Von Balthasar’s Occultism

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.

14 thoughts on “Von Balthasar’s Occultism

  1. The man himself says that the author wasn’t intending to “lay the cards”, so how is he engaging in magic or sorcery or spiritism here?

    Also, are you saying that Myers-Briggs is equivalent to the Ouija? How does Myers-Briggs claim to have anything to do with necromancy or magic? Seems a little overzealous to me, Bill. Is it not possible for some things of human or pagan origin to serve a Christian purpose, particularly when how it works isn’t really that “secret”? Or must we throw everything out that isn’t explicitly from the Word of God? No point in studying and applying the philosophy of the pagans… Plato, Aristotle… are you sure?

  2. Why should we accept his rather self-serving statement that “laying the cards” be the criterion? Scripture doesn’t quibble about proper or improper use of occultic items–it says avoid them completely.

    And Myers-Briggs is a popularization of Jung’s ideas, which also have occult roots. It, too, is a search for knowledge of oneself. See Thomas Long’s essay, “Myers-Briggs and Other Modern Astrologies.” Of course, all these tools of “self knowledge” (MBTI, enneagram, Tarot) become tools of manipulation of others; from such self-knowledge comes the egotistical belief that now I have insight into the nature and motives of another person, and that gives power of a certain kind. See also Mitch Pacwa on the enneagram.

    Your questions underline the danger of von Balthasar’s approach. Where does the line get drawn? How much dabbling is proper? When does a parlor game become a hazard? How much mixing between paganism and Christianity is proper?

  3. The enneagram and Myers-Briggs should not be lumped together. While Fr. Pacwa does a great job demonstrating the serious problems with the enneagram, Fr. Benedict Groeschel finds the Myers-Briggs to be a very useful tool.

  4. I think it’s helpful again to draw attention to this forum’s discussion of the Meditations.

    According to commentators there, the original German of von Balthasar’s essay had stronger admonitions against the content of the book, but these comments were edited out of the English translation.

    Even assuming that to be true, and even assuming that the book has deep insights (it does), if I were von Balthasar I would have written in capital letters, as my first six sentences: VERY DANGEROUS! BEWARE! SERIOUSLY! I’M NOT JOKING! etc.

    I guess the overall question is, Do the symbols of a movement constitute the “ism” of that movement? Do occult symbols necessarily lead to occultism? Can they be “disengaged” from their occcultic meanings and “baptized” as Christian? How do we know if we were successful?

    This same question was faced by the early Church Fathers, “Does pagan philosophy lead to paganism? Is paganism wholly demonic? How much human truth is being held captive by its demonism? Do we risk our souls in venturing in to save that human truth? And even if we did, how much is human truth worth anyway? Would we dilute the gospel in contemplating these human truths? Is human truth incompatible with the truth of revelation?”

  5. William–Why shouldn’t they be lumped together? What makes one a useful tool and the other a problem? What are the criteria for judging? We need a better standard than “Fr. Benedict Groeschel likes it,” for the same reason that von Balthasar’s friendship with a couple of popes can’t be something which protects his ideas from criticism.

  6. +J.M.J+

    Tarot cards were first invented in Europe during the 15th century. The earliest tarot decks contained definite Christian symbols (a pope, the virtues of Justice, Fortitude and Temperance, etc.) and were originally used as playing cards (the French and Quebecois still use them for this purpose).

    We have no clear evidence of their use for divination until the 1700’s, though the traditional playing card deck was used for that purpose at least two centuries earlier (the 52-card deck we are most familiar with is sometimes used as a divination tool even today).

    Of course, occultists later latched onto the tarot deck, claiming that its origin went back to Ancient Egypt (yeah, right) and applying all sorts of pagan and occult meanings to the pictures that the original makers surely never dreamed of. The last century saw the tarot deck mutate into a profusion of different forms: neopagan tarots, feminist tarots, even a “gay” tarot deck!

    The only way I could see study of the tarot benefitting Christians would be if we could cut through the gnostic cr*p and somehow get back to the original Christian significance of the original symbols on the very first decks. Somehow I doubt that is what Tomberg does. Of course, the original significance of the tarot to Christians may have been that it was just a plain-old deck of playing cards! There is probably no more spiritual benefit to be had in studying it than in studying the game Uno.

    I, too, am highly suspicious of something that claims to offer Christians beneficial spiritual knowledge that cannot be found in the Sacred Deposit of Faith. That just screams “Stay away!”

    In Jesu et Maria,

  7. “Why should we accept his… statement that “laying the cards” be the criterion?”

    Laying the cards, at least in my mind, leaves no doubt that one is truly engaging in the occult, actively seeking knowledge from “spirit world”, thereby opening one’s self to demonic influences, just like the Ouija. But he is not advocating this, not even as a “parlor game”. The question is whether even studying the symbols is also engaging in occultism, in spite of how they are used.

    The language he uses here about insights into the Christian mystery and so forth from these symbols is a little dubious, I grant, but I am not ready, yet, to judge that it merits this type of condemnation. The study of pagan philosophies has aided in the articulation of Christian doctrines in many circumstances. Perhaps it isn’t in the same boat… perhaps.

    I have read Pacwa’s assessment of the enneagram and is numerological influences before. Long’s essay says this about the MBTI:

    “… the MBTI itself is not the real issue. Many professionals who employ the inventory are actually quite modest about its results, refreshingly detached from the creaky Jungian steam engine that runs it, and see the MBTI mainly as a conversation starter, only one among several tools for self-discovery. The main problem has to do with the uncritical, theologically naive, rigid, and overly confident manner in which Myers-Briggs categories are often employed in various church settings.”

    Many do take it an unquestioning approach to it. That is my primary problem with it as well. But does that invalidate it as an aide, a merely human tool? Modern psychology is filled with theories developed by those with dubious dabblings; yet at times psychology, as a human tool, can be quite helpful and necessary.

    I agree with your concerns, but I suspect there is a slight chance that you might be going too fast in your excoriating of vB.

  8. Too fast?

    He writes for a book that is self-professedly “occult.” He writes with little warning or caution. His name lends credibility to the subject.

    The best possible scenario is that he was merely grossly imprudent.

    Together with his questionable statements about Christology and the possibility of apokotastasis, the alarm bells sound very loudly.

    He had no problem seeing the Church as whore and as bride. Would he then have a problem with someone seeing whorrific mixtures of truth and error in his own writings?

  9. “Too fast?”

    mmm hmm

    “He had no problem seeing the Church as whore and as bride. Would he then have a problem with someone seeing whorrific mixtures of truth and error in his own writings?”

    Not knowing nor having really studied the man, I’d like to see this in the context of the theology for which he is more well known. What exactly do the popes like about him? How does what he says about the Tarot in this intro fit into the context of his overall theology? Does being a “mixture”, as many men are, mean he has nothing to contribute, or that he is not worthy of whatever praise has been given to him?

  10. Would you like a little cyanide with your soda?

    What sort of errors are permissible?

    I’d say occultism is a major issue, and that it calls into question many things. I’ve posted some more from Tomberg himself, so you can have a better sense of the errors taught in this book that are never mentioned by von Balthasar.

  11. In a discussion in another blog, I forget which, a distinction was made between the “solus Christus” and the “totus Christus.” It seems to me that most of the criticism of Balthasar and Tomberg partake of the spirit of “solus Christus.” And yet, in this particular instance, I wager Balthasar was simply invoking the “totus Christus” and “spoils of Egypt” principles.

    Who says theology must always and everywhere be a “safe discourse”?

    I dare to think that what Balthasar is up to here is a cry for the re-enchantment of the world. The tarot cards are “forms” that need to be read, understood and properly interpreted. Perhaps the fact that “new age spiritualities” abound today is one sign of the times that needs to be recognized. There is a way back to the “solus Christus” through the “totus Christus”. Balthasar’s thoroughly Catholic/catholic heart, mindful of the dangers and risks, nevertheless would like, in imitation of the Church Fathers, to be open to the logoi spermatikoi abroad in the world today.

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