Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973), a Russian emigre, was the “Anonymous” author of Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, written in 1967, but published over a decade after his death. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a foreward to the 1983 German edition, and this is included as an afterward in the 2002 English edition published by Tarcher/Penguin.
Tomberg writes to enable the reader–“the Unknown Friend”–to acquire “definite knowledge, through the experience of meditative reading, about Christian Hermeticism”, that is, esoteric medieval reflections on the themes of Hermes Trismegistus (see the Corpus Hermeticum), in this case through reflection on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. The Tarot cards are for him
authentic symbols, i.e. they are “magic, mental, psychic and moral operations” awakening new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations, which means to say that they require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation. It is therefore in a state of deep contemplation–and always ever deeper–that they should be approached. And it is the deep and intimate layers of the soul which become active and bear fruit when one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot (p. 4).
These Arcana, he writes, “stimulate us and at the same time guide us in the art of learning,” they provide “a complete, entire, invaluable school of meditation, study, and spiritual effort–a masterly school in the art of learning” (p. 5). As a tool, they are not a rival of religion; “they do not have the pretension … of elevating themselves above the holy faith of the faithful,” they do not hold a secret religion or science: “what they possess is only the communal soul of religion, science and art” (p. 6).
So much for Tomberg’s introduction–I wish to look at the Afterword by Hans Urs von Balthasar. And this, when we turn to it, is more illuminative of the purpose of the book than those introductory remarks by the author.
A thinking, praying Christian of unmistakable purity reveals to us the symbols of Christian Hermeticism in its various levels of mysticism, gnosis and magic, taking in also the Cabbala and certain elements of astrology and alchemy. These symbols are summarised in the twenty-two so-called “Major Arcana” of the Tarot cards. By way of the Major Arcana the author seeks to lead meditatively into the deeper, all-embracing wisdom of the Catholic Mystery (p. 659).
And this attempt “is to be found nowhere in the history of philosophical, theological and Catholic thought,” though some Christian thinkers, starting with Origen, did explore the writings of pagan philosophers, the “secret wisdom of the Egyptians” (i.e., the writings of Hermes Trismegistus) , and Babylonian and Indian astrology in search of “veiled presentiments of the Logos” (p. 659). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Islamic and Jewish mystical traditions (e.g., the Kabbalah) became additional sources for reflection.
Here the important point is that although this penetration into the secret teachings of pagan and Jewish origin was pursued in the spirit of humanism, in the hope of bringing new life into rigidified Christian theology through collecting such scattered revelation and illumination, no one for a moment doubted that despite the disparities everything could be accommodated into the true Christian faith. That Pico, in particular, did not aim at syncretism, he himself made quite clear: “I bear on my brow the name Jesus Christ and would die gladly for the faith in him. I am neither a magician nor a Jew, nor an Ishmaelite nor a heretic. It is Jesus whom I worship, and his cross I bear upon my body.” The author of these Meditations could also have affirmed this oath of allegiance (p. 661).
Let us grant that neither von Balthasar nor Tomberg intended syncretism. It nevertheless remains unproven how a “penetration” into pagan or Kabbalistic “secret teachings” could bring “new life” into Christianity.
I also question von Balthasar’s assertion that a “gathering and accommodation of Hermetic and Cabbalistic wisdom into Biblical and Christian thought” is not, by definition, syncretistic. He might not “intend” to do so, but I suggest that if you believe these sources contain “revelation and illumination,” and that they can bring “new life” to Christian theology, that any “gathering and accommodation” of them “into Biblical and Christian thought” will, of necessity, change the latter.
The mystical, magical, occult tributaries which flow into the stream of [Tomberg’s] meditations are much more encompassing [than efforts by Franz von Baader and Pico della Mirandola]; yet the confluence of their waters within him, full of movement, becomes inwardly a unity of Christian contemplation (p. 661).
The sources are admittedly “magical” and “occult”–is such water safe to drink?
Von Balthasar senses the question will come to the mind of his Christian reader. He therefore backs off a moment. He acknowledges it “remarkable” that Tomberg would choose the Tarot as the object of his meditations. “Naturally the author knows about the magical-divinatory application of these cards.” But, says von Balthasar, he’s not interested in “laying the cards,” only in interpreting “the symbols or their essential meaning … individually or in their mutual reference to one another.” They are more like Jungian archetypes, “principles of the objective cosmos” (p. 661).
He refers to various others, of dubious orthodoxy, who have also sought to “accommodate the Cabbala and the Tarot to Catholic teaching”– “occultists, theosophists and anthroposophists–with whom the author of the Meditations enters into dialogue.” Tomberg, he says, picks and chooses from them and from various Christian and non-Christian philosophers and poets. With these as his sources and foils,
He immerses himself lovingly and with deep earnestness in the symbols of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. They inspire him; he allows himself to be born aloft on the wings of his imagination, to behold the depths of the world and of the soul (p. 663).
Von Balthasar claims Tomberg isn’t seeking a despotic magic, “which seeks by way of world forces to gain dominion in the realm of knowledge and in the sphere of destiny.” Rather, he says he seeks “subjugation of the cosmic powers to Christ.” He admits there could be dangers, but Tomberg “is able to enter into all the varieties of occult science” with “sovereignty, because for him they are secondary realities” (p. 663).
All this is enticing. The thought of being in control of “cosmic powers” instead of controlled by them; the thought of seeking knowledge from forbidden sources, in the belief that these can safely mingle in the chosen container. “Oh, I’m not trying to control other people; I’m not trying to do them harm, therefore it is OK,” seems a weak defense. Von Balthasar here appears as a moth drawn to the flame of occultism, confident in his ability to be able to draw back before he gets burned.
It’s a subtler form of power and knowledge he seeks.
But it seems to me to still fall under the caution of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.
Von Balthasar and Tomberg strike me as snake charmers, confident that the snake will dance to their tune. Could they be opening the door to demons, particularly as they suggest that it is safe for Christians to dabble in these things, through the means of a book that is sold in bookstores alongside other works of Wicca, Magic, Sorcery, New Age, and divination? A more prudent pastor and theologian would have made clearer statements about the dangers inherent in such things.
I’m disturbed by the ease with which von Balthasar enters into these waters, oblivious to the dangers that he or others may face.
Recent defenders of von Balthasar say they only seek self knowledge through study of the occult–or Jung, or Myers-Briggs, or the enneagram, or the Ouija board. But was that not the temptation of the serpent in the garden?
I’d suggest being wary of any proposed knowledge that comes from secret sources that acknowledge they are “occult.” Better to let the clear light of the Word of God be the guide of the Christian; safer to shine it into the dark places, than to obscure that light with shadows.