November/December 2007 Cosmic
Christianity has in recent times been at odds with occult practices such as astrology, tarot and numerology, or any divinatory art that could be deemed as "fortune-telling." As a professional astrologer, I have always had an interest in esoteric practices and the mystical aspects of spirituality, but I had never seen these things as out of alignment with the teachings of Jesus.
During my recent graduate work, I investigated the reasons behind Christianity's discomfort with astrology. I wanted to understand the root of it, not to create conflict, but as a way to replace divisiveness and fear with unification and understanding.
What I found was that many esoteric practices have been accepted within Christianity throughout its history. This knowledge is buried within its rituals, and is even physically evident in the stonework of Christianity's primary standing monuments: the gothic cathedrals of Europe.
In studying Chartres Cathedral, I came across a strange juxtaposition: within this Christian sacred site, I found depictions of astrological symbols carved into the stonework of Chartres. Have there been times throughout Christianity's history in which these old ways of knowing, the pre-Christian ways, have been accepted and even practiced? But the practice of divination, which is the practice of attempting to foretell the future, had been explicitly and consistently banned throughout the history of the church.
Ultimately, I wanted to understand the difference between a prophet and a fortune-teller: why was astrology as fortune-telling condemned, while the visions of prophets and mystics were embraced as valuable to the Christian community?
I began by considering scriptural references to the stars, and to divination by the stars. The importance of the heavens as signifiers of divine will and as modes of prophecy should not be underestimated. In the New Testament, the pivotal event of Christ's birth is proclaimed by the appearance of a star, which alerts the Magi. The Magi, more commonly known as the three wise men, are identified in the book of Matthew as "possessors of occult knowledge," which is recognized by implication as astrology.
The scripture itself states that the Magi were guided to seek Christ's birthplace by the appearance of a star, and came, "asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." There is no judgment cast against the Magi as being "occult practitioners." Instead, they are welcomed in and they present the Christ child with their gifts.
But the perception of astrology as a "threat" to Christianity can be traced to the disjoint between the notion of prediction and the doctrine of free-will. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the practice of astrology in the Summa Theologica. His discussions focus on the doctrine of free-will: He saw astrological practice as potentially interfering with humanity's God-given free will. Aquinas' main point was that the planets could influence humanity, specifically our corporeal nature, but that through the use of free will, humanity could control its bodily passions.
Aquinas' problem with astrology was that if it was predictive, the astrologer was attempting to be God-like and therefore was committing heresy. But it seems that Aquinas took much time and care to consider the potential uses of astrology, even while he was uncomfortable with its associations with divination. And he also acknowledged its potential accuracy and power.
As long as astrology is not used as a means of fortune-telling, it need not be in opposition to Christianity. Astrology's common contemporary usage is as a form of self-gnosis rather than fortune-telling.
As Carl Jung said regarding astrology: "We are born at a given moment in a given place, and like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything else."
In its most valuable form, astrology is a means to self-understanding, and indeed does not lay claim to anything else.
What does this say about the puzzle of the anomalous presence of astrological symbols at Chartres Cathedral?
I came to see this inconsistency to be not very inconsistent after all. The imagery of the stars, planets and the zodiac have been used in Christian imagery, both within cathedrals and without, to represent the order of the cosmos as created by God. It is the world of humanity bound by time and space, and the cathedral represents the center of creation. There need not be a dichotomy between the path of the Christian and the practice of the astrologer -- both can lead to union with the divine through greater knowledge of the self.
Dena DeCastro, M.A., a professional astrologer in the Portland area for several years, provides readings, consultation and instruction. Visit www.denadecastro.com.