For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten …years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
Similarly, for all these and other reasons, I have never identified myself as a Christian. Despite some puerile and stupid glee from a few anti-Christian quarters, Ms Rice’s decision seems to have been met with praise and understanding from atheist, orthodox and heterodox Christian alike. When I first read it and the silly Pagan and anti-Christian gloating that followed, I felt I had to blog. Then I read Michael Rowe’s article “Why Anne Rice Has Never Been More of a Christian” and was happy he said a lot of what I wanted to say on the matter.
Ms Rice’s cri de coeur was relevant for me in two ways. Firstly, the emotion I sense behind her first post seems to mirror a similar feeling I have for the western magical and occult community. I have blogged on this before here and it is why in the census (and on my Facebook page) I have labelled myself as Tibetan Buddhist. The lack of maturity, sense, compassion and wisdom in the western magical and esoteric communities fairly depresses me.
Secondly, I have recently been deepening my exploration of Christian religion (e.g. Church services), tradition (the Christian cultural paradigm expressed, for example, in classical music) and mysteries (my RR et AC and esoteric Christian work). All three have yet to come together in one experience. Hey, a guy can hope 🙂
Overall I have gained deeper magic, mystery, love and service than ever before, most of it generated from my esoteric engagement I am sure. But…it is still Christianity…it is still all those things Anne Rice pithily outlines. So there is a tension within me as I deepen my Christian exploration. I love the mystery, the incarnational blessings, the ritual and especially the inherent compassion of Christian religion, but loath, detest and reject much of the social crap that goes along with it it.
Now one of the things I have always tried to instill in all the magic and magical groups I have led is compassion and service (see this post and comments thereon). Their very absence from much of the occult and magical community I suggest stems ultimately from the formation of the fraternal and esoteric brotherhoods as distinct entities to religions from the early Enlightenment. These brotherhoods, particularly Freemasonry kept the need for communal service and charity (not compassion) but as they expanded and split, the absence of the Christian religious impetus seems to have resulted in new groups not placing these ethics at the core of their identity. Until at last we end up with the secular psychologized magical groups of the 21st century where there is no service, no charitable collection, and no compassion.
My insistence on the need for compassion in magic has of course been supported the most by peers with a Christian background. This makes complete sense and in fact I have also always, often with much friction from other members, in our magic tried to bring about what may be called a religious experience. Now of course, everyone, including me, has always said the Golden Dawn is not a religion, it is an esoteric or magical or spiritual path. Not many people like the term ‘religion’ these days as they have been more than a little burnt by the shenanigans of Christianity and the like as described above. So we are “spiritual but not religious”, a tag I have rallied against many times as it fairly makes me puke. To quote Karen Armstrong on her feelings about people identifying themselves with this label:
“I can’t stand that. Spiritual often just means some kind of wishy-washy me-ism, where I’m having a lovely experience without much discipline. You know, designer Kabbalah in Hollywood or designer yoga….Spiritual can mean, “I feel very spiritual when I look at the sunset, but I’m quite happy to slag off Islam and not to give any money to charity. I’m quite OK with the fact that we’ve messed up the Middle East and people are dying every day in Iraq-not just our soldiers but others who are dying as a result of our mistakes. I’m quite happy with the inequality of our social system.” That is not proper spirituality. Feeling is neither here nor there. You’ve got to get deeper than feeling. We know in our own lives that feelings come and go. Like Aquinas said, you can’t feel God any more than you can know God.”
Many other religious scholars also have little truck with the modern notion of divorcing spiritual experience from religious expression as they know we never re-invent the wheel, we never create Ex nihilo like God but always draw from somewhere, some communal resource, idea, paradigm or teaching. Heck, even that current paragon of all things deep and spiritual Eckhart Tolle had to study traditional religion before he could express his ideas and awareness to others.
For example, the other day I read a paper by one of the main scholars of new religious movements, J. Gordon Melton’s From The Occult To Western Esotericism: Catching Up With Changes In The New Age Movement. In it he argues, as he has done elsewhere that western esotericism is the third religious tradition in the west. When I read this paper I pondered and sighed and paced and sighed and mused and sighed. I had read the concept of esotericism being a third western religion before of course, but this time it sunk in deeper.
Now the working description of esotericism given by Prof Melton is a lot broader and more inclusive than most magicians would allow that term. I mean, UFO cults? Personally, no thanks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, he does draw on the pioneering work of Antoine Faivre, a real heavyweight dude in the academic study of esotericism. Dr Faivre identified several core characteristics and signs of esotericism. In the Golden Dawn context I summarised the presence of these characteristics in a lecture I gave a few years back:
Unity and Concordance of Religious Forms. This posits an underlying universal divinity which is given expression and manifestation through the world’s various religious and spiritual systems. All religions are seen as valid, however the divine may be expressed: as Jesus, Buddha, the Great Goddess or simply the divine within. However, it is important to be clear that this is not an attitude of simple religious tolerance and ecumenicalism, but rather a profound realization of the mystic truth behind various religious forms.
The Non-Physical Universe. In the Golden Dawn the universe and the human being is seen as being both physical and non-physical. The non-physical universe is mapped out in a cosmology derived from the Hermetic Qabalah and is essentially Neo-platonic, showing the great chain of being linking all things from the densest earth back through the realms to the unknowable One.
The divine place of Nature and Matter. Nature, in the Golden Dawn, is not only sacred but contains reflections of all the various powers of the universe within it. Similarly the human body is a microcosm, a perfect universe in miniature, capable of reflecting the highest truth and spiritual principals. Nature and the human body therefore hold a special place in the Golden Dawn – they are the summation of the entire works of God. The Golden Dawn here is explicitly panentheistic – God is both Immanent, within all of nature, and Transcendent – beyond the comprehension of human consciousness.
Correspondences. This belief is both very potent and very ancient. Each type of spiritual force is associated with a particular aspects of the material world; a colour, a divine name, a shape, a tool, an incense, a metal and so on. In magic to attract and commune with a particular blessing, the Golden Dawn will make use of these correspondences in the choice of robe, ceremony, incense etc.
The possibility of Transformation. Since the human being is a miniature of the universe, containing a reflection of all the universal powers, the Golden Dawn asserts we may develop our beings infinitely.
Now these characteristics do offer a very different religious experience to that found in and promoted by most mainstream Christian denominations (I can’t speak about Judaism). Which is what we should expect, as esoteric and exoteric Christianity are not the same, but two sides of the same spiritual mystery. The question really is this: does esoteric practice conflict crucially with exoteric Christian religious doctrine? Christianity as actually practiced and experienced by Anne Rice and us all is another matter of course. Examining the core aspects again:
Unity and Concordance of Religious Forms. Whilst some form of this understanding is at the heart of the doctrine of most Catholic (universal) and Orthodox (big ‘o’) churches, there is often little recognition of the fact in actual church practice and teaching. The most that is often found is the idea that the newer rite of Christ supersedes all previous valid religions and that other religions while they have some merit are not operating with the fullness provided by the Church. Heck, Pope Benedict even says that about all other Christian Churches besides the RC, calling them ‘congregations’ rather than Churches. (Bad Pope! No soup for you). Many Protestant sects are even worse; in fact a few would cheerfully burn MOTO readers if they could 🙂 However, the doctrine is there.
The Non-Physical Universe. Core Christian doctrine on this matter is generally absent. Like much of the world, most churches ignore the intermediate realms between the physical and the heavenly. One thing is really clear however, Nicene Christianity is not Neo-Platonic. There is no chain of being leading back to the One. God created all things, seen and unseen, out of nothing via his fiat. The difference between the two theologies is very pronounced. This does not mean orthodox Christians cannot and do not engage with the non-physical, which of course they do. It does however mean we cannot ascend this chain of being to the One by our own merits; there is a gap between us and the One that can only be crossed by the action of the One. More on this later.
The divine place of Nature and Matter. Contemporary Church attitudes to the world have changed recently, but were and often are still nothing short of woeful. However, once more core church doctrine does see matter and nature as sacred but for different reasons than Neo-Plantonic esotericism. It was created by the One and therefore is good. It has God fully within it, just as any creation has the mark of the creator within it. All matter, all flesh, all our bodies were and are sanctified by Christ’s incarnation. On the ground Christian thought and action may deny this, but the doctrine is clear.
Correspondences. Generally Christian doctrine does not deny this belief and in fact affirms it in some places. Certainly there is much use of correspondences in traditional Church liturgy and practice, though not to the same extent and with the same connection to the inner realms as in esotericism.
The possibility of Transformation. It is here we come to the crucial difference between Christianity and esotericism. Christianity is salvific where salvation from the unredeemed human state occurs via the action of Jesus Christ, or more properly our response to his eternal and continual action. Esotericism one the other hand is enlightenment based and supposes we can and are capable of redemption without salvation. Nicene Christianity will always say, in one form or another, we cannot get to perfection, restoration, enlightenment, heaven or what have you, on our own. We need God and more particularly we need God in human form. Since we require help to move from imperfection to perfection, God as perfection knows nothing of imperfection and therefore cannot help us. Hence the Incarnation.
Now I have always felt and taught, even in magic, we do need help from the divine. We cannot do this on our own. This is no doubt one of several reasons why I gravitate more to the Vajrayana rather than Thervadan Buddhism; there are lots of Vajrayana saints and beings to help along the way. But, I am equally convinced we do not need Christ. The One, the mystery, that-which-we-cannot-name is present and ready to help all of us, at any stage ,no matter who we are what spiritual tradition we are in.
What we do need, I think, religious or not is the awareness we are not actually alone, ever, that we are all radically interdependent. That we do not ever self-transform as we are One. I have spent so many years with this truth, so much daily meditation on it, it seems so self evident to me now that whenever I hear of spiritual development and magical attainment and self-improvement I get a bit confused. Once more I re-read and shiver at the words of Martin Luther King on the side bar, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny.” The paradox is that while we never transform singly, the instigation to transformation is always personal and always individual 🙂