When I was a young and naive Pagan teenager one of the selling points the Wiccan community kept repeating was that in Wicca “everyone was a priest”, unlike Christianity. I had already read a little about the Protestant concept of the Priesthood of all Believers which directly contradicts this, but kept my heretical notions to myself, less the Elders forbid me the longed for Initiation. 🙂 And it was all a little confusing anyway.
After a few months, I realised that what my fellow Wiccan propagandists were actually meaning was that Wicca was a religious and magical practice, rather than a confessional faith. We practiced something that changed us and our relationship with the Gods, rather than simply believing in something. I had already come across the worst aspects of confessional Christianity via such lurid works as ‘the Cosmic Conspiracy‘ and ‘Man 666’, which had nice neat confessional forms printed in the back, complete with a space ready for the reader’s signature. All I needed to do was sign and I too would be saved! Back then I was appalled by such nonsense; these days I find it both appalling and amusing.
The movement from religious practice to religious belief in the west is relatively recent, dating back to the late Renaissance at the earliest (see Karen Armstrong, ‘The Case for God‘ for a good introduction to this). Not that there is, or was, always a sharp distinction between the two, but more an emphasis. We can understand this by seeing how the following two phrases sound:
“A practicing Catholic”or “a practicing Protestant “. (I picked this up somewhere on my travels – if anyone knows where, please let me know.)
Even our everyday language points to a disjunction in the idea that Protestants practice rather than believe. Not that this is a universal truism, just a trend.
And so it is that the magical and esoteric traditions in the west, drawing on the older traditions, kept alive spiritual practice, meditation, ritual, symbolic enactment etc in an era when belief became a hallmark not only of western Christianity but of how different denominations defined themselves apart from their religious neighbours. This method and tradition of spiritual practice was inherited by the nascent Neo-Pagan traditions in the early and mid 20th centuries, and became a hallmark of their approach to mystery. This is all very lovely and indeed a hallmark of my root tradition, The Golden Dawn.
It is therefore with much distress that I have witnessed of late an almost confessional form of the Golden Dawn. I alluded to this with, I hope, good humour in my last post on the GD creed. The GD Order, the various pagan and esoteric traditions I have been initiated into all are very clear: one does not need to believe ANYTHING to be a member. It is practice that changes us and personal beliefs to make sense of that change and our relationship with the universe, are just that – personal and in many ways irrelevant, as they tend to be temporal and fluid. And indeed over the years my way of understanding and making sense of the Lesser Pentagram ritual has changed markedly but the ritual and its blessings remain constant. To quote the Beast himself:
In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth, and the Paths, of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.
So for any group to expect a form of confessional acceptance that physically Mathers did X, or the Secret Chiefs really exist, unseen and unknown, or that an invisible and unprovable Third Order has existed since Atlantis, Alexandria or even Acton flies in the face of magical tradition. As myth these concepts have power, validity and truth; as shared space-time reality they fall into the same trap literalist Christians do went insisting Christ did this or that, having no evidence only belief to back it up.
Sure, some people may have actually met the Secret Chiefs, as opposed to the thousands of liars and delusional folk who claim this. Some people may have even got their autographs over a cup of tea. Some people may have added them on Facebook. But unless they can freely share that experience, there is no point in talking about it. And to expect new and younger students to accept these kinds of statements as fact at the start of their journey is essentially religious in nature. Not, I guess, that there’s anything wrong with that. If we want the Golden Dawn to become a heterodox religious cult, which I for one do not. Thanks 🙂