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Surely Born-again Christianity has Nothing to do with Occult Stuff like Alchemy?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2020

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Summary

Nowadays, some Evangelical and Pentecostal strands of Christianity define themselves by emphasising a specific moment at which believers die to their old ways and enter a new life. They describe this conversion experience as their spiritual rebirth and subsequently identify as “born-again Christians.” While much ink has been spilt on born-again politics in the United States, the historical origins of this notion of rebirth have received much less attention. Obviously, most born-again Christians today like to distance themselves from occult stuff and generally do not talk much about alchemy. Yet around 1600, when the goals of alchemy were among the loftiest aspirations pursued by investigators of nature, the transmutation of base metals like lead into noble, pure ones such as gold provided powerful metaphors to illustrate the transformation of carnal, wicked, and dying sinners into spiritual, redeemed, and glorified believers. Due to the changing fortunes of alchemy after the Enlightenment, we should not expect to trace a continuous stream of sources on the alchemy of spiritual rebirth, yet some of the most influential devotional writers of old developed such notions as they elaborated upon the born-again experience.

After discussing two key Bible passages, I shall argue that spiritual rebirth became something distinct in the aftermath of the Reformation only. Following W.R. Ward's Early Evangelicalism (2006), I hold that the distant intellectual ancestors of Billy Graham (1918-2018) and his How to Be Born Again (1977) were found in clandestine networks of alchemists, Paracelsians, Rosicrucians, and theosophers around 1600. They responded to what church historians have called a “crisis of piety,” a deep rift between academic theology and lay devotion. As German mysticism and alchemical Paracelsianism combined in underground circles, the art of the philosophers’ stone played an important role for the development of spiritual rebirth as a distinct doctrine. The most famous representatives of these milieus, Johann Arndt (1555-1621) and Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), communicated their alchemical insights on the new birth to the later movements of Pietism, Methodism, and ultimately modern Evangelicalism. It appears that born-again Christianity is the unlikely twin of spiritual alchemy.

On the face of it, the Bible would be the most obvious source from which born-again Christianity derives its defining feature.

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Chapter
Information
Hermes Explains
Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism
, pp. 252 - 260
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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