When the subject of alchemy comes up, the visual image that comes to mind for most people is that of an man with matted grey hair hunched over steaming beakers with mortar and pestle in hand, consumed with his quest to change lead into gold. While this image is not altogether unfounded, there’s more to alchemy than the usual stereotype.
The book Alchemy and Alchemists by Sean Martin (Chartwell Books, 2006) describes the history of alchemy in both the east and the west, expanding the more popular understanding of alchemy and getting to its roots. Mr. Martin is very thorough in his exploration of alchemy, laying bare the somewhat philosophical foundation of the practice. Alchemy is similar to Gnosticism in many ways, seeking to find secret knowledge that only a few can obtain. The stories of turning lead into gold (called transmutation), are, for the most part, not really the goal of alchemy, but rather a metaphor for the real goal, that of uniting and perfecting man and nature.
The history of alchemy certainly does have its share of interesting tales of people transmuting this or that into gold, yet there are no museums around the world sporting alchemical gold exhibits. Kings and nobleman have been involved in the quest for this gold, with alchemists allegedly gaining wealth and long life, or for those who failed, sometimes gaining the loss of their freedom. A few alchemists also expanded scientific knowledge, and some applied their craft to helping others. At the heart of the quest though is a deeper esoteric search to gain long life and spiritual wealth. It is here that alchemy fails, searching for spiritual perfection in a holistic view of nature rather than in the pages of Scripture:
They saw that there was a place within nature for alchemists (humanity) as the ones who should work with nature in order to perfect it. Because they saw within themselves the whole of creation, they were also perfecting themselves, and realising their true, divine natures. (21)
The alchemist seeks to unite the individual with nature in a pantheistic whole in which everything is divine:
Some elements of the divine are still discernible in nature, and its fallen state can be rectified through the work of the alchemist, a work which was thought to bring out the divinity in both nature and the alchemist. Alchemists believed that each person who gained the gnosis that the work required was helping not just themselves but the whole of material creation also. (47)
Alchemy “transmutes” the pot into the potter:
Alchemy has always stressed that the inner and the outer must be joined together, the body with the mind or spirit, and the individual with nature. Hence the importance of the physical side of alchemy: it is a profound engagement with matter that is also a profound engagement with the self. Alchemy teaches us that we are inextricably linked to matter and nature, and that we have the power to create and change both; changes in one inevitably mean changes in the other. (102)
We are now assigned the title of creator. Rather than acknowledge that there is a Creator who made us in His image, alchemy usurps God’s creative hand. We are to rely on ourselves and our own Hermetic formulas rather than God to sustain our world, a sin as old as man himself. The book Alchemy & Alchemists, though well written, buys into the alchemical worldview, thus arriving at a false conclusion:
Once this [spiritual change] is achieved, then we have completed the Great Work; we have redeemed ourselves and, in doing so, redeemed the cosmos. (107)
The fallen state of ourselves and of nature cannot be redeemed by efforts on our part – that work can only be done by God, and has already been accomplished for us through the death and resurrection of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.