Pick up nearly any university publisher’s catalogue these days, and you are likely to find more than a few titles on the history of sex or magic. A recent catalogue of books from the Johns Hopkins University Press includes Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective; Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds; The Latin Sexual Vocabulary; and The History of Syphilis. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries is backlisted. Sex and magic are academic growth industries.
This trend is more than the expression of the perennial fascination with sex and the occult. In part, it is a by-product of the emphasis on social and cultural history so prominent in historical studies during this century. Pursuit of these subjects is, no doubt, an entirely legitimate scholarly enterprise. It is fascinating to discover, as French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie revealed, that Pierre Clergue, priest of the village of Montaillou in the early fourteenth century, was “the womanizer par excellence of the Clergue family,” a “swashbuckler,” and an “incorrigible Don Juan”; that the superstitious peasants of the same village clipped and saved the fingernails of the dead; or that one peasant woman collected the blood of her daughter’s first menstruation as an aphrodisiac for a future husband.
Keith Thomas’ classic Religion and the Decline of Magic documents similar medieval superstitions. Some communicants made it a practice not to eat the Host, but instead took it home to use in magical rites. Further blurrings of religion and magic can be seen in the practice of baptizing dogs, cats, sheep, and horses, and in the powers sometimes ascribed to the images and relics of the saints.
Fascination with findings such as these does not betray salacious interest in tabloid historiography. On the contrary, at their best these studies tell us something important about the nature of medieval Western Christendom.
But there is another and disturbing undercurrent in many contemporary studies of magic and sex. Valerie I. J. Flint put it straightforwardly in her recent The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe: “My own concern, and the concern I hope the present inquiry to excite, is immediately, of course, with unreason and the supernatural in early medieval Europe; but I hope we might deduce, too, that there were and are places for them elsewhere, even now and even in so apparently ‘rational’ a society as our own.” Ms. Flint is, in short, a historian with an agenda.
Were we in need of further evidence that the Enlightenment in its most rationalistic form has failed, Ms. Flint provides it. That project made headway precisely by tagging the medieval period as the “Dark Ages.” Ms. Flint has found, however, that the Dark Ages were not so dark; indeed, she has discovered that many of the medieval Christians so roundly attacked by the philosophes were in reality more enlightened than we, more tolerant and open to the “non-rational” in human life—that is, to magic. It is ironic that Ms. Flint, a woman whose very livelihood depends on the critical use of her quite impressive rational powers, should counsel what amounts to their abandonment.
Ironic, but not unexpected. It was inevitable that the modern hope for exhaustive knowledge and consequent control would be revealed as the arrogant illusion that it is. As it has become clear that scientific man cannot explain everything, the faithful have apostatized. This treason of the clergy of scientism was predicted by a number of far-seeing Christian writers. C. S. Lewis pictured a future convergence of technology and magic. The late Francis Schaeffer warned for many years that modern rationalism would collapse into hedonism. Dutch-American theologian Cornelius Van Til argued that secular rationalism is inherently irrational, and many other writers have in the last two decades documented the rising interest in the occult and Satanism.
In this situation—with the standards of modern scholarship in disarray, and faith in reason declining popularly and among intellectuals—the Christian scholar has an opportunity to press the claims of the biblical worldview with renewed confidence and vigor as the solution to the cul-de-sac of modern thought. The Christian, after all, quite freely admits that the world is full of unexplained phenomena, but the biblical understanding of mystery is quite different from the alternative understanding. Operating on atheistic assumptions, what is not rationally explicable to man is not rationally explicable; it must be admitted, then, that there are some things that are inherently unexplainable. From this perspective, the solution to an over-emphasis on rationality is to balance it with irrationality: add a Dionysian weekend to our Apollonian weekdays.
The biblical worldview, by contrast, posits that everything is rationally explicable, but avoids the dead end of secular rationalism by distinguishing between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man. Every fact of history or nature is comprehensively known by God; nothing is ultimately unknowable or inexplicable. Because man is a creature, however, his knowledge is inherently limited, and he is called to accept these limits; man’s attempt to comprehend everything is not only doomed, but idolatrous. On the other hand, because man is a creature made after God’s own image, he is capable of knowing.
Thus, mystery = God’s knowledge minus man’s knowledge. This biblical formula both affirms the absolute reasonableness of reality and admits the limitations of human reason. It is a formula whose implications need to be drawn out in response both to academic rationalists and the growing number of academic irrationalists.
Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.