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A Criticism of Common Approaches to Spirituality

[Excerpt from an as-yet untitled upcoming book, taken specifically from an exploration of some of the Hermetic/esoteric meanings of the Ten Commandments.]

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Ex 20:17)

A topic of much contemporary interest to the New Age and Neopagan movements is that of cultural appropriation. For instance, are the “neoshamans” and “urban primitives” of our day merely spiritual thieves, or are they rightfully adapting the ideas and method of cultures past and present for their own traditions?

The key to this first question lies in the uncomfortable bravado and indignation with which the issue is usually met by the growing legions of “tribal” tattoo-covered “neoshamans” and studded-black clad “chaos magicians” of the urban landscape. For my part, I must ask: What traditions? If the hungry legions cannot point to true religion as their foundation, a living orthodoxy, they will remain hungry, no matter how many techniques of ritual, vision questing and pseudo-meditation they pry from the hands of their living brethren or lift from the defiled tombs of the holy dead. “Occultism” and “spirituality” have become only the intellectual homes of ghouls dressed in the mishmash of the expensive burial clothes of those from whom they have eaten. And like the ghouls of legend, lore and Hollywood, their hunger never abates.

Dramatic language to be sure, and seemingly harsh when used to describe fellow seekers. Still, my description is unfortunately apt. An entire “system” of sorcery has been built around what I have described above, though using the more picturesque title “paradigmal piracy”. This, a radiative anti-magic practice wherein the sorceror seeks to consciously “paradigm shift” from one religion or spiritual tradition to another and another and another as casually as I change my socks, is only the most extreme example of what Arthur Versluis refers to as the “anti-tradition”. (See The Philosophy of Magic for a brilliant study of this topic written in the 1960s, by a genuine magician watching the dramatic public emergence of the anti-tradition all through our culture.)

Such a condemnation might seem odd, coming, as it does, from a Christian Hermetic who enthusiastically learns from Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and Pagan sources. Am I not committing theft or fraud as well? Such a question deserves a serious response.

The commandment under our present consideration is one of envy sourced in a great cultural lack in the West (spreading rapidly through the East as well): as Versluis points out, orthodox religion and the arts of mysticism, magic, alchemy and related pursuits have been rent asunder over the course of centuries of spiritual decay. This is not to say that our culture has not made some important forward movement, but that we have lost our soul as a cultural unit. It is only when religion and mysticism (used here to refer to the individual application of religion) are one, or at least when they respect one another fully, that either one of them is healthy. Mysticism is the life-force of religion, while religion give mysticism a body and a context (or matrix). Religion is also important because, contrary to modern occult cant, not everybody is a mystic, magician, priest or shaman by talent or temperament. This point is essential, but only if taken with proper humility: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) These are callings for some just as medicine, engineering, and auto repair are callings for others. “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 life increasingly and unceasingly.” (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 39) Make this a theme for contemplation and much occult nonsense, as well as the pride of “human progress”, dissolves.

This dissolution has not reached the same degree in much of the East, and never existed at all in most “primitive” or “tribal” cultures. It is not, therefore, unwise to examine them from the perspective of a Western spiritual seeker. The problem arises when we seek to completely replace our own beautiful traditions, supplanting them with random elements lifted from the traditions of others. The so-called Perennial Philosophy is still alive in the West, as are our religious traditions. They are not dead, or even diseased, but wounded. Therein lies the essence of a healthy approach to exploring the spiritual traditions of others, living or dead.

When a person breaks a limb, even all four limbs and several ribs to boot, we do not leave her to die or, worse, bury her alive. yet, this is precisely what most occultists in the West are trying to do! Similarly, we would never dream of fusing that person’s whole body with the bodies of multiple other injured parties, thinking that so to do would leave us with one whole, healthy individual, but again that is the approach taken by numerous New Age practitioners every day!

Instead, we perform skillful surgery in a few problem areas to remove truly dead tissue and build bridges across the resultant gaps with transplanted or donated tissues, we infuse healthy blood from a willing donor, and we make certain that the healing body takes in proper nutrients in correct proportions to enable it to repair itself (always the best solution when the damage is slight enough to make it viable). A more difficult process, perhaps, and often painful, but if performed ably and with dedication, we have a whole, healthy, vital person in the end, rather than a disease-bearing corpse or a monstrous chimera.

I think that the point is probably plain enough, but for the sake of absolute clarity, let’s examine the metaphor. The spiritual traditions of the West—Hermetism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam*—are vital and alive, with much will for survival and the inner power to thrive. But they are most definitely wounded, each to its own extent and in its own way. In order to rehabilitate them, we must fill in gaps with borrowings from other living traditions. We do this in full awareness, rather than out of semi-conscious envy for the spiritual powers and experiences of others, because we know that our own traditions once held those very same practical methods explicitly, but they have since been wrenched away by the overzealous, or else forgotten by the indifferent. Such is the way of the “march of progress”.

This, though, is the mission of the Hermetist of any religion: recombine orthodoxy with mysticism. This is a task of lifetimes, and it cannot be artificially forced into a religious body or the culture at large, so each must first make this a personal effort. That is, each Hermetic must make this unity of soul and spirit (literally, and in terms of the present discussion) within her own person. In so doing, many philosophies, religions, theological constructs and methodologies will be explored, with bits and pieces being taken along for the ride and fitted back into the holes proper to them. The records of many such recent journeys exist for Christians to learn from and enjoy, such as our anonymous Unknown Friend, as well as Arthur Versluis, Thomas Merton, and Mouni Sadhu, many of which have been invaluable sources of teaching and inspiration for me personally. I hope to add some small measure by way of this present book.

In Hermetic/gnostic terms, then, this final commandment refers first to the full edifice of the religious and spiritual traditions of others (“your neighbor’s house”), and then to the more or less important ideas and practices within them. We shall not unlawfully desire and use them, either to replace our own, or by misguidedly grafting them all together into a harmful mishmash, but shall instead respectfully explore and examine them as humble students and servants, knowing that if we but ask, that which we lack will be given for our everlasting health.

*Others could be named, such as Neoplatonism, Platonism, Orphism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and many more. However, they have all more or less lent their vital force and central fire to one or more of the traditions named above.

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  1. November 14, 2009 at 5:06 am

    I agree with your argument about the need for and method of the revival of Western religious traditions, and I hope that people take that to heart. I think there are other solutions as well that don’t necessarily involve reviving and rejuvenating largely monotheistic traditions, but given that those traditions have been given a pretty craptastic reputation thanks to misuse, at the very least a better P.R campaign could help.

    • November 15, 2009 at 12:28 pm

      I definitely think that there are non-monotheistic religions that still have a purpose to serve in people’s lives here in the West, but I don’t count them as being replacements for the monotheisms which followed them in time. At their best, Hermetics, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have integrated the most true and useful ideas and practices from the traditions which preceded them. It may have taken Greek Paganism to give us a Socrates, but, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it could only have taken the Catholic Church to give us a St. Francis of Assisi. (For all my complaints about the Catholic Church as an organization, as a religion it is beautiful and vibrant.) And I see that as a definite upward movement.

      And yeah, the PR campaign is under way, as I see it. The “emergent church” movement within Protestantism, for example, is trying to rehabilitate the Christian image for the 21st century. It is rarely the fault of a religion itself when its name gets dragged through the mud; it is simply the unfortunate fact that greedy people will use anything at hand to gain the money and power that they desire. If Christianity hadn’t come along when it did, people would still be oppressed by Roman Paganism, or maybe something else entirely; no more, and no less, bloody or evil in the hands of the bloody and evil.

      I would like to point out, briefly, that in the same book project, I at many points defend Neopaganism as a spiritual pursuit. I think that Neopaganism is largely misused and misunderstood by its own adherents, but that it presents a good populist spiritual and moral reaction against, or response to, the overwhelming materialism and anti-natural attitudes of our day.

  2. November 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Nicholas,

    Thank you so much for your blog. It is my favourite of all the blogs I read (I even prefer it to Smitten Kitchen). This is a really interesting and challenging post. It leaves me with a question though.

    I’m going to talk though the relevant points I understand in order to show where my question arises. When you talk about “our neighbor’s house” that implies that we each have a house in the same sense, a spiritual/religious tradition. You talk about the larger traditions of the west and footnote several others. This leads to the question.

    Are you saying that anyone born in the West may build his or her house from one of the traditions you name, or does someone’s religious ‘house’ come from the faith of their parents or extended family?

    I guess I’m trying to say that you make the proper relationship to a neighbors house very clear, but I’m left with confusion about where our own houses come from specifically.

    I see hints in the post that you find that it may have to do with lineage or geography(so that a claim is real and not borrowed), but I’d love to hear more.

    Many thanks and best wishes,

    Meredith

    • November 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

      The answer to your question is going to change from person to person. Due to the gulf in our culture between “religious orthodoxy” and “mysticism”, those with a mystical (or magical) nature often feel trapped within their family religion or find themselves hurt by its doctrines. Still, I think that breaking entirely away from the religion in which you’ve been baptized and confirmed (or the equivalent in non-Christian religions) is quite literally impossible. If you were raised in a religion, it will always be a big part of you, even if you try to deny it. And there is no valid religion that is opposed to the Perennial Philosophy (Hermetics, Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, etc.), even if some of the religious establishment think they are.

      I can give you an example. (And also promise that this is all going somewhere!) I know a woman who was raised Byzentine Catholic. She left the Church in middle school, for many personal reasons, but has found that she is entirely unable to escape it. Frankly, I can’t help but thinking of her as Catholic, even though she mostly calls herself a Pagan. This is not because she doesn’t take her Paganism seriously, nor because I think she’s unable to build relationships with the gods and spirits of any given form of Paganism, but because those gods and spirits are essentially just renamed Saints for her and the highest, most pure conception she has of the Divine Feminine she has is Mary, Mother of God.

      I was, personally, raised in no religious tradition at all. My Dad was raised Roman Catholic, while my Mom was raised nominally Protestant, but never really practiced much. So, growing up, I was mostly taught fairly universal religious ideas: God may or may not exist, but if so, he’s pretty awesome; reincarnation is just a fact of life, get used to it. Things like that. I came upon the living traditions of Hermetism and Christianity more or less on my own, with the periodic bit of prodding by friends and the encouragement of family.

      So, to answer your question, I think that your own “house”, or religious edifice, will depend very much upon the religious tradition in which you were raised. Fighting against your childhood religion, if you had one, is counterproductive in the extreme. If you explore it deeply and find that you just can’t be at home there, at least do not condemn that religion as a whole and take away EVERY LAST BIT OF IT that you can. Most of Neopaganism and the “occult” movement are just wasting their lives trying to swim against the psycho-spiritual current. If they manage to accomplish anything at all in their efforts, it will only be their own pain and further dissolution. Integration and spirituality come as a result of making of one’s mind and soul a clearer channel for God’s Light, not putting as many obstacles in his way as one can.

      I take as my examples: Mouni Sadhu, of Polish birth, who trained under Sri Ramana Maharishi in the late 1940s and became one of the greatest exponents of both Vedic and Hermetic philosophies in the West while remaining a committed Roman Catholic; Franz Bardon, of German-Czech birth, who is one of the leading lights in practical Hermetics to this day and was a practicing Christian until his death; the Uknown Friend who wrote “Meditations on the Tarot”, a faithful Catholic and one of the most profound of Hermetic mystics who ever wrote a word. We could go further back in Western history, too, and mention Marcillio Ficino, Giordano Bruno, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and Thomas a Kempis, all within the Christian tradition, and many others in Judaism and Islam.

      The bottom line, though: if my house is not a House of God, it is in vain that I have built it.

  3. December 9, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Dear Author magicalmessiah.wordpress.com !
    What quite good topic

  4. F.S.
    June 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Hi Nicholas,

    It is generally accepted that Bardon’s father was a christian mystic (an hermeticist?).

    Another blog states that Bardon’s family was Roman Catholic.

    Do you think Bardon was also a Roman Catholic? Where can I confirm that Bardon was a practicing christian/catholic his whole life?

    Thank you in advance.

    • June 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm

      I am not sure where there is confirmation of Bardon’s religious background, though given his region of upbringing, it would seem probable that he was Roman Catholic, Bizantine Catholic (which is part of the Roman communion), or maybe even Lutheran. It is clear from the memoire “Memories of Franz Bardon” by his son Lumir and his student Dr. M. K. that he raised his children with overtly Christian customs, such as calling out to the Christ-child on Christmas Eve, and the like. Beyond that, I cannot be of much help. I would be very interested if you were able to uncover any additional information.

      In peace profound,
      Nicholas

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