And this friendly relationship meant that on the key points of debate in 3rd century Christianity the Catholics adopted many of the Hermetic viewpoint. Sacraments are, in keeping with Hermetic Christianity, not representations of supernatural events but rather earthly processes by which supernatural events occur, "as above so below". For a Catholic, the Eucharistic celebration involves a magick transformation of the host and eating the actual physical cracker in and of itself induces a supernatural change, "the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us." (see Mysterium Fidei, for the official doctrines). And one sees the same thing in the LDS, ordinances, their word more-or-less for sacraments, are actual requirements for exaltation (the good thing you are aiming for in the Mormon faith). And this contrasts completely with the Protestant notion that the Eucharist is an act of prayer and nothing more than a symbolic reenactment, the host/cracker does not in and of itself possess supernatural powers. Philip Lee's Against the Protestant Gnostics, has an excellent discussion of the drift in Protestant thought into essentially agreeing with Gnosticism on almost every point of dispute between Catholics and Gnostics (about 1/3rd of the book is available via. the link).
Moreover Hermeticism, Hermetic Paganism, was also on friendly terms with Catholic Christianity. Catholics began to view Hermes Trismegistus as a great Egyptian King who had lived in the time of Moses and his wisdom as important and key insights. The Hermetics preached that a proper religion should moderate between pure rationality and pure dogma, that the truth lay in-between those two extremes, was essentially an apologetic for Catholic Christianity as opposed to many of the then contemporary forms of paganism which fell on one side or the other. And so by the end of the 3rd century of any kind of distinct Hermetic Christianity was gone. Hermetic Christians had either become Hermetic leaning Catholics or Hermetic Pagans. Hermeticism itself began absorbing Christian thought because of the friendly dialogue and an offshoot form of 1/2 pagan, 1/2 Christian sect developed, Hermes Christianus which was quite often a way point between conversaion away from paganism to Christianity, a bridge religion. Hermeticism died in the 5th century, along with the rest of paganism. And if we identify Hermetic Christianity as the true Christianity, then this death and absorption of Hermetic Christianity, becomes a plausible historical defensible version of the great apostasy that matches the traditional Mormon timelines. And while it was a peaceful death one wonders if Hermetic Christianity had fought, had beaten Orthodoxy, and become the mainstream faith we would be looking at a Christianity of:
- Sacramental theology especially expressed via. church / temple rituals with a magical flavor.
- Diffuse ambiguous theology drawn from a multiplicity of conflicting sources and open acknowledgement of that rather than hiding behind dogmatic assertions.
- Monotheism with an underlying polytheism.
- Syncretism, an openness to multiple forms of revelation. In particular an open canon.
- A desire to engage creation, to improve it, not to escape from it.
- A desire to improve and develop one's self. In particular the doctrine of metempsychosis, that human soul is perfected during a series of earthly lives; essentially purgatory on earth.
- The idea that salvation is not binary but a degree.
These monks created a new Latin body of literature from the Greek, Coptic and Aramaic originals making a Corpus of works and collecting them. During the Renaissance collections of Hermetic works began to circulate. Before moving on to to the Renaissance and the Reformation its worth commenting that, Hermetic Christianity as the term is "officially used" does not include the folk religions, even those magical aspects, that existed alongside this rebirth in the Monasteries. Hermetic Christianity, is Egyptian and incorporates Egyptian / Hellenistic notions of magick not the kinds of Germanic magic one sees on the continent. However it would be fair to say that this folk magick was Hermetic in spirit, and perhaps Hermeticism of the highly educated monks was inspired by the folk magick coming from the last remnants of European paganism.
Hermetica is the term for any Hermetic books. A particular set of translated collections of works, called the Corpus Hermeticum, circulated widely by the end the 15th century. Alexandrian Christianity, with its mixture of ideas from Orthodox Christianity, Egyptian Paganism, Neo-Platonism, Judaism freely drawing from, contrasting and exploring these things fit with the mood of the Renaissance. All of Europe was trying to figure how to intermix their culture with ancient wisdom and here was a model.
Potentially we could have had a Hermetic reformation, but the Hermetic revival was killed off by two main things. First Isaac Casaubon showed that the Corpus Hermeticum could not possible date to the time of Moses (i.e. the still believed Christian dating for Hermes Trismegistus) but rather to 3rd century Egypt. Secondly the success of science in so many areas caused magick to go out of fashion. And by the early 17th century the Corpus as an inspiration in the mainstream was dead, the Corpus Hermeticum stopped circulating widely and became of interest primarily to scholars.
However, the Corpus was the only definitive guide to magick that existed in Europe at the time. So while no longer mainstream among European intellectuals the Corpus did remain active starting from the mid 18th century among European occultists. Those people in alchemy (supernatural transformation of materials) and theurgy (union with supernatural forces to gain, powers or insights). This existed side by side with 18th century sexual radicals who were interested in sex magick, as John Wilkes put it, "to celebrate woman in wine and adding ideas from the ancients just to make the experience more decadent". And when we talk about Christian Hermeticism today what we generally mean groups that are continuous with the 18th century occultists, and from this arises the cultural problem I alluded to the in first part of this essay. These European occultists, and from the 19th century on their American and Canadian cousins, continued to advance our knowledge of Hermetic literature and have conducted innumerable quality research projects, so today a modern student, even one not interested in magick but just history, is in their debt.
In the 19th century though the situation was quite different. Occultist studies became popular again with the middle class in Europe in 1845. And the scholarly translations began to recirculate along with a pletora of new materials that had been researched over the preceding century by the occultists. This movement exploded on the American scene as the American spiritualist movement in 1848. The Spiritualist movement was middle class in its orientation and while drawing inspiration from the literature wouldn't associate socially with libertine upper class variety. American Spiritualism in this first generation definitely identified as Christian. They saw themselves as practicing a form of the Christian faith that used supernatural means to gain revelations form the spiritual realm. The defining beliefs were:
- Communication with spirits.
- The ability for the soul to improve after death.
- Legalism and a strong belief in personal responsibility.
- Christian language though quite often over various non Orthodox theologies like Pantheism or Gnostic Christianity,
- A rejection of a view of God as harsh, sending unbaptized infants to hell.
- Political support for abolition and woman's rights. This often led to a rejection of traditional churches that were opposed or ambivalent on these issues.
In the next section we are going to have to back two decades to the 1830s and talk about the development of the Mormon church prior to the arrival of American spiritualism. That the Mormon church was even during the Joseph Smith years leaning heavily in a Hermetic direction, that it already had most of the aspects of Hermetic Christianity already in place. And thus the Mormon church would have been amenable to the theology and attractive as a religious option for American Spiritualists. It's my contention that most of truly distinctive doctrines of the Mormon church that developed under Brigham Young, including the normalization of polygamy and the infinite regression of Gods, can be explained by this wave of converts reinforcing an already existing motif. Between 1850 and 1870 American churches were not in a growth phase in general (link) but the Mormon church grew from around 20,000 to 80,000 persons, even while experiencing persecution. So our 3rd part will concern itself with the history of the Mormon church.
Link to part3.