Wednesday, September 26, 2007

September Synchroblog: On astrology and faith

This month's synchroblog, on Christianity and neo-paganism - defined very generously! Click full post for text.

In the days of my dissolute youth, ie when I was an aggressively atheist teenager, I spent a lot of time exploring the occult in general, and astrology in particular. I still have my set of tarot cards and a crystal ball (the latter of which can be useful for meditation!). I often muse upon Kahlil Gibran's words from the Prophet, which I think describe that time in my life quite well:
"Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters."

Although I started down the journey of Christian faith when I was twenty, it took me a long time to perceive that there was anything spiritually harmful about astrology, so this is a brief post about what I have come to understand about it (and why, although I cannot 'unknow' what I know, I no longer cast horoscopes and so on).

Let me begin by quickly touching on two areas of concern: Scriptural and scientific. Scripture seems to me to be ambiguous about astrology. On the one hand there are clear prohibitions against divination in both Old and New Testaments; on the other hand the great story which we celebrate at Christmas unambiguously has wise men being led to Christ by their astrological learning. Beyond that, passages like Ezekiel 1 are clearly informed by the Babylonian culture from which present day astrology derives, and the four beasts correspond to the four fixed signs of the zodiac - as do the four signs traditionally given to the four evangelists. As I say, an ambiguous picture.

With regard to science I am well aware of all the arguments adduced on both sides of the debate - the Dawkinsesque dismissals and the statistical work of Michel Gauquelin, and my feeling is that this is a no-man's land, blasted to smithereens, where no intelligent discernment is possible. My suspicion is that horoscopes may function as a type of Rorschach test and simply dig out material from our own unconscious, ie there is nothing external to the personality involved.

However, I don't really want to get involved in those two debates. What I want to say, albeit briefly, is why I think exploring astrological lore is at best unhelpful to our spiritual journey, and at worse actively malefic and harmful. My concerns centre on two things: motive and trust.

For me, the thirst driving the exploration of astrology was a thirst for knowledge. I wanted to know what the 'fates' had in store for me. More subtly, and more defensibly, I used astrology as a means to greater self-knowledge. Whatever the objective truth of the situation - and whether it was simply coincidence or not - discovering the meaning of the various elements in my own chart was very helpful in allowing me to come to terms with the different bits of my personality. For example, the fact that I have Neptune (planet of spirituality) in my tenth house (career) would indicate a vocation towards something like priesthood (or psychotherapeutic practice or counselling). Pure coincidence! As it happens my own chart is full of contradictions and oppositions, and the language of astrology gave me a language to describe and then digest those contradictions (the process is by no means complete!). Also, most especially through the writings of Liz Greene (but see this), studying astrology gave me a reasonable knowledge of therapy, especially Jungian analysis, and that has been helpful as well.

However, my thirst for knowledge wasn't satisfied by self-knowledge, I wanted to know about other people, and I wanted to know about the world - about what was going to happen to it, what was going to happen to the people I loved (this is what is called horary astrology). This is where the dangerous side of astrology started to become clear to me. To begin with my experience was that nothing could be predicted, and I understood this to be simply a reflection of my own lack of expertise. So I studied and delved all the more deeply.

God's grace being what it is, however, I came to a realisation soon after turning thirty that the problem did not lie in my lack of expertise so much as in my motivation. That is, what was driving me was rooted in spiritual ill-health, principally fear and greed. I was afraid of bad things happening to me; I wanted to be in control of my life; I wanted to get a comparative advantage over those without this occult knowledge. I came to realise that all these motivations are antithetical to Christian faith; that in truth Christian faith is precisely the dissolving of such motivations.

That discovery is what removed my motivation to explore astrology any more. What is at issue is whether we trust God or not; in particular, whether we trust God to lead us in our daily lives. If, for example, we pray, and we seek the light of Christ, and we trust that we will be shown what to do - then what need is there for this further knowledge that astrology claims to provide? More profoundly, astrological knowledge is something that is obtained by deceptive means, it doesn't involve any personal engagement with a situation. It is always one step removed from reality (in that sense - and not in that sense alone - it bears a remarkably strong resemblance to scientific practice).

My belief is that Christian understanding is always predicated on love - that a situation, and most especially a person, can only be known when they are loved; that love is the highest form of knowledge; that love is precisely a participation in the mind of God. This will, from a human point of view, always involve risk, putting something at stake. It cannot be fostered from a position of safety, for that is isolation from the other - love is precisely an engagement with the other. We are called, as Christians, to walk with faith - to trust that the Lord will enlighten our path, that we will be led forward in the way, even if only one step at a time - and, most profoundly of all, the path of faith is precisely the path of trusting in what may come, trusting that God is in charge and that in the end all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. The conclusion I reached was that astrology violates that approach and attitude - it is a snare of anti-faith, it is an inhibition of love - and that this is why divination is prohibited in such strong terms in Scripture. It's not a question of knowledge, it's not a question of whether astrology is 'true' or not - that's beside the point from this perspective - it's a question of whether we trust in God or not, whether we wish to develop our capacity for love. The thirst that drove me into the occult has found a living stream from which to drink, and now I simply want to learn how to love.

Other people writing this month:

  • Matthew Stone at Matt Stone Journeys in Between
  • John Smulo at
  • Steve Hayes at Notes from underground on Christianity, paganism and literature
  • Heathens and Pagans and Witches ... oh my! at Calacirian
  • Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
  • Chasing the Wild Goose at Eternal Echoes
  • Visigoths Ahoy! at Mike's Musings
  • Phil Wyman at Phil Wyman's Square No More
  • Steve Hollinghurst at On Earth as in Heaven
  • Undefined Desire at Igneous Quill
  • A Walk on the Wild Side at Out of the Cocoon
  • Observations on Magic in Western Religion at My Contemplations
  • Tim Abbott at Tim Abbott
  • Spirituality and the Zodiac: Stories in the Cosmos at Be the Revolution
  • Rejection, Redemption, and Roots at One Hand Clapping

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