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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

Thomas sets the stage by describing economic and social conditions. During these two centuries, massive poverty and appalling health were the norm. Most children died before age six and the average life-span was only twentyseven so health was a concern. Every religion uses miracles or magic — perhaps a redundancy — to help define its monopoly on the truth. By the time of the Reformation, even though the church did not, as an institution, claim the power to work miracles, it was saddled with a tradition of saints who could, and appeal to them to ward off ill-health was commonplace. St. Wilgerfort (St. Uncumber) " eliminate husbands of those discontented wives who chose to offer her a peck of oats." The mere representation of St. Christopher, " said to offer a day' preservation from illness or death to all those who looked upon it." Saints were, after all, specialists, rather than general practitioners.

The association of magical powers with church ritual was not ostentatiously promoted by medieval church leaders; in fact, it' often through their writings refuting such claims that we know about them. But the imputation of magical powers was a logical result of church actions. In their intense desire to convert the heathens, the church incorporated many pagan rituals into religious practice. Ancient worship of natural phenomena was modified: hence, New Year' Day became the Feast of Circumcision, the Yule log became part of Christmas tradition and May Day was turned into Saints' Days, for example.

Theologians made a distinction between religion and superstition, but superstition was loosely defined as any practice having magical qualities that were not already designated as religious ritual. The church had the power to define what constituted legitimate and what it denied became heretical. The Protestant Reformation had a significant effect on how the populace regarded miracles and magic. By elevating the individual' faith in God, and denigrating ritual, a new concept of religion was created. The ignorant peasant had had no need for knowledge of the Bible or scripture; the rituals and rites of the church had become the "" of the supernatural and evidence for his/her belief. " was a ritual set of living, not a set of dogmas." The Protestant theologian insisted on a more personal faith, so it became necessary to invent a theology that explained the threat of plague, natural disasters, and the fear of evil spirits. One could no longer call on the " solutions offered by the medieval church." The solution was predestination. Everything that happened was God's will. Evil became a test.

Thus every Christian had the consolation of knowing that life was not a series of random events; there was purpose in everything. This also required scapegoats. There had to be a reason for calamitous events, and the moral degradation of your neighbor must be the cause behind the lack of rain for the past several months. Or it' because of the Jews in town. Get rid of the neighbor and the Jews and all will be well. Or, the calamity could be seen as a test of one' own faith. Righteous personal behavior was out of fear that God would avenge wickedness. Many of Pat Robertson' homilies could have been written in the middle ages. A whole genre of diarist writing arose out of the need for Puritans to document the hand of Providence. His interference could be seen in happy coincidences, accidents to the wicked, and deliverance from personal illness.

These judgments could be used as political weapons also. One party issued a whole list of calamities on land and sea that must surely be a sign from God that the Royalists were evil and should be overthrown (shades of Robertson). Of course, Catholics blamed calamities on the Reformation. Handy. But is was ultimately " observer' point of view which determined whether, and by whom, an event was held as a judgment or deliverance. . . the belief in providence degenerated into a crude justification of any successful policy. . . . The doctrine of providences was a conscientious attempt to impose order on the apparent randomness of human fortunes by proving that, in the long run, virtue was rewarded and vice did not go unpunished."

The Reformation did not put an end to prophecy and the association of miracle working to religious supremacy. The period following Elizabeth and during the Civil War reflected growing unease with social inequities. Women, normally excluded from political debate and discussion, used prophecy and dream interpretation to express political dissatisfaction. A virtual army of pseudo-messiahs appeared, claiming all sorts of personal relationships with God. Mostly they were the targets of humor unless their messages conveyed secular political implications. Punishment for heresy (the last burning for heresy occurred in 1642) could be a useful tool to eliminate political opposition. Common prayer served as a useful mechanism to bring people together for the purpose of harnessing group perceptions and action against a common social ill or malady. It became an act of solidarity.

The danger for the ruling elite comes only if the belief is that God is on the opposition=s side and it foments radical social dynamism. Religious fervor could be tolerated only as long as the voice of the people could never be confused or associated with the voice of God. Today=s efforts by some on the Religious Right to confound religion with politics plays right into the hands of political leaders because then religion can be manipulated to political ends. That is what often happened in Europe.

The Anglican Church, by this time, was in a seemingly impregnable position. It was intricately entwined with the ruling political structure, it was a crime not to attend church, one was born into it and the church service itself helped to maintain the social divisions: the rich sat in front, poor in the rear and even the quality of communion wine varied according to social standing. In 1543, one parson even preached there were three heavens, one for each level of prosperity -- Jerry Falwell would have approved -- and the Church was immensely wealthy, actively participating in making political decisions. From the book: " difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effect they claimed to achieve than in their social position and in the authority on which their respective claims rested."
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