Archive for March, 2009

Pop Mysticism

New Age, New Thought, and occult understandings of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions tend to be superficial at best. I am not excempt from that analysis, though I have been personally trying to deepen my knowledge of those sources from which I draw the most, especially the Bible, Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and the old Hermetic documents. I am still no expert, but I’ve learned some things of importance. In Hermetics, we try to take the broad view of things: neither losing the forest for the trees, nor the trees for the forest. We don’t always succeed, but at least the effort tends to lead us in the right direction.

For around six months, I was a member of a truly amazing church family in Waynesville, NC. The Creative Thought Center is a marvelous church based in New Thought, especially Earnest Holmes’ Science of Mind (or “Religious Science” as he sometimes called it). The CTC is, thankfully, independent of any otherarching hierarchical organization, such as Holmes’ Church of Religious Science, which allows them to be very accepting of people of all manner of religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and many more obscure that you likely have never heard of. I had overwhelmingly positive experiences with these folks. I want to emphasize my love for them before I move on.

Unfortunately, the CTC family has a tendency, like many involved in the study of one metaphysical branch or another, to fall prey to one or more of the various “pop mysticisms” which keep coming into existence these days. Perhaps more than any other time in history, mysticism is a popular topic, but also more than any other time, it is heavily overlaid with modern and postmodern expectations and imaginings so as to lose much of the true message of mysticism.

“We’re all ONE, so you can be RICH!” It sounds ridiculous when you put it in stark terms, but that’s exactly the message so often given. It does not follow.

I will be the first to say that, yes, greater material prosperity can be had through the use of magic, affirmative prayer, and so on. Such uses of the so-called “powers” are not, however, the primary objective of mysticism; the powers, when used at all, are to be used in all ways to aid in the mystical ascent and to aid those around us.

In many ways, it is a good thing that pop mysticism has gotten people to re-evaluate their place in the world, their relationship to the Divine, and their relationships to one another, but I think that it often does more harm than good as it turns the mystical quest into the same debased search for power found in the medieval demonologies.


Magic & Christianity

In the unparalleled text of Christian mysticism of the 20th century, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (Anonymous; corrected translation by Robert Powell, 2002, Tarcher/Putnam), Christian activity is split into four categories relating to the Tetragrammaton:

  • Mysticism = Y
  • Gnosticism = H
  • Magic/Art = V
  • Hermetic philosophy/traditional doctrine = H final

So it can be seen right at the outset that magic can be an integral part of a Christian life. It will help, of course, if we define our terms that we avoid some semantic conflicts from the start. To quote from the source cited above:

Magic, art and giving birth are essentially analogous and pertain to the same category of projection or exteriorisation of the inner life. The Church dogma of the creation of the world ex nihilo, i.e. the projection from “nothingness” of forms and matter which are conferred with a life of their own, signifies the divine and cosmic crowning of this series of analogies. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the apotheosis of magic. Its essential statement is, in fact, that the world is a magical act. (pg. 46)

Thus, we see magic described in terms of both art and giving birth. These analogies are vital to understanding the role of magic in the individual life of the magician, and especially that of the Christian magician (not to mention the insight gained by the analysis into the roles of art and childbirth for some).

For both passionate mothers and artists, it is nigh impossible to explain in intellectual terms not just the desire but the need to bring something into the world. Whether it be a human life or a sculpture imbued with a soul of its own, this act of creation is not something which can be forever circumvented without serious consequences. Ask a would-be mother about the incessant, even painful, “ticking of the biological clock”, or a creatively blocked artist about the emotional, mental, and even physical tension, torsion, and discord produced by a dry spell.

None of this is to say that every woman is called to motherhood, nor that everybody with the slightest creative streak must be an aritst; not everybody is called to be a magician either. I am simply using our Unknown Friend’s analogies to describe the calling to magical practice which some of us feel.

As “people of the Book”, Christians read that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 NRSV; the word translated ‘them’ is actually better rendered ‘him’, indicating that each individual human is in some sense male and female.) To a Hermetic, this message is doubly significant; if we are each created in the image of the Elohim (God/dess; a strange Hebrew word with connotations of both maleness and femaleness, as well as plurality), that means that in a sense we possess a reflected measure of the creative power of They who created us in Their image. Whatever else we take this verse to mean, it at least indicates that we, as humans, partake in some special sense in the glory of the Divine Persons, To the Christian Hermetic, it is only insofar as we participate with God in the continuous act of creation (for Genesis is a constant act of love, not a once-and-for-all construction job) that we are exercising our proper and appropriate authority through magic. Yet,

With respect to autonomous magic, i.e. magic without mysticism and without gnosis, it necessarily degenerates into sorcery or, at least, into a pathological, romantic aestheticism. There is no “black magic”, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking. (ibid, pg. 43)

Not that one man’s experiences proves anything, but I can attest to this point from the bowels of my own history.

Magic and prayer are often compared to one another in occult literature. This comparison is in most ways a false one stemming from a common misunderstanding of prayer. There are, in fact, multiple types of prayer, some more important than others. A Christian (or those of other faiths, for that matter) can very well have a rich and full prayer life without every uttering what are known as “intercessory prayers.”

Intercessory prayers, or petitioning prayers, are what most people equate with the word “prayer” itself; these are prayers requesting that God intervene (or “intercede”) on our behalf in the natural proceedings of the universe. Through these prayers do we ask for healings to be enacted, for jobs to be obtained, for relationships to be mended. As a Christian, I will be the last to deny the potential of this sort of prayer; as disconcerting as it may be for our rational minds, we do not in fact live in a deistic “closed system” universe. God is not an absentee landlord, nor an aloof watchmaker, but a passionate Artisan and (dare I say) lovestruck Fool who never removes Himself from His word and play. In the words of Paul, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.'” (Acts 17:28 NRSV)

Even intercessory prayer, though, bares little relation to magic. In magic, we work upon the substance of the universe from within the universe itself, while with intercessory prayer, we petition God to act upon the universe on our behalf to accomplish something beyond our power to achieve. This is an important point of Christian spirituality and occult metaphysics worth contemplation.

The final question to be answered is that of magical abuse. Two of the greatest objections to the practice of magic are that it tends to produce in us the sin of pride, and the related problem that it seems to diminish our sense of needing God and thus reduces our spiritual concerns to a set of formulae rather than the relational spirituality required in Christianity. In answer, I turn again to our Unknown Friend:

No, dear Unknown Friend, possession by the will-to-power or the will-to-glory makes neither the personality nor its greatness. The “sheep” in the language of love of the Master [Jesus] signify neither the “great personality” nor the “little personality”, but simply the individual soul which lives. He wants the soul to live without danger and to have as intensive a life as God has destined for it. The “sheep” is the living entity, surrounded by dangers, which is the object of divine care. Doesn’t this suffice? Is there too little brilliance and glory here? Is this too feeble and image to be able to arrive at, for example, a magician evoking good and evil spirits? […] The powerful magician, the artistic genius, the profound thinker, and the radiant mystic certainly merit all these qualifications and perhaps still greater ones, but they do not dazzle God. In the eyes of God they are dear sheep to him; in his consideration of them he desires that they shall never go astray and that they shall have live increasingly and unceasingly. (ibid, pp. 38 & 39)

With apologies to my reader for the long quotation, I believe that the point is ably made: magic, like art, philosophy, science, and a million other activities, is a skill and perhaps a talent with multifarious applications in life, but a wise person will always keep an eye toward God and thereby avoid building a personal Tower of Babel on the shifting sands of ego and personal accomplishment. Magic’s greatest use then, in accordance with Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31 NRSV), is the same as all other God-granted skills, abilities and talents: to aid ailing humanity and to proclaim the love and grace on which our whole universe is founded.

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Please say “NO!” to Internet censorship

No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in Australia

Remember that censorship anywhere can open the door to censorship everywhere.

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The Grace of God

I don’t claim to be an expert on all of the mysteries of faith; I’m just a sincere and devout seeker who does his best to listen to wisdom as God reveals it to me. I will try to share some of the insights which have come to me in hopes that I’m on the right track and they’re useful to somebody else.

Grace is truly a mystery. In the face of an unfathomably vast universe and an infinitely powerful God, it seems foolish that God should care about us collectively, let alone individually. As Brennan Manning pointed out in The Ragamuffin Gospel (2005, Multnomah Books), God’s love for me, you, and everybody else is very foolish. It makes no sense at all from a rational point of view, and were we to witness one of our friends behaving with us s much amorous fervour we would in all likelihood confront them about it and tell them that they were headed over the edge of a cliff. And yet, God continues to pursue us to the ends of the Earth.

Did Christ’s death on the cross really somehow pay for our sins? I have no idea. I can’t comprehend how that would even work, but the drama of the story, even if merely allegory, is striking. It horrifies many, and scares the living hell out of any Christian reflective enough to contemplate it. So what’s the draw? Why have so many people through history been moved by the Passion? Once again, this is a mystery, a spiritual reality beyond analysis, beyond intellect, only valid within the realm of direct personal experience.

The greatest importance of the Passion, though, is the resurrection. I will not argue over how literally we are to take this particular event, but I will say that it has become of the utmost importance within my own spiritual life. The risen Christ signifies the very fact of grace, ever-present. The Greek word used in the New Testament for Christ’s “second coming” is “parousia”, which translates not as “coming” but more accurately as “presence,” identical in sense to the Hebrew “shekinah”.

Thus, God in Christ, that is Love, is ever-present and abiding. We can access it at any time just by accepting it as true.

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Learn to live with questions

As a Hermetic, I’m often in touch with sources of information that many people do not have ready access to. Still, a lot of information is withheld. It seems like humans aren’t given a lot of answers on purpose.

Many people of faith (of every faith) have a hard time with this. The very fact that we aren’t capable of knowing everything is, in part, what produces fundamentalism.* Some people are utterly tortured by that lack of knowledge; their worldview relies upon constants, and when the ideas thought to be constant are frequently moving, shifting, and outright changing, we humans can come to crises. It is important, therefore, to carry several tools in your faith kit along your spiritual path.

First of all, be skeptical. This does not mean that you shouldn’t believe anything; frankly, that’s impossible in any case. Instead, be careful about the ideas and answers that you do accept. Always ask questions; the Socratic method is nothing to be ashamed of.

Second, love the questions. Learn to accept uncertainty as a gift from the Divine, ever leading you to explore His mysteries and His creation. Questioning the assumptions of your faith is not a sin, but instead a great compliment to God as it displays your willingness to use your divinely-gifted talents and intellect. We are here, in part, to learn, so learning is never wrong of itself.

Third, Occam’s razor! This one gets thrown around a lot, but it really can be helpful. In essence, any answer you come to should make the fewest number of assumptions possible to the situation. That will tend to keep you on a reasonable track. Of course, in matters of spirituality, we often have to run full-bore held aloft by unproven hypotheses, but we need to be fully conscious of the fact when we do and understand the limitations of our situation. As Galileo Galilee said, “Religion teaches us how to go to heaven; science teaches us how the heavens go.” Faith has its place.

While it sometimes makes me feel uneasy, I really enjoy the search. I get to exercise my intellect, along with my intuition, gut instinct, and my heart. Body, soul, and spirit get involved in equal parts and the whole process is exhilarating.

*For a fascinating historical and idealogical analysis and account of the rise of fundamentalism in the Abrahamic faiths, see, The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (2001, Ballantine Books)

The Pope flubs on AIDS in Africa

Old news by now, but I feel the need to weigh in. “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” said Pope Benedict XVI to a group of reporters on his Alitalia flight to Yaounde, Camaroon; “On the contrary, it increases the problem.” (Wall Street Journal article here.)

That’s hilarious. I hate to devolve into mere sarcasm here, but how else am I supposed to respond?

On the level of common sense, this is patently ridiculous and false information. With leaders like this, I weep for the faithful.

Are condoms 100% effective? Of course not. Are abstinence and monogamy the only methods which are? Barring rape and the odd accidental needle-stick, yes. Given my druthers, I’d love to see more people in Africa and elsewhere slowing down on their sexual promiscuity and being more willing to commit themselves to one another in loving monogamy. Given the choice between giving out good information and the practical tools to protect oneself and others, and telling flat-out lies to remain within one’s religious moral confines, however, I’d never try to tell people that condoms make it worse!

In this Interfax article, the Russian Orthodox leadership of Moscow support the Pope’s position, saying: “It is incorrect to consider condoms as a panacea for AIDS.” Of course it is, but that isn’t what most health activists are doing. No thinking person can believe that dropping a crate of condoms in every village will suddenly make HIV/AIDS go away, but putting condoms into the hands of people who will be having sex with one another no matter what anybody else says and teaching them how to properly use them will at least stem the tide somewhat, saving lives and giving the world more time to come up with a real solution.

Quoth Fr. Vsevolod: “If a person lives a sinful, aimless and senseless life, uses drugs and is lewd, some disease will kill him one day, neither a condom nor medicine will save him.”

Well that’s Christian love right there, isn’t it? “If you’re a sinner, why should anybody bother trying to help?”

I have a great idea. Let’s do a background check on anybody attempting to enter a church; if they’ve ever committed a crime beyond traffic violations, if they’ve ever had an abortion for any reason, if they’ve ever attended a sex education class that mentioned birth control as an option, turn them away. The next time you meet somebody with cancer, tell them you’ll pray for them only on the condition that they’ve never touched drugs, never had sex outside of wedlock, and never even considered playing a violent video game or going to a nightclub on a Saturday. Then we can organize, incorporate, and call ourselves “The United Church of the Holy Inquisition” and begin fundraising for a “landmine the lawns of the mentally handicapped” event.

Who’s with me?

(With thanks to Jonathan Swift, who has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his breast no more.)

Happy Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day!

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40)

Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face them and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.” Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists. (15 reasons Mr. Rogers was best neighbor ever, reason #5)

Once when she was in a deep depression, my fiance caught an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV. He looked directly into the camera and said, with complete sincerity, “I love you just the way you are.” And she wept.

That’s the kind of power that Faith acting through Love (Gal. 5:6) can bring to this world. A man like Fred Rogers is a rare blessing, a man who is both worldly and holy, down-to-earth and saintly, a modern-day Francis of Assisi for whom every one of God’s creatures is of the utmost importance. Imagine on your worst day, hearing Mister Rogers himself saying to you, “I love you just the way you are.” Put yourself there. You feel worthless, useless, ugly, stupid, damned, and this beautiful man says that he loves you unconditionally just because you are.

My friend Gentry once said, “Mister Rogers was a better Jesus than Jesus.” To most people, Jesus Christ and other truly loving figures (from Siddhartha Guatama to God Herself) are very distant in time and space. That is why we sometimes see a person like Fred Rogers, to provide a walking, talking reminder, one whom we might see at the supermarket or naked in a gym locker room (true story; Gentry again).

Whether you do it in the name of God, Christ, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, anybody else, or nobody else, please make today and everyday a very special day for somebody special: you and everybody else!

Happy Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day to one and all. Be good to one another. God bless you and God bless Mister Rogers and his whole earthly neighborhood.

(WYBMND official website)

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