Tarot and Christianity

We live in a Faustian age, as Oswald Spengler has indicated. Since the end of the Middle Ages man has gained power, he dominates nature, his wishes are fulfilled one by one, it seems. And in the 21st century, research, technology and digitalization give him a surfeit of satisfaction, so to speak; at least in the West he revels in all the earthly pleasures. Netflix, Amazon and co. deliver around the clock every day. And that is a temptation and test that Mephistopheles, with the authority of God, imposes on modern man, just as Goethe described it. In Job’s case, the test was still to experience all the suffering that the world can inflict on man, and yet to remain faithful to God. The Faustian man must prove that even all the joys that this world has to offer are not enough to tear his soul away from God.

“Without temptation there is no spiritual progress,” says Anthony the Great. Temptation finds its purpose in strengthening the free human will. And since Faust is the object of the wager between Mephistopheles and God, and since every temptation always runs in two directions, in this matter evil itself could be tempted by good, if, indeed, if the Faustian man would pass this test and return to God as in the story of the prodigal son.

The Tarot and Christianity. Two irreconcilable things? I can only say that the study of the Tarot had made possible my return home, the transformation from a notorious nihilist back to a Christian, especially by reading the “Meditations on the Tarot” by Valentin Tomberg. But doesn’t the Tarot contradict church doctrine? The Catholic Catechism says in paragraph 2115: “God can reveal the future to his prophets and other saints. The Christian attitude, however, is to trustingly entrust the future to Providence and to refrain from any unhealthy curiosity. Whoever lacks the necessary foresight acts irresponsibly.” But the Tarot serves precisely this unhealthy curiosity that asks about the future, doesn’t it?

It becomes even clearer under paragraph 2116: “All forms of divination are to be rejected: The enslavement of Satan and demons, necromancy or other actions that are wrongly assumed to “unveil” the future [cf. Dt 18:10; Jer 29:8]. Behind horoscopes, astrology, palmistry, the interpretation of portents and oracles, clairvoyance and the questioning of a medium, there is the will to have power over time, history and ultimately over people, as well as the desire to make the secret powers inclined. This is contrary to the reverence we owe to God alone.” The Catechism is clear and precise in this regard, and in the passage quoted in Deuteronomy, there is indeed an urgent warning against sorcerers and fortune-tellers.

Sorcery and magic exist in this world, the Church knows that, and I refer especially to the Catholic Church, of which I am a member. Pagan secret knowledge has been kept alive until our days and there was and is the “wisdom of the princes of this world” symbolized by the image of the serpent, which is different from God’s wisdom in the sign of the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Church Fathers saw in the pagan myths and symbols forebodings of Jesus Christ. The Apollonian concept of the Logos, did it not find its completion in the revelation of the Messiah? The church writer Origenes (185 to 254 A.D.) considered the secret knowledge of the Egyptians, the hermetic writings and the manifold teachings of the Greeks about the divine to be precursors of Christian salvation history. When we speak here of the “princes of this world” (1 Cor 2:6), then according to Catholic doctrine this refers to fallen entities of the heavenly hierarchies; hierarchies on the left, who act within the framework of the law as accusers and tempters of strict justice (in the Freiburg Cathedral the “prince of the world” is part of the sacred group of figures in the tower porch).

“One knows how manifoldly in the Middle Ages, partly under Arab influence, the idea of world potencies or “intelligences” (which were partly understood as thoughts of God, partly as angels) had an impact on Christian natural philosophy, but above all, as in the Renaissance – when these speculations continued – also the re-translation of the Jewish-mystical Kabbalah into Christianity occupied the best minds. Already a great number of Church Fathers had, it is now noticed, given the mysterious Hermes Trismegistos a place of honour among pagan prophets and wise men, hermetic books had circulated in the early and high Middle Ages, later the Renaissance celebrated him as the great contemporary of Moses and forefather of Greek wisdom (one remembers his venerable image, inlaid in the floor of Siena’s cathedral)”. (Hans Urs von Balthazar)

The Tarot reflects the symbolism of the wisdom of pre-Christian antiquity that was resurrected in the Renaissance. Even if the origin of the Tarot has not been definitively clarified, this can certainly be said in the form. Its roots reach into the world view network of Orphic mysteries, Gnosis, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreans and Mithraics. Probably in the 15th century the Tarot was transmitted by Byzantium and the Sufis via the east-west interface of Venice (Dai Léon, Origins of the Tarot) and then passed on to Ferrara and Milan, from where it became more and more spread and popular as a card game. It represents the spiritual legacy of a historical period in which the Son of God entered this earth. 

In fact, today’s Tarotists often refer directly to this ancient pagan philosophy, worship Hermes or Zeus, the witchcraft or even unspecifically to a so-called non-dual perennial wisdom. Or they rather believe in a cosmic evolution that will eventually secure a place for man on a golden throne, an evolution that will make man all stronger and more powerful. First stone, then plant, animal, man and finally god. Christ is then not much more than someone who serves as an example for a person who wants to become divine and almighty by his own power. But wasn’t that exactly the temptation of Jesus in the desert? Are the cards in the end the devil’s prayer book indeed …?

But I do not want to become bitter. Without these mysterious, beautiful and true images (because, as Origen says, the “prince of the world” himself believes these things to be true and does not give them to people to harm them), without these images and the fascination they hold for me, wouldn’t I still be a nihilist? And has not the Tarotist (and also the astrologer) of today long ago overcome the magic and fortune-telling of yesteryear? Haven’t the cards long ago ceased to be the tools of self-appointed masters and become the helping hand of loving servants? As Pico della Mirandola (1463 to 1494 A.D.), who had studied all this occult heritage and had also researched the Jewish Kabbalah, made clear: “I bear the name of Jesus Christ on my forehead and die gladly for faith in him. I am neither magician, nor Jew, nor Ismailite, nor heretic; Jesus is my worship, his cross I bear on my body.”