The Believing Christian as a Dedicated Astrologer
Laurence l. Cassidy; PH.D., S.J.
This is an article that really should not have to be written. However, my own experience and the requests of others have convinced me that it would definitely fulfill a need.
Still, it really ought not to be necessary. The implicit question in the title is, of course: Can one really be a believing Christian and, at the same time, conscientiously accept the principles of astrological art/science? Put this baldly, the only possible answer must be yes,-but with distinctions. Just what these distinctions are will depend, naturally, on how you understand the two general names, Christianity and astrology. To the extent that your understanding of each is intelligible makes sense then you have mediated the differences and have found the unity of truth in and through its own differences. In the final analysis, no one can do this for you, for only you really know what you know and how you understand. However, there are general guidelines that can point out the way and a few of these will be presented in this article. They will not be the entire story, by any means. No one person can write that about anything. But it is to be hoped that they will help.
Of course, there are some understandings of Christianity that render it incompatible with some understandings of astrology. These are, I am convinced, either bad interpretations of one or of both, simply because there is truth in each and truth can never disagree with herself. But, however sound the metaphysics of the above might be, the fact remains that there are many people, intelligent, devout, honest, who find the reconciliation of these two beliefs a source of profound personal anguish. Now, as I mentioned above, there is no way in the world that another human being can become a surrogate for your conscience. Each of us is himself, with his background, his history, his insights, etc., and no two will ever see the same problem in the same way. But what I might be able to do is help by way of example. I can spell out a few of the reasons why I, a Catholic priest, a professor of philosophy, and a student of astrology see no incompatibility in those three roles.
Let me begin with the simplest (but not the easiest) way of self-justification; namely, the two-lane highway of faith and reason. This could involve us in an endless morass, but I will deliberately keep to the broad pathways and avoid the sub-distinctions that are necessary for refined scholarship. Within these simple brackets, then, there are two, and only two, specifically Christian difficulties that can arise with the question of astrology. (I omit here the obvious first question: Is astrology true? because I am presupposing that as established in other ways.) The two remaining questions then are: l. Does the astrology you practice entail adherence to another religion that renders it incompatible with the primacy of Christian revelation in your heart? 2. Does your version of astrology positively exclude human freedom and reduce all human life to necessary stellar determinism? If your answer to either of these queries is yes, then I would have to say that you will find a sheer contradiction between your astrology and your Christianity. Otherwise, there is nothing that I know either in scripture or in tradition that prevents you from the tranquil acceptance of both. Let me explain.
The sources of astrology are clearly pre-Christian, even pre-Hebrew. They seem to mount to the remotest antiquity, and are thus closely aligned with religions such as Magism, which existed centuries, if not millennia, before the birth of Jesus Christ. Now, Christianity has never condemned these earlier religions as simply false. O~ the contrary, from her earliest days, the Church has insisted that they contained elements of great value, although, naturally, she has always insisted that their doctrine required the fulfilment presented in the revelation of Christ.
Their astrology is the practical case in point of this traditional ecumenism. If, for example, the religion of ancient Rome made gods out of the various planets so that they became objects of public worship, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, etc., then the Church Fathers would condemn the practice as idolatry. This was not because they were directly contesting planetary influence on the earth or even on humans, but because this type of astrology was merely another variety of the pagan religion which they were combating as something rendered obsolete by the coming of the Redeemer. The stars, whatever else they may be, are not surrogates for the transcendental Father Who created them and everything else that exists in our world. They too are creatures, and it is superstition in the Christian sense of that word to offer them the peculiar worship which is proper to God alone. On this point there never was, nor ever can be, any compromise. Incidentally, in this, they were completely in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who also insisted that Jahweh stands alone above all the pseudo-deities of the gentiles.
Now, closely associated with this transcendent doctrine of God, there is also the transcendent dignity of man, precisely as incarnate spirit. He is not simply flesh, merely a body among bodies subject to the merely causal laws of physical nature. By reason of his spirit (however funher understood) he is above all these determinations and is absolutely free (in principle) to walk alone with God his Father. Consequently, any doctrine of astrology that so identifies body with spirit that the two become totally subject to the efficient causality of celestial bodies is incompatible with Christian teaching on the transcendental spiritual dignity of man. Historical man may indeed be considerably fallen from his former glory, he may be really not very spiritual nor therefore free in fact, but he remains so in principle. If he is not free, he must become so and the grace of the Redeemer is there to assist him to become what he ought even if he is not so now. Theologians have commonly admitted that men generally do follow their passions as motivated by celestial and other forces, but they have always insisted with the astrologer Ptolemy, that the wise man rules the stars.
Now, the distinction between body and spirit (soul) is basic here. The human body is indeed pan of material nature and, as such, is subject to the same round of causal forces including stars as is any other body in our world. If he remains unevolved, his spiritual power, though real, remains enfeebled and he will be capable of little on his own to rise above the necessities that his body experiences. Thus, for example, natal astrology remains valid as an indicator of physical appearance, even emotional disposition in the same way as heredity or environment are criteria by which we commonly judge personality today. Progressions and transits can even give us great probability in determining what individuals will actually do under certain conditions particularly if they are not well developed spiritual personalities. But these indicators are not absolute guarantees. Man remains free in principle, and there is no certitude that he will not, in a particular event, become free in fact. Incidentally, these basics of Christian doctrine are the source behind the fortunetelling prohibitions of English common law that are still in effect in the U.S.A.
There is, of course, a great latitude in the two principles thus discussed. The degree to which a particular astrology is connected with idolatry in the Christian sense, so as to deny divine transcendence, is one on which the judgments of men have differed historically and still do today. For example, the Church Fathers generally, though not universally, tended to be rather strict in this connection probably because the cultural link itself was rather strong in their age. On the other hand, the doctors of both Mediaeval and Renaissance periods were quite favourable to astrology, doubtless because the pagan threat was no longer vital in Christendom. Similarly, the degree in which men in general, and even this man in particular, actually exercises his potential freedom varies. Some are more prone to exalt human freedom, others to reduce it to a minimum, but these remain disputed points, in and out of the Christian context. So long as one does not believe that celestial bodies inevitably destroy human free will in principle, there is no incompatibility between your astrology and your Christianity. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me that a good knowledge of the influences that will be affecting you at any time is a most sure way of increasing your actual freedom of action. Forewarned is still forearmed.
This first section really comprises the basic principles that any Christian requires to resolve conscientiously his faith in Christ with his practice of astrology. But, at the same time, it often helps to add the weight of authority to that of reason, and so I have appended a second portion to this paper which consists principally of texts from traditional Christian authorities. These will be mainly from the mediaeval and Renaissance periods, and that for two reasons. 1. The Christian Church was then rather more of a unity than it is at present, so that one need not trouble too much over. later confessional differences. 2. This was the period in which astrology enjoyed its highest favour in European intellectual circles. Thus, most scholars were interested in the problem of reconciling the truth of their faith to the practice of astrology. There may be a secondary benefit when we discover that, in many respects, our forefathers were more open-minded than we are today.
I will begin with Thomas Aquinas who is both the best known and the most influential of mediaeval theologians. There is no doubt but that he held the validity of astrology in rather much the same way that I have outlined it in the first section of this paper. For example, in the Prima Pars, question 115, articles 3 and 4 of his best known, and last complete, work, he answers affirmatively, with distinction, two key questions.
His first question is, is it the case that heavenly bodies are the causes of those actions. which take place here on earth in terrestrial bodies? In short, do stars move earthly bodies. I will cite the main body of his argument so that one can see his reasoning which is typical of the way mediaeval thinkers justified astrology. “In reply, it must be said that every manifold proceeds from a unity. That which is immobile, however, disposes itself in one way only, while that which is mobile has many different dispositions. Therefore, it must be granted that in all nature every motion proceeds from that which is immobile. Consequently, the more any creatures are immobile so much the more are they causes of that which is more movable. Now, the heavenly bodies are the most immobile (relatively) of all physical bodies, for the only type of motion they enjoy is local motion. Therefore, the motions of earthly bodies, which are varied and multiform, can be reduced to the motion of heavenly bodies as into their cause.” 1
Aquinas’ second question in this section is: “Is it the case that heavenly bodies are the cause of human acts?” His answer here involves the basic distinction which I have already drawn between body, which is determined, and spirit, which is free. However, he also adds: “One should know, however, that the impressions of heavenly bodies can affect the human intellect and will indirectly and per accidens. This happens to the extent that both intellect and will are influenced by inferior forces that are connected with the human body.” (Corpus of the article). Moreover, in his reply to the third objection, Aquinas adds the significant observation, “We must say that men generally follow their passions which are motions of their sense desires and stand under the influence of the heavenly bodies; few indeed are the number of wise men who resist these passions. Therefore, astrologers can, for the most part, make true predictions, especially for mankind in general. This is less clear in specific predictions because nothing prevents a particular man from resisting his passions through the exercise of his free will. That is why the astrologers themselves assert that the wise man dominates the stars, in so far as he controls his passions. “2
One could multiply texts from Aquinas, but this would seem to suffice. Let me then just mention briefly a few other authorities of the period who represent what was the consensus view of the Christian west from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Most of my information here derives from volumes two and three of Lynn Thorndike’s magisterial study; A History of Magic and Experimental Science, New York: 1943, Columbia University Press. It is the best source I know in English for the history of astrology of the period. Thorndike had the advantage of reading the original, and copy, manuscripts of the time, and it is a gold mine of data for anyone interested in the historical development of astrology, and, for that matter, of alchemy, sorcery and most of the occult tradition. Thorndike himself does not, of course, believe a word of any of this tradition but he is an indefatigable gatherer to whom all can profitably return.
Albert the Great who was a teacher of Aquinas follows the same general rule of accepting astrology with qualification, which is the consistent tradition of these ages. If anything, he is more committed than his disciple, and even goes so far as to admit occult force in astrological images. As Thorndike observes: “Since the celestial spheres and the stars are the instruments and mediums through which the First Cause governs the world of inferior creations, it follows that the four elements are generated by the motion of the heavens and that plants, stones, minerals, animals-in short, whatever exists in the inferior world is caused by the motion of the superior bodies. This general law that the world of nature and of life on this earth is governed by the movements of the stars is expressly repeated again and again in Albert’s works, and its truth is assumed even oftener. “3
There are, literally, countless less well known mediaeval authorities who see no incompatibility between astrology and their Christian faith, but I will only cite one more example, John Duns Scotus who died early in the fourteenth century, and is also reckoned as one of the major figures of the age. I will let Thorndike summarise his very positive views: Moreover, in the writings of Duns Scotus… we find the conception of occult virtue apparently accepted… while astrology and alchemy are recognised as reputable sciences.
This attitude to astrology and occult virtue appears in works of whose genuineness there is no doubt, the two commentaries on the Sciences known as the Opus Oxoniense and the Reportata Parisiensia. The question whether the sky acts on these inferiors Scotus answers affirmatively and in almost identical terms in both works The planets further have action on mixed bodies, whether imperfect such as vapours in the air or perfected and inanimate like metals, “which are generated in certain regions by a constellation having respect to that region and not to another, for the earth is not the active cause of this diversity. “5 This is not all. “In the fourth place I say that they act on animate beings, altering mixed bodies to a quality, conformable or incompatible with the soul animating such a body, and so they can act towards generation or corruption.” 6 They may even by sharpening or disordering the senses affect the intellect, as is evidenced in the insane and lunatics, whose imagination is confused. Even the will may be disordered to some extent thereby. The stars also alter sense appetite and incline men to follow it against the dictates of reason, although. the will is not coerced absolutely and may resist them. But were it not for free will, human, angelic, and divine, everything would happen of necessity and nothing would happen contingently. Natural law and freedom of the will: for Scotus these are the sole factors determining action.4,
I would like to conclude this brief historical section with a quotation from Thorndike who is himself, no believer in astrology, but gives a first-hand account of the period in question. We have also repeatedly seen magic itself becoming more scientific or pseudo-scientific in method and appearance. This is well illustrated by the fact that in our authors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries astrology is the most widespread, as it is the most pseudo-scientific of any variety of the magic arts.
Indeed, it has ceased to be merely one method of divination and claims to study and disclose the universal law of nature in the rule of the stars, by which every fact in nature and every occult influence in magic may be explained. If this doctrine were true, all other sciences and magic arts would be reduced to branches of the supreme science and art of astronomy or astrology. “5
And this about sums up what I have to offer by way of a brief discussion on the relation of Christian faith and astrological science. I have offered the two main, precisely theological, difficulties that can be raised against astrology and have presented the outlines of principles by which these difficulties can be mediated. The history of the lofty authority that astrology enjoyed in Christian mediaeval Europe has served as a support from tradition for the reasoning presented.
There have, of course, been omissions two of which deserve mention here. First, I have said nothing about the testimony of scripture, and that for two reasons. One, that topic is too vast to cover in a brief article such as this one intends to be. Second, I am not personally a specialist in contemporary scripture studies which have greatly expanded our understanding of the sacred texts. It is, however, worth noting that no scholar today considers that it is possible to offer proofs pro or con any topic by simply selecting a few texts from some English translation of the Bible. Their science is far too careful for that sort of simplicity. Moreover, the mediaeval authors we have cited were thoroughly familiar with their Bible and saw no difficulty in reconciling its testimony with their belief in astrology.
Secondly, one might ask – what is the attitude among educated clergy today towards the theory and practice of astrology? My personal experience is somewhat limited to the Roman Catholic Church, but I have good reason to believe it is fairly common throughout the west. Very few priests I know really take astrology seriously.
In this, they follow the consensus of the contemporary academic community who consider it to be an outmoded myth of mediaeval man. But, on the other hand, there are few indeed who consider the study of astrology any more a matter for ecclesiastical disapproval than they would one’s interest in flying saucers or the flat earth society. They do not ignore astrology because it offends their faith, but because it seems to contradict what they believe to be their scientific reason. Of course, I agree with them in their faith, and disagree with them in their reason, but the dispute is academic, not theological. For some six years, have taught some astrology here at St. Peter’s College and no one has ventured to suggest that I am putting any soul in peril by so doing. Of course, most think my mind has become enfeebled, but that is another story. It is, also in this context, something of a tribute to our institution’s dedication to the principle of academic freedom that no one, faculty or administration, in or out of my department, has ever sought to prevent me from communicating “that astrological nonsense” to such students (and there are many) who wish to receive it. We really are a free community of scholars It has always seemed to me that this is the direction Christian astrologers should take with their coreligionists-and others; namely, to concern ourselves with elaborating proof of the truth of our discipline. And these proofs should come, as I am convinced they do, from the experiments of science and the cool reasoning of mind. So far as the theological question is concerned, that question then resolves itself because all truth has One source and never contradicts itself. I might conclude with a quotation from the very, early Christian Church cited by Thomas Aquinas much later in time. “For whatever is true and by whomever it is spoken, it is spoken by the Holy Spirit.6
1 S. Thomas Aquinatis, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Marietti Publishers, Turin, Rome, 1950, p. 541. (Translation mine).
2 Ibid. pp. 542-543. translation mine.
3 LynnThorndike. A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol. 11. New York: Columbia University Press 1943 pp. 582-583.
T. cites the following works of Albert as sources in a footnote at the end of the passage. De meteoris, 1, i, 4 and 7; De causis et proprietatibus element, etc. 1. ii 2; Mineralium, 11, iii 3; De causis et procreat. universi, 11, ii 23. But there are many other sections cited and the entire #V entitled Attitude Toward Astrology pp. 577Â592. should be read.
4 Op. cit. vol. 111, pp. 4 and 5. The two footnote references in the text refer to works of Scotus, II sent., Dist xw, Ouaestio 11, found in the editio nova, Paris, 1891-1995, Xli, 661-679, and XXIII, 58062 . Footnote #5 is Ibid. XII 671. Scotus was the main leader of the Franciscan school of theology and is thus of practically equal authority with Aquinas.
5 Thorndike, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 973.
6 Ambrosiaster, on 1 Corinthians, 12.3, PL, 17,245: sited in De Vertate, q. I, a. 8 sed c.
Copyright (c) 1978 Laurence L. Cassidy
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