Christianity and Occultism | Roger E. Olson
Christianity and Occultism
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For much of my life I have been intensely interested in certain aspects of the occult (defined very broadly as hidden or secret spiritual powers and realities connected in particular with divination and/or magic – the manipulation hidden spiritual powers to create or alter reality).
When I was a child, growing up in the “thickness” of conservative American Christianity, I was often warned about things like ouija boards, fortune tellers, psychic and paranormal phenomena and practices, etc. I was taught that these things were all “gates” into Satan’s territory and when they tried they could open up to demonic possession.
Once, when I was about eight years old, just beginning to think for myself and act for myself, I walked into a fortune teller’s “tent” at a carnival. , I paid a quarter and she read my palms. She told me that I was going to suffer from a serious illness in my fifties. What adult would say that to an eight-year-old? I took it seriously and repented and prayed and never told my parents. And I never “touched” the occult again, at least not intentionally!
While a doctoral student at Rice University, Houston, I was assigned to co-teach an undergraduate course called “Deity, Mysticism, and Occultism.” I had no intention of practicing anything that would fall into the “occult” category, but I had a “rubbing” with it nonetheless.
I was instructed by the head of the department to host a renowned expert on psychic phenomena, the paranormal, and varieties of occultism, including Wicca, who would come to speak to the class. He was a Methodist minister and taught religion classes at a Methodist college. I picked it up at the airport. His chosen topic for his evening lecture was Modern Neo-Paganism and Wicca. Okay. As soon as he got off the plane and we shook hands, he said, “Let’s go find some witches.” Needless to say I was a little surprised. (Since then, this man may have become the main “contact person” for some national news agencies for information and ideas on sects and new religions. He is the author of many books and has taught in several universities, including Christian ones.)
I said “How could we find witches?” It said “In the phone book”. So we went to a phone with a Houston phone book attached and he looked in the Yellow Pages under “Occult”. We found two “shops” there, one near the airport called “The Occult Shoppe”. We went there by car. It was then a small stand-alone building, very nondescript, with a small sign outside. My guest speaker boldly burst in and I cautiously slipped behind him.
I had never seen anything like what I saw inside this store. In short, it was an authentic Wiccan supply store and, he told me later, obviously a meeting place for a Wiccan coven. There were two middle-aged women behind the glass counter that held all sorts of witchcraft paraphernalia. At first, they were very hesitant to answer questions. I stayed by the door, but my guest speaker struck up a conversation with the two Wiccan priestesses (because that’s what they eventually revealed they were). They claimed to be the main supply store for about 50 Wiccan covens in the Houston area. He claimed to know very well, in a friendly way, prominent Wiccan figures in various states. They knew them too. That’s what broke the ice and made them open up to him.
Anyway, I continued to read a lot and deeply in all kinds of literature on American neo-paganism in particular and Wicca and I met Wiccans; I even had Wiccans tell my classes about their beliefs (while insisting that they not practice divination or magick in my class or even on campus). I learned a lot from these experiences and from my research. However, I have never witnessed any type of occult event. My interest in the occult has always been purely academic.
However, I wondered where are the boundaries between Christianity and esotericism, occultism, spiritualism? All sorts of things are forbidden in Scripture that Christians have done and are doing without question, especially things forbidden primarily (or exclusively) in the Old Testament.
Over the years, I have discovered, through my reading and research, that spiritualism – the attempt to contact the dead – was prevalent even among Christians in America in the late 19th century. Many Christian churches have in fact become “spiritualist churches” and seances and the like have taken place in many places, including, according to reports, the White House. To this day, there are many “spiritualist churches” (with various names) that consider themselves Christian all over America (and, no doubt, other countries). At least twice a week, I pass by a small brick church that I know to be a spiritualist even if its name does not communicate it. I checked his website and the “pastor” is holding “private sessions” to communicate with the dead for the faithful.
Back to my guest speaker. I drove him to Houston for two days. During these times, he revealed much to me about his own beliefs and interests. He was, he told me (and I checked this on the internet), an officer of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship – a group of Christian clergy and laity interested in psychic, paranormal and spiritual phenomena. It was founded by a “Christian medium” named Arthur Ford. And yet this man was (and I guess still is) a Methodist minister. He even claimed to be a “moderately evangelical” Christian. Later I learned that he had served as an expert witness on behalf of certain groups alleged by critics to be cults, defending them. He is widely considered a pro-cult figure by anti-cultists. (I’m not passing judgment on this particular one anyway.)
Eventually, he was hired by a leading Christian university as a visiting scholar – due to his acclaimed reputation as, perhaps THE, leading expert on cults, new religions and denominations in America. .
His case raises for me the question of the boundary, if there is one, between occultism and Christianity. To what extent can a person be authentically Christian AND practice, say, spiritualism? (I’m not saying that the anonymous person used as a case study here practices spiritualism because I can’t know, but he was at one time the head of an organization dedicated to the study of psychic, paranormal phenomena and spiritualists founded by a medium and medium.)
Over the years, I’ve met many self-identified Christians, including evangelicals, who dabbled in the occult – from “playing” with ouija boards to “commanding angels.” (I consider the latter to practice a form of magic even though the particular charismatic people who told me they could command angels didn’t consider it that.)
Where is the line that a Christian should not cross in this sensitive area of spiritual practice? Does going to see fortune tellers, playing with ouija boards, attending seances automatically call a person’s Christianity into question? Should a Christian college or university hire someone known to be involved with an organization focused on paranormal phenomena, including spiritualism? These are questions to which I have no absolute answers, only feelings. What are yours and why?