Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character
I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.
We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).
Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.
Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.”
Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.
(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)
Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?
In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.
My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.
Alchemy in the Limelight
Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.
Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)
Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.
Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work
Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.”
I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.
Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.
There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!
I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.
I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)
There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.
Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?
In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”
I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.
But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.
Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development
But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.
Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin
Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.
Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.
Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.
Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.
I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.
Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.
Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.
How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?