A few days ago the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres described the election of Kevin Rudd as “an Obama moment” for Australia. Now I think the good Bishop has made an understandable mistake here. It is true that the election of Kevin, like Obama caused immense pleasure. However, there is a major difference: Australia’s effusive welcome of Kevin was born more out relief that John Howard was finally being booted out than any anticipation he would be make much difference. Obama on the other hand is seen as a secular saviour of America and the ‘free world’. The difference is marked – at a bookshop yesterday, here in Australia, I saw a beautifully bound copy of Obama’s Inauguration speech, displayed in the most prominent spot in the store. Kevin’s speech was nowhere to be found – if it indeed it has been published at all, which I doubt.
I am very cynical about Our Kevin, particularly his government’s farcical Emission Trading Scheme that will actually result in no less Australian made pollution in reality whilst looking good on paper. However, he has written some good things and this recent news report reminded me to re-read an article Kevin wrote in for ‘The Monthly ‘ in 2006. Entitled ‘Faith in Politics ‘ it is mostly a review of the ideas of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ended up swinging from a gallows at the hands of the Nazis . The central theme that Kevin reiterates with great precision throughout the article is that Christianity is a social, not a private religion, and one which started as and should be maintained as a religion of the oppressed, the Anawim. He argues that Christians have a role and duty to play in civic life, that they just cannot stand by and divorce themselves from the social and political spheres.
These ideas are not new, but it is good to see them as part of the personal makeup of the Australian Prime Minister. And while such ideas may cause discomfort in many secularists, including esoteric folk (who often are secular in their world view) they are part and parcel of the religious impetus since the advent of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East. For me, the next logical question is how do these ideas relate to the esoteric and magical traditions of the 21st century?
In the west the esoteric traditions grew out of the Christian tradition. As mentioned elsewhere on MOTO there are no surviving indigenous traditions of note. The Hermetic and near eastern traditions that informed the esoteric were interpreted by devout Christians through Christian eyes, as was most of the Qabalah that we practice today. There has been some reinterpretation of these sources (and indigenous remains) by contemporary magicians, but often this is done in reaction to the Christian milieu and so partakes of it in some way.
We therefore have the situation where our traditions draw upon a religion that as Kevin puts it, “must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable, the oppressed.” And if Kevin, and a myriad of other Christian philosophers are correct, a religion that actively calls its adherents to be active in the social sphere to enact justice. How do we, as an esoteric community respond to this?
I would suggest we have largely ignored this calling because our traditions have been skewed by an anti-traditionalist and anti-Christian bias since the formation of the Theosophical Society and the Golden Dawn in the late 19th Century. This is not to say modernity and anti-Christian sentiments had not entered esoteric pursuits before then, but simply that from that point they became dominant and quickly embedded in our traditions. Before that time the majority of esoteric fraternities were Christian. In 2009 most magical Orders may occasionally ‘use’ Christian symbolism but are loathe to require their members to be Christians. Before that time nearly all esoteric fraternities were western lodges and, as part of that broader tradition, engaged in collective charity and good works. In 2009 most magical groups do neither of these things, though there has been a recent shift towards charity evident on some websites.
The modern bias towards individualism is very evident in the esoteric, magical and particularly Pagan traditions. I have blogged on this theme before and continue to see it as a major problem in our traditions. This bias stops us from engaging socially and politically as these are seen as separate spheres of activity – personal ‘spiritual development’ is seen as different from social change and repair (Tikkun in Qabalistic terms). In a recent blog post GD magician and author Nick Farrell says ‘The goal of the outer order is to become yourself, an individual’ which precludes unreserved dedication to anything other than God. What needs also to be mentioned is that the individual self does not actually exist, as I have blogged about before . And in the Inner Order we are reaffirmed as ‘a member of the Body of Christ’ which as St Paul points out is comprised of all people. God is thus the collective of humanity which therefore deserves our dedication no less than any theistic transcendental perception of ‘Him’.
Or to be be Vulcan about it, ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’.
The outer forms of Christian expression when practiced fully collapse the false dichotomy between the one and the many, between the individual and social. They do this by prayer, by intention and faith but also equally by social engagement and political action, which are the tools available to them. As esoteric folk we can also collapse these false boundaries and take this process further by seeing ‘the personal as political as spiritual‘. And we have tools other than social engagement: we are magicians, weavers, change agents, witches and sorcerers. Here we enter the realm of social magic, practiced in the contemporary world mainly by feminist witches like the Blessed Starhawk. The rest of the pagans, motivated by personal not social concerns do not touch this often taboo area.
However, there is no reason why we as trained western magicians cannot practice social magic. Indeed I believe we should, that we are called upon to do so. Let us not forget the fountainhead of modern esotericism, the Rosicrucian movement was aiming as much politically as spiritually for a ‘General Reformation’. If our basis, which comes from the Christian and Rosicrucian traditions is concerned with the communal as much as the individual we have to try to repair the communal world as much as we try to ‘better ourselves’. We are also, as impolite as it may sound, far better trained and capable of magic than most pagans or witches.
Understandably there will be some disquiet about these suggestions for social magic. People often talk about it being ‘unethical’. However, one of the strengths of the esoteric is the refusal to separate the divine from the material, the spiritual from the physical. Magic, for example, to influence public opinion against war is functionally equivalent to peace rallies. One method – magical action to influence the population or a politician – focuses more on the subtle, energetic realms. Other methods – advertising and and mail-outs – focus on the more visible, tangible processes. But both forms seek change in the minds of others. If either method is to work there has to be change in both realms, inner and outer. The magical action on the inner realm has to causes changes in the outer, physical action of the politician(s). The outer physical actions have to cause changes in the inner realms; the minds of the people who receive the flyer, attend the rally or hear the news.
Magic is not simply a spiritual event. Many teachers and traditions insist that any willed action is a magical action. Everyday we influence others’ opinions; by talking with them, being around them, engaging with them. Some of us do this with more force than others; some of us do it unconsciously, but we all do it. So why should conscious action to influence a politician by magic be seen as more unethical than conscious action to influence them by letter writing. Why should an attempt to promote peace within the consciousness of the nation by magic be more unethical than the use of advertising techniques (based on psychology) to increase a government’s support for the war, or even to boost the sales of Big Macs? The magical world view sees no difference in these actions.
We all exist in a web of subtle influence, personal, familial and societal. We cannot escape this influence and to suggest that we can is naive. Much of the influence generated by governments and corporations quite consciously taps into our deeper, unconscious fears and prejudices. This is also magic. How we respond with choice to these influences is also magic, whether we use rituals, write a letter of protest or do nothing and support the status quo. All of this is explained really well in the work of Starhawk. and I recommend you visit her site and read her books.
As magicians we have been given the gift of a tradition, a living, dynamic expression of the One that serves us in our needs. We also are called upon to serve our traditions and serve the One. We can do this best by using the areas of ourselves most developed (through daily meditation and discipline) – our magical self that can transform and repair, heal and serve the world.