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The Orb Gang

Proclamation on Sinai: Covenant and Commandments

Valentin Tomberg
Angelico Press, pp. 180, $17.95

Lazarus: the Miracle of Resurrection in World History

Valentin Tomberg
Angelico Press, pp. 254, $19.95

Thy Kingdom Come: the New Evolution of the Good

Valentin Tomberg
Angelico Press, pp. 104, $14.95

Valentin Tomberg and the Ecclesia Universalis: a Biography

Harrie Salman
Angelico Press, pp. 268, $19.95


During the presidential primary season in 2020, I created a Twitter handle with the name “Kabbalah Harris.” For the next few months, I played a semi-private game of deep exegesis on the statements of the spiritual wellness author and Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. The tropes I favored were from Lurianic Kabbalah, but I also made liberal use of Russian Sophiology and late antique hermeticism. And, of course, good old-fashioned nineteenth-century American paranormal spiritualism. That is how I found myself caught up into the third digital paradeisos of the meme-loving supporters of Marianne Williamson. The “OrbGang,” as we called ourselves, doubled down on the caricature of Marianne as a New Age guru who probably uses a crystal ball. We decided to reappropriate the crystal ball in all its arcane orbitular glory.

Without ever entirely ceasing to enact a private joke, I developed a real fondness for Marianne’s quixotic blend of political and spiritual admonition. Even more importantly, my contempt deepened for those who insist that politics is an unimaginative, pragmatic process. Perhaps this was not the most helpful for Marianne’s long-shot campaign (forgive us, Orb Queen) but it was the sheer weirdness opened up by the moment which caught and held my attention. What struck me is that, for the most part, American political discourse on religion and politics tends to focus on the interests of evangelical and Catholic moral and cultural causes or on the formal legal structures of American-style “religious freedom.” But as I continued to interact with the sorts of people drawn to Marianne Williamson and reflect on just what constitutes “normal belief” for Americans, something seemed to be missing that typical political conversations simply did not address.

What is the political significance of the myriad heterogeneous, theologically eclectic, spiritual, and metaphysical convictions held by most people? About half of Americans believe in some kind of afterlife and in the existence of ghosts. More than half believe in angels, though it’s unclear what this means. Precious Moments figurines? Episodes of Touched by an Angel? Enochian apocalyptic literature? Still, it seems difficult to deny that belief in a more populated cosmos should have political consequences. But somehow it never does, and we are left with the impression that the question of religion and politics is only about God and humanity. This is the meaning of that second most famous Wittenberg student, Hamlet, in his gentle rebuke to Horatio. No one in the play is advocating atheism. But it raises the specter of a desolate world, turned into an empty battleground for the will of God and the will of man.

The American people, too, know that there are more things in heaven and earth, though the founders themselves were not interested in the supernatural or even the preternatural. For most of them, even the historic creeds and ecclesial structure of Christianity were an unacceptably exotic mixture of Oriental, Jewish, and Platonic mysticism. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on July 16, 1814:

If the Christian Religion as I understand it, or as you understand it, Should maintain its Ground as I believe it will; yet Platonick Pythagoric, Hindoo, and cabballistical Christianity which is Catholic Christianity, and which has prevailed for 1500 Years, has received a mortal wound of which the Monster must finally die; yet So Strong is his constitution that he may endure for Centuries before he expires.

For all their tongue-clucking, America was spiritually innovative long before the Constitutional Convention. This included the Puritans. John Winthrop, Jr., was a devout Protestant, a man of experimental science, and a practicing alchemical magician. Far from an outcast among the colonists, he became governor of Connecticut, where he reformed the penal code and effectively ended the witch trials. He did this not out of rationalistic skepticism toward magic, but because he found it highly improbable that so many women could really be practicing magic. They lacked the adequate training in Latin and access to the relevant texts. (One wonders whether The Crucible might have been improved if its protagonist had been a compassionate yet elitist alchemical Puritan magician.) Winthrop was connected to the elite European circle of alchemical and educational advocates. It was through employing these networks and the correspondences they made possible that he nearly convinced the father of modern American education, his fellow alchemist John Comenius, to take up the presidency of Harvard College. Winthrop constructed iron works and salt mines, all while being a highly sought after doctor. When America was still ruled by the Puritan Prospero, it was possible for these activities to be filled with enchantment.

Nor should we think that weird America was confined to a few highly educated eccentrics. There were also poorly educated eccentrics such as Johnny Appleseed. While he is justly famous for his work planting apple trees across America, few know the motive behind this activity. While often portrayed as an anodyne orchard enthusiast, John Chapman was in fact a celibate itinerant missionary for the American Swedenborgian Church. Swedenborg himself was a popular European visionary and writer of mystical-exegetical tracts on the Bible. His popularity so irked Kant (perhaps because they shared the same first name?) that he wrote a scathing indictment entitled Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Luckily Americans managed to evade early modern protocols of epistemology and turned Johnny into a folk hero. Theosophy, it seems, is as American as apple pie.

The nineteenth century was something of an inflection point in the narrative of American weirdness; witness the growing popularity of “spiritual” phenomena. Abraham Lincoln held seances in the White House. This surge in paranormal interest went hand in hand with a new drive toward scientific classification. William James, in addition to his contributions to psychology and pragmatic philosophy, started the American Society for Psychical Research, which was dedicated to empirical research and rigorous description of paranormal activity. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth co-incided with a mass disillusionment with traditional theology and ecclesial structures, as well as with an admiration for new applications of experimental science. America, England, and Western Europe were searching for a new kind of spiritual experience. We were never quite disenchanted, but we continually sought to re-inscribe our desires for what exceeds the finite with new and more acceptable categories. With our own national record of spiritual exploration in mind, we now have a better way to think about the paradoxical figure of Valentin Tomberg.

It is appropriate that the future Roman Catholic apostle to the practitioners of New Age spirituality should himself have been born at the dawn of a new century. Valentin Tomberg was born to Estonian immigrants in St. Petersburg on February 26, 1900, and grew up during the period in which educated Russians were interested in exotic and esoteric religious traditions such as Rosicrucianism and Martinism. It was also the Silver Age of Russian philosophy and literature. Profound and truly creative thinkers inhabited the same space, the same city, and sometimes even the same intellectual salon as various hucksters. Within this ferment were also members of the Anthroposophical Society. Founded by Rudolf Steiner, a brilliant young Goethe scholar, anthroposophy sought to develop a more teleological and evaluative conception of science along the lines of Goethe’s studies of botany and color theory. In addition, Steiner sought to synthesize certain aspects of Christian spirituality and thought with a new spiritual science. The young Tomberg saw this combination of a search for spiritual culture and rational justification as highly attractive. He devoted the next few decades of his life to anthroposophy and only broke with them after his formal conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1945. He became convinced that the actually existing leadership, including Marie Steiner, of the Anthroposophical Society was unable to accept that change.

The details of Valentin Tomberg’s life and unique conversion are well told in Harrie Salman’s recent biography. A hidden gem from this volume for me was the report that Owen Barfield was a friend and conversation partner with Tomberg during this period. It seems that the process was both a real break with the society as well as an attempt to transpose its spiritual search into a more orthodox key. This lent his spiritual writings a surprising conventional orthodoxy. For instance, his popular work Meditations on the Tarot has nothing to do with cartomancy, and is instead twenty-two brief reflections on theological and religious topics, including a defense of papal infallibility. As an erudite polyglot, Tomberg makes liberal use of quotations from the corpus hermetica, but then, so did most twelfth-century Latin theologians. Tomberg’s aim is to catch the attention of those seeking replacements and substitutes to the Church and introduce them to the depth and variety of Eastern and Western Christian mysticism. And as someone with a more than passing knowledge of world religions and spiritual movements, he is able to present that case with generosity and clarity. As the Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann has written, Valentin Tomberg opens “a path for all seekers after Wisdom, all Hermeticists, Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, to the one Church.”

But what about those already inside the fold? Is Tomberg simply useful for beating the bounds and drawing in the spiritually eclectic? He, at least, saw himself as providing a positive project for those within the faith. Specifically, he focused on symbolic communication and the language of mystery as the most fruitful way of deepening an understanding of the Bible and the sacraments. The results of his approach can be tested by the reader in his more exegetical works on the Gospel of John and the Ten Commandments. These have recently been republished by Angelico Press as Lazarus: The Miracle of Resurrection in World History and Proclamation on Sinai: Covenant and Commandments. These works display the attention to number, symbol, and names in the biblical text which should be familiar to any student of Patristics or the Middle Ages. But what Tomberg’s unique background and modern context brings to exegetical practice is a recourse to comparative examples from other religions and mystical traditions. The Jewish mysticism concerning the Tetragrammaton is a favorite theme of Tomberg’s, but the reader is also likely to find judicious comments on aspects of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek mystery cults—and even modern authors such as C. G. Jung and Martin Buber. His interest in comparative religion might tempt the reader to classify him as a member of the so-called perennialist school, but that would not be accurate. While he is interested in commonalities between wisdom traditions, he sees the history of religions as teleologically oriented toward Catholicism. The sacred writings of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism receive high praise from him as containing fragments of revelation. In contrast, he does not even consider Buddhism to be a religion at all, but “the culmination of pure humanism.” His deep commitment to a theology of history can be seen in his slim volume Thy Kingdom Come: The New Evolution of the Good. In it we see why it is that he was focused more on the religions that proclaim a higher metaphysical realm, a realm capable of being revealed within our own. He takes these traditions as witnesses and as proleptic intimations of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Like Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr, Tomberg focuses on the school and figures which prepared the world for the mystery of the Incarnation. For him, the Church is the instrument through which God regenerates the world and unites the kingdoms of nature and humanity with the kingdom of heaven. Tomberg possessed a healthy sense of eschatological immanence. By this I do not mean that he attempted to calculate the return of Christ; rather, he understood that God has already been made manifest within the flow of time. The Apocalypse has already arrived in the person of Jesus Christ and in His mystical body the Church. We are not simply enduring Christ’s absence in a no man’s land of temporal duration, running out the clock. The Church has been given a task to accomplish. Tomberg was convinced that this task of laboring for the eschaton in human history was the teaching of Augustine’s City of God. And he saw a direct line between this theology of history and the need for a restored understanding of politics and law. Tomberg himself had worked with the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis, and volunteered for emergency services to aid the wounded during the Allied bombing of Dresden. His contemplation did not weaken his action. Politics and economics were only evil for him insofar as they were under the dark spell of a degraded scientific materialism and empirically oriented will to power. While explicating the phrase “Blessed are the meek” from the Sermon on the Mount, he even draws examples from his contemporary political history, mentioning Gandhi’s successful non-violent actions against British rule in India. In his section on “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” his paradigmatic example of injustice is the subjugation of the Native Americans. He points out that it was the injustice not only of the strong conquering the weak but of continual disregard for previous treaty agreements. While temperamentally and socially conservative, Tomberg does not shy away from the political implications of the Gospel. He rails against capitalism and against communism (his mother had been murdered by Bolsheviks) as both being “variants of the same evil: an industrialism that enslaves and degrades.”

My inbox is once again filling up with missives from the Marianne Williamson campaign (2024 already?). This time I have not spent much effort having Twitter—excuse me, X—debates with scholars of Renaissance magic on the relative mystical merits of spheres versus cubes. Nor have I spent any time requesting a Marianne campaign song from reconstructors of archaic Greek music. But the idea that a political community should include in its deliberations phrases such as “dark psychic forces” still seems like common sense to me. Our communal life would be improved if we acknowledged America’s complicated history with the weird, especially those of us who are members of confessional religious traditions whose basic rituals already seem like they come from another plane of existence. And in a sense, they do. It has historically been far more “normal” to recognize the cosmos as crowded. My guess is that the majority of Americans tend more toward the metaphysical cosmos assumed by Marianne Williamson and Valentin Tomberg than that of, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I don’t plan to resurrect “Kabbalah Harris” this time around. That internet moment has long passed. What remains? For me, the conviction that a metaphysically antiseptic politics can only police its own boundaries for so long. Another America is waiting to emerge.

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