Where science and religion meet: a discussion with Jeff Mach

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What do Druidry, the Steampunk Movement, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Bonewits and Staten Island all have in common?

Answer:  Jeff Mach

Jeff Mach

Jeff Mach

Jeff Mach is a modern Druid and founder of New Jersey-based Widdershins, LLC (a.k.a. Jeff Mach Events), the production company behind the popular Steampunk World’s Fair, Wicked Faire and other similarly-themed events.  More recently, he began producing The Geek Creation Show, a fundraising event to benefit the Tesla Museum at Wardenclyffe on Staten Island. The Museum will be a science learning center at the reconstructed laboratory of famed-scientist, Nikola Tesla.  By raising these funds, Mach is able to give something back to the local community. However, he also has an entirely unexpected motivation – one deriving from his spirituality.

Mach discovered Paganism while attending college at Rutgers University.  In 1994 he helped to organize the Rutgers University Pagan Students Association, now the oldest continuously operating pagan student organization in the country. With time, Mach found his calling in modern Druidry and became a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF.)  He says:

I identify with the idea … that there’s something powerful [in] not simply in trying to see or be what Druids were, but in the strength of taking an ancient name and concept and using its connotations in the modern world. I identify with the idea that being a Druid doesn’t simply mean that some of my worship is, say, modeled after the ancient Celts – it also means that I identify with the things that “Druid” implies to the modern world.

Identifying the power of the historical within modern life is a theme that carries over from Mach’s spiritual practice to his mundane work.  One of his more popular events is the Steampunk World’s Fair, one of the biggest events of its kind in the world.  Through this event and others like it, Mach attempts to capture “what was” within the spectacle of modern day.  Mach explains:

In the rise of Steampunk, I see a chance to open a gate to an impossible place, and to play and maybe even, to some extent, live in that impossible place.  I think that may be part of why our Steampunk event, The Steampunk World’s Fair, became the largest; we weren’t looking to study Steampunk or to make a more immersive imaginary place (though both of those are perfectly fine pursuits) – we were looking to try to summon the feeling, the whimsy, the curious world of Steampunk into this world for a weekend.

Acknowledging a definitive link between his adoration for Steampunk, the event’s coordination, and his spirituality, he says:

I’m interested in liminal spaces, in places between what we think of as “this world”, and other worlds, and I’m absolutely fascinated by Renaissance Faires, Rocky Horror – any place that we change by changing will and perception.  The standard ADF liturgy takes a symbolic fire, well, and tree, and says, “Now, lord of ways, join your magic with mine and let the fire open as a gate, let the well open as a gate, let the tree be the crossroads of all worlds. Open as a road to our voices and to the spirits.”  And then we open the gates. As a Pagan, I consider this holy, sacred, and real.  I wouldn’t say I’d call Renaissance Faires, Rocky, or Steampunk holy or sacred in the same way – but entering each of them is an act of Magick, and I consider that world-change to be real.

Through the building of these worlds, Mach has found a way to express what he experiences through religious practice.  In addition, there is a marked underlying theme.  All of his events, to one degree or another showcase technology or science, from the glorification of the steam age to a workshop on bio-luminescence. As such it is not surprising that Mach decided to create another “Geeky” event to raise money for the the Tesla Museum.

Tesla_circa_1890.jpegNikola Tesla was a Serbian scientist and engineer who lived from 1856-1943. When he first arrived in the United States, Tesla worked alongside Thomas Edison. Eventually Tesla went solo, producing an enormous number of patents and technological advances.  He is best known for the alternating-current.  Unfortunately Tesla never gained financial backing equal to that of his contemporary, Edison.  His enigmatic methodologies and personal eccentricities attracted attention but not in the way of consistent support.  Regardless, his name has become synonymous with progressive thinking and innovation.

Mach calls Tesla a “visionary” and explains:

Nikola Tesla… might as well have been the archetype for Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  What if part of our fascination with Tesla, with his ability to conceptualize energy sources in his head, with his uniquely intuitive leaps about where the physical world might go, is because there’s something very much akin to “magick” in the science of Tesla?  A magick which is completely grounded in what we think of as “modern science”, but which doesn’t deny room for gaps in knowledge, for possibility, and for, as Crowley put it “change in accordance with Will”?

Preserving Tesla’s legacy is yet another natural extension of Mach’s spiritual beliefs.  In the 1937 article “A Machine to End War,” Tesla himself says, “There is no conflict between the ideal of religion and the ideal of science…To me, the universe is simply a great machine which never came into being and never will end.” Mach agrees and, to further explain, fondly recalls several inspiring conversations with ADF Founder Isaac Bonewits, who also saw the interconnectedness between science and religion.

One of the last things [Isaac] and I talked about was education – particularly about the modern concept of education wherein religion and science were in two very different paths, and you either had education which ignored religion altogether…or which bent science for religion… One of the messages that I took from [Isaac] was the idea that if Paganism were to think of itself as having a mission, perhaps that might not be evangelism… nor separatism…but education. Let’s see if we can examine the way people look at the material, emotional, and spiritual worlds, and see if there might be more intermingling than we’d thought.

Isaac Bonewits

Isaac Bonewits

Influenced by Randall Styers book Making Magic: Religion Magic Science in the Modern World, Bonewits contemplated the “intermingling” of the disciplines.  In his own essay entitled “Scientism on Competing Faiths,” Bonewits wrote:

…. although it’s true that the hard sciences don’t really support conservative monotheistic doctrines anymore, ever since Einstein all the sciences have tended more and more towards multi-model, pluralistic theories [rather than dualistic] that fit very well indeed with polytheism and traditional concepts of non-monotheistic occultism. This makes it sad that even people who have consciously rejected conservative monotheism are reluctant to let go of certain Scientistic prejudices, especially those concerning materialism and the nature of reality….

In an unpublished essay, Bonewits very clearly illustrates how the three “spheres of comprehension” (art, science, religion) have been progressively pulled apart by an evolving dualistic human culture.

Copyright 2007 by Isaac Bonewits. From an unfinished essay published here with permission from Phaedra Bonewits.

Copyright 2007 by Isaac Bonewits. From an unfinished essay published with permission from Phaedra Bonewits.

The Venn diagram above is labeled “modernist” meaning the contemporary worldview. As shown, science and religion do not touch at all.  At the intersection of the spheres, Bonewits places magic(k) which is at its most powerful when all three intersect.  However, as Bonewits laments, there is a measurable loss of powerful magic within our current dualistic world-view in which the expansion of one sphere happens at the expense of the other.

Bonewits was an inspiration to Mach and  that spirit has continued fueled his work. Raising money for the Tesla museum through the creation of a “world outside of space and time” is an extension of that inspiration.  It is more than just a “nice thing to do for the community.”  He says:

I’m fascinated with what a Tesla museum might be, and with what it might mean for a Pagan world to acknowledge the intuitive, the leaping, and the intangible sides of the world of science – not just the purely material.

The next Tesla fundraising event will be held in November in Piscataway, New Jersey.  Interest in the Geek Creation Show is, as Mach says, “picking up steam” and he hopes to be making a sizable donation to the Museum in the near future.

North side of Tesla's Wardenclyffe lab and future Tesla Museum

North side of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe lab and future Tesla Museum