book of Revelation. Revelation holds the classic example: the devil is seized and imprisoned which leads to a faithful reign for 1000 years before the final battle between good and evil when time will come to an end. (There were several other concepts floating around as well.)

The heresy and millenarian beliefs deeply affected the social, political and cultural structures of Western Europe. Millenarian and Apocalyptic beliefs were triggered by the violence after the first popular crusade, and a good argument can be made that the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Europe in the 20th century are directly related to millenarian ideas. (Norman Cohn)

Cathars

Catharism arose in southern France which was very different, culturally, than northern France. Ideas of courtly love, which originated in southern France, were widespread in the area. Therefore, female spirituality was given more importance and the observance of Catholicism was very lax.

Catharism held a Manichaean duality and while it is considered a heresy (and therefore Christian), it was technically a completely different religion that was in competition with Christianity.

Most of the Cathars were the mercantile classes and lower nobility. The role of women was much more significant in Catharism than in Catholicism, too, which was no doubt thanks to the idea of courtly love so prevalent in the area.

The Catholic Church attempted to bring the Cathars back into the fold but their attempts didn’t work so they launched a crusade against them. This was the first time the Church had launched a crusade against Christians. The church eventually defeated the heretics, but Catharism remained alive.

(As a side note, it often happens that radical movements that begin as orthodox end up heretical.)

The Birth of the Inquisition

As was mentioned earlier, the Church failed to completely wipe out the Cathars and the violence that had erupted from attempts to wipe them out set the stage for a climate of persecution. The French desire to pacify the region led to the creation of the Inquisition around 1220. It was organized in southern France by the papal order and placed in charge of the Dominicans. The Pope had the highest authority, the bishops next highest and then local inquisitors.

The inquisition persecuted anyone they considered to be a heretic, and it was largely supported by the masses. People were brought to trial and punishment included torture, burning, confiscation and penance.

The construction of “otherness” came into being during this time period. Differences were exaggerated and persecuted. Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups were excluded from communal and national projects. This was the beginning of the rise of persecuting societies. The Inquisition also provided a way to confiscate the property of those believed to be the enemy. Whole societies developed around the wealth of confiscated properties.

Before the 12th century, the church would make attempts to bring heretics back into the fold. By the late 12th century, extreme punishment was employed to bring them back, and this punishment was acceptable to the public! It provided a way of binding together community. However, the persecution in the 12th century is calm in comparison to what came in the 15th century with the persecution of witches. And the persecution of witches is much more calm than the persecution that arose in the 20th century. (Western culture gets more and more violent as time goes on…)

Free Spirits

Another heretical movement that arose was that of the Free Spirits (the beghards and beguines). Adherents were accused of letchery and sexual excesses. They were also accused of claiming to reach a state of perfection where they were equal to God and no longer bound by moral laws. These stories, however, were not true. They were spread by the enemies of the movement as a way to dispel it. (Church Propaganda.)

Groups like the Free Spirit emerged because the Church had put a moratorium on new religious orders. This caused lay orders to become popular which paved the way for new forms of spirituality. The Free Spirit (or beguines and beghards – a female lay order) were the most important in defining the new forms of lay spirituality.

Marguerite Porete, one of the leading thinkers of the Free Spirit, was executed in Paris. Others were persecuted as well. These women did not see themselves as heretics. They believed themselves to be orthodox believers who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Millennium in the 16th Century

At the end of the middle ages and beginning of the modern era, unstable conditions came into being that challenged the established order. In Germany (and throughout Western Europe), the village structure that had been in place for centuries in rural areas changed dramatically. This affected the social structure of rural societies. A few wealthy citizens began buying up the village common lands which caused large numbers of peasants to become landless proletariats. Their traditional ways of life were eroded beyond recognition.

Another change, of course, is the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. He denied transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, which he did himself. One of the reasons Luther was successful was because of the political infighting going on in Germany at the time. The German princes were threatened by the growing power of Charles V and looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.

The German peasants began making social, economic and religious demands, asking for a more egalitarian society. There were outbreaks of widespread violence which often led to attacks on the monasteries and to the peasants appropriations of church land. Muntzer, a follower of Luther who became even more radical, led to the rise of the Anabaptists and the Great Peasant War. The rebels defeated nobel armies but the war ended with a nobel victory, and untold numbers of peasants were slaughtered, partially thanks to Luther’s condemnation of them.

Millenarian agitation continued in Germany and throughout the West. In the mid 17th century, Puritans overthrew King Charles I and established a commonwealth. (“No king but King Jesus”.) The Puritans had millenarian views, but not radical ones. However, they paved the way for more radical views, both utopian and millenarian.

The first wave of Americans was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. The New Englanders thought of their land as the blessed recreation of Jerusalem, which ushered in American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers who saw North America as the ideal place to create a perfect society.

Jewish Millennial Expectations

The Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (Sefarad) for more than 1400 years. In 1391, persecution of the Jews, as well as a series of pogroms, led the Jews to convert in large numbers. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to convert. Those who did so voluntarily sought the economic and political gains that were available to Christians in the area.

The once thriving Jewish community of Iberia became two antagonistic bodies: the Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity) and Jews that remained faithful to their ancestral beliefs, despite the persecution and their diminished role in Spanish society.

Those who refused to convert were marginalized. They moved to small towns where they could find protection. Some of the Conversos still practiced Judaism in secret while others became faithful Christians. Some were religiously confused and followed neither religion.

Those who remained Jewish became more faithful to Jewish law and traditional practices, giving up the once wide held fascination with Aristotelian thought. (It was the Aristotelian thought that may have made it easy for many to convert to Christianity.)

The growing Jewish interest in Judaism spurred a greater interest in apocalyptic expectations. These were messianic beliefs linked with Kabbalah mysticism and became an important part of 15th century Spanish Judaism.

The Spanish Inquisition appeared in the 1480s with a savage attack against the Conversos. Some Jews supported this attack on the Conversos, which supported the “rightness” of their decision to remain Jewish. (The Jews did not fall under the Inquisitions jurisdiction, but the Conversos, did.) The Inquisition brought with it much distrust among the Conversos and Jews, as well as great instability.

By the 1490s, life for the Jews had deteriorated so significantly that normal life on the peninsula was now impossible. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion which gave Jews 3 months to convert or get out. Half of the Jews converted, the other half went into difficult exile. This was very difficult for the Jews because they thought of Spain as their country and now they were no longer allowed to identify with it.

Many of the wealthier and politically influential Jews were convinced by their Catholic peers to convert. One who refused was Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508). He was one of the main financial advisers to the Catholic monarchs. He was also well-versed in the Torah and had written on planetary conjunctions and their effect on the age.

In choosing exile, he became one of the leading (and richest) intellectuals among the exiled Jews, and he created an elaborate doctrine on the coming of the Messiah. People were told to turn away from rational pursuits and return to a faithful observance of the Torah. He claimed the beginning of the 16th century, which was marked by the expulsion out of Sefarad, ushered in the Jews return to God. Repentance was viewed as a condition of redemption. He said the conflict between the Christians and the Turks (who were Muslim) was a sign of the coming final wars that would usher in the Messiah. This would lead to the restoration of religious life and to the political rehabilitation of Israel. This new Israel was a utopia.

Another messianic leader was Sabbatai Sevi who conducted an apocalyptic mission between 1665-1676. Nathan of Gaza (well-known theologian and Kabbalist) promoted Sabbatai as the long-awaited Messiah and with Sabbatai’s visit to Jerusalem in 1662, a period of intense religious activity began that culminated with his pronouncement that he was the Messiah in 1665. Many Jews sold their possessions and traveled to Palestine to await the end of days. The Jewish disturbances came to the attention of the Ottoman Empire and Sabbatai was imprisoned in 1666. Surprisingly, Sabbatai, converted to Islam. This did not put an end to his Messiahship, however. Many argued that it was a necessary step for the Messiah to become a Converso before redemption of the Jewish people could take place.

There remains an enduring quality of messianic belief among orthodox Jews to this day. It’s difficult to say exactly what the messiah will be – maybe a person, maybe some sort of divine intervention. All those who hold the to a messianic belief likewise believe that Israel plays a unique role in human history. Israel is redemptive.

The Terror of History: Lectures 2-3 (Introductory Lectures)

Western Society is associated with science and reason, but it is also the home of widespread belief in the supernatural, those who wait for the Apocalypse, and repeated acts of barbarism.

Prof. Ruiz says that we Westerners have a deeply held belief in “the terror of history” and it is this belief that is the “underbelly” of Western Society. The belief is that the world is essentially about disorder and emptiness and that human beings are constantly on the edge of doom. Because we see history as terrifying, we try to escape it by various means, including withdrawing through transcendental means or by creating scapegoats out of non-conformists and outsiders, blaming them for the “catastrophe of existence”.

Ruiz explores the terror of history through mysticism, heresy, and apocalyptic movements. These are all forms of cultural and popular history. A conflict that has existed in the West for quite some time is that between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ideal. On the one hand, we have a need for order (Apollonian). On the other, we wish to obliterate the self and become one with the world (Dionysian).

Europe experienced an extraordinary social transformation between 1000 and 1700 which paved the way for mysticism, millenarian agitation and a belief in witchcraft.

In 1000, there was a tripartite hierarchy that was thought to be inspired by God. Society consisted of priests and monks, defenders of society (knights, etc.), and workers (peasants). The economy was primarily agrarian, however towns and cities were just beginning to emerge.

By the 12th century, cities and urban societies were on the rise. This created a shift away from the agrarian economy to commercial activity and the growth of the bourgeoisie. New notions of secular time were also introduced. (Prior to this, people believed the “end of time” was around the corner which is almost impossible for us to understand, today.)

The economic changes of the 12th century created the late medieval crisis which threatened to destroy all developments of the previous centuries. By the late 15th and 16th centuries, the economy was in full recovery. This new understanding of the economy led to capitalism. The new powers of wealth destroyed the social order, and a new social order came into being that was far more inflexible than what had existed in the past.

One of the most important changes was the new attitude toward the poor. The poor used to be considered the select children of Christ, but by 1300, the poor were increasingly persecuted and policed. Political changes also took place leading to the rise of the state which had a huge influence on the making of the “terror of history”. Kings began centralizing power which created new definitions of inclusion and exclusion as well as communal identity.

In order to control the nobility, whose power had been usurped by the kings, the kings made alliances with the bourgeoisie. A state “monopoly of legalized violence” (coined by Max Weber) developed. Taxation, conscription, standing armies and extensive bureaucracies were the instruments for centralized power and the rise of the rational state.

Religion was, of course, the alternative to reason and an escape from the terror of history. All the Abrahamic faiths in the west underwent radical change during this time, and this had a dramatic impact on the Western world.

In the 10th century, the papacy was corrupt and little more than a plaything of the aristocracy. The priests and monks were illiterate and did not observe their vows. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder. And Church involvement with the feudal structure caused problems.

A powerful reform movement took place in the 10th and 11th centuries which led to a rebirth of mysticism as well as heretical and millenarian movements. During this time period, the papacy gained an unchallenged position of authority. By the 14th century, the papacy was challenged by the growing power of kings. This shift in power had dramatic consequences.

The Protestant Reformation led to a permanent split in the Christian world, which led to a new way of thinking about the world. This caused the Catholic Church to restructure its boundaries. Behavior that may have been tolerated prior to the Reformation was now a target for persecution.

The changes between 1000 and 1700 transformed the awareness of God and the world. Courtly love in the 12th century played a role in the development of mystical traditions. There is also a relationship between the Renaissance of the 12th century with the emergence of new heresies. In the 13th century, the Aristotelian worldview had taken hold. Universities and the spread of literacy were also underway. This led to the Scientific Revolution which had a significant impact on European thought and helped shape the fate of magic (and religion, but not as much).

Mysticism is part of high culture. We know about it because people wrote about it, which means they were educated and literate. Heresy can be a part of either high culture or popular culture. Millenarian movements, however, are always part of popular culture.

It is important to always keep in mind that our knowledge of the historical popular culture is tainted by the mediation of high culture. (We learn about the historical popular culture by reading what the high culture has to say about it.)

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 23-24 – Protestant Christian Mysticism

More notes on Christian Mysticism from Dr. Johnson’s Mystical Tradition lecture series

There had long been a tradition of reform in Roman Catholicism, so the desire of the Protestant Reformation to reform the Church was not new.  What was new was that the Reformation challenged the papacy, the priesthood, and the sacraments.  These had never been seriously challenged before.  What was especially different was that the two-tiered Christianity that had existed almost from the Church’s earliest beginnings – that lay people live one sort of life and the way of perfection is reserved for those who live in special houses and take vows of chastity and are freed from domestic distractions in order to live a life of prayer – was being challenged.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German and Augustinian monk who called for a return to the fundamentals and basic realities of Christian life: faith and scripture.  There are no monks in scripture, so there shouldn’t be any monks.  The Pope has no right to annul marriages based on scripture.  Nor is there any scriptural reason for pastors to be celibate.  He wanted to completely disregard Aristotle whom he viewed as a heathen teacher and ruled Christianity more than did Christ. He challenged almost all of the structural elements that made up the Medieval Church.

The goal of the reformation was not meant to be destructive, however.  It was meant to be constructive.  It called for perfection among all Christians – not just the elite few.  It also called for more rigor in Christianity.

Martin Luther was deeply indebted to early mystic writers.  However, in a sense, what Protestant Reformers were trying to do was eradicate mysticism from religion.  But what basically ended up happening was the extension of ascetic ideals to all believers.  The Reformation also exposed social and religious tensions that were very difficult to negotiate.

Martin Luther did not write in a systematic fashion, but his student, Philip Melanthon (1497-1560) organized Luther’s reform into a systematic theology – a Lutheran scholasticism that was insufficiently radical for the Anabaptists and others, including Johann Arndt (1551-1621) who argued that external attention to doctrine, such as the Doctrine of Atonement, was insufficient.  Instead attention needs to be paid to the work of Christ in human hearts.

Mystical teachers arose in Protestantism in response to a personal and transcendent relationship to God that went beyond public worship and theology.  Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was a mystic in the Lutheran tradition who had mystical experiences from an early age.  His writings included Gnostic/Neoplatonic elements.  For Boehme, Christianity is inward Christianity.  Inward Christianity consists of the path back to God through Christ through knowledge of self that leads to being regenerated in the image of Christ.

Pietism was a movement that began in Germany with the publication of Pia Desidera *1675) by Philipp Jakob Spencer (1635-1705).  He issued a 6 point agenda for reform which caught fire and led to the spread Pietism in north and middle Germany in the 18th century.  In reaction to this movement, the German Awakening took place in the 19th century, spearheaded by August Tholuck.  “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”  In the German Awakening, worldly pleasure was celebrated more than rejected which was something completely new within Christianity, especially since medieval times.  The enjoyment of life was understood as given to us by God and therefore considered to be an intrinsic part of Christian life.

Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1831-1910) taught that the poor are friends to Christians.  His view on the poor was completely different view than had ever been previously presented. Where Christianity often talks about being among the poor or becoming poor, Bodelschwingh said the poor serve two functions:  1) an opportunity to practice charity  and 2) a challenge to our own sense of self-entitlement and self-indulgence.  The German Awakening marks the beginning of a more worldly Christianity that characterizes the 20th century.

Back in England, William Law (1696-1761) defended the Anglican faith against Deism.  He wrote a classic of Anglican spirituality called A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) where he says a devout life leads to happiness more than it does its opposite.  He also wrote The Spirit of Love (1754) which was more explicitly mystical. John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were disciples of William Law. They began a renewal within the Anglican Church which eventually led to a new denomination altogether based on a specific method of being Christian (Methodism).

John Wesley said that faith is not an opinion.  It is the ability to pierce the veil and it is also an inner experience.

A string of opinions is no more Christian faith than a string of beads is of Christian holiness… The faith by which the promise is attained is a power wrought by the Almighty in an immortal spirit inhabiting a house of clay to see through that veil into the world of spirits, into things invisible and eternal: a power to discern those things which with eyes of flesh and blood no man hath seen or can see either by reason of their nature, which (though they surround us on every side) is not perceivable by those gross senses or by reason of their distance as being yet afar off in the bosom of eternity.  To believe (in the Christian sense) then, is to walk in the light of eternity and to have a clear sight of, and confidence in, the Most High, reconciled to me through the Son in his love.”

Charles Wesley wrote significant and beautiful hymns that show up in worship services in all traditions today.

Wesleyan Eschatology and a Personal Perspective

A recent discussion with Lindsay has me thinking about Eschatology.  Different traditions can have very different views on Eschatology so I think sometimes, we can think we are talking about the same thing, but we maintain assumptions based on our different traditions that keep us from fully understanding the other’s point of view.

It helps to at least have an understanding of what your own view is, so I thought I’d work through my understanding of Christian Eschatology.

With the exception of the 8 years I was Catholic and the 5 plus years I decided to shun institutionalized religion altogether, I have been part of the United Methodist denomination that was founded by John and Charles Wesley.  I attended Sunday School regularly, was actively involved in MYF through junior high and high school, and went through Methodist Confirmation.  I participated in Methodist Bible study classes, including Disciple Bible Study beginning in junior high and continued to attend studies through the Wesley Foundation in college and at various churches in my adulthood.  Obviously, my Biblical orientation is extremely Wesleyan, which is why I think I was never totally comfortable with the fundamentalist Christian groups I was actively involved with in high school (Young Life and Fellow Christian Athletes).  But fundamentalism shaped my early ideas of Eschatology far more than did Methodism.

I live in the Bible Belt and grew up totally surrounded by dispensational premillinialists (a somewhat famous tribulations writer lived across the street from us).  For most of my youth, my view of the end times was based on a literal reading of Revelation. It was easy for me to adopt this view, despite belonging to a Methodist Church, because there is no firm view of eschatology within United Methodism. There’s no doctrine whatsoever on Heaven or Hell, either.  You are free to believe about it what you want and there are all sorts of views amongst Methodists.  Plus, I knew very little of Wesley, other than some Biblical commentary sometimes covered in Disciple Bible Study classes – but I didn’t encounter this commentary until I had moved out of the Bible Belt.  (Of course, now I’m back in the Bible Belt.)  I recently took an introductory course on John Wesley through our church that was extremely helpful.

One of the things that separates Methodism from some of the other mainstream Protestant denominations is that its founders were not at all interested in Biblical prophecy so there is very little emphasis on speculative eschatology.  Early Methodists interpreted Revelation and other apocryphal texts as historicists, not as futurists.  If there is an eschatology in Methodism, it is an eschatology of hope. According to John Wesley, the Holy Spirit provides the ability for humans to begin Christ’s redeeming work, now.  We don’t have to wait for signs to know this is happening. God’s ultimate goal is not to whisk us off to some future Kingdom, but to restore us to full health (body and soul), and we are full participants in this restoration.

Consider Matthew 24:14 – “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then shall the end come.”  John Wesley said that the use of the term “oikoumene” in the original Greek limited Jesus’ meaning specifically to the Roman Empire.  In Wesley’s Biblical notes, he wrote:

And then shall the end come — Of the city and temple. Josephus’s History of the Jewish War is the best commentary on this chapter. It is a wonderful instance of God’s providence, that he, an eye witness, and one who lived and died a Jew, should, especially in so extraordinary a manner, be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of important facts, which so exactly illustrate this glorious prophecy, in almost every circumstance.

Methodist theologian Milton Terry puts it this way, “After the Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom had been preached in the whole Roman world, for a witness to all the nations of the same, the end of that age came.”   And this, in turn, explains Matthew 24:34 – “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  According to Wesley, all these things happened in the second century.  There is no need to continue to wait for them to happen. From his Biblical Commentary:

The expression implies, that great part of that generation would be passed away, but not the whole. Just so it was. For the city and temple were destroyed thirty-nine or forty years after.

I have, penciled into my Disciple Bible Study workbook, that the Gospel of Matthew was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70 ACE).  The Methodist minister who taught this class said the writer(s) of Matthew weren’t prophesying what was to come, but were instead putting words into Jesus’ mouth about what had already happened.  Several years before her class, during my Roman Catholic days, I had taken a class called “In Time with the Bible with Father Weaver”.  The Methodist minister’s view was actually less radical than Father Weaver’s understanding, and he was supposedly trained at the Vatican. (He had been hired to counter the more literalist leanings of the Little Rock Scripture Study that had become popular at our church.)  He believed that once we are finally allowed more access to non-canonical texts, our views of the canonized Bible would be forced to change.  I tend to agree with Father Weaver and the Methodist minister’s view.  The Bible was canonized by the Catholic Church in the 4th century after Constantine had made it the official religion of Rome, largely for political reasons. There are whole sections of early Christianity we know very little about and can gain a better understanding of who Jesus might have been through these non-canonical texts.

But I digress. Obviously, Wesley’s view doesn’t contradict Albert Schweitzer’s understanding that Jesus believed the end of times would happen in Jesus’ life time.  But clearly, Wesley does not share this view.   That was the basis of my conversation with Lindsay – Lindsay thinks that both Paul and Jesus shared the view that the End of Times would be in their lifetime. I agreed that this was true of Paul, but not of Jesus. I’m not sure Wesley would agree that it was true of Paul, either. In looking through my old Disciple Bible Study notes, I stumbled upon Wesley’s notes on Matthew 24:29 which say that Paul’s intent was to turn the primitive Christians away from the idea that the end of the world would be in their lifetime.

Matthew 24:29-30 reads…

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall be the sun darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.

Wesley’s commentary…

     Immediately after the tribulation of those days — Here our Lord begins to speak of his last coming. But he speaks not so much in the language of man as of God, with whom a thousand years are as one day, one moment. Many of the primitive Christians not observing this, thought he would come immediately, in the common sense of the word: a mistake which St. Paul labours to remove, in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians.

    The powers of the heavens — Probably the influences of the heavenly bodies.

2 Thessalonians 2:2 says, “That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” Wesley says that Paul’s use of “shaken in mind” refers to judgment and also being terrified.  Wesley says that those who are fond of knowing the future are easily terrified and that Paul is warning against this. They need to have sound judgment and not be distracted by pretended revelation from the Spirit (Wesley was always warning people to test what they believed came from the Holy Spirit) and that they should also be wary of any pretense that might come from Paul.

Personally, I really don’t know what to think of Paul.  But to think that Jesus believed the literal end of times was nigh would completely destroy my understanding of Jesus.  Not to say Schweitzer was wrong, just that I think it is impossible to know who Jesus was so a historical reading of Jesus is just as mythical as anything else.  He’s a historical figure, but we all have different ideas of who Jesus was and what works for some doesn’t work for others.  That’s OK.  Personally, I think Jesus was far more motivated by compassion than he was politics. This compassion, of course, made him enter into the political game and confront it head on.  But I don’t think he was politically motivated.  Paul, on the other hand, seems more driven by politics.  Of course, his politics are compassionate.  But from my perspective Paul’s motivation is politics over compassion while Jesus’ motivation (and I think that of the movement carried on by Peter & James) is compassion over politics.

Maybe Paul believed the end of times was around the corner, or maybe he understood this more like Wesley says he did.  I don’t know.  I don’t think it really matters in terms of my personal understanding of Biblical eschatology and perhaps that’s because I have turned so far away from the dispensationalist view (which I think is incredibly dangerous!)  These days, I understand Christian Eschatology almost entirely metaphorically.  Eschatological writings occur during exceptionally difficult times and offer hope to those who are undergoing great oppression and immense suffering.  They don’t necessarily offer a way out of the oppression and suffering, but provide the assurance that there is a way through it.  They provide courage and faith (trust) by piercing the veil.  Even though all is a mess, all is well.  With that understanding, we have the potential to evolve humanity toward compassion and unity without denying individuality.

Nietzsche and the Trinity

Carl said I challenged the idea that Christian mysticism regards the unitive experience as communion rather than identification with God.  I think he misunderstood my “challenge”.   I agree that Christian mysticism is about communion with God.  I’m just not convinced that this is unique to Christianity.  Every world religion I can think of is ultimately about communion with “the One”, not identification with “God”.

But that’s not what this post is about.  I had a really cool idea thanks to Carl making me think through my ideas on the Trinity.  Here it is:  Nietzsche’s three stages of becoming (Camel, Lion, Child) are comparable to the Christian Trinity and the Hindu/Wiccan trinity.  This gives me goosepimples!

Start with the “Child Stage” which perhaps could be compared to Brahman/Maiden/Father-God.  Take into consideration that the absolute, unqualified Deity for Christian mystic Meister Eckhart was outside of the Trinity.  He considered it to be unnatured nature and said that it manifested itself as natured nature in the form of the Trinity. The “Father” part of the trinity is for Eckhart, a genesis.  (The “Father” procreates. The “Son” does not.)  And as I mentioned yesterday, Dostoevsky (whom was definitely a Christian mystic) considered God to be a field of infinite potential.  Nietzsche’s “Child” Stage” is the stage of innocence where there is an openness to infinite possibility.  This is where true creativity exists. This stage naturally creates rules and regulations that initially help foster creativity.  But eventually, the rules cease to serve creativity and become a burden.  They become a sort of prison because we are no longer dutiful to the rules for the sake of growth and creativity but simply for duty’s sake.  This is the Camel Stage.

We have to go through the Camel Stage and be dutiful to the rules of our culture and society in order to transcend them.  We have to be able to fully live in the world if we are to transcend the world.  Being focused on an otherworldly heaven that provides an escape from this world does not provide us with this ability.  We have to be willing to live with whatever it is the world hands us and to be grateful for the world as it is rather than focusing on how we want it to be.  Not only grateful, Nietzsche says that if we are unwilling to live our lives over and over and over again, exactly as they are, for an eternity, then we are seeking an escape and have failed to show our gratitude.  (Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer we said in our entire life was thank you, it would suffice.)  I think this could potentially be comparable to Vishnu in Hinduism and the Mother in Wicca (the Preservers).  I also think this could be compared to “the Son” in the Christian Trinity.  (Remember, according to Meister Eckhart, the Son does not procreate.  The Son for Eckhart is not about creation. It is about preservation.)  It is through “the Son” that Christians are given the courage to live in the world.  It is also what finally gives us the courage to question the norms of the world against God’s world.  Which leads us to the Lion Stage.  (Just remember, when Nietzsche said God was dead, what he meant was that the metaphor we had created for God was no longer serving us.  We killed the Metaphor.  He felt this applied to atheistic rationalists as much as it applied to Christian theists.  We had become slaves to a dead metaphor.)

The Lion Stage fits perfectly with the Destroyer Stage within Hinduism and Wicca (Shiva/Crone).  This is where we slay the dragon.  Not only do we slay the dragon, we undo every single scale that exists on that dragon.  What is the dragon?  The cultural norms that demand our compliance even though they no longer are of service to us. The scales are every single rule and regulation that demands our compliance for the mere sake of duty rather than for the sake of growth and creativity.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that allows us to transcend our old, worn out patterns.  It’s what allows us to see that we have the ability to transcend our old way of being.  In so doing, it “destroys” our old way of being. (The Holy Spirit is represented as fire in Methodism.)

Nietzsche claims we are engaged in a constant journey of becoming.  We don’t finally arrive at some end destination with the journey coming to an end, we are forever journeying which requires that we constantly cycle through these stages.  So the Lion Stage gives way to the Child Stage where everything is new again.  Eventually, what was once new begins to fetter us and we begin to become imprisoned by the dragon of duty which requires we be dutiful out of fear (the sake of duty based on the boundaries of past experiences) rather than out of love (an infinite field of potential) and so we enter the Camel Stage again so that we can recognize the well-worn path has finally come to an end and that it is time we create our own.

But in order to create our own path, we must slay the dragon.  And so it goes.  It’s a never-ending process.