For the first time this year I am deeply engaged with some serious Advent meditations and as much retreat as possible. In many ways this is all very wonderful. It has however, heightened my distaste and dislocation with the mainstream celebration of Christmas in our culture (discussed a bit in this post from last year). As the Christmas frenzy hots up I am entering deeper and deeper into the Christian mystery and feeling the gap between my experience and the commercial Xmas celebrations that swarm around me.
The good thing is that this time of year highlights one of the problematic aspects of our modern approach to spirituality where we tend to domesticate the divine, to tame it and control it, making it easier to swallow and in some ways control. This, of course, is a very natural and a very human thing to do. Since we are blessed and cursed with self reflexive consciousness (the knowledge that there is an ‘I’ that will suffer and die) we tend to want to control what’s around us. So in a sense, our inner need to control and confine the divine is part and parcel of our divine makeup anyway 🙂 This comforts me a little, as I too am a deep offender here, I stand on no moral high ground but know my own limitations and failings in this area. This is why I have the ‘God is not’ saying on MOTO’s masthead – I need all the help I can get.
At Christmas our control is very obvious both within the Christian religious tradition and the social traditions borne from it. The most striking example is the focus on the deity of Baby Jesus. In many ways the concept of child as divinity is one of the most powerful images throughout many religions. However, without the corresponding awareness and acceptance of the transcendent aspect of the One, Baby Jesus becomes just another deity or supernatural being to pray to, adore and get things from. This can easily then slide into ‘Buddy Jesus’ theology, where we so humanise our Gods that they become our friends, compatriots on the way and buddies to talk with.
Obviously a personal relationship with our Sacred One(s) is a hallmark of western spirituality, but that relationship should be based on the prime awareness that the Divine has a transcendent dimension as much as an immanent one. The mystery of the Trinity was developed to show this awareness and how transcendence relates to immanence within an eternal and relational process that is both beyond space-time and an unfolding presence within our very midst. When we let go of that mystery, we risk imposing our own cultural, temporal and even personal ideas of deity upon the divine, asking ourselves for example, “what would Jesus do?”. Or to quote from that most brilliant of poets, Leonard Cohen:
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
Any deity form is a limitation of the One, the unknowable. When we recognise this and work with it, deities become a lens by which we can know the One and simultaneously receive the blessings of a particular aspect of the One. As soon as we forget this, as soon as we accept our deity as God we have tamed the divine and limited the unlimitable. The result, though mostly not as gross (or funny) as this clip from Talladega Nights, is often functionally equivalent.
Also at this time of year many folk are going about their social Christmas duties smug in the knowledge that they are “spiritual but not religious”. Using a broad sweep, many of these people belong to the New Age community and domesticate the divine as much as unthinking Christians and others. In fact from a traditional perspective, there is not actually much spirituality within the New Age. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it now:
…astral visions, aura readings, clairvoyance, channelling, energy grids, past lives, invocations, channelled messages from the Pleiades are psychic not spiritual experiences.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemplative Anglican priest with much esoteric study is even more stark:
…it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.” (http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw4_bourgeault.html)
Here the good Rev is talking about all western spirituality, not just the New Age, including Jewish, Christian, Pagan and magical too (of which more later). Read her article. Not sure about you, but it fairly makes me humble and sheepish.
The taming and domesticating of the the divine in New Age circles seems to come about largely from spiritual illiteracy. People believe they are practicing spirituality but they are not actually going beyond the pleasure-pain circuit, and thus their own selves which are temporal not spiritual in the actual sense of the word. They remain within astral experience, undergoing all sorts of healing and actualising processes such as the list above, but never getting to the core of reality.
Astral-psychic experience is not spiritual experience, though as said, the two are often confused in today’s world. This confusion stems from two errors: firstly, the conflation of spirituality with personal development and healing, and secondly the assumption that the presence of elements of esoteric and spiritual teachings within the New Age makes that spirituality authentic. Of the first, Lama Ngakpa Chogyam says:
…it’s very important that people look at their own personal pain in a ‘non-esoteric’ manner before they shroud their own neurosis in the cloak of arcane mysteries. The intrinsic Mystery of Being is mysterious enough without filtering our involvement with its methods of Realisation through the web of belligerent potty training.’ (Psychology and the Spiritual Traditions, p.33)
The modern appropriation of spiritual language, frameworks and techniques for personal and psychological adjustment does not mean the two spheres – personal growth and spiritual unfoldment – are one. While related, the two are not the same and the esoteric traditions clearly distinguish between them. In esoteric Qabalah the centralising state of consciousness, called Tiphareth looks ‘down’ towards the personal and ‘up’ towards the transpersonal. This shows the interrelation of the two, while recognising that the correct ‘upward’ view within the motivation and awareness of the individual is required to embrace what is beyond us. Writing on Christian mysticism Theodore J. Nottingham embraces the traditional view that spiritual unfoldment does not come about “through intellectual or emotional development” but through “another state of being”. (Theodore J Nottingham: The Mysticism of Christian Teaching). Or as the wonderful Karen Armstrong puts it, ‘You can’t feel God any more than you can think God’.
True spirituality is concerned with fostering this other state of being, which most esoteric traditions recognise as both immanent (within each of us) and transcendent (beyond all of us). Spiritual practices and frameworks will certainly give succour to our personal pain and it is appropriate to seek God to overcome pain. However, if our motivation for spiritual practice remains within this realm – the realm of the self seeking somatic, mental or emotional healing – this is where we will remain. We will never go beyond ourselves to the ‘other state of being’; we will never develop the right view and enter the eternal. The New Age homogenisation of healing and spirituality only adds to this tendency and encourages us to remain forever in the personal while seeing it as spiritual.
Or to quote the good Rev more fully:
As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of selfworth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.
As pagans and magicians we also domesticate the divine. One way we do this, to revisit one of my favourite topics, is by our theology of invocation. When we view divine beings, such as deities and angels as able to be invoked and even controlled by our actions, we have tamed the divine. The whole premise of much of modern magic is learning the correct skills, names and processes by which we can make things happen, including the calling forth of angels and deities. As I discuss in this post there are several problems to adopting this approach without careful thought. The most obvious is the psychologizing of the divine, where angels, Gods and all beings become forces within or without us that we can control once we learn the right keys. This places the human psyche at the centre of the universe, and we all know where such an attitude will lead.
Assuming that magic works, that our invocations actually draw power, force, beings or presence by their own actions and not as part of a relationship is probably the single most obvious way of taming the divine I know. Think about it. What do we mean when we say “Before me Raphael” in the pentagram rituals? Do we mean the actual Archangel, the Healing power of the One is before us, drawn there by our words and will and inner actions? Or do we mean the blessings of the Archangel are there and our words and will and inner actions have opened us to these blessings? The former approach suggests a dependent actor, the magician, acting upon a universe and its contents which may be subject to her will, including Archangels and deities. The latter approach suggests an interdependent agent who by changing their inner and outer approach can deepen their relationship with the universe and all its contents, including Archangels and deities.
I suggest that most modern magicians fall somewhere between the two approaches above. Few of us would suggest the refined and developed human being can control all within the universe, but much of our approach, language and rituals remain influenced by such a world view. Since most magical curricula do not examine underlying theology in depth, wanting to get on with the practical work, we are left in a split and often confused state where our magical structures half attempt to control the divine and half call for relationship to it.
It was far from obvious, in the performance of the Qabalistic Cross, whether the kingdom, the power and the glory belonged to God or were being promised to the human carrying out the ritual…” (Hutton, R. (1999), The Triumph of the Moon, p. 79).
Most modern magicians will point out the magical view of the non-separation of human and divine, which is part and parcel of pretty much all religious thought as well. That within the Qabalistic Cross we connect with and aspire to the divine and for the time of the performance we are divine. This is all well and good, even if achieved each and every time by each and every magician (which it is not), but conflation of human identity and divinity is simply another way of taming the divine. As soon as we assume we are or can be the One, or we have known the Unknowable we draw the divine into domestication. The principle of transcendence has been violated and we are either left with an unworkable bastardised monist philosophy or an ego that truly does believe the nonsense that it has known the Unknowable.
The way out of this quandary, I believe, is to revision our modern magic and remove or recreate those aspects of our traditions that emphasise the independent magician as controller of the universe. To reintroduce and emphasise the interdependent and relational aspects of magic and the esoteric. So the magic circle is no longer a place where the magician stands at the centre, controlling the universe around her, but rather is place to enact in flesh and blood the truth we learn early on:
God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
This is what much of my approach and teaching in the GD and elsewhere has been about, and much of what MOTO is about. I am told there are all sorts of rare and auspicious astrological events and circumstances about today. Even though I am still undecided on this form of astrology, I do hope the alignments carry my Christmas wish far – that we all learn to relate to, and not domesticate the divine this holiday season 🙂