Many centuries ago, the great faithful fathers of the church warned monks and priests to beware of taking too much interest in what the enemy was doing. They were warned to stay out of the towns, out of the cities, out of the marketplace where sin was apparent. They were warned not to engage in learning about heresies or the ways of wickedness; to avoid pagan knowledge, lest they be tempted.
It is tempting; perhaps not to become pagan, but to learn more and more about the past pagan practices, to find out about heresies, to learn about sin. One may say, “How else shall I avoid it, if I don’t know what it is?”
But this is salacious curiosity. It is not just a waste of time, but a temptation. Even if one is not led astray – and many have been, from an Anglican priest who renounced the church to live in India as a Hindu, to ordinary women who got interested in witchcraft – one is in danger of becoming “heroic.”
I put the word in quotes, because it isn’t real heroism. It is a false feeling, that the Christian is in danger body and soul, not from the ordinary sins of pride and greed and anger, but from external forces of darkness besetting one.
Satan works more subtly through the things that are appealing – like pride – than from threats without. Live an ordinary Christian life, in an ordinary place, and the worst bogeyman you will meet is the one in your head. Christian life is, in its best form, rather dull in worldly terms. We live quietly out of the way, minding our homes and our business, helping others, raising our families. We put ourselves in quiet places like that for a good reason – so we can have the time and spiritually space to confront the rather tawdry and ordinary sins that are the real enemies.
The great teachers of the past taught this: don’t be overmuch concerned about the threat of the world. Turn away from it. Don’t seek out reading about Satan, pagans, heretics, and demons. Read the scripture and turn to God. Christians were advised to avoid too much spiritual reading! It was better to get down to work and accomplish something than to seek esoteric knowledge.
When I was a theology student at Georgetown, I had to go down to the basement level to find some books for a paper I was writing. There were endless stacks of books – all on theology, all “the words about God.” Yet the Bible itself is one thin book – and God Himself is endless! It suddenly seemed vain to pursue trying to read all those books. While it is helpful to have the wisdom and guidance of one more experienced, and thank God we have great spiritual literature from the past, is it productive to spend all one’s spare time reading this and that, always seeking out more hidden knowledge?
I have read extensively in the heresies, and in pagan literature. Few of my class knew as much about the witchcraft trials as I did.
And yet the reading was incredibly depressing. There was a vileness to the inquisitors’ questions and the answers attributed to the tortured victims. (Be clear about this – there was never a widespread post-Christian pagan cult in Europe. The sameness of the answers given under torture were because the same inquisitors traveled from place to place, leading the victims to give those answers.) The accusations and admissions were shocking; but the shock wore off. I decided after leaving seminary that was enough. I didn’t want to steep myself so thoroughly in paganism and heresy that I could never get the stain out of my mind.
I had to get books out of the library back then. The internet was slow and cumbersome, and most of us did not yet have regular connections. (I did learn how to make someone into a zombie by internet reading, though.) It was strange and depressing sitting in the library, night after night, reading journals and old books, immersed in occult knowledge. I ate a lot of chocolate.
It was not tempting to continue after the papers were written. I had enough of it. I wondered if I would start seeing either witches or inquisitors around every corner. What I needed was a healthy dose of the Psalms and the beatitudes, and some work helping people deal with their everyday, ordinary life problems – getting to the doctor, buying shoes for their kids, looking for a job. Keeping sheep was a good remedy for esoteric study, too. Nothing is much more real than cleaning the barn or carrying pails of water.
I say this by way of warning: It is too easy to submerge oneself in strange “spiritual” studies on the internet. We can spend way too much time looking at the unhealthy side of the universe. There’s only so much you need to know. No ordinary Christian needs to be an expert in heresy, paganism, or dark theories. Only the very strongest of spiritual warriors can take that on – and that isn’t us.