This post has been brewing for some time, on and off in the back of my mind. Nick Farrell’s recent post, The Hegemon’s wand and religion became a catalyst of sorts. So when I respond to Nick’s article it is really a response to much of the modern magical approach to religion. Nick introduced his post on Facebook as ‘one to argue’ about, but I doubt many magicians will find cause to dissent as he wonderfully presents the modern magical approach to religion.
There is however another way, which may be called the religious approach to magic 🙂 So Nick and I are kinda approaching the same elephant from two different ends – I will leave it to the reader to decide which end 🙂
Here I can only really talk about the two religions I know not just know of, Anglo-Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. I expect it’s the same for the rest, but I have not lived those, so cannot say for sure. It is also quite a minefield when one starts using traditional Christian concepts and terminology. Folk can easily think I am espousing some religious dogma, or judging or wot not. Of course I am not. Even if I had the time and temperament for such things, which I do not, it is impossible for me (or any human) to judge another’s relationship with the Mystery.
However, I am concerned to point out the modern magical approach and view of religion is not the end of the story and may not present the religious view accurately. I also contend that when the authors of the Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscripts describe the function of the office and ensign of the Hegemon as a “Mitre Headed Sceptre = Religion to Guide and Regulate Life” they were referring to religion that included, you know, religion with pews and sacraments and such. We will see why as we go on.
Throughout Nick’s blog and most of modern magic it is quite clear that the central actant, the key area of concern is the magician. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. From the magical point of view. A magician must “believe in something much bigger than themselves” says Nick. This is the starting point of religion. The reason for this insistence however is clear: it is part of the magic. It serves a function. It stops narcissism and megalomania. It provides moral codes. These are wonderful motivations for religion for sure, but it seems it is still about the magician.
One thing I have noticed since adopting a pagan approach to religion is that I have ended up following a daily pattern of work which is JUST religious. I light candles to different gods and an [sic] invoke them. The purpose of this is not magical, as such. It is using a regular rite to connect to the Gods so that when I do need to invoke them, they are not strangers. They know I respect them because every week I have done a little ritual doing just that. It is not worship, really, but it is religion.” (Emphasis mine).
Nick’s point here is certainly more sophisticated than that of Pagans using various Gods from various cultures in spells, after looking them up in a Llewellyn book, – he knows a relationship has to be formed with these deities first. So, yes, def no worship involved in this, the relationship is positioned as subordinate to the magic. And there is nothing wrong with this, from the magical viewpoint. And of course similar magical views of religion and religious figures are expressed by others in the magical and Pagan community. This from Pat Zalewski, whom I admire very much:
Whatever one has to say about Christ, all will agree that His Name evokes a powerful current or force that fills us with the receptive principle, something akin to the Yin of Chinese metaphysics. This principle of receptivity is one that is needed, for when we invoke it, we pave the way for other forces, fused together, to enter our sphere of sensation. The Christ-like energy will then pacify and control it, so that it conforms to our will and can be directed for many different uses. (Secret Inner Order Rituals of the Golden Dawn, emphasis mine).
Others hold similar magical views of religion and Christianity. Golden Dawn adept Aaron Leitch runs a magical curio shop, Doc Solomon’s Occult Curios, where he sells consecrated items for use in traditional Grimiore magic among other things, like Holy Water. He has Holy Orders stemming from one of the Episcopi Vagantes at the turn of the 20th century. He has discussed on Facebook how one may easily perform the Eucharist at home, on one’s own, but a host consecrated by an ordained priest will hold ‘more power’. Such things make sense from a magical view of religion and Christianity, but from a traditional Christian view they make no sense at all.
From any orthodox view Sacraments are not subject to differing ‘power levels’ but are mysteries instituted and performed by Christ. End of. In the Anglican Communion (and I assume Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism?) the Eucharist cannot be performed by the priest alone: it is a corporate action, not a solo venture.
These views are strikingly different. I cannot, and am not, saying one is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’ in an act of universal judgement. But I do maintain magicians do religion, particularly Christianity, and themselves a disservice when they conflate magical dynamics and worldviews with sacramental and other areas of Christian theology.
Nick’s take on this seems to be: “What each magician does is that they reform their religion until it fits better with the image of god they are working with.” Again, this makes sense from a magical approach, but is contrary to the religious.
One of the key points of religion is conscious and willed surrender of one’s personal concerns, personal images, and personal aesthetics into something greater and more sustaining. Religion is definitely not concerned with reformation from each individual but the reformation of each individual. Folk here may be thinking of religion’s bogeyman status of enforcing strange doctrines and impossible beliefs before breakfast and twice on Sundays. However it is very possible to remain an orthodox Christian and a magician (and it is, imposing western terms, certainly common in Tibetan Buddhism).
It still has not quite entered the discourse of modern magic that not too long ago many, if not most, magicians were regular religious folk. Just as most people in society were. Tony Fuller’s excellent thesis Anglo-Catholic Clergy and the Golden Dawn clearly shows this and also the extent of the crossover of Anglican priests and Bishops within the GD. Since the so called occult revival of the 1970s this has largely been forgotten or unknown. Most magicians since then do not belong to a formalised outer religion. However there remain Christian magicians, members of churches, and some publicly so, like Gareth Knight.
But we are not here to argue for orthodoxy rather to present a key concern in modern magic’s approach to religion, something seldom discussed and focused upon, and that is: religion is not primarily concerned with the individual person at all. Unlike magic. In every service, the Great Commandments:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The Divine and the other. We as individuals are not the prime concern. This is crucial and the practice of religion in this manner is an essential part of the traditional esoteric life, as MOTO has argued for ages and which is neatly summed up by New York theologian Nicholas Laccetti on his wonderful blog, ‘The Light Invisible’. He does this so well, I will quote him again:
…something is certainly lost by the disconnect between esoteric movements and the mainstream churches — for esotericists, the accumulated wisdom and logistical capacities of the churches; for mainstream religionists, the esoteric side of their own religious traditions.
It is why in the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a key medieval mystical text, describes an integrated and real-world mystical practice that starts with and continues to include ‘good and honest bodily works of mercy and of charity.’ This is central to Tibetan Buddhism, no matter what advanced empowerments one has undertaken or what status one has reached. This is one of the great gifts of the churches: they provide and integrated avenue for this aspect of the spiritual life, something lacking in many magical groups and magicians. And it is for this reason I believe this is the type of ‘religion’ the Hegemon’s sceptre refers to, something not concerned with the self at all.
Conceptually we can assign the concerns of magic, religion and spiritually to three broad arenas. I first conceptualised these as a Starhawk-struck teenage witch, and only later found Christianity and other religion had worked it all out millennia beforehand. We may label these, as that bodacious Franciscan Richard Rohr does, as:
- Transpersonal (I first labelled this as ‘mystical’ back when I was 19 and not understanding mysticism involved the whole three)
- Personal (got this one right)
- Impersonal (as a young activist, I first labelled this as ‘political’ but that limits things)
We can of course relate this to the Trinity but ever mindful that the Trinity is three separate but mutually interdependent and dynamic Persons, not three faces of a single God, symbolised perhaps by three angles of the triangle or one person being a mother, daughter and wife. This is modalism and is generally considered bad form in Trinitarian discussions (though I have often seen priests slip into it). To express the Trinity we need other diagrams, the traditional Shield and one I prepared earlier 🙂
Ideally one’s spiritual life and ‘path’ would have all three modes integrated within it. But that does not always happen. As Tony Fuller posits in his thesis it appears certain Anglican clergymen, following on from the Oxford Movement, entered the Golden Dawn to enhance their access to the transpersonal aspects via magic and other processes. The exoteric religion they practiced and taught had plenty of scope for the personal and the impersonal (Anglicanism was a large influence on the creation of the British welfare state). After a long period where ritual celebration was legally denuded and mysticism virtually abandoned and with a new appreciation of a wide variety of ancient approaches, it seems many of these clergymen saw the GD as an expression of the same perennial tradition of mystery embodied in the Church. And so they set to becoming magicians as well as priests 🙂
On the magical front, if we look at Nick’s blog and pretty much any modern magical book we will see the transpersonal and the personal are included and explored very well. Magicians are concerned about their lives and material expression (personal) and their connection with the transpersonal divinity. However bugger all is expressed concerning the impersonal, the non-personal, where we give out to others without thought or concern or expectation. The triangle is thus broken and incomplete.
Religion can teach us to do repair the triangle. Indeed as corporate worship, and now in the west as intentional community, this is one of the key roles of religion. This is also the symbol of the Hegemon’s sceptre, and is why it has the Calvary cross upon it. This cross is the prime symbol of how the transpersonal (‘God) and the personal (nothing more personal than getting nailed up) interact mystically to produce the impersonal.
In Christian terms this expression of the impersonal dimension is often referred to as the working through of the Holy Spirit. She guides and teaches us to love those we do not personally know (and may not actually ‘like’) but NOT from a mystical, transpersonal, ‘everyone is holy – Namaste’, place, but from a lived and grounded action. I think that’s pretty cool 🙂