The Relationship of Alchemy and Christianity

A very good friend sent me a note two days ago from a Christian who had misgivings about what I have written online and in my books about alchemy and its relationship with Christianity. The note said:

“Does it bother you that Granger sees alchemy as totally congruent with Christianity? It strikes me as the reverse. To seek immortal life on earth by restoring the soul to its pre-Adamic state of innocency is to seek salvation apart from Christ and to endeavor to overcome the effects of original sin by means of nature rather than grace. And to create a stone that produces unlimited quantities of gold is to succumb to the vice of greed and would wreck the world’s economy. Right? That’s why I’m troubled that Dumbledore is famous for his work on alchemy with Flamel.”

This is an important relationship to get right so I put down my work updating Unlocking Harry Potter (the alchemy chapters!) to put together a response. Here it is:

Dear Correspondent-Whom-I-Will-Not-Name-in-this-Post,

Your prayers.

This is a hurried response to your Christian friend’s important concern about alchemy and Christianity. I don’t think it requires much comment, though, because he misunderstands what I wrote about alchemy in my Touchstone article and almost everything I write about alchemy is about literary rather than historical alchemy. The former never makes the claims of the latter and I am not a proponent of the return of the latter per se — so I’m not sure even if I had time if I could say much about this.

What he missed in the Alchemist’s Tale (because it may not even be mentioned there; it is in Hidden Key and Unlocking Harry Potter) is that historical alchemy in its many forms — every revealed tradition and the Taoists of China all had their version of alchemy — was never more than an ancillary science within that tradition. Alchemists in the West, even when the real art had degenerated to the point that “adepts” were publishing their ideas in their signature cryptic fashion, were all Christians who understood their work as an aspect of their life within the Church and its mysteries (hence Luther’s approval and Albertus Magnus and Aquinas’ familiarity and supposed practice). It wasn’t a New Age stand-in for Christian faith and practice but, as Lewis would put it, another means (because of the revelation of nature; Romans 1:20), for men to “conform their souls to reality.” If you read even the published manuals of alchemy (and, again, by the time historical alchemy reaches this stage, it is almost certainly as much memory as living art), they are stuffed with prayers and instruction to pray. Seeing it as wizardry outside faith is backward historical projection from our experience of the goofball New Thought believers and New Age faux alchemists of our time.

Regardless, what makes alchemy work in literature, the ability written and staged works have to instruct while delighting, is what made historical alchemy work (and we have to assume either it did work or men around the world for centuries were senseless morons with no respect for empirical evidence), namely, the erasure of a subject-object distinction. In alchemy, the transformation of the metal under the alchemist’s prayers and observation of natural laws (Four element changes that are Quintessence or Logos centered) parallels and in some fashion causes purification in the observing subject. In literature and most obviously in drama, the audience/reader identifies with the hero and this identification through cathartic events on stage or the page causes the transformation in the reader/audience member. Shakespeare may or may not have been a Flamel wannabe himself (who cares?). He certainly, though, like Lewis, was a Hermetic artist whose work is as important as it is because of its ability to engage its audience profoundly and deliver an equally or more profound message. Martin Lings, one of Lewis’ tutorial students and later his friend (and an important traditionalist in his own right) wrote a book, The Secret of Shakespeare, that explains this wonderfully.

In summary, I don’t think objections to historical alchemy as a rival or contrary to Christian faith have much merit because:

1. Historical alchemy only exists within a revealed tradition as an ancillary science;
2. Historical alchemy has been historical, which is to say “dead,” for at least four centuries, and, because it rests on a mental capacity the victory of the nominalists over the realists during the Renaissance and Enlightenment makes impossible for us (understanding the subject/object distinction as illusion), cannot be resurrected;
3. Literary alchemy or “the alchemy of stage and page” (Burckhardt uses the phrase “literary alchemy” to distinguish published alchemical manuals by gold seekers and charcoal burners from the oral tradition and its few written manuals) is the only surviving alchemy and is no rival to the faith of Christians.

The uses of literature to instruct while delighting and to smuggle the Gospel and the way it serves a religious function in a desacralized culture, if anything, points to the importance of the alchemists’ “medieval imagination” and how it worked in tandem with their traditional faith and Christian practice.

I hope this answered your friend’s objection. Prof. Dumbledore is an accomplished alchemist but he has no desire for gold or a nature bound immortality (hence his destruction of the stone at the end of the first book, his refusal to allow even discussion of Horcruxes in his school, and his sacrificial death). Ms. Rowling uses alchemy in many ways as CSL uses astrology in the Narniad; Dr. Ward’s Planet Narnia is excellent on that subject and is very helpful, too, for seeing how Ms. Rowling’s subliminal alchemical artistry delivers her message as successfully as it does. As Lewis wrote in The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version, “An influence which cannot evade the consciousness will not go very deep” (p. 22). Hermetic artistry is anything but “in your face” and in that subtlety is in large part its effectiveness.

There isn’t anything I see about how alchemy is used in the Potter novels to suggest it is contrary to or undermining faith; if anything, as a vehicle of Ms. Rowling’s themes and other Christian imagery and in itself as an artifact and invitation to the traditional worldview (the “medieval imagination”) of Logos focused life, it is a buttress to and foundation of transformational faith.

Forgive me if I missed the point of his objection or have not made any of my arguments cogent or compelling in my haste. My thanks to you for sharing it with me and asking for my response; I look forward to conversation with you soon about this topic and others so I can fill in my Lake Superior sized philosophical lacunae.


John, scrambling

Your comments and corrections are coveted, as always.


  1. John,

    Your response has every appearance of being a concise and lucid defense of your depiction of alchemy in literature. I hope it is well received by the person who raised the objection.

    We Christians are a diverse lot. Some have no patience with anything but a straightforward proclamation of truth and tend to distrust any writings or stories that are not overtly didactic. The overtly Christian stories do, of a certainty, have their good purpose, but stories where the Christian message is more subtly contained such as Ms. Rowling has crafted have a legitimate and necessary place in the work of the church. This is especially true, as you have so ably proclaimed, in this post-Christian culture.

    I’m no economist, by the way (theology degree here), so I must show my financial naivety by asking, “Would the world’s economy truly be wrecked by a gold-producing stone?” I tend to think the answer would be no. I know this is not at the heart of the person’s objections, but it is interesting to ponder nonetheless.

  2. Allow me to put in a good word for Nicholas Flamel, a devout and generous man. In the unlikely event that the historical Flamel made alchemical gold, he gave it to the poor. The art and inscriptions on his tomb, which can be found by googling, are nothing but Christian.

    For medieval and Early Modern Europe, alchemicy provided an attractive set of symbols, just as astrology did.

  3. That Jesus fulfilled the astrological yearnings for reality is literally representedd by the Magi who bring him gifts recognizing his pivotal role! Luke certainly sees in Jesus the fulfillment of the Messianic and Davidic hopes of Israel AND the hopes of human understanding groping after God in a fallen world. That would surely include alchemy as it developed from astrology and the whole concourse of human seeking out of which science arose.

    Rather like words which had much fuller range of meaning initially but become more strictured with time. Lewis addresses this in several areas as well. The problem comes in when we force our strictured understandings back into time and lose the greater meanings. When St Paul says to think on whatsoever things were good, beautiful, and pure, he had a broad range of consideration, even to pagan poets (whom he quotes in his apologia).

    Underlying these objections are probably some considerations due to a conception of the individual and perhaps the created order as fallen and depraved without the possibility of good. Yet, we know that the Trinity created and said it was good. It remains good even after the Fall, but bent or twisted. That is why Jesus came to re-create, renew, restore. No human effort could achieve that on its own through any of the modes they attempted it. But the attempt can be made because of the nature of creation by the Trinity and its re-creation into God’s intention through Christ Jesus. This is a difficult balance to hold, of course, and only God enables it. But He still utilizes His creation to draw persons to Himself via Jesus Christ (Romans 1:20).

    Good job, Professor!

  4. Arabella Figg says

    I think part of the problem here (please correct me if I’m wrong), is that we moderns tend to think that all before us thought in the same way as we do. They just wore uncomfortable clothes and had bad sanitation.

    In contemporary Christianity, much of historical church history and ways of considering our faith have been neglected or simply ignored. We live in a rather sterile Now. Poorly-written simplistic, repititious praise choruses have replaced deep theological expressions in our worship. In the same way, we no longer are taught or understand literary traditions once commonly understood.

    I’m very thankful to you, John, for having shown us some of these historical/literary ways of thinking and constructing literature. I’d never have known about them otherwise. I feel you cogently explain them, even if I don’t fully understand it all. But knowing they’re there helps me appreciate the three-dimensionality of past works and those who created them. And it helps me be a more aware reader when I read pre-mid 20th century works.

    These days, we’re too easily pleased with a slapdash horror thriller or surface works (meringues) and confused by thoughtful works written upon structures clear to the authors, meant to convey serious meaning and uplift (rich fudgy brownies).

    As I recall, Dumbledore was most proud of being on a Chocolate Frog Card.

    Curious Black is most proud that he just whapped a surprised Fullatricks on the head…

  5. Mmm, yes, please pass the chocolate truffles and skip the light meringue. I completely agree with you, arabella–well, with all of you.

    I realize that, thanks to John’s insights and to all the rest of you, that my reading of literature has moved from the stagnation it was in pre-Harry to include the refreshment of all those books I half-heartedly read in school, or avoided reading.

    The wonderful thing is that I’m finding more depth in most of them than I imagined was there–and more depth than some of my teachers found. Or perhaps they knew it was there but couldn’t share their insights because it would have meant discussions about how the books and authors were influenced by Christianity.

    My only regret is that Harry Potter wasn’t available to me when my girls were still in high school. We’ve had great discussions since then, but it would have been nice to have those books in common that might have enriched their own literature classes. But I guess it’s never too late to enjoy a good book or a good discussion.

    I think your response, John, was spot on, very informative and sensitive to the questions asked by someone who is obviously sincere about the concerns expressed. It is one of those things that you do well–my compliments and my thanks to you.


  6. In contemporary Christianity, much of historical church history and ways of considering our faith have been neglected or simply ignored. We live in a rather sterile Now. Poorly-written simplistic, repititious praise choruses have replaced deep theological expressions in our worship. In the same way, we no longer are taught or understand literary traditions once commonly understood.

    I’d go a step further, and suggest that many would say that yes, this is the case, and this is a Good Thing.

    There are various reasons why they would argue this, but I think it boils down to a word which plagues Christianity mercilessly every so often: iconoclasm.

    That said, I think for the most part our culture is one that loves images — they just tend to love the wrong ones.


  7. Arabella Figg says

    I think, Richard, that loving images, imbuing them with our hopes and desires, and then smashing them when they don’t “deliver,” or we want something new, is simply a human-wide attribute, one God criticizes often in the Bible.

    Young people are fleeing the mega-supermarket-easy believe-ism churches in droves for the more “authentic” early church practices. Smash! There goes the mike boom and PowerPoint.

    While I find merit in this trend–apples for Twinkies–it, too can become a “wrong” image if pursued and revered for itself, not the One to whom it points. And, no one can deny that many have come to mature faith and died as faithful martyrs completely ignorant of historical Christianity, but perhaps wizard with PowerPoint.

    Our problem, as humankind, is that we want to organize everything and much of it in our own image and comfort zone, eschewing the “old ways.”

    We have a lot to learn from Remus Loopy, chasing a cat image across the room to find, to his puzzlement, it was his own shadow…

  8. Tinuvielas says

    Back after a while with a couple of ideas and references that I found while researching (and trying to understand…) the concept of literary alchemy – I hope this thread, albeit is has been asleep for a while, is the right place to post them.

    For one, I find it helpful to explain the idea of literary alchemy through the psychological concept of “flow”. I wonder if you’re familiar with “flow” (check out Wiki for a first idea of the term) and if you’ll agree with me that it is a good picture of literary alchemy?

    “Flow” describes the feeling of being totally immersed in the here-and-now, something children experience easily when involved in playing. This “flow” is something most people seek also in their adult lives, which accounts for the fascination of such different things as, say, paragliding (adrenaline-boost!), movie-going and reading. All of these activities, but reading especially, send you into the state of “flow”, of forgetting about your ego and your worries, they tie you into an immediate experience of something “other” while being immersed into the here and now, pretty much like meditation.

    In the case of reading, of course, and to a certain extent of watching a movie, this experience can be likened to visiting a different world – J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “Recovery” –, but there’s also the fact that when reading you actually IDENTIFY with an OBJECT, i.e. the book, in a process that enables you to CHANGE. I find this aspect of “flow” very intriguing and similar to what I guess the medieval alchemists must have imagined they were doing when identifying with the metallurgical matter.

    Another thing I’d like to share with you is the following quotation that I recently found in my in-box. It is part of an advertisement, written by Dr. Rainer Esser, editor of the renowned intellectual German newspaper “DIE ZEIT”, which has been launching (and promoting) a new literary supplement. It says:

    “A good book opens the doors of our imagination. It makes us laugh, makes us cry. Good literature touches our soul – and sometimes even shows us its abysses. And once we’ve reached the last page, we’re often a different person from the one we were on the first page”. (German original below). Guess if I laughed out loud when I read that! Goes to show how all-present the concept of literary alchemy still is!

    The German original: “Ein gutes Buch öffnet die Tore unserer Fantasie. Es lässt uns lachen, lässt uns weinen. Gute Literatur berührt unsere Seele — und zeigt manchmal sogar deren Abgründe auf. Und sind wir auf der letzten Seite angekommen, sind wir oft nicht mehr der Mensch, der wir noch auf der ersten Seite waren.”

  9. Claindlyday says

    I agree with everything you wrote. Great stuff

  10. God literally seperating Y chromosomes from X Chromosomes, in creating man and woman. I would say God is the Greatest Alchemist of all.. Science and Christianity are of the same originals and just dont know it yet.

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