Learning What We Can from The Alchemist

With something like 65 million copies sold worldwide, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, is a phenomenon. Whenever one finds a bestseller on this scale, there is something important to learn. The book may or may not be of much value – just think of 50 Shades or Twilight – but it always tells us something about our own culture and the spirit of the age. It’s my contention that the success of The Alchemist is a powerful indicator of the spiritual poverty of modern secularism and the pull towards re-enchantment that is at work. Ironically, this book was first recommended to me by a coworker who was a very staunch Dawkins-style atheist.

The 25th anniversary edition is very nice, with rough-cut pages, a nice font, and an embossed cover.

The book wraps its narrative around the big ideas it is trying to convey. In this sense it is overly didactic and not like the great novels which embed such lessons deep into the structure of the work. Here it is on the surface, the narrative serving as a platform on which to serve up the lessons the author wishes the reader to learn. But the story makes use of a number of archetypes that lend it narrative power.

The story follows the life of a young boy, a teenager named Santiago, who leaves his seminary studies to become a shepherd because he wants to explore the world. “But ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins.” (10-11). “I couldn’t have found God in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.”

The book freely borrows from the Bible. Melchizedek plays a prominent role, as do the Urim and Thummim stones from Israelite law. Characters refer to the story of Joseph and Jesus. Yet the Bible is seen as one religious tradition among others, all of them a kind of fractal of the Universal Language and the Soul of the World. These include Islam, alchemy, Gypsies reading omens, and fortune tellers interpreting twigs. Key phrases, like Personal Legends, are capitalized throughout to make sure we don’t miss their importance. The influence of Eastern philosophy bleeds through heavily in numerous ways, such as when we are told (more than once) that “All things are one.”

These concepts sacralize one’s life. There is undeniable power in their ability to transform one’s experience of everyday life. They are an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern secular thought: rather than the victims of random impersonal forces, we are each of us given a Personal Legend to fulfill, a purpose which was birthed deep in the Soul of the Universe, and the fulfillment of which “is a person’s only real obligation” in life (24). They are amorphous and ambiguous, which locates the authority firmly in each individual’s interpretation of their own Personal Legend – or life mission. Now here is a message custom-made for our age. Sensing the cold emptiness of rigid rationalism, we want the thrill of the supernatural. Allergic to the endless arguments over doctrine and dogma, we want a Oneness which can reconcile all differences. Terrified of any authority outside the autonomous self, we want a spiritual paradigm that evokes wonder without demanding surrender; an impersonal God-force that infuses our lives with transcendent meaning while leaving us firmly in charge.

One can see how comfortably this focus on an individualized life mission fits with the modern elevation of personal autonomy. Somehow I don’t see this teaching leading many to persevere through a difficult marriage or make sacrifices to care for an aging parent. After all, one’s only real obligation is to realize their Personal Legend. This is thin gruel indeed. Small wonder then that this book proved to be so popular with that segment of American life most famous for being ego-driven and selfish: celebrities.

Despite the Biblical language and references, at its heart the message of the book is deeply unbiblical. It borrows from the spiritual capital of the Bible’s more symbolic and flowery phrasing to construct a tower of Babel which leaves Christ very much behind. This is not uncommon in the New Age movement, where every religious tradition is mined for some compatible nuggets of spiritual wisdom. Such an approach pretends to embrace a generous openness by saying all religions see only a part of the whole picture, but really that means it alone has the objective view that incorporates all the rest. This is a claim of epistemological superiority based on sophistry. It claims to see what others are blind to, and it accomplishes it through nice-sounding but vague spiritual language about universal Oneness. This is all done with the stated intention of being very agreeable and inclusive, harmonizing all the different paths into some kind of universal spirituality, but it always does violence to the integrity of those religions to tear bits and pieces out of context and reinterpret them as needed.

We see this repeatedly in the Alchemist’s use of Biblical phrases and ideas. Three examples will suffice. At one point the protagonist is told, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” In context, it is clear that his heart is to be followed, and that it will lead to a real or metaphorical treasure. But this advice is an inversion of the Biblical principle that it resembles: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus’ point is that the heart of each person is revealed by what they treasure — by what they love — and that his followers ought to live in such a way that they store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Not quite the same thing.

In another place, the shepherd boy is told, “Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.” This is more self-trust than the Christian can ever allow, for we remember that bracing passage in Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

One last example, which comes at the culminating moment of the narrative: “The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.” Well here we have the whole beating heart of this project laid bare, and it makes a very simple argument: that we can be as God. Or even better: in some way we are already God, if only we would realize it. What is essentially the same promise was made to Eve in the garden; “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” (Genesis 3:5). So here is a good reason to know one’s Bible. False teachers love to use the very words of Scripture, and even those of Jesus, to teach what is, at bottom, a satanic doctrine.

It’s not too difficult to render a critique of this spiritual-but-not-religious approach to life. But the question I asked myself as I read this book was whether this might be an improvement over strict materialism or not. I make no bones about the fact that I am Christian, and of the sort who believes what the Bible says: that salvation is found in Christ alone. But I also recognize that to view the world as The Alchemist does is closer to reality than the frigid cement bunker of atheism. It has echoes of that older and more human paganism which Lewis and Chesterton saw as pre-Christian. I wonder if a post-Christian paganism, this New Age view of universal Oneness, can lead back to Christ as readily as the old paganism eventually did. I have my hopes, but also my doubts.

The hope comes in because a non-materialist worldview makes room for a supernatural being and often seeks after some kind of spiritual connection. These are the spiritual-but-not-religious types, and I get the appeal of that approach. It leaves the door open, as it were. And yes, sometimes Christ comes through that door. But I also have my doubts because spiritual experiences can have the effect of thoroughly blinding one’s heart and pulling people deep into half-truths and deceptions. In its worst forms, it leads to the occult.

Whatever else we might say, the massive popularity of this book belies the fact that our secular age has a strong undertow of spiritual hunger. And yet the dish of choice, this amorphous New Age spirituality of universal Oneness, is one which leaves our preferred idol of the autonomous self-defined individual unchallenged.

A Too-Good-Not-To-Share Paragraph on the Problem of Evil from G.K. Chesterton

Be warned, a paragraph for ol’ Gee-Kay is a five page article for most of us, but nevertheless, here ’tis.

Context: He is here near the end of his book, and working to show how Christianity differs from both mythology and philosophy. I’ve adjusted the formatting for improved ease of reading, since as superiorly intelligent people in the age of the perpetual interruption we are quite unable to follow a train of thought or argument for more than a dozen or so words.

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But if it is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation; as that everything is recurrent; or everything is relative; or everything is inevitable; or everything is illusive.

It is not a process but a story.

It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process; but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing.

In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.

An example of what is meant here might well be found in the treatment of the problem of evil. It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all, perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chessboard in which the two are equal; and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board.

But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Every existence, as such, is good.’ On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realizes that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism.

These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion.

He does not think that everything is right or that everything is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there; and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper.

So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colors are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolize in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night.

But that strange story has one small, advantage over the diagrams.

It is like life.