Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is Astrology a Victimless Crime? Do We Need “A Warning Against Astrology”?

It’s not just astronomers and skeptics who love to bash astrology.  Theologians, ethicists, and philosophers do, too.  Yet for many people, even those who agree with the criticisms of astrology as unscientific, illogical, a convenient escape from personal responsibility, a silly waste of time, or a scheme to make money selling people something absolutely useless, astrology still holds an irresistible appeal.  Consulting their horoscope for fun every day is one of their guilty pleasures. 

I want to reflect on three questions:
  • Why do people read their horoscope?
  • What are the theological or spiritual objections to astrology?
  • Is astrology harmless?
What are we looking for when we read a horoscope?
Here’s my confession (and it’s not an easy one to make):  I don’t know why most people read horoscopes—for fun?  for diversion?; I do know why I have read them.  There have been times in my life when I frantically consulted three, four, five or more daily or weekly,  monthly or yearly horoscopes.  I felt guilty doing it, and stupid.  I agreed with all the criticisms of it.  Yet I did it.   Why?  I was consumed by fear and anxiety.  I wanted control over my life. I wanted to know something about what would happen, even to think I knew something, to calm me.  I wanted to find a reason to hope, or simply to find reassurance.  In certain moments of crises, after a string of difficult years, when I feared in a post-traumatic-stress-syndrome way that my day or week would surely shock me with one more sorrow or catastrophe I could not have imagined, I would read and read—sometimes for an hour or more—until I found a horoscope that “promised” an end to pain or the beginning of something new,  or help of any sort. Sometimes I read until I found a warning about something bad happening--a legal run-in or personal conflict or financial challenge. That would calm me down. If something painful or difficult was going to happen, I wanted to know.  Knowing about a trauma before hand seemed far better to me than living in uncertaintiy, waiting for the next blow and not knowing when it would come, from what direction, or from whom, or why. If I knew it was coming, I could handle it, I thought. It was those unpredictable assaults, out of nowhere, that I couldn't live with. Reading “predictions” was my anti-anxiety drug of choice.  I needed it.  I couldn’t get through the day without it.

This is an embarrassing admission on so many levels, but especially on the spiritual level.  Yes, it meant that I was experiencing a lot of grief and  trauma and was not acting like my normal self.  But I don’t want to use this as a dodge.  What it really meant was that I was not trusting in the One.  I could not live in uncertainty, with seemingly nothing to hang on to. Why didn’t I just  pray and read the Psalms, as I otherwise did, for reassurance and comfort and a sense of community?  I am not really sure.  I think I was desperate for something that seemed more immediate, more concrete, more practical, a secret message meant for me.  This lack of radical trust made me flail my way across the Web looking for comfort and hope. 

What are the theological responses to astrology?

In the eleventh century the Sufi mystic and theologian Ghazali objected to astrology because it denied the absolute dependence humankind must have on God at every moment in life.  God directly causes every occasion, he argues, which is divine providence, and we are to trust absolutely in God, link ourselves directly to the ultimate source and ground of every act or event or situation, and not look to proximate or intermediate causes like stars and planets.  In the twelfth century, the Jewish mystic and theologians Moses Maimonides argued similarly, saying that believing in astrology denies the providence of God and also freedom of the will.

In the sixteenth century the Christian mystic and theologian John Calvin wrote a treatise called “A Warning Against Astrology.” He raises many objections to consulting horoscopes, including Ghazali’s and Maiominides's main points—that it displaces our trust in the only trustworthy One and therefore detracts from the glory of God who providentially cares for every detail of creation; and it denies our moral responsibilty.

But the criticism Calvin offers that always surprises me for its practical, modern sensibility, is this:  Astrology is anti-community.  God, he argues, placed the sun, moon, and stars in creation so that human beings can tell time and seasons and make plans with one another about when to worship together, when to come to courts of law together to settle disputes, when to meet for other social occasions.  They are community-building tools.  What if one were to consult his or her horoscope on the way to court and find it is not an auspicious day, and turn back?  What if one’s personal chart argues against one observing the Sabbath or a festival day?  To use God’s creations in this way to deny God and the image of God in our fellow human beings.   It isolates us from others.  Trusting in the One, however, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, links us to all other creatures, all the rest of creation—for that is part of our purpose here—to escape the prison of the self and experience communion with others.  

Is astrology harmless?
Many people make light of astrology, saying, “Oh, I don’t really believe it!  It’s just fun. It’s harmless.”  Our common greeting to one another, Good luck! Mazel tov! suggests how much we have absorbed the idea of astrological influences, even if we reject outright causation.  Mazal means a planet and its influence, so we're wishing for good astrological influences for others.

Maybe it's harmless to wish someone Mazal tov (instead of saying, "Ezrat Hashem, God's Help" or Retzon HaShem or Insha'Allah, God Willing).  But I’m not sure astrology is harmless.  Just as prostitution is often called a victimless crime, yet often leads to great harm, so astrology can cause harm.  It erodes one’s trust in the One. It corrodes one’s sense of relatedness to others and our responsibility, for one’s own actions and for the care of others.  It can keep us trapped in fear and anxiety, dependent on remedies that can never assuage our fears but only postpone or mask them.  It can prevent us from growing toward deeper trust and faith that bring the peace that passes understanding.  
Astrology isn’t “of the devil,” and consulting one’s horoscope isn’t evil--any more than anything else that tempts us away from depending on the One and befriending all that the One creates and embraces.  But it’s not harmless.