We're reading Madeline Miller's book Circe in one of my book groups. It's nicely written and certainly evocative, but there's one underlying assumption that I find peculiar--the notion that magic could come as a new power, one even mightier than the gods themselves.
It's a notion I've encountered in my brushes with the show Supernatural, as well, a show that, for all its ostensibly Christian angels, satanic devils, and showrunner God, is essentially a story of pagan deities and Greek heroes. The angels and demons may be "slain," God can run out of power or even be threatened--indeed, he has a sister, darkness to his light--and the throne of hell is unsteady indeed.
And in that world, magic again rules supreme.
The runes on Michael's spear are what make it so powerful, for instance. The heroes use magic to defeat apparently immortal foes.
So, too, with Circe, daughter of the sun and a nymph, and her siblings. Their power can threaten even the gods themselves, a power drawn from the earth and her fruits.
I assume that on some level both works show that high regard for the products of human ingenuity, of reason and science, that characterizes modernity. In a universe where magic works, after all, with reliable results and precise formulas, it would seem to be less the magical arts and more another branch of the natural sciences. So in some sense at the back of both works of art, there's simply one more modern valorization of reason over faith, of trust and belief when one can seize power. Indeed, Prometheus is the wise God to Circe, the first to make her think, to seize her own divine fire and challenge the gods.
The thing is, the cosmos isn't built that way.
Oh, sure, the Greek gods could have been threatened by mortals. As Socrates pointed out, they weren't real gods after all. Surely we all know on some level what we mean by divinity, he pointed out, and the gods of the Greek myths do not consistently live up to that standard.
But God--the source of all being; Being itself--could not be so threatened by its own creatures. The source of all that is must be outside of and independent from creation, or else it would be incapable of giving rise to creation. That which is the source of time must itself be outside of time, in eternity, native to eternity, to timelessness. The source of all cannot be threatened by all, or manipulated by all. When Aslan speaks of the deeper magic in the Chronicles of Narnia, he's speaking of a deeper reading and understanding of himself, for he is Logos, he is Word, he is God.
And yet here we find the root of attempts at magic, and the difference between magic and true religion: Magic is the attempt to manipulate God. Religion is right worship, logika latreia, rational worship, liturgy, the work of the people.
Magic is fundamentally an attempt at seizing divinity; worship is receiving divinity in the palms of open, trusting, generous hands.
Magic is a matter of power; worship, rightly understood and done, of love and trust.
You see this voluntaristic character of magic in the attempt to rule things through the knowledge of the Tetragrammaton, the supposed secret, hidden name of God, or the longing to know the language of creation, to be able to exercise the same power that God used when he spoke all things into being, that Adam perhaps possessed when he named the animals before the fall. You see the endless gnostic, occultic desire to be like God through consuming the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And there is the fatal error. There is the misunderstanding of hell.
For to be like God isn't simply to be powerful, or to be able to create, or to be able to shape things with a word, a movement of the will. That isn't God in his essence, in his own nature, eternal, outside of time. God is Creator in relation to creation; God is lord of angels, of the heavens and the earth, upon his creation of them.
No, to be like God in his eternity, as he always has been and always will be, as he would have been even if he had chosen not to create, if he had rested satisfied in his own perfect beatitude, is to be family, to be love, to be communion, to be. To be like God, we must eat of the fruit of the tree of life. We must embrace trust. We must live love, and self-gift.
That is the font of his power--that he is constantly giving it all away. He is endlessly self-emptying, endlessly generous, and endlessly receiving everything back again. The dynamic of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the One who gives life; the One who receives life; and the Life that they are constantly, endlessly giving to each other.
God is not subject to our manipulations, nor do we need to manipulate him. He gives us life every moment of every day. Indeed, we cannot cease to exist now that we have begun to exist because he loves us into existence, moment by moment. Our continued existence endlessly depends upon him remembering us and loving us. God is eternal, and unchanging in his perfection--he can't stop loving us, can't stop remembering us. He can never let us go out of existence now--thus the eternity of hell. We have free will. We can reject the gift, reject the love, but he can't stop loving us; can't stop remembering us; can't stop holding us in being.
And so if we put ourselves out of heaven, the endless dance of life and love, by refusing to take part, we are trapped outside of the meaning and goal of our existence.
One last thought--in some sense, the idea of Prometheus put forward in Circe resonated with me as an intense foreshadowing of Christ. Prometheus, Miller points out, is a god of prophecy. He knew, then, what would happen when he brought fire to mankind, and chose to do it anyway. He chose to accept the torment of being chained to a rock, of his liver being plucked out by an eagle each day, of endlessly regrowing the organ only to repeat his torment again in swift succession.
In Christianity, we understand that what happens to an eternal person takes on an eternal character, to a certain extent. So Christ in eternity, in some sense, is always the Lamb who was slain. Good Friday is always present in the life of the Trinity. That day of absolute self-donation, self-emptying, is outside of time because the protagonist is a person whose native world is outside of time.
And even with that, Jesus chose us. He chose fidelity to his own divine nature, to the Father's life and love that he had always shared in and would always share in, of utter self gift for the lives of others.
That gift of life is more powerful than the knowledge of good and evil. Knowing what is means you will be able to discern what is not. Knowing God on his terms means a greater knowledge of the devil than the most dedicated satanist, the most eager devourer of the forbidden fruit. Know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Devour the lies, and your darkness shall be great indeed.
Trust, and love, is mightier than magic.